Draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) Order 2001

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: Those are precisely the type of circumstances to which I was referring. I have no doubt that the Minister will be able to provide a full and comprehensive answer. If he cannot, I shall be perfectly content for him to write to me on the matter.

I am grateful to you, Mrs. Roe, for your patience in allowing us to put all our points to the Minister. I know that my hon. Friend is waiting with bated breath for salient and detailed answers to the questions that he and I, and the hon. Member for Taunton, asked.

11.36 am

Mr. Charles Clarke: I shall give salient answers. I shall focus on the questions asked by the hon. Member for Taunton, which were to the point, sharp and acute.

First, I am sure that all Committee members will be genuinely glad that the hon. Member for Buckingham recommitted himself and his party to the principles of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. It was important, and I am grateful that he took the opportunity to do so. In the light of debate in the media on some of the issues concerned, it is important that there is a commitment to those principles across the democratic polity.

I shall not return to the remarks that the hon. Member for Buckingham made about the European convention. As with all legislation considered by House, the issue of compatibility with the Human Rights Act and the European convention has been examined and considered carefully. There is always a balance in the convention and the Act between the need for individual privacy and the need to protect the public. We believe that that balance is well expressed in the proposed legislation. We know that it is compatible with the European convention. No attempt has been made to co-ordinate policy with other member states of the Council of Europe, each of which determines its own policy within the constraints of the convention. However, the hon. Member for Cotswold is right to say that there will be increasing dialogue about those processes. The Government have played a leading role in encouraging dialogue about the way in which such processes can work.

It may be helpful to place it on record that the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 does apply to overseas convictions.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I raised the subject because Bills considered by this Parliament have to have a European Court of Human Rights certificate of compliance. However, for some reason, statutory instruments do not require that certificate. It is therefore necessary to press such matters on the Minister.

Mr. Clarke: I am sorry if I gave the impression that I did not consider that such a question was legitimate. On the contrary, it was an entirely legitimate question to ask and it will increasingly become part of our considerations in Committee and on the Floor of the House. We want matters to be conducted in such a way. I hope that the Joint Committee of this House and the other place that is dealing with human rights issues, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston), will focus increasingly on such important questions of principle.

The hon. Member for Taunton raised some serious points. To be frank, we found the matter of nannies difficult to address. She will know that from her experience of working in such areas, which I commend. In future, checks will be made through the Criminal Records Bureau. We shall ensure that a rigorous code of practice is in place to prevent unwarranted disclosure of sensitive information on spent convictions that may be revealed in high-level checks. It will also cover the retention of such material, its proper destruction and confidentiality.

We do not believe that such a code can be imposed or enforced on parents and, as the hon. Lady knows, enforcement is not a trivial matter in that regard. Disclosure of the information would not be possible to control, which is why we decided last year—and rightly so, in my view—not to allow parental access to the sex offenders register, although arguments can be made about that with which I am more than familiar. It would not be right to revisit such a decision in secondary legislation. However, even without such access, parents can take sensible precautions before employing a nanny, for example, as the hon. Lady set out in her example. They can use nanny agencies that will be able to carry out checks. They can ask for a basic criminal records check that would contain all unspent convictions, including all convictions for which a sentence of two-and-a-half years or longer was given as such convictions are never spent. They can take simple steps, such as taking up references. I am aware that the hon. Lady may not find my answer entirely satisfactory, but these matters are difficult to balance. Our conclusion was that secondary legislation is not the best way in which to deal with the complicated matters that she reasonably raised.

Jackie Ballard: I am grateful to the Minister. In a sense, he is making my case for me. If we had a national registration scheme for nannies, the keepers of the scheme will be entitled to check the appropriate records and give parents a guarantee.

Mr. Clarke: I understand the hon. Lady's point. Nannies are covered by the code, although there are limits on who can ask the questions.

As for further education, the purpose of checks in respect of work with children is to prevent unsuitable people from being employed in work that would gain them access to children. Clearly, that should include positions in further education colleges that provide for 16 and 17-year-olds who continue in education after leaving school. However, the ordinary definition of further education under the Education Act 1996 is extremely broad. It includes full-time and part-time education suitable to the requirements of people who are over compulsory school age, including vocational, social, physical and recreational training.

If that definition were adopted in the exceptions order, eligibility for checks would extend much further than those positions. It would extend to almost all situations in which 16 to 17-year-olds were given some training. Almost anyone working in an organisation that employed school leavers would be eligible to be checked. It was not a straightforward matter, but we decided that that definition would be casting the net of checks too wide, which is why the provision is restricted.

The hon. Lady referred to adults working in schools. I am sorry to say it again, but we closely considered the matter. She put her finger on issues that are genuinely difficult to deal with and she made her points pithily—a word that I am now trying to use in connection with Liberal Democrats whenever I can. Anyone working regularly in a school is covered under the Act and thus can be checked. However, it is a matter of the school's policy whether such people should be checked, depending on levels of supervision and so on. There is obviously a difference in principle between someone helping in a school under the supervision of a teacher in a classroom and someone who takes responsibility for a group of children on a school journey. The school will have to resolve such a policy.

Jackie Ballard: The Minister may have slightly misunderstood my point. I was referring not to those who were starting work in a school but to those who had come to study there. Many secondary schools allow adults to study alongside children in class. I made the point that a school clearly could not impose any checks on those people.

Mr. Clarke: I did misunderstand the question. The meaning of the word ``work'' has been widened by the order and by previous primary legislation, but I do not think that it goes so far as to include studying side by side. Therefore, people would not be covered in the way that the hon. Lady suggests. However, I shall reflect on the point and communicate with her further if need be.

The hon. Member for Cotswold made a point about the Army and the armed services. Those caring for or supervising cadets under 18 in the armed forces are covered by the phrase ``regulated position.'' That should meet some of his concerns. The Government are committed to increasing the amount of activity for cadets in this area, so his point is important. The Ministry of Defence was fully involved in the consultation on part II of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act, and is happy that the wording deals with the situation in the way that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Jurors are not covered as far as I am aware and I believe that there is no provision for checking past convictions of jurors in the selection process. The hon. Member for Buckingham made a similar point about magistrates in that context. We take the view that, because we are focusing on those actively working with vulnerable adults or young people, we should not focus on those within the criminal justice system across the whole range. However, I acknowledge that a serious point has been made. We are going through a series of orders to bring the legislation up to date, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will consider the matter carefully to decide whether it should be considered further.

Mr. Bercow: I do not want to labour the point, but does the Minister accept that it is relevant in that we should not apply policy only to protect people physically from those who are tutoring or are otherwise working in close proximity to former offenders? We have a duty to take account of whether the interests of children or those who have worked with children could be adversely affected by judgments made by people with a background that may lead them to make unhelpful judgments.

Mr. Clarke: I certainly accept that point in principle, although I should tell the Committee that the primary purpose of the legislation is specifically to protect children. That is at the core of what we are about and of the legislation that all parties have put before the House. However, I will consider the point, as it is a legitimate one, and decide whether there is anything that needs further reflection to deal with the concerns that have been expressed.

On the interesting and complex list of questions put by the hon. Member for Buckingham, one or two of which were of interest—

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