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Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975 (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2016

Volume 773: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2016

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975 (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2016.

My Lords, as the Committee will be aware, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 seeks to support the reintegration into society of offenders who have demonstrated that they have put their criminal past behind them. After a specified period of time, therefore, the Act provides for cautions and most convictions to become spent. When individuals apply for most jobs or seek insurance, they do not need to disclose spent cautions and convictions, nor can they be taken into account by employers and others. Research has consistently shown that obtaining employment lowers the risk of offending. That is the general position under the primary legislation.

There are, however, certain types of employment and other activities that give rise to particular risks to the public. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975 therefore creates exceptions to the Act so that in some circumstances certain spent, as well as unspent, convictions and cautions must be disclosed and may be taken into account when assessing a person’s suitability for certain positions.

Those areas of activity included in the exceptions order require a high degree of trust, often involving vulnerable persons. It is therefore appropriate that an employer should know a person’s fuller criminal history before an offer of employment is made, and consideration can be given to any necessary protections to be put in place. The three amendments in the order are part of the Government’s ongoing commitment to keep safeguarding measures in step with developments elsewhere. The first provision is designed to align the order with the Police Act 1997 (Criminal Records) Regulations 2002 in relation to certain regulated activity with children; the second covers certain roles within the Independent Police Complaints Commission; and the third relates to judicial appointments, which are already covered by the exceptions order, to allow for the fullest disclosure of criminal conviction information.

There is an anomaly between the exceptions order and the related Police Act 1997 (Criminal Records) Regulations 2002 that needs to be addressed. The Police Act regulations cover both regulated activity concerning children that is unsupervised and carried out on a frequent basis—for example, teaching—and activity that would be regulated activity relating to children if it were done frequently. Examples might be the provision of health and palliative care to children who are sick or disabled, or childminding on a one-off basis during the school holidays. At the moment, however, only such activity that is carried out frequently is covered by the exceptions order. The purpose of the amendment is therefore to align the order with the Police Act regulations so that roles involving unsupervised work with children on an infrequent basis are eligible for enhanced criminal records checks.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission was established by the Police Reform Act 2002 and became operational in April 2004. The IPCC’s fundamental statutory purpose is to secure and maintain public confidence in the police complaints system in England and Wales. It does so by making decisions independently of the police, government and interest groups. It is tasked with investigating the most serious complaints and incidents involving the police across England and Wales, and it also handles certain appeals from people who are not satisfied with the way the police have dealt with their complaint.

By the end of 2017, following a three-year programme of reform and expansion, the IPCC will independently investigate all serious and sensitive cases. The expansion has increased the number of cases and range of matters being investigated. Most notably, this includes an increased number of child sexual abuse and exploitation cases, and allegations concerning the abuse of vulnerable adults.

It is clearly important that commissioners and staff within the IPCC who have contact with vulnerable people or access to sensitive information are thoroughly vetted. The amendment to the exceptions order will permit the IPCC to ask for, and take into account, the unprotected spent convictions and cautions of staff and commissioners whose work involves this type of contact or access. Contact with children by commissioners and other IPCC staff is already covered by other provisions in the exceptions order relating to regulated activity, but contact with other vulnerable people is not covered. The IPCC will be able to ask for the disclosure of this information when recruiting to these positions.

The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 established the independent Judicial Appointments Commission—the JAC—to select candidates of good character for judicial office in courts and tribunals in England and Wales. Prior to the Act, appointments were made by the Lord Chancellor. Magistrates are appointed by the senior presiding judge, rather than the JAC, but are assessed for suitability in the same way as other judicial appointees. As noble Lords would expect, judicial appointments are already covered by the exceptions order, given the nature and responsibilities of such roles. This means that the JAC is currently entitled to ask candidates for details of their unspent convictions and certain spent cautions and convictions that are not protected from disclosure, and can take that information into account.

As I have referred to protected spent cautions and convictions, I will briefly explain what they are. I am sure noble Lords will remember that where an occupation or activity is listed in the exceptions order, full disclosure of all spent cautions and convictions was formerly allowed. In May 2013, however, following a Court of Appeal judgment, which was upheld by the Supreme Court, the Government amended the disclosure policy under the exceptions order to provide that certain old and minor spent cautions and convictions are protected from routine disclosure in criminal records certificates. In other words, they are filtered out of certificates and do not have to be disclosed by individuals, nor can they be taken into account by employers.

Since May 2013, the JAC has not therefore seen an applicant’s full criminal record. The Lord Chief Justice has expressed concern about this position, particularly in relation to dishonesty offences, which may go towards assessing an applicant’s good character. He has therefore supported the commission in requesting this amendment to allow the disclosure of all spent cautions and convictions. The commission is clear that the disclosure of old and minor spent cautions and convictions is required to mitigate the risk to the integrity of the judiciary should details of an appointee’s previous caution or conviction subsequently emerge. The significance of a caution or conviction is considered much greater because of the unique position of the judiciary, including the magistracy. It is a requirement that judges be of good character, and if they did not possess such good character, the confidence of the public in their constitutional function might be damaged.

I hope noble Lords will support the Lord Chief Justice’s view that the integrity of the judiciary needs to be upheld. However, before the Government agreed to support this change, we asked the commission to confirm that it would adopt a clear and transparent recruitment policy on how old and minor cautions and convictions would be treated to make sure that all applications are treated objectively and fairly. I can reassure noble Lords that proper and balanced consideration will be given to any old and minor spent convictions when disclosed; they will not automatically preclude an applicant taking up a judicial appointment. The JAC’s Good Character Guidance has been provisionally amended and will be available to candidates if Parliament approves this amendment and once the order comes into force.

I am sure noble Lords will agree that this statutory instrument is necessary for public protection purposes. It needs to be amended regularly to make sure it is up to date and keeps pace with developments elsewhere. There is always a balance to be achieved in the disclosure of criminal conviction information between the rehabilitation of offenders and public protection. These amendments to the exceptions order are limited in scope, but are necessary for the purposes of safeguarding vulnerable people and maintaining the integrity of the judiciary. I beg to move.

My Lords, I can confirm that the Opposition—entirely embodied by me on this occasion—welcome the order. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for elucidating some of its detail. I intended to ask whether the magistracy is included in the reference to judicial appointments, and she has confirmed that it is, which I think is desirable. However, I am not yet clear about the position of police commissioners as opposed to officers and whether they are included.

Given that police commissioners have an overriding responsibility in relation to disciplinary matters and the like, I wonder whether—I do not expect the noble Baroness to answer now—the Government might wish to consider the position of police commissioners in relation to this. One thinks in a different context of the activities of police forces; for example, in South Yorkshire, where there have been great problems, which are not, I hope, related to this. On the other hand, of course, the police were involved in child abuse investigations and so on, and it might be thought desirable for the police commissioner with overall responsibility for that to also have a clear position on this. I am not asking the noble Baroness to answer now or to make any policy decisions now, but she may wish to take this back to others for a view. All I ask for is that it be considered. I am not saying that it should be definitively acted on but, in my submission, it ought to be considered. With that comment, I am certainly happy to endorse the order.

I thank the noble Lord for his support. As regards the facts I can say, police and crime commissioners are vetted for their suitability—police officers are already covered, and full disclosure is required—but I will take back the comments he made. With that, I thank him again for his support and comments, and I commend the draft order to the Committee.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 5.42 pm.