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Sex Offenders

3. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): What recent measures he has taken to improve public protection from sex offenders. [21145]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Beverley Hughes): The protection of the public, and of children in particular, is of the highest priority to the Government. The matter is at the forefront of our mind following the conviction last week of Roy Whiting for the murder of Sarah Payne. I want to convey our deep sympathy to the Payne family.

We have implemented a range of measures to increase public protection. Nationally, we have strengthened the law covering offenders, and locally we require the police, probation and other agencies to set up multi-agency public protection panels. In a sentencing review and in our strategy for dangerous offenders, we shall go further to bring in longer sentences and extended supervision, monitoring and treatment.

Dr. Starkey: Effective measures to protect the public are extremely important in this difficult area. I have held extensive discussions with the multi-agency sex offender team in Milton Keynes, and was extremely impressed by the way in which the police, the probation service and social services worked to ensure proper protection of the public.

That work, however, is extremely labour intensive. Huge efforts are made to ensure that the public are protected, particularly from high-risk sex offenders. Is the Home Office reviewing the cost of providing that support? Is it considering whether those costs should be reflected in cash allocations to police forces that happen to deal with a large number of sex offenders?

Beverley Hughes: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's interest and remarks about how the multi-agency public protection panels are beginning to work in this, their first year. She will know that the allocation of resourceswithin a police service area—there have been significant additional resources—is a matter for the chief officer.

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We expect chief officers to regard protection of children from sex offenders as a central part of normal policing. We are monitoring development of the multi-agency panels, including cost implications and training needs. We shall build the findings of our evaluation into our future plans.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): Does the Minister accept that the best interests of the Payne family, who are constituents of mine, will be better served by effective law than by law suddenly devised because of newspaper campaigns? Does she agree that really effective law would put sex offenders in prison on indeterminate sentences so that they were neither released prematurely into the community on legal technicalities, nor released unless they had accepted treatment and could be verified assafe. That is the only way to give parents a proper understanding of the risks in their communities and to let them allow their children to play in open spaces.

Beverley Hughes: Yes, we have already brought in a number of measures, including the post-release supervision of sexual and violent offenders and more treatment programmes—both in the community and in prison. We have introduced sex offender orders and restraint orders that the courts can use.

In July, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced a review of sentencing, a number of whose recommendations we are closely considering—including much longer sentences for violent and sexual offenders; requiring courts, in certain circumstances, to give a life sentence; possibly providing for tagging and further extended supervision; and so on. That is very much the direction in which we think we need to go, in the context of our wider policy—and detailed strategy—as to how we manage dangerous, severely personality disordered and sexual offenders.

Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North): I thank the Government for the actions that they have taken so far, but may we consider adequate training for local authority members and officers in understanding the difference between sex offenders and paedophiles, so that they can assist their communities when there is a suspicion that a paedophile is active in the area?

Beverley Hughes: All agencies—local authorities, sports clubs—take seriously the need to train their employees and volunteers not only to be able to recognise possible sexual abuse when it is occurring, but also to enable children to disclose the problem more effectively to adults when something untoward may be happening to them. At present, there is much uncertainty in relation to sex offenders and paedophiles, as my hon. Friend outlines.

Cases such as that of Sarah Payne, in which children are abducted by strangers, are horrific, and as a parent I do not want to diminish that horror. However, we need to remember that the vast majority of cases of sexual abuse of children are committed by people who know them: 80 per cent. of the offences are committed in the home either of the offender or of the victim. To deal effectively with sexual abuse, we have to deal with a wide range of offenders.

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Stranger paedophiles commit only a small minority of the cases of sexual abuse against children, I am glad to say—although even a small number is too many.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I thank the Minister very much for her replies so far. From the Liberal Democrat Benches and elsewhere there is huge support for the view expressed by the Payne family's MP, our colleague the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), that sentences should be indeterminate, with the court retaining the right to decide at any stage whether it is safe to leave the offender in the community, or what conditions are needed to ensure that the offender is unable to reoffend.

Will the Minister confirm that it is not Government policy that previous convictions, should be disclosed to juries—a move bound to prejudice the right to a fair trial; and that it is absolutely not Government policy to endorse the naming and shaming programme reawakened yesterday by one of the Sunday papers? Will she confirm that the police services and Ministers will be careful not to be conned by newspapers into appearing to endorse naming and shaming, when in fact—I hope—all they were endorsing was the proper search for people who had broken conditions and were out in the community without our knowing where they are? Those are entirely different things, confused, no doubt on purpose, by a Sunday paper yesterday—no doubt to increase circulation.

Beverley Hughes: On the disclosure of previous convictions, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already made it clear that we are considering that in our review of those matters. There are arguments for and against. Clearly, cases such as this raise the issue again and put it into the public domain. We are still considering our response.

On public access to information about sex offenders who may be living in the community, Ministers have recently made the position clear. We are starting by trying to evaluate what would be most effective in the interests of child protection. That has to be our focus. We are clear that it is not in the interests of child protection to make people's names and addresses widely accessible in a community.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said recently, however, that we understand the concerns of the community on this issue and that it needs some locus to express its concern. So he is considering enabling properly trained members of the community to take a seat on the multi-agency public protection panel in recognition of that concern. We are considering at the moment how best we can take that forward.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): Does my hon. Friend agree that—let us be straight—Sarah's law is not the way to go, appalling and sad though the incident was? The fears and genuine concerns of parents must, however, be addressed as a matter of urgency. Most people in this country feel that a very substantial tariff is now required and that convicted paedophiles should not be let out automatically.

I agree with my hon. Friend's reply a moment ago that most sexual attacks are made by people who are known and, indeed, that they occur in the home; but I have heard that said so many times, without support being given to

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enable people who fear that such things are happening domestically to report them effectively. To my knowledge, there are no clear guidelines—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Beverley Hughes: I do not need to repeat what I said about the so-called Sarah's law. We are starting from the point of view of protecting children and we are clear that widespread availability of names and addresses is not the way forward. I agree with my hon. Friend; Ministers are looking closely at how we can ensure that sex offenders are not automatically released from prison unless their risk assessment clarifies that, on balance, it is safe to release them.

I do not share my hon. Friend's view that there are no clear guidelines or robust and proper processes for parents and others to initiate investigation when cases of sexual abuse are suspected. I am sure that there is more that we can do in that regard, but I am glad to say that the system in this country has improved dramatically over the past 10 years.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Will the Minister confirm in addressing this exceptionally serious matter that the Government intend to ensure that the protection of innocent children remains at the heart of their policy? Will she further confirm that they wish to take no steps that could in any way encourage vigilantism in this area?

Beverley Hughes: I have already made that clear several times this afternoon. As I have said, we have begun the process of putting together a package of measures, including proper sentencing, proper extended supervision, the potential use of tagging, and treatment for offenders for whom that is effective. Establishing the multi-agency public protection panels has been a big step forward. That is still evolving and developing, but I am clear that those measures are together the best way in which to protect children.

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