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Mr. Beith: The Minister has demonstrated that he knows even less about the technicalities than I do--and I make no claim to be an expert. He has also revealed, I fear, that he may not be up to speed on the dangers to systems that may be generated by the interface between them. I counsel him to read some of the documents available in the Home Office and circulated by the appropriate authorities, or at least to ensure that someone else reads them.

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I believe that this short debate will have drawn enough people's attention to the problem to ensure that some careful consideration is applied before the procedure is used.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 18, in page 47, line 5, at end insert--

'( ) For the purposes of this Part, an authorisation (or renewal) given--
(a) by the designated deputy of an authorising officer, or
(b) by a person on whom an authorising officer's powers are conferred by section 94,
shall be treated as an authorisation (or renewal) given in the absence of the authorising officer concerned; and references to the authorising officer in whose absence an authorisation (or renewal) was given shall be construed accordingly.'--[Mr. Maclean.]

Clause 112

Criminal conviction certificates

Mr. Beith: I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 48, line 33, at end insert--

'(5) Any day appointed by an order made under section 135 below for the coming into force of this section shall not be earlier than two years after the coming into force of sections 113 to 127 below.
(6) This section shall not come into force until the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament a report containing an evaluation of the effect of sections 113 to 127 below and his assessment of that evaluation.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse): With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 5, in clause 135, page 59, line 11, after '(1)', insert

'subject to section 112 above,'.

Mr. Beith: We now come to a completely different part of the Bill, but one of fundamental importance, which has not been widely enough discussed. It concerns the power under which every employer in the land, for any job of any kind, can require an applicant to produce a criminal conviction certificate. That certificate will be the means of showing whether the person concerned has any unspent convictions.

There are clearly some sorts of work for which it is vital to obtain this sort of information; indeed, it can be vital to obtain even more information, and other provisions in the Bill allow for enhanced certificates to provide information that may be relevant to considering whether a person can be trusted to work with children or the elderly. But that is not what we are talking about here; we are discussing the general provision for criminal conviction certificates.

The amendment would delay the introduction of such general certificates until we had some experience of the working of the enhanced and other higher level certificates.

Outside this House and the Committee that considered the Bill, it has not perhaps been sufficiently appreciated how fundamental a change in our society will be brought about by this measure. Employers, because they have a duty to shareholders or to the organisations that appoint them, may increasingly feel a responsibility to see that no

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one is admitted to their firms if something on their record might have offered a clue to any subsequent misbehaviour.

Hitherto it has not been the practice in this country to make this requirement. Certainly, some employers have used the existing data protection legislation to get people to bring along the information. That has been one of the reasons for introducing the new provisions, but it could be dealt with in other ways--the Government are still considering the problem of enforced subject access. But the rehabilitation of offenders will be made extremely difficult if everyone with an unspent criminal offence on his record has to produce this certificate.

Many people will give up applying for jobs because they cannot produce a clean certificate. Some will give up because their certificate includes an offence that is irrelevant to their job application. It may be something as minor as a driving offence conviction, even though the job for which they are applying carries with it no responsibility for a motor car.

Another example might be someone who had committed a sexual offence involving consenting males which is no longer a criminal offence but was when it was committed, because it involved someone between the ages of 18 and 21. The Minister has already confirmed that possibility. I drew his attention to the example of someone with such an offence on his record who has completely changed his life style. He might go for a job only to be told that he has to get a certificate. He would then tell his wife and family that he could not get the job because he needed to produce a certificate. "Well, you have never done anything wrong, have you?" say his family. He then has to disclose to them that there is something in his past, not part of his current life at all, which he has put behind him. It may be a matter of quite legitimate privacy, no longer constituting a criminal offence.

Those examples may relate to only a small number of people, but a far larger number will be affected by past mistakes of other kinds. One third of all males under the age of 40, I think, have a criminal offence on their record--a terrifying number--but most of them go straight thereafter and have nothing more to do with crime. We do not want them to apply for jobs with labels around their necks.

The amendment would delay the widespread use of general criminal conviction certificates until we have some experience of using enhanced certificates in posts for which it is clearly necessary to have such information. If we do not do that, we may have a Child Support Agency situation on our hands, with a huge body charged with an enormous task--there may be a huge take-up of those certificates because employers insist on them--with which it cannot cope. It may then start to make mistakes. We all know that the Child Support Agency has mistaken the identity of parents and caused terrible family distress. We do not want that to happen in this case, so let us deal with the urgent problem and see how we get on.

5 pm

General conviction certificates will be a problem in another kind of case, which the Minister has not explained properly. It is the case of an informer who has committed criminal offences but who assists in the prosecution and conviction of people guilty of serious offences and is then

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given a new identity, and encouraged and enabled to settle in some other part of the country. The practice occurs mostly in Northern Ireland, but it also occurs in Great Britain, and resettlement from Northern Ireland to Great Britain is common.

When that person goes even for his first job, let alone his second, in the new life that the state has determined it is in the public interest to allow him to undertake, he will have to produce a criminal conviction certificate. He has a string of convictions, which, it has been decided, can now be overlooked because of the amount of assistance he has given in putting behind bars people who would pose a real threat to public security in the future. How will that be dealt with, given that there is no provision in the Act?

The obvious and sensible way to sort out those problems is at least to take some time over doing so. Many people who deal with the rehabilitation of offenders are extremely concerned about the provision's total effect. John Monks of the Trades Union Congress wrote to Committee members pointing out that the provision could

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent): When I worked in the criminal justice division of the Scottish Office, some 67 per cent. of all first offenders never offended again. I do not know whether the figure has changed, but it is something of that order.

Mr. Beith: I, too, recall that figure. I have no other figure to hand. Everybody agrees that getting employment may be the biggest single factor in somebody subsequently going straight, so we must make it easier for people to get employment, not put a barrier in the way. We should confine the barrier to cases where there is a proven need. The Bill contains clauses that do that, particularly in relation to the worrying area of people with paedophile offences working in children's homes. We all realise how urgent it is to take action to resolve a problem that should not have been allowed to build up as it did.

Let us get that system under way before looking at general criminal conviction certificates, and give the body that will introduce those certificates time to prove its effectiveness and competence in the area where urgent need exists. Following the Government's unwillingness to accept my view about criminal conviction certificates generally, the amendment is a constructive suggestion about how we could proceed. We could then make progress in the most urgent area and see how that works before introducing into our society something that will worsen our crime problems, cause great personal hardship and distress, and achieve little value in the process. We may be able to judge the matter more effectively once we have seen how the enhanced certificates work.

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