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Sex Offenders Register

Volume 523: debated on Wednesday 16 February 2011

The sex offenders register has existed since 1997. Since that time, it has helped the police to protect the public from those most horrific of crimes. Requiring serious sexual offenders to sign the register for life, as they do now, has broad support across the House, but the Supreme Court ruled last April that not granting sex offenders the opportunity to seek a review was a breach of their human rights—in particular, the right to a private or family life. Those are rights, of course, that those offenders have taken away from their victims in the cruellest and most degrading manner possible.

The Government are disappointed and appalled by that ruling. It places the rights of sex offenders above the right of the public to be protected from the risk of their reoffending, but there is no possibility of further appeal. The Government are determined to do everything we can to protect the public from predatory sexual offenders, so we will make the minimum possible changes to the law in order to comply with the ruling. I want to make it clear that the Court’s ruling does not mean that paedophiles and rapists will automatically come off the sex offenders register. The Court found only that they must be given the right to seek a review.

The Scottish Government have already implemented a scheme to give offenders an automatic right of appeal for removal from the register after 15 years. We will implement a much tougher scheme. Offenders will be able to apply for consideration of removal only after waiting 15 years following release from custody. In England and Wales, there will be no automatic appeals. We will deliberately set the bar for those reviews as high as possible. Public protection must come first. A robust review, led by the police and involving all the relevant agencies, will be carried out so that a full picture of the risks to the public can be considered.

The final decision on whether an offender should remain on the register will be down to the police, and not, as in Scotland, the courts. The police are best placed to assess the risk of an offender committing another crime, and they will rightly put the public first. There will be no right of appeal against the police’s decision to keep an offender on the register. That decision will be final. Sex offenders who continue to pose a risk will remain on the register, and will do so for life if necessary.

When we are free to take further action to protect the public, we will do so. We will shortly launch a targeted consultation aimed at closing four existing loopholes in the sex offenders register. We will make it compulsory for sex offenders to report to the authorities before travelling abroad for even one day. That will prevent them from being free to travel for up to three days, as they are under the existing scheme. We will force sex offenders to notify the authorities whenever they are living in a household containing a child under the age of 18. We will require sex offenders to notify the authorities weekly of where they can be found when they have no fixed abode. We will tighten the rules so that sex offenders can no longer avoid being on the register when they change their names by deed poll.

Finally, I can tell the House that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary will shortly announce the establishment of a commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of rights. It is time to assert that it is Parliament that makes our laws, not the courts; that the rights of the public come before the rights of criminals; and, above all, that we have a legal framework that brings sanity to cases such as these.

I commend my statement to the House.

This is an important matter involving some of the most serious crimes in society. I thank the Home Secretary for supplying me with the statement within the last half hour, but I must say that it is worrying that the Home Office has again allowed information to be given to the media before it has been given to the House.

The depravity and seriousness of sex offences, and the harm and damage that they do to victims, mean that the systems that we operate to protect the public must be paramount. We have an obligation to ensure that vulnerable children and other victims can be protected from such terrible crimes. As the Home Secretary knows, that is why the sex offenders register was established in the first place. The law rightly requires people who have been convicted of such serious crimes to meet further registration requirements once their sentences have been served, in the interests of public protection and to prevent further terrible crimes from taking place.

The priority now must still be public safety, and the protection of our young and vulnerable people. Those victims of crime have suffered and continue to suffer greatly because of the actions of sex offenders. We know, too, that many such offenders can still pose a serious threat to the public. The court judgment to which the Home Secretary has responded today itself quotes the research finding that just over a quarter of those imprisoned for such offences did reoffend. Those offences included some that were very serious, a large number of which were committed many years later.

Does the Home Secretary agree that, while of course proper and fair processes must always be followed for individuals through the courts, the protection of families and communities up and down the country is paramount? She has said that the new system will be tough. Let me say to her that it is vital to the safety and protection of children in particular, but also to that of other victims, that the new system is extremely tough if it is to have the support of the House.

The Home Secretary said that Parliament should decide the level of protection that is needed, and that Parliament should set the laws. However, she has given Parliament very little information today about the way in which the new system will operate. Will the new framework be enshrined in legislation? Will Parliament have an opportunity to debate the details? The Home Secretary will know that many Members of Parliament and members of the public will be very concerned about the possibility that any new framework might enable serious offenders to manipulate the system. It is essential that that is not allowed to happen, but it is also important for Parliament to have an opportunity to debate it to ensure that it does not happen.

Will the Home Secretary ensure that the focus is on public protection, rather than on the convenience or rights of those who have been convicted of serious crimes? Will she tell us how many offenders will be affected? Will she tell us what the level of the police assessment will be, and what standards the police will seek to meet as part of their review?

Will the police be given additional resources to do this? She will know that there is concern in the House about the police’s resources and about whether they are stretched already as a result of the cuts the Government are making. Will she say what additional resources the police will have, what additional resources they will require and the number of people on whom they will be expected to carry out reviews as a result of the changes she is proposing? She will know that some police forces have already expressed concern that as a result of the 20% cuts they are facing, their need to respond and their need to try to keep as many people in neighbourhood policing as possible, many specialist units within police forces are coming under the greatest pressure as a result of the decisions she has made. What reassurance can she give the House and the public that there will be no increased risk to the public as a result of these changes and of pressure on the police?

I welcome the Home Secretary’s proposal to consider other tighter measures on sex offenders, but does that have any implications for the changes that she appears to be making in the opposite direction to the vetting and barring provisions? She has also raised, as part of her statement, discussion of a Bill of rights. We would welcome a debate about that, although wider issues associated with written constitutions can also be debated. However, I am concerned at the form that this announcement has taken, because it is, in itself, a major announcement and the House should have an opportunity to have that debate and raise questions.

In conclusion, the Home Secretary will know that the public would be horrified if the rights, or even the convenience, of people who have been convicted of very serious crimes were to be put above the right to safety and family life of the public and of vulnerable people and vulnerable victims. She will know that Labour Members will not support any changes that will do that, and I hope that she intends not to do that. I look forward to her answers to the questions.

I can say categorically to the right hon. Lady that it is indeed the Government’s intention to put the protection of the public first. Had she listened to my statement or read it beforehand, she would have noted that it says that in a number of places. We are appalled by the Court’s decision. I would far rather not have to stand here saying that we have to make a change to the sex offenders register, but we do have to make a change. We will do so in the most minimal way possible to ensure that we do put public protection first, and that we give the police and others the ability to ensure that the public are protected from such serious and appalling crimes as have been committed by individuals on this register.

The right hon. Lady asked quite a number of questions. She asked whether we are making the protection of families paramount, and I have said that we are. She said that the system should be extremely tough and, yes, our intention is that it will be as tough as possible. That is why we have looked not only at what we can do in the minimal way to put this judgment into effect, but at ways to toughen up the sex offenders register regime—for example, by the requirement that we want to introduce for individuals on the register to have to notify when they are going abroad for at least a day. That is a toughening of the current system.

The right hon. Lady asked about Parliament’s opportunity to debate this measure. It will be introduced through an order—a statutory instrument—so there will be an opportunity to debate it. She asked about the numbers who will be affected. That will be set out in the regulatory impact assessment that will accompany the statutory instrument. She asked about the process of consideration that the police will go through. They will be talking to all other agencies that have an interest in this area, so they will talk to the probation service, local authorities, social services, youth offending teams and a variety of other agencies to ensure that they have the best possible picture of the individual concerned in order to make the best possible judgment. I am sure that she will agree that the police are very clear about the importance of public protection. That is why I want the police to make these decisions; I believe that they will put public protection first. They will examine a series of issues, such as the seriousness of the offences originally committed and the age of the victims. They will address a range of issues when they are considering whether a review should be upheld and whether the individual should stay on the register.

The right hon. Lady asked about the ability of the police to deal with this. ACPO and the National Offender Management Service have been actively involved in putting together and shaping the policy. One of their considerations has, of course, been its deliverability. We are confident that the policy can be delivered, as is ACPO. Like us, ACPO wants to ensure that we have the toughest possible policy to protect the public. It is different from the vetting and barring scheme, where the problem was that lots of innocent people found themselves on it and were subject to its requirements. This proposal is about the people who have been found guilty of heinous crimes and is about making sure that we reduce the risk of reoffending to members of the public. As I have announced in relation to the Bill of rights, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary will make further announcements about that imminently.

May I astonish my right hon. Friend by saying that I think there is some merit in the Court’s decision, particularly in the way she has interpreted it? Does not this case illustrate the fact that rights are not absolute and that the rights of the victim have to be balanced against the rights of children and the public in general? The process of reconciliation is ultimately as much political as legal and Parliament should therefore always have the last word. Is it not a relief that this decision was taken by the Supreme Court and not by the Court in Strasbourg? Does she agree that we should resile from that as soon as possible?

My right hon. Friend tempts me down a route that it would not be appropriate to go down. On his first point, rights are not absolute. The article 8 right against which the judgment was made clearly is not an absolute right. I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members—indeed, all of them, I hope—are as concerned as I am when a court makes a judgment that puts the rights of a perpetrator above the rights of the public and individual victims. In a similar area, I find it incredible that we are not able to deport people who are linked to al-Qaeda and who have terrorist intent in this country because the court says that their rights mean that we cannot deport them, but the court is not looking at the rights of members of the British public. That is what we should be doing.

I support the Home Secretary’s views on the merits of the existing sex offenders register and her concern about the Court’s decision, but will she confirm that under section 4 of the Human Rights Act 1998 there is absolutely no obligation on her or the House to change the law one bit? All the Court did was to issue a declaration of incompatibility and section 4 makes it absolutely clear that any decision following that is a matter for the sovereign Parliament. It would be entirely lawful for the House and her to say that the existing regime will continue without any amendment.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a point about the application of the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights and about Parliament having the final decision about what should happen. In this case, Parliament will have the final decision on what happens.

Does the Home Secretary agree that the right to respect for private life must not trump the safety of our children? Given the impossibility of tackling some offending behaviour of a sexual nature, even if reviews of notification requirements are granted, presumably she expects that those reviews will insist that the notification requirements are maintained. Is it also her understanding that the police decision could be subject to judicial review?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about the balance of rights. It is the case, I believe, that the police decision could be subject to judicial review. It is absolutely right that the police will look at all aspects of cases and take every consideration into account when deciding whether a review should be upheld such that the individual no longer remains on the register. I cannot second-guess any decisions that the police will take, but they will be making every effort to ensure that they are, absolutely, looking properly at these cases to ensure that the decisions they take enable them to maintain public protection.

The Home Secretary has struck exactly the right tone today, and it is heartening to hear both Front Benchers being very clear about where they stand on this issue. Protection of the public is the most important consideration, but, in view of what the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) has just said, will the Government ensure that the appeal process is examined very carefully indeed so that it is as robust as possible and there is not a legal challenge? That will mean proper consultation with Parliament and a proper scheme, so that people are well aware that it is very tough indeed.

I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point, and it is absolutely our intention that we should make the scheme as tough as possible and make it clear that it is about an ability to seek a review of a decision. We will frame it in the toughest possible terms and ensure that the process is absolutely right, so that we reduce the opportunity for it to be subject to any sort of judicial review once the decision is taken.

I support and welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, but may I ask for a little more clarity? She said that the final decision on whether an offender should remain on the register would be one for the police. Will that be a matter for the chief constable, as at present, or will it be one for the police commissioner in future?

It will be for a senior police officer, who will be a chief constable or another senior police officer. It will not be a matter for the police and crime commissioner.

In the unfortunate event of somebody being released from the sex offenders register because of this judgment, does the Secretary of State agree that it is imperative that the victim of the crime be informed of that variation?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, and I am certainly willing to take it away and consider it.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s approach to this as being purely a police matter. There has been a common misapprehension that requirements to sign on the sex register are somehow court orders. They are not. They are not part of the sentence or the judicial process, and I therefore welcome the commitment to keep the matter firmly within the realms of police discretion.

I thank my hon. Friend, who brings his experience in the law to that point. It is absolutely right that the police will deal with the matter and make the decision.

I, too, welcome the rigorous approach that the Home Secretary is taking, and I say that as the Minister who took the Sexual Offences Act 2003 through Committee. Does she agree that given the highly secretive and manipulative behaviour of many sex offenders, it is highly unlikely that the offence of which they were convicted is the only crime that they have committed? Will she ensure in any review process that there is a clear onus on the offender to demonstrate beyond doubt that they are no longer a risk to the public?

I have a number of points to make to the right hon. Gentleman. Throughout the House, we all agree that Parliament needs to get the answer right for the sake of public protection. The police will be able to take other offences into account when they consider whether an individual should remain on the sex offenders register, and they will look as widely as possible at the behaviour of the individual in question, consulting as wide a number of agencies as possible to ensure that they make the best possible decision for the public.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s desire to tighten the loopholes in the sex offenders register, and particularly her proposal to prevent sex offenders from avoiding registering by changing their name by deed poll. I am sure she will be aware that deed poll is only one way in which a person can change their name. It is the most formal way, but not the most usual. Changing name by statutory declaration is quicker and easier. Perhaps she will consider that as another loophole that should be closed.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. It is important that we examine the process of changing a name by deed poll and tighten the rules so that sex offenders cannot use them as a means of avoiding the need to register. He makes a valid point about statutory declaration, and we will certainly take it into consideration.

The Home Secretary has said that the police decision on these matters will be final. I hope she agrees that if one offender gets off the sex offenders register, it is one too many. Will the victim be able to appeal against that decision by the police and try to overturn it?

I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, the key phrase in which was that public protection must come first. We may compare that with judges who have instead ruled that paedophiles’ and rapists’ rights to privacy must come first. What would she say to those out-of-touch judges in the Supreme Court who are now openly, proudly and provocatively saying that a paedophile’s right to privacy is more important than children’s protection from those who have committed evil sexual acts?

It is important that we balance the public’s right to protection against the rights of the individual, but as I said at the end of my statement, it is time that we asserted that it is Parliament that makes our laws.

I congratulate the Home Secretary on adopting a much tougher approach than the Scottish authorities. Does she have any regrets that she did not overrule her officials and similarly reject the much weaker Scottish model for the retention of DNA profiles?

We have not in fact absolutely adopted the Scottish model in relation to DNA, and we have gone further than it has. We have adopted protections for those who are innocent, and that is different from the situation that we are considering today, which is about people who have been found guilty and are at risk of reoffending. We must deal with public protection in that regard. The rules that we propose for the retention of DNA are about enabling the police to have the tools that they need, but at the same time not putting the DNA of a lot of innocent people on the database.

I, like many others, am appalled by the Court’s decision, but I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, particularly the part about tightening the rules. One concern will be about potential inconsistency of approach between different police forces. Highly manipulative people moving around the country may find themselves on the sex offenders register in one part of the country, but a decision may be made to take them off it in another part. How will she ensure that consistency is applied to the whole country?

My hon. Friend obviously makes an important point, but of course ACPO has been actively involved in putting the proposals together, as I said earlier, and it will be for ACPO to ensure that its guidance to forces across the country is appropriately strong and followed by all forces.

My constituent, 17-year-old Ashleigh Hall, was murdered having been groomed by a registered sex offender on Facebook. When the Home Secretary is examining the loopholes, will she ensure that all sex offenders are required to register their online identities as well, and that any failure to do so is seen just as seriously as if they had failed to register the fact that they were living with young children?

The hon. Lady raises a valid issue about the use of new technology and the internet by sex offenders. If she would like to write to me about it, I will be happy to look into it.

My constituents will welcome the taking-on of the Human Rights Act and its replacement with a Bill of Rights, particularly as it was a manifesto commitment. Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents and the public that sex offenders who have a right of appeal will not be removed from the register if they continue to pose a threat to the public?

The whole point of the review process is that it will be down to the police to assess whether there is a risk of reoffending. If there is considered to be a risk, the individuals in question will stay on the register.

I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. She highlighted in it the difference in the approaches in Scotland and here at Westminster. Will she reassure us that differences between different devolved Administrations will not lead to people being able to be removed from the sex offenders register because of different thresholds being applied in different locations?

I reassure the hon. Lady that we will talk to the devolved Administrations. What I have announced will cover England and Wales, but we will talk to Scotland and Northern Ireland about the approach that we are adopting to ensure as far as we can that sex offenders do not move from one jurisdiction to another to get around the rules.

I thank the Home Secretary not only for the content of her statement, but for the fact that she has come to the House so quickly and that the statement was not leaked in advance.

Yesterday, when the Justice Secretary was questioned on the establishment of a commission on the Bill of Rights, he said that it would be done very quickly. Unfortunately, he was unable to answer my question on when that commission will report. Until we have a British Bill of Rights, I am afraid that the Home Secretary will be coming to the Dispatch Box to make more such statements.

I am tempted to point out to my hon. Friend that the statement may not have been leaked, but the Prime Minister covered one or two aspects of it in Prime Minister’s questions.

On the Bill of Rights, the Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary will imminently set out the arrangements for that commission and say how it will be formed, which I expect will include an end date.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) asked about funding for specialist units, many of which were formed because of a failure in normal policing to find people on the register, and because police forces did not talk to each other. What guarantees can the Home Secretary give on funding for such specialist units?

Of course, how a police budget is distributed to the different departments of each police force is a matter for the chief constable. The hon. Gentleman will know what I am about to say because the Government have made this clear a number of times. Police forces can take a significant sum of money out of their budgets not by cutting specialist units and visible policing, but by dealing with procurement and IT, and through collaboration with other forces. It is not just me saying that; Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary says it too.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s commitment to close the loophole that allows sex offenders to go abroad for up to three days without notifying the police. The previous Government had since 1997 to close that loophole, but did not take such action.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I am just pleased that we could take that action today to ensure that we closed that loophole and the others that I mentioned in my statement.

The Home Secretary has been absolutely right in setting her face against the judgment, but will she confirm that it remains lawful to insist that sex offenders stay on the register for life? Although the measures she has announced are strong and seek to protect the public, she does not have to take them—it would be lawful for her to keep to the higher standard of keeping them on the register for life.

We have already had one challenge on this ruled on by the Supreme Court, and there is the prospect of others. We have no further right of appeal through the Supreme Court mechanism, so we are introducing what we believe to be a tough set of measures that will address the issue. Of course, it will continue to be possible for sex offenders to stay on the register for life.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. I have appeared in Parole Board hearings. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the police officers who will make decisions will have all the information on an offender that is available in a Parole Board hearing, from judges’ sentencing remarks on dangerousness, to pre-sentence reports and the offender’s full record in custody, so that they can make a thorough decision, so that the public are fully protected?

That is absolutely our intention. The police should have the fullest information possible on which to base their decision on whether a sex offender should stay on the register. Indeed, I expect that when we lay the statutory instrument before the House, we will be able to go into more detail on the sort of information that will be available to the police.

I assure the Home Secretary that my hon. and right hon. Friends wholeheartedly agree with her statement. It is time to assert that Parliament makes the laws, not the courts. It is our duty as a House to protect the general public from those who perpetrate such horrific crimes. If it is the will of the House to strengthen our laws, instead of weakening them in the light of the Court’s decision, we should assert the authority of the House.

When will consultation be held with the Northern Ireland Executive?

We will have discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Government shortly—we have held some discussions with the latter because they have taken some steps down this road already. These issues will come to Parliament for it to decide. The commission on the British Bill of Rights, which was announced today, is a step that the Government are taking to ensure that we bolster the ability of Parliament to set our laws. The previous Government introduced the Human Rights Act. I am afraid that they saw the problems that the Act created and did nothing—this Government are doing something about it.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, but how confident is she that the increasingly robust Supreme Court, and the European Courts with their extraterritorial reach, will not overrule her very firm and welcome announcement today? Is it not time to introduce a Bill of Rights very early indeed, rather than having a commission which may report sometime in the future—

I see what my hon. Friend is getting at, but it is right to have a commission to look into the British Bill of Rights. The purpose of my statement was to set out a way forward that meets the requirement set by the Supreme Court, which should therefore not be subject to a further ruling by that Court.

As I said in response to the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), we will consider what information is available to the victim and their role.

Residents in my constituency are absolutely fed up to the back teeth with human rights legislation and the way in which it is being used to promote the rights of bad people over the rights of good people. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that when the commission on the Bill of Rights is established, an end date will be published. May I urge her to urge the Deputy Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary to choose an early end date, which we need so that legislation can be introduced in the House in this Parliament, so that the issue can be resolved once and for all?

Most Members of the House are fed up with the way in which decisions by the House are increasingly being overturned by the courts. I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary know well of his interest in this matter. As I said, we will ensure that we can take action to assert the rights of Parliament.

Bill Presented

Welfare Reform Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Secretary Duncan Smith, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mrs Secretary May, Mr Secretary Clarke, Mr Secretary Lansley, Mr Secretary Pickles, Chris Grayling and Maria Miller, presented a Bill to make provision for universal credit and personal independence payment; to make other provision about social security and tax credits; to make provision about the functions of the registration service, child support maintenance and the use of jobcentres; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First Time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 149) with explanatory notes (Bill 149-EN).