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Madam Speaker: It seems to me that the right hon. Gentleman is trying to involve the Speaker of the House in party political exchanges. I am not prepared to be so involved. I have given my ruling and I stand by it.

27 Jan 1997 : Column 23

Orders of the Day

Sex Offenders Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

3.36 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is an important further plank in the Government's strategy for protecting the public against sex offenders, particularly those who prey on children. It contains two distinct parts, both with the common purpose of protecting children from sexual abuse. Part I imposes a requirement on those convicted of sex offences against children and other serious sex offences to register their name and address, and any subsequent changes, with the police. Part II makes it an offence for United Kingdom residents to commit certain sex acts against children abroad. The Bill's measures represent an important step in our comprehensive strategy to combat sex offenders. I should say something about the overall strategy, of which the Bill is a part.

In the Crime (Sentences) Bill, as the House will recall, we are providing for automatic life sentences for those convicted, for a second time, of a serious sex offence: rape, attempted rape or unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 13 years old. Passing a life sentence on those who have demonstrated the propensity for repeated serious sexual offences will ensure that such people are not released unless or until it is judged safe to do so. In addition, the Crime (Sentences) Bill provides that all sex offenders will receive extended supervision after release for a minimum of 12 months or 50 per cent. of sentence, extendable up to 10 years at the court's discretion.

As well as the Crime (Sentences) Bill and the Bill before the House today, the Government are legislating, through the Protection from Harassment Bill, against stalking--a phenomenon that may often have a sexual element, sometimes directed against child victims. We are also supporting two important private Members' Bills. The Sexual Offences (Protected Material) Bill will regulate access to victim statements in sex offence cases, and prevent the despicable practice of such material being used for pornographic purposes, and the Criminal Evidence (Amendment) Bill will extend police powers to obtain DNA--deoxyribonucleic acid--tests for all convicted sex offenders still serving a sentence.

Finally, we are today publishing proposals for a prohibition on sex offenders seeking employment with children. Copies of the proposals have been placed in the Library. That was one of the elements discussed in last summer's consultation paper and it received widespread support, but it was clear from the comments received that further work was necessary to develop an effective scheme. The results of that further work are contained in the paper published jointly today by the Home Office and the Scottish Office and we look forward to receiving further comments from the public on how the arrangements should work.

To return to the Bill, the suggestion that sex offenders should be required to register was first put forward by the Police Superintendents Association of England and

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Wales, and I am grateful to that organisation for its assistance in developing our proposals. We decided to issue a consultative document, "Sentencing and Supervision of Sex Offenders", in June last year to canvass opinions on a range of measures that could improve public protection against sex offenders, including a registration requirement. There was strong support for the idea of registration--as there was for all the proposals in that document--and the Bill has been drafted in the light of the detailed comments that we received on how the scheme should work in practice.

Recent tragic cases have brought home to all of us the risk posed to children by paedophiles. There is a clear need for additional measures to strengthen the arrangements already in place to protect the public against sex offenders. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that there will ever be a complete defence against the determined sexual predator, but the Government must, and will, do all that they can to make sure that children can be protected as far as is possible.

The primary purpose of requiring convicted sex offenders to notify the police of their name and address and of changes to those details is to ensure that the information contained within the police national computer remains fully up to date. At the moment, the address held in police records will be the last one known to the police, which is usually the one where the offender was residing when convicted. The unsatisfactory result is that the police have no means of learning when a convicted sex offender has moved into their area.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Are the arrangements different for any other sort of offence? For example, if a repeated drugs offender or repeated mugger moves house, does he have to register his address somewhere?

Mr. Maclean: No, such offenders do not have to register their address. The requirement to register is an innovation and, so far, we are proposing that it should apply only to those convicted of the offences listed in schedule 1. Of course, prisons notify local police of people leaving prison who were convicted of serious offences, and those who have received a life sentence may have conditions built into their life licence that they should notify the police of any change of address. However, other than in those circumstances, there is no requirement on individuals to tell the police that they are moving or, indeed, that they have moved.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East): I am sure that the Government want to do everything possible to ensure that good information is held The Minister mentioned that the police are passed information when an individual is released from prison, and I believe that that information is also passed to social services departments. Will the Minister therefore clarify the instructions for local authority departments? In the paper, "Working Together", which was published a few years ago, it was said that local authorities should not keep lists of suspected offenders, despite the fact that there was a court case--Regina v. Devon county council--in which local authorities were held to be responsible for keeping such information and using it.

Mr. Maclean: It may be legitimate for authorities to keep lists of offenders, especially when there is any

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likelihood of their seeking employment with children. As I continue my speech, the hon. Gentleman may be satisfied by comments that I make. In addition, I shall address another point that he raised in the press at the weekend.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): Will the Minister assure us that he believes that the Bill's provisions are sufficient to deal with paedophiles who, as he probably knows, frequently change their names and the areas in which they live? One matter that concerns me is the difficulty that the police and social services have in keeping track of such people when they have changed their name or moved to another area. Is the Minister happy that the Bill's provisions will ensure that paedophiles can be tracked by the police and social services?

Mr. Maclean: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which I shall come to shortly. The short answer is no. That is why I am informing the House that I shall propose a small amendment to impose a requirement for additional information to be provided by the person, to enable the police to identify more accurately the person standing at their desk and giving them a name and address. I have concluded that the requirement for merely a name and address needs to be strengthened.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): If the aim of the provisions is to give added protection and security to the general population and to act as a deterrent to a potential offender, and if that is such a splendid idea, why are the provisions not extended to other categories of dangerous people? There seems to be some illogicality in my right hon. Friend's proposals if he limits them in that way.

In that context, did my right hon. Friend see the remarkably interesting and sensitive article by Matthew Parris in The Times last Friday?

Mr. Maclean: Yes, I did see the article and I shall refer to it in a moment, but I say to my hon. Friend that we must not attempt to bite off more than we can chew.

I believe that everyone accepts that, among criminals, paedophiles are in a special category. We can distinguish their sexual activity from that of violent criminals, muggers or other serious criminals because, as our research appears to show, usually paedophiles are highly manipulative and clever and often their offending behaviour intensifies as they get older. They are in a particularly dangerous category, and the request by the police for some form of register was made to tackle the particularly recognised problem of paedophiles.

That is a sensible starting point. Once those arrangements are in place--bearing in mind the fact that the police will have the administrative burden of dealing with the large number of paedophiles who will register under our proposals--we might be trying to run before we can walk if we try to go much further before we have a successful paedophile register in place.

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