Motion to Approve
My Lords, the purpose of this debate is to consider the two statutory instruments laid in draft before the House by the Government under, or in relation to, the Sexual Offences Act 2003. The first is the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (Remedial) Order 2012, which sets out the Government’s response to the Supreme Court ruling in F and Thompson. The second is a set of regulations that will strengthen the notification requirements for registered sex offenders. This follows a public consultation carried out last summer by the Government. I shall address each instrument in turn.
Currently, where a sex offender is sentenced to imprisonment for a term of 30 months or more under Part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, they will be subject to indefinite notification requirements for life, with no possibility of a review. In other words, on completion on his prison sentence a serious sex offender is placed on what is commonly known as the sex offenders register for life. On 21 April 2010 the United Kingdom Supreme Court made a declaration, following an appeal to it made by claimants known as F and Thompson, that the requirement for indefinite notification—also known as life on the sexual offenders register—with no opportunity for review is incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which concerns the right to a private life and family life. To put it another way, the Supreme Court ruled that if a person is included on the sex offenders register for life, they should at some point during their lifetime have the right to request that their inclusion on the sex offenders register be reviewed. I stress the word “reviewed”. They have a right to request a review, not a right to be removed from that register.
Our constitutional arrangements are such that when the highest court of the land identifies an incompatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights, the Government of the day, whoever is in power, take remedial action. This is for various reasons, not the least of which is to ensure that the Government are not left vulnerable to further legal proceedings, potentially involving millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. All that said, in February last year the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister made it clear that the Government would do only what was necessary to remedy the incompatibility declared by the court.
When considering the Supreme Court’s decision, the Government, in deciding what action to take, wanted to ensure that we struck the right balance: putting public protection first and foremost while acknowledging that these offenders also have a right to request a review of the length of time that they spend on the sex offenders register. This approach was reflected in the Government’s initial proposal to make a remedial order to remove the incompatibility, which was laid before this House on 14 June last year. The Joint Committee on Human Rights considered our proposal and published its recommendations in its first report on 13 October last year. Its most significant recommendation was that, in order to ensure a sufficiently independent element to the review process, our proposal should be amended to provide either that the review be conducted by,
“an independent and impartial tribunal”,
by which it meant the courts, or that there be a,
“right of appeal from the decision of the police to an independent and impartial tribunal”,
by which again it meant the courts.
We were grateful to the JCHR for its report, which we considered in detail. As I have said, the Government have been clear throughout that, in removing the incompatibility, public safety remains the first priority. After careful consideration, the Government decided not to accept the JCHR’s recommendation that the review be led by the courts. The Government remain of the view that the police are best placed to carry out the initial assessment of the level of risk posed by the offender, in conjunction with other bodies through the Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements, otherwise known as MAPPA. We did, however, accept that it was proportionate to amend the remedial order to allow for the provision for a right of appeal from the police decision to the magistrates’ court. After amending the remedial order to include the provision for a right of appeal to the magistrates’ court, the Joint Committee on Human Rights published its second report in May this year. We are pleased that the Joint Committee accepts in this report that our proposal now remedies the incompatibility identified in the Supreme Court’s ruling.
I shall take a moment to explain how the order will work in practice. As I have already said, it applies to individuals who are subject to notification requirements for life, under the 2003 Act. This means, in most cases, those who have committed the most serious offences listed in Schedule 3 to the 2003 Act, which include, for example, rape and sexual activities involving children.
Let me be clear. Offenders will continue to be placed on the sex offenders register for life, just as they are now. They will not come off the register automatically. The remedial order only provides a mechanism by which a sex offender can apply for a police review of whether they should cease to be on the register. The onus is always on the offender to make the application and to demonstrate that they no longer pose a risk. This means that an offender will be required to submit an application to the police seeking a review of their indefinite notification requirements. This will be only once a fixed period of time has elapsed following the offender’s release from custody. For adults, we have proposed that this period of time will be 15 years; for a child it will be eight years.
We know that if an offender is to re-offend after completing their prison sentence, it is in the early years of release when it is most likely that that will happen, the majority of these taking place within 10 years of release. That is why our proposal ensures that no adult sex offender will be able to apply for a review until 15 years after they have been released from custody. That will be their first opportunity.
This remedial order ensures that a robust review, led by the police, in conjunction with other agencies, will be carried out so that a full picture of the risks to the public can be considered before any decision is made on whether to remove an offender from the register. Let me be absolutely clear. Our proposals make sure that sex offenders who continue to pose a risk will remain on the register and will do so for life if necessary.
The second instrument that we are considering today follows a consultation carried out last year on options for strengthening the notification requirements applying to registered sex offenders. Currently, when a person is convicted, or cautioned for an offence under Schedule 3 to the Sexual Offences Act 2003, they will automatically be subject to notification requirements, which, as I stated earlier, is more commonly referred to as the sex offenders register. While subject to these requirements, the offender will be required to provide their local police station with personal details annually, or whenever their details change. The most high-risk offenders are subject to additional further conditions and surveillance by local multi-agency public protection panels.
The police identified vulnerable areas in the current arrangements which could lead to some offenders seeking to exploit gaps in the system. To strengthen and extend current checks, this instrument makes four changes to the current notification requirements which apply to all registered sex offenders. First, they must now notify the police of all foreign travel. Offenders who travel abroad for less than three days will be required to notify in the same way as those who travel for longer must do under the existing regime. Secondly, offenders with no fixed abode must notify the police weekly of where they can be found. Thirdly, offenders must from now on notify the police when they are residing with a child under the age of 18. Finally, offenders must notify the police about their bank account and credit card details and notify certain information about their passports or other identity documents at each notification, thus tightening the rules so that sex offenders can no longer seek to avoid being on the register by changing their name.
ACPO and CEOP have both expressed their support for these changes. They believe that these measures will enhance our ability to protect the public and ensure that our management of sex offenders remains effective in an ever-changing world. In the event that an offender fails to comply with the notification requirements or with the terms of any order restricting their movement or actions, they will have committed a criminal offence and can be imprisoned for up to five years.
In taking these changes forward, ACPO recognises that there will be resource implications to informing the 53,500 registered sex offenders across England and Wales who are subject to these new requirements, and to ensuring that they are all complying with the new requirements when these come into effect. ACPO has been clear throughout that, in calling for these additional changes, it was prepared to meet the additional workload. My officials have been working with ACPO for some months now to help it in its preparations.
Public protection remains a fundamental priority for this Government. The changes made in these two instruments address the incompatibility identified by the Supreme Court but they do so in a way that ensures public protection against these offenders. We have also closed a number of loopholes identified by the police in respect of all sex offenders. These changes mean that we continue to have one of the most rigorous and robust approaches to sex offender management in the world. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation and the information that she has given to the House on the two sexual offences orders. I shall take them in reverse order. On the notification requirements order, we are broadly supportive but I have a couple of questions, and I was able to have a brief discussion with the Minister earlier to give some indication of what I wanted to ask. My understanding is that the order applies to England and Wales, because policies relating to sex offenders in Scotland and Northern Ireland are devolved to those Administrations. I would have thought, though, that it was important to have some consistency between England and Wales legislation and that in the devolved Administrations. Are there any differences across the UK and, if there are, what are they and how are they being addressed?
I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong, but I think that Northern Ireland currently retains its three-day loophole, as it has become known, whereby an individual does not have to notify the police of foreign travel of less than three days. Have the Government had any discussions with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament on this issue? What discussions have there been with other European countries? Do they have similar reporting and notification requirements? What co-operation is there between the UK and other European national police forces? That seems to be an area where greater co-operation between us and EU police forces would make great sense.
I was able to talk briefly earlier to the Minister about notification requirements for online identities. I am not clear how these are covered or whether they are covered effectively. I am aware that online social networks are increasingly used to contact and groom young people for sex offences. There are some quite horrific and frightening examples. Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, has taken this issue up very robustly. In her constituency a young woman called Ashleigh Hall, who was 17 years old, was tricked into meeting a 33 year-old convicted sex offender, who posed on the internet as a 19 year-old man, and she lost her life as a result of meeting up with him.
It is clear that convicted sex offenders register different identities online. Given that registered sex offenders have to notify the police of any identity documents that they have—passports, for example—I am not clear how online identities fit into the proposed and current notification requirements. We are all aware that there are sex offenders who are frighteningly clever and devious in stalking and grooming their prey and that it is perfectly possible to set up different, multiple online identities. I am not so naive as to think that telling a registered convicted sex offender that he will have to tell the police about each and every online identity would work on its own, but clearly this is a problem area. Given the information in the impact assessment on the second order about sex offenders’ propensity to reoffend, this area must be monitored, and I am interested in how the Government plan to do so. Maybe that is in other legislation that I am not aware of, but I thought that it might have been in here as we are talking about notification requirements.
If this is helpful, Surrey Police has pioneered—it has been honoured for the work that it has done in this area—innovative software that monitors online sex offenders. I understand that it has successfully trialled this and now uses it to monitor 25 different criminals. This software installs onto their computer software which monitors use and sends alerts if any risky behaviour is detected. It is looking to use that across the country. So there are ways of starting to deal with this. However, I would be interested to know what the current position is, just in case I have missed something and there is something in this order or other legislation that covers the creation of online identities by those who seek to groom young people for sexual abuse, an activity which led, in that case, to murder. Have the Government sought the views and advice of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre? The noble Baroness mentioned that they have its support, but just in the implementation—it is not mentioned in the consultation documents as a consultee. I am sure that the Government will have had some contact and I think its input would have been helpful.
On the second order, the remedial order about reviews, I am far less comfortable that the Government are taking the right position. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, who knows my concerns, for taking time to explain the Government’s views. I have also read the report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which is helpful in explaining why the Government are bringing this order forward, following the case of F and Thompson v Secretary of State for the Home Department in which the Supreme Court declared that the indefinite notification requirements in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 were incompatible with Article 8. That happened because, if I understand it correctly, there was not the opportunity for the individual to be treated as an individual and to apply to come off the register.
I am concerned about the Government’s inconsistency on legal judgments. Clearly the Government have been keen to accept the judgment of the Supreme Court on this issue and in legislative terms. Many noble Lords who have been in this House longer than I have will recognise that this legislation has been brought forward quite quickly. However, the Government do not always take this view. In fact, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled on the right of prisoners to vote, the Prime Minister—although he may have been in opposition at the time—said that it made him physically sick. I do not go that far, although I think that one of the consequences of losing one’s liberty through crime is a loss of the vote for the period of incarceration. However, I cannot understand why he does not feel equally strongly about this issue, which has a far greater emotional impact for me.
I also see the order in the context of other changes that the Government are making to legislation involving the registration of those convicted of sexual offences. We have seen in the Protection of Freedoms Act how the definition of a regulated activity—when someone is on the sexual offences register, they cannot work in a regulated activity—is now far narrower than it was. Also, whereas previously someone automatically went on to a register, there is now a gap of around eight weeks and someone can apply to come off the register before they go on it. Whereas before they could apply to come off the register, now they might never go on it, depending on the outcome of the initial review.
At the moment there are around 53,000 convicted sex offenders on the register. More than 29,000 of those are on it indefinitely and, in effect, they are the subject of the order. I have tried to understand the Government’s rationale beyond the Supreme Court decision. I looked at the impact assessment and wondered what other avenues the Government considered. The Government looked at options from doing nothing to a full court-administered review system and plumped for the option before us today, option 4. There are three things to look at—the costs, the benefit and the risk. Page 16 of the impact assessment shows the costs. I understand that if there is going to be a review process it has to be robust and effective. The assessment states:
“The costs associated with this option would be absorbed by the agencies to which they fall and would represent opportunity rather than financial costs”.
Those agencies are the police, currently facing 20% cuts in their budget; social services, also facing cuts in their budgets and struggling; and the probation service, which is also facing cuts in its budget. Yet they are being asked to take on additional responsibilities and the Government are not able to identify what those costs are, other than that they are opportunity costs.
We then come to the transitional costs. The Government say that there will be some costs in the first year for guidance and training, up to an estimated £50,000. However, the impact assessment says that there will be transitional costs for the other agencies, which I assume means the police, social services and the probation service. Regarding those costs the assessment says that it,
“has not been possible to quantify this”.
Under “Cost of a review”, the assessment says that the process,
“would take up approximately 9 hours of police time, including 3 hours of superintendent time as well as 6 hours of involvement from other agencies… estimated at £630”.
That is a fairly conservative estimate. I worry because although the Government have set up this process, I wonder how the agencies that are required to conduct the review will find the resources to do it as effectively as they need to.
Page 17 of the impact assessment discusses the “Continuation/Discontinuation of notification requirements”. As so often on this subject, the assessment says that things cannot be quantified. For example, it says that,
“it has not been possible to quantify the cost of those applying for subsequent reviews”,
in terms of the time involved. The Government do not seem to know what the costs will be. However, they do know that they will not have to pay those costs and that somebody else will. That is a concern.
So that I can follow the noble Baroness’s argument, is it the position of Her Majesty’s Opposition that there is some alternative to the view taken by the Joint Committee on Human Rights that these are sensible and proportionate ways of complying with the Supreme Court’s judgment and the relevant law? If she is suggesting that, it would be helpful to know what the alternative would be.
No, at this point I am not suggesting an alternative. I would like the Government to go away and think about the alternatives. I will come on to this later, but if the Government are going to set up a review system, they will need to have more information about the system they are setting up—about the costs, benefits and risks.
I have looked at the costs. The Government say on page 19 of the impact assessment that the benefits will be similar to those listed in part 3 of the impact assessment, which are relatively minor. The assessment says that,
“it has not been possible to quantify these”—
other than to say that if people come off the list then there will be savings in police time. So the Government are not able to tell us the costs or the benefits.
As for the risks, there are a number of unknowns:
“There are the following unknowns in relation to this policy:
The actual volumes of applications for review;
The impact of the review mechanism …
The volumes of offenders whose indefinite notification requirements will be discontinued as a result of the review process;
The potential impact of ending notification requirements on re-offending rates and detection rates.
The actual costs and savings that will result”.
Is it wise not to quantify the costs, benefits or risks while taking a course of action? If the Government think that this is the right course of action then they should line these things up first.
One risk, of course, is reoffending. The Government’s impact assessment states:
“A number of studies have been considered in the development of this policy which analyse reconviction rates of convicted sex offenders over a follow-up period of 20-25 years. There is no evidence that a point can be reached at which a sex offender presents no risk of re-offending. Approximately a quarter of the previously convicted offenders were reconvicted for a sexual offence within this time period”.
So, within 20 to 25 years, a quarter of those who had been convicted were reconvicted. However, the assessment does tell us:
“We do not anticipate any greenhouse gas impacts as a result of these proposals”.
I thought that that was rather bizarre.
I hope that the Minister can address some of the concerns that I have raised because they worry me enormously. However, there are some specific points about the order on which I am clear. The regulations refer to the “determining officer”, who I take to be the police officer who will make the judgment on the review. Are the Government clear about what rank, experience, training and guidance that officer should have? The order says that any review would have to be signed off by a superintendent. With the increase in workload given the 20% cuts, I am worried that that will make it more difficult for the superintendent. The review by the superintendent is unlikely to be a rigorous process. The rigour has to come from the determining officer who undertakes the review. Clearly the review itself will have to be a vigorous and detailed process, and I doubt that the Government intend that it should be otherwise. However, unless the Government can be assured that those in the review process have the experience, access to information and the relevant good training, any good intentions for rigorous process will not be realised.
What evidence does the Minister envisage will be required to enable someone to come off the register when they apply? Will it be sufficient for them not to have breached their notification requirements? Is the onus on the police to prove that they still pose a risk, or will the convicted person on the register have to prove that they no longer pose a risk? The Government have estimated the number of people who might be eligible for review. Has any risk assessment been undertaken to develop guidance on how many of those who are on the register are still deemed to pose a risk and should therefore stay on it?
I also refer the Minister back to my comments about the very high levels of reoffending. What would happen if an offender were taken off the sex offender register and then convicted of a further offence? Would committing any sexual offence ensure that they would be put back on the register, or just those offences that would have qualified the offender to have been put on the register originally? Would somebody who had been on the register and then come off it only to go back on it—if they are able to go back on it—have the right of appeal in the future; or, as a result of the second instance, would they have to remain on indefinitely? Would there be a chance for them to appeal at a later date?
There are also many cases where sexual assault cases do not get to court because the victims or witnesses do not want to give evidence or are perhaps unable to. For example, I have personal knowledge of a case where a rape victim was advised by the CPS to pursue an action for GBH rather than rape because it would be easier to get a conviction. I am sure that I am not the only person to have been given that information. Are there circumstances in which somebody who has been charged with an offence, or even cautioned during their time on the register, will still be allowed to come off the register?
It seems that there are some grey areas that the regulations do not cater for. I would be interested to know whether the Minister is able to address these points. I have grave reservations about the proposals both in principle and in practice. I understand the comments that the Minister made at the beginning about trying to achieve a balance—she described it as a balance between individual rights and public safety. However, the principle here is that risk is increased, as even the Government’s own impact assessment accepts. The risk is that a convicted serious sex offender could be removed from the register and then reoffend, which is a serious risk. I am sure that the Minister will understand exactly why this needs to be managed. In practice, however, it is an issue of resources to ensure that a review process is set up. For that process to be effective, efficient and risk-free it has to be properly funded—and yet the Government have taken this step at a time when they admit that it cannot be risk free, at a time of massive cuts in the police. I am not convinced that the review process can be as robust as the Government want it to be. I have to say to the Minister that would have given me sleepless nights when I was a Minister. We cannot accept that this is the right way to proceed. I understand that the Government are intent on doing this, but they will have to do it without our support.
My Lords, the remedial order is one that the House might well have expected to be considering earlier than July 2012. I recall the Statement made by the Home Secretary and repeated in your Lordships’ House responding to the order of the judgment of the Supreme Court in February 2011. “Reacting” might have been a better term than “responding”. I recall the Home Secretary saying that she was “appalled” by the ruling. The end of her Statement laid into the courts and referred to achieving,
“a legal framework that brings sanity to cases such as these”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/2/11; col. 960.]
A number of us reacted to that reaction.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has considered the appropriateness of the remedial order and my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill will deal with its report. In February 2011 I recall my noble friend Lord Carlile of Berriew asking why we were not to get amendable primary legislation rather than an order, particularly given the controversial decision that there was to be no judicial procedure. The Explanatory Memorandum to the order says that we have it in this form in order to avoid delay. It seems to me that there has been some delay. Perhaps the delay is a proper delay and we will have a better outcome because of it. The JCHR has considered the matter twice. A Bill is before your Lordships’ House now which could give us the opportunity to deal with amendable provisions.
I recall my instinctive reaction that a review by the police was not appropriate and I have not really varied from that. The police review seems to be an administrative process. The court imposes the original sentence knowing that a sentence of 30 months plus means going on to the sex offenders register. That is mandatory. Perhaps the noble Baroness can tell us more about the procedure. She said that the Government have taken the view that the police are in the best position to make an initial— I think that was her word—assessment of the risk, which seemed to imply that there would be a second stage to the process. Of course, there may be if there is an appeal, but I may have misunderstood her.
I hope noble Lords will understand that I am not seeking to justify the offences, but does the offender get a hearing? That seems to me to be a basic right. What is the arrangement for allowing the two sides, as it were, to be argued? I am also uneasy that a further review may be deferred at this stage for a further 15 years. Very long periods seem to be involved. Can the noble Baroness also tell your Lordships about the form of the appeal to the magistrates? Listening to the debate, I have only just realised that I am very unclear about what form that may take. I am also uneasy about this being an appropriate matter for the magistrates’ court. I know that the JCHR accepts that, but I am a little doubtful whether, in so serious a matter, it should not go to a higher court. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about numbers. I had assumed that all, or almost all, offenders would seek a review. I am not sure why they should not.
On the regulations, I note that CEOP, ECPAT and others have said that these will close loopholes and enable more effective offender management. The requirements certainly tighten things up quite considerably. When the Government consulted, I wonder whether they had responses from organisations such as the Howard League which are concerned with the rehabilitation of offenders.
The Explanatory Memorandum says that the notification requirements will form an invaluable tool. I latched on to the word “invaluable”, given that the impact assessment has been unable to quantify the benefits. Perhaps that is a cheap point because I can see that it might be difficult to put a price tag on that and one would not want to put a price tag on the offences that might be prevented.
My Lords, I speak on behalf of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I begin by pointing out to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, that on our committee, which was unanimous throughout consideration of this matter, were the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Morris of Handsworth, the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws and Lady Lister of Burtersett, and it was chaired by Dr Hywel Francis with Mr Virendra Sharma, MP. They are all supporters of the Labour Party and all took an entirely different view from that just expressed by the noble Baroness about this order. I am, frankly, astonished by the criticism that has been made on behalf of the Labour Party.
The noble Baroness began by making some remarks about prisoners’ voting rights, contrasting that with the attitude taken with regard to this order. I remind her that under the previous Government, when the right honourable Jack Straw was Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, no action was taken to give effect to the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the Hirst case and no action was taken in response to the recommendations repeatedly made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. What is most welcome about the response of this Government to the judgment of the Supreme Court is that a highly emotive issue has been treated in the best possible way, by a process of parliamentary scrutiny of which I, personally, am very proud.
Under the Human Rights Act, a special procedure has been included. Where a court makes a declaration of incompatibility with a convention right, the special procedure allows the Government of the day to proceed by subordinate legislation—by affirmative resolution of both Houses—instead of having the need for primary legislation. This is done in order to bring our legal system into full compliance with European human rights law in an appropriate way, provided always that there is effective scrutiny.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has the special role of scrutinising draft remedial orders and reporting to both Houses and to the Government as to whether there has been proper compliance. What has happened in this case is extremely welcome. In our first report, we were critical of the first draft remedial order, as my noble friend the Minister acknowledged. Then, the Government responded by listening, and by giving effect to all of our main recommendations. In other words, the work of our committee—an all-party committee, and a beyond-party committee, since it is not controlled by the Government—influenced the Government in reshaping the order which is now before the House for approval today. If one reads the most recent government response to what we have done, dated March 2012, one finds each of our points identified, responded to, and heeded. That is a sign of mature Government, acting in a responsible way, being accountable to Parliament through this watchdog committee, and now in this debate, in both Houses, by affirmative resolution.
The noble Baroness, on behalf of the Opposition, has queried in detail the impact assessment that has been tabled. I take the completely opposite view. I regard the impact assessment statement as admirable. It lists five different options. It explains why one of those five options was chosen. Of course it cannot quantify the benefits of complying with the law of the land, because the main benefit is to secure the rule of law. That is not something that can be measured in monetary terms and it is quite unreasonable to ask the Government to do so. The main thing, with which I should have thought the Opposition would agree, is the need to comply with the judgment of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
As my noble friend Lady Hamwee pointed out, when the judgment originally came out, some intemperate remarks were made by the Home Secretary and also by the Prime Minister. That was much criticised—I was one of the critics—because it undermines the rule of law when senior Ministers attack Supreme Court judges in that way. However, what has happened since then is most commendable. A highly emotive issue about sex offenders, who are some of the most evil and revolting criminals that one can imagine but are given a form of fairness and justice all the same, has been translated into a set of sensible legislative proposals that are not exactly as the Joint Committee on Human Rights wished but come very close to it. I say this because often the critics of the Human Rights Act do not realise that one of its benefits is the kind of parliamentary procedure that I have just described.
Some—not I think in my party—would prefer the fast-track procedure not to be there at all but would like everything to be done by primary legislation. That would make it harder to bring our legal system into compliance with the convention if it were a general matter. I know that that is not what my noble friend Lady Hamwee was saying. I have gone through the procedure because it is not realised that this is a remarkably subtle piece of legislation of which the Labour Party and the previous Government should be proud as it was one of their best achievements. I hope that I have not been too strongly critical of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. However, I ask her to think again because her criticisms undermine the Human Rights Act process, which ought not to be a matter of dispute across the parties.
My Lords, this is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with sensitively. I am grateful for all contributions of noble Lords to the debate. In particular I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for confirming the JCHR’s agreement that this remedial order is compatible, and for the remarks he made about the process.
First, it may be worth repeating some of the things I said to make clear a couple of points before I respond to questions raised and points made in this debate. The crucial point is that convicted sex offenders who have been sentenced to two and a half years or more will still automatically be placed on the sex offenders register for life. This remedial order does not change that. The ruling that led to the order came from the UK Supreme Court. In response to some of the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, it is worth making it clear that every UK court in the land that heard the claim found in the same way as the Supreme Court before it came out with its final ruling.
As I said, the incompatibility that was found was around the right to a review, not the right to be removed from the sex offenders register. I can see why some listening to the debate—not the noble Baroness—might have misunderstood that. The Government were disappointed with the UK Supreme Court’s ruling, but we take our responsibility to uphold the law seriously, and that includes human rights law. That is why, in deciding how best to respond to the Supreme Court, we put at the front of our consideration the rights of the law-abiding, those who have the right to live without fear of predatory sex offenders.
In line with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, I was a little surprised at some of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. The last Government established the UK Supreme Court and enshrined the European Convention on Human Rights in UK law via the Human Rights Act 1998. That marked a change to our constitution which I am sure that her party would point to as a big step forward. But the other reason I was surprised at her remarks was because, after the Statement that has already been referred to was repeated in this House, her noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who is very distinguished, described in an Oral Question he tabled on 17 March 2011 the ruling of the Supreme Court as “eminently reasonable”.
Referring not just to the comments that have been made in the Chamber today but speaking more broadly, none of us likes to be told that those who have done wrong also have rights. I certainly respect people’s anger and disappointment when they first learn about rulings which they feel will entitle people who they think of first and foremost as evil—the word used by the noble Lord, Lord Lester—to rights. However, a responsible Government have a responsibility to respond to that disappointment and anger with a proportionate way forward which meets people’s concerns, and that is what we are doing.
I turn now to some of the specific points that were raised and the questions put. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, talked about inconsistency. As I have made clear on this remedial order to do with the sex offenders register, every UK court rejected the claim. I am sorry; I will start again by referring to prisoner voting rights, which she used to illustrate her claim of inconsistency. I have already said that every court in this land found in the same way as the UK Supreme Court with regard to the sex offenders register. On prisoner voting rights, every UK court that heard the claim that prisoners should have the right to vote rejected it. The only court that has found in favour of prisoners being given the right to vote is the European Court of Human Rights. There is a distinct difference and we are responding to the UK Supreme Court at this time.
The noble Baroness made several points about the risks associated with offenders having a right to appeal to be taken off the sex offenders register. Perhaps I may cover several issues. The first thing to make clear is that, so far as this process is concerned, the onus is on the offender to come forward and make an application. The offender has to decide that they want to make the application: it will not be done for them automatically. In doing so, they must make clear to the police why they feel they have changed in a way that makes them a suitable candidate for review. In considering their response, the police will naturally consult the other agencies involved when someone is placed on the sex offenders register and will take time to consider each case on its merits.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about the rank of the officer who would consider this process: perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, did as well. I can confirm that the review will be carried out by a superintendent. That will be made clear in the statutory guidance on the review of indefinite notification requirements under Part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act, which we will publish once the order comes into force. This will stipulate that the determination as to whether an offender comes off the register or not will be made by an officer ranked at superintendent or above.
The other important point relates in a way to the other statutory instrument being debated, and I will talk about that in more detail in a moment. Sex offenders who are on the register are categorised in different ways and are subject to a great deal of scrutiny and surveillance. This is not something that will be considered in isolation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about what happens if an offender who had come off the register offends again. First, any failure to comply with the register is in itself an offence. Secondly, if the situation she described were to happen, the offender would be reconvicted and sentenced according to the crime they had committed. They would again be subject to notification requirements. There is no question whatever that an offender who has committed a crime will not be required to operate within the terms of the sex offenders register.
The point I was trying to get at was whether someone who had been on the register as a convicted sex offender and had come off the register but was then convicted of a further sexual offence—but not one that would normally put them back on the register—would be put back on the register automatically.
I can follow up in writing if necessary, but these kinds of cases would be considered on their individual merits. If somebody had been on the sex offenders register for life, had succeeded in making an application for review and coming off the register, then committed a crime which would not automatically put them back on the register for life, then I would expect that the authority that made the decision to place them on the register would consider the fact that they were previously on the register for life. Someone who was put on the register for life and is then successful in having their case reviewed and comes off it will have done something which would, had the police known that they were about to do it, have disqualified them from coming off the register in the first place. Anything contrary to that would be surprising to me. If I need to do so, I will follow up in writing, but such a situation would not make a great deal of sense.
The noble Baroness asked about why we had determined 15 years as an appropriate time for an offender to make an application for review. I think that I covered that carefully in my opening speech by explaining that the evidence suggests that a sex offender, if they are likely to reoffend, will do so in the first few years following their release from prison. The longer the period that has elapsed after their release is, the less likely it is that they will reoffend. As the noble Baroness pointed out, the available evidence suggests that there is no specific scientific point at which it can be absolutely guaranteed that someone will not reoffend, but if there is any suggestion that they might do so, they would not be successful in being removed from the sex offenders register in the first place when they made their application for review. We are talking about 15 years after this person has been released from prison.
The impact assessment states that the figures relating to the reconviction rate of sex offenders covered a 25-year period, during which a quarter were reconvicted of a sexual offence. By the noble Baroness’s understanding, there seems to be a period of less than 15 in which they do not reoffend, but the impact assessment says that a quarter reoffend within 20 to 25 years of conviction.
My Lords, this is a terribly complicated area and I am sure that noble Lords are, like me, struggling to follow the sequence of events. It would be really helpful if the noble Baroness were to write to us afterwards, because this involves quite technical details and I, for one, am having trouble putting them into the context of the original offence and what the automatic and discretionary consequences of a conviction might be.
To be helpful, perhaps I may make another practical suggestion. I forgot to say that in its latest report the Joint Committee on Human Rights asked seven questions for clarification, all of which have been clarified by the Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone in her letter of 15 June 2012 to the Joint Committee. They are important issues and, rather than trying to get them on the record here, it would be sensible if the letter I referred to or some other letter were copied to those who have taken part in the debate, put in the Library and made part of the public record. I do not want the Minister to have to face yet further questions tonight, given that it has all been dealt with satisfactorily but not widely read.
I am grateful to my noble friends. If that solution is satisfactory to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that is what I will do.
Let me see if I can make some progress in responding to some of the other important points raised in the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, raised issues about costs. The straightforward point is that we have developed this policy in complete and full consultation with ACPO, which understands the need to respond to the Supreme Court ruling. There is no additional money available, but ACPO is confident that the aims can be met from existing resources. To return to a point made earlier, we have found it necessary for us to address this incompatibility, and that is what we are doing. It is worth adding that there is no option for the Government to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against a ruling by the UK’s Supreme Court. This is a finding by the UK Supreme Court. I have described as carefully as I can that we have acted in a way that will address its findings, but in a way that is also mindful of the rights of law-abiding citizens who have every right to be protected from predatory sex offenders. I think those were the main issues raised by the noble Baroness.
My noble friend Lady Hamwee asked why we had taken the course of a remedial order as opposed to primary legislation. My noble friend Lord Lester answered that quite comprehensively, so I will not repeat all that he said. As for my noble friend Lady Hamwee’s concerns about the police leading on this review as opposed to the courts, I have already acknowledged that this has been a point of debate with the JCHR, which has now found that our proposals are compatible. None the less, it is worth stating clearly that we firmly believe that the police are in the best place to carry out this review and to consider an application from an offender on the register. They are familiar with the issues locally and will continue to work closely with the other agencies who are all working hard to ensure the protection of people in their area.
My noble friend asked whether the offender would get an oral hearing. My understanding—and if I am incorrect I shall, of course, write to her—is that they will not get an oral hearing with the police; they will put forward their application and the police will make a decision. However, they have the right to appeal that decision to the magistrates’ court. The noble Baroness also made the point that she expected all offenders to seek a review of their place on the register. In response, I remind the noble Baroness that they are not entitled to do so until they have been on the register for 15 years after their conviction. So even if that was to be the case—and I am sure that many offenders will recognise that their application may not be successful anyway, which might dissuade them from putting themselves forward for a review—they will not all put themselves forward at the same time.
As to the other order before us and the various questions raised, primarily, by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, about the notification requirements, she asked about consistency with the devolved Administrations. I will restate that this is a devolved matter and Scotland and Northern Ireland are able to reach their own decisions. However, we are liaising closely with the devolved Administrations and ensuring that we seek alignment between the systems of notification. Northern Ireland is taking steps to change the law and we are liaising directly to ensure as much consistency as possible, particularly on this issue of three days, as the noble Baroness raised. As to European Union countries, we took into account aspects of their review mechanisms. In our view the UK very much leads in sex offender management, but we have taken any action that is taken in other countries which we think is appropriate. However, we would rather ensure that our action is consistent with our own standards, to be at the forefront of this matter.
Before I close, perhaps I may respond to the noble Baroness’s comments about online identities. It is already a requirement for all offenders to notify the police of any alias that they use. None the less, the crimes to which she referred are very serious. I would prefer to respond to her separately on the matter of online identities, but the noble Baroness has given me the opportunity in raising it to say that a range of tools is available to the police to manage dangerous offenders, including sexual offences prevention orders, or SOPOs, which are intended to protect the public from the risk posed by sex offenders by placing restrictions on their behaviour. These orders can be made on application to a magistrates’ court. If somebody on the sex offenders register is doing something which gives rise to suspicion that they are about to commit a crime, it is possible for the police to get the necessary authority for them to take action. I wanted to take this opportunity to make that point because there is a risk when we talk, as we have today, exclusively about the sex offenders register that the public might be given the impression that the register is the only way in which we manage sex offenders. It is not—there is a comprehensive set of arrangements.
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 is important legislation that provides police and other agencies with essential tools and powers to ensure that they can effectively manage offenders who pose a risk to the public. I am proud to say that the United Kingdom has one of the most robust sex offender management systems in the world and these changes will ensure that it continues to do so. I commend the order to the House.