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18 Dec 2001 : Column 46WH

Wolvercote Clinic

12.30 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue, which is of great importance to my constituents, and to allow the Minister to place some important points on record. I also thank the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) for attending the debate. He may not have an immediate or obvious interest in what goes on in my constituency, but he has historic connections with it and Opposition Members are grateful for his support.

The Wolvercote clinic is a therapeutic facility that is run by the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. It treats approximately 20 convicted paedophiles and seeks to educate them into departing from their offending behaviour to ensure that they can become safe members of the community again. It operates a contract regime. People who are in the clinic are not prisoners: they enter into a contract with the clinic to stay there for the duration of their treatment, but they are free to go whenever they choose. At present, the clinic is at Epsom, on the site of a large, disused psychiatric hospital that included a medium-secure psychiatric unit. The Secretary of State for Health has sold the site for development and houses are being built. Therefore, the clinic must move.

I emphasise that the debate is not about the clinic, which I have visited. I have no reason to suppose that it is not doing a good job: more than 80 per cent. of those treated in the clinic do not reoffend. The debate is about the Home Office's handling of the relocation proposal. The need to relocate the clinic was not sudden or unexpected—but there had been six years to plan the move. Ministers appear to have taken the decision to relocate the facility only on 11 May 2001. The clinic was relocated to Silverlands near Chertsey, which is owned by the Department of Health. That decision was not announced, no one local was briefed, and I was not informed as the Member of Parliament for that constituency. Given that the decision was taken just a few weeks before the general election, one can perhaps understand why.

I was first informed about the decision on 12 October, by which time there were less than six months until the date by which the clinic had to vacate its premises. I want to put on record that the Minister was not responsible for that decision because, of course, she was not there. When she reviewed the decision in the summer, she identified concerns about the decision-making process. She described it as one that:

Local people were relieved when the Minister announced that she would review the decision that was taken in May behind closed doors. However, there is great concern in my constituency to ensure that all options are genuinely reviewed and that the review does not repeat the shortcomings of the original decision-making process. I have had more than 2,400 representations on the matter, which is easily the most that I have received on any subject since becoming a Member of Parliament.

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The debate will not primarily be about whether Silverlands is an appropriate location, but about the decision-making process and the procedure that was followed. However, I will briefly outline some of my constituents' concerns about the location of the facility at Silverlands. It is in a residential area and is directly overlooked by at least two properties. Many schools and child care facilities are in the immediate vicinity, St. Peter's hospital and two creches are on the site, and a psychiatric unit and the White Lodge centre for handicapped children are close by.

The large and diverse traveller community in that part of my constituency has clear views about the issue. After some difficult years, that community has integrated well with the rest of the local community. The key to integration has been Lyne and Longcross primary school, a small Church of England school that is attended by many children of travellers, sometimes on a seasonal basis. The school is coping well and facilitating their integration into the community.

The building that the Department is proposing to relocate the clinic to is a grade 2 listed mansion. Some of the security arrangements that have already been put in place, without the nicety of obtaining planning or listed building consent, have already damaged its setting.

I share the strong local belief that the criteria used to select the site for a facility of this nature must include some measure of the effect on the community in which it is placed. It is well established that perceptions have an important effect: fear of crime is as damaging as crime itself. I submit that special factors make the community particularly vulnerable to the effects of such a facility.

However, I do not wish to engage in special pleading. I ask only for a fair and objective evaluation of all the alternatives, confident that the case against Silverlands will stand on its merits. There is no evidence that the May decision was made on the basis of rigorous evaluation and it was manifestly made without consultation. Such a decision is unsatisfactory and vulnerable to challenge. I believe that the Minister has recognised that and therefore agreed to a review. Other communities will raise other concerns, but I will accept the outcome of an objective evaluation procedure that is fair, transparent and rigorous. I wish to discuss the process that is necessary to ensure such evaluation.

How will the Minister apply the criteria to evaluate the different sites? The Home Office issued a list of criteria, but there is still some confusion. It is not clear whether they were prepared at the outset or reactively during the process. According to a Home Office minute of a meeting in my constituency the Minister said that the criteria for selection were simply that the site was big enough and was part of the Government estate. The Home Secretary wrote to one of my councillors that

had taken place. He said that the advantages of Silverlands were that it was of the right size and could be refurbished to meet Home Office requirements and that

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The published criteria are ambiguous. Officials made it clear to me that Government ownership is not an issue, but the criteria could be interpreted to require that it be taken into account. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that all options will be considered, regardless of ownership. I understand that instructions have been given to property consultants to look for suitable sites throughout the country.

The conflicting statements sometimes leave us with the impression that the selection criteria have been cobbled together during the process, rather than carefully thought out in advance. Nevertheless, we now have a set of 15 criteria. Most of them are sensible and uncontroversial, if somewhat inward looking: they tend to deal with the suitability of the building, rather than the effect on the community. However, I wish to ask the Minister about a few specific difficulties with the published criteria.

I do not want a lengthy debate on the European convention on human rights, but rights are affected by a decision to locate that type of facility. Regardless of human rights considerations, the least onerous solution that has the least negative impact on the community should be sought. The Home Office criteria do not refer to impact on the community, which should be the primary criterion. Does the Minister agree that minimal impact on the community should be one of those criteria?

Criterion 3 details the retention of specialist and experienced staff. That is a sensible aspiration. Due to the time scale—only four months are left until the backstop date for relocation of the clinic—we are concerned that the criterion introduces a narrow geographical bias against Silverlands. That appears to contradict what Ministers have said about undertaking a nationwide search for suitable sites. I accept that relocation across substantial distances will pose difficulties in that short time scale and may involve temporary arrangements, but it is not impossible. Not all staff live close to the current site in Epsom. Crucially, criterion 3 cannot have been one of the original criteria used, because we were told that a nationwide search was undertaken. At this stage of the review, I would be concerned if a new criterion were introduced that, for geographical reasons, biased the search against Silverlands. Will the Minister confirm that geography will not be a determining factor, as it was not in the original decision?

It is not clear whether the criteria will be weighted when taking a decision on an application, or whether some of them are absolute criteria with which a site must comply. Will the Minister confirm that there will be a transparent scoring system so that any location can be objectively evaluated and seen to be so? Ideally, I would like a matrix at the end of the process that identifies possible sites, and the criteria against which they are measured, and that scores them in a way that the public can scrutinise and challenge. I hope that the Minister will accept that the Government must publish details of evaluated sites and must make open to scrutiny the basis for any conclusion that a given site is the most suitable according to the defined criteria. Will the Minister assure us that she will publish the data that underpin her decision?

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The Minister told me on 12 October that a review process would be conducted, followed by consultation of local people in the preferred location. That is her position, but since that statement, Ministers have been at pains to avoid the use of the word consultation. The Home Secretary wrote:

The Minister herself referred to engagement with community concerns, which is not the same as consultation. That shyness over the word consultation may relate to the fact that courts have established that a proper consultation must occur when the decision maker's mind is still open and the decision may still be influenced.

It is not clear how the views currently gathered from local people and representative groups will influence the decision-making process. None of the 15 criteria relates to impact on the local community. Via her mechanical scoring process, will the Minister explain how the views of the local community will be scored and plugged into the evaluation system, along with more mechanical issues such as the quality of the property and its appropriateness? If the process is to be credible, it must be seen to be even handed. There is a perception of bias in favour of Silverlands, partly because of the time scale. It appears that a new criterion has been added that biases the playing field against us.

Despite the announcement of a review of the original decision, a £2 million contract for work on the Silverlands mansion has been let. That work continues unabated. There is deep suspicion locally, which I hope is misplaced, that the decision has already been made and the review is really an exercise in propping up a faulty and vulnerable process. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that, in the Home Secretary's words, this will be a "genuine" and "wide ranging" review and that

I would be grateful if the Minister would put a time limit on my constituents' agony by making it clear when she expects to reach a decision. The clock is ticking and there is a tension between the need for a full and thorough review procedure, which we understand, and the fixed deadline for the clinic's removal from its present site in Epsom. We believe that the dice are becoming increasingly loaded against Silverlands. I look forward to the Minister's response.

12.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Beverley Hughes) : As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) indicated, I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate and to put on public record some of the important issues concerning Wolvercote and the decision-making process, as well as the wider context of how we better protect children from sex offenders.

I shall deal with four areas. The first area is the reason why Wolvercote has had to move and the initial decision on the Silverlands site. Secondly, I shall deal with how that initial decision is being reviewed—I shall answer some of the hon. Gentleman's questions. Thirdly, I shall touch on the work of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. Finally, I shall consider some of the broader questions—

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how we better protect children and the difficulties we all face as policy makers and in local communities in trying to implement measures to protect children effectively.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Wolvercote Clinic had to move because its site at Horton hospital was only temporary. It was always known that it was unsuitable. It was in poor physical condition—now, it is in extremely poor physical condition. In any event, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the site is being sold and the clinic has to be relocated.

Prior to my coming to this post, an extensive nationwide search was conducted through the national health service and Prison Service estates for possible alternatives, in which the Silverlands site was identified. Although many would argue that there is no ideal site for such a facility, those making the decision thought that Silverlands had several advantages. It was of the right size, it could be refurbished to meet security and health and safety standards, experienced staff could transfer there easily, which was highly important, and it was already in Government ownership as part of the NHS estate. Ministers agreed that Silverlands was a suitable site for the clinic.

However, substantial issues of finance, security and listed building status had to be resolved before my former colleagues could be sure of the viability of Silverlands. It was clear that they always intended that there should be dialogue. Arrangements were set in train to organise that process, starting with an information day for everyone concerned, including the public. Officials were in contact with the chief executive of the local authority about that proposal.

Mr. Hammond : Can the Minister clarify whether this was dialogue post the fact, or consultation which could have some bearing on the decision?

Beverley Hughes : I am speaking with hindsight, because I was not party to the information, but I think that it is fair to say that Silverlands was certainly the preferred site at that stage. My colleagues clearly recognised the need for, and desired, a process that involved the local community. I had concerns about the proposals. After I had discussed them with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I decided that we should review all the alternatives and that community concerns should be heard and included in the decision-making process.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): The head teachers in the surrounding area, which I think is peppered with a large number of schools, did not know about the matter until October. That is a matter of fact, which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will bear in mind. If consultation was embarked on before, some people with primary interests were not consulted until October.

Beverley Hughes : I am aware of that, which is partly why I decided to review the decision so that community concerns across the board could be heard and, more specifically, included in the decision-making process. At that stage, I briefed the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge on the situation. Let me deal with some points that he raised about the review process.

On 20 October, I appointed Tony Raban from the National Probation Service to head a project team to review all possible alternatives for a new site. On

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31 October, I met a group of local stakeholders and gave them those assurances. To be fair, I think that people accepted that what I said was genuinely and sincerely meant and that the process would be robust, fair and objective.

The project team's work continues. The search for alternative sites throughout England and Wales has included a comprehensive review of Government properties, which involved the Department of Health, the Prison Service and the Ministry of Defence. The review included what we learned about what might be available in the private sector.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the criteria and suggested that there might be conflicting statements. When we started the process, we had a broad remit, asking those agencies to tell us about any property or site that might be suitable as regards size and facilities. Once names of sites started to come in, the evaluation criteria were applied. The initial trawl was wide, with no criteria set down other than the broad parameters that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary mentioned in his letter. The criteria are necessary to evaluate those sites.

Chief officers in all 42 probation areas have been asked to assist. The search conducted by the Department of Health has been undertaken through not only the regions but 400 health trusts. We have employed an independent consultant to search for properties in the private sector and we have been following up a contact that the hon. Gentleman gave us about a company specialising in private residential care.

I emphasise that the process of searching for and evaluating alternative sites has been thorough, systematic, open, rigorous and objective. I wholly reject any suggestion that the process was tipped towards selecting Silverlands. I would not be party to that and I will not entertain the suggestion because it is not true.

Mr. Hammond : To ensure that people in the community accept that the process has been open and rigorous, will the Minister undertake to publish the resulting data, so that they can see which sites have been evaluated and how they scored against the defined criteria? People would then see that there was a clear and objective case for whichever site was ultimately selected, rather than being asked to rely on the Minister's judgment on a set of data that she had seen behind closed doors.

Beverley Hughes : I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman appears to continue to question my integrity and the way in which I am approaching the review. I have reassured local people about it, and with hindsight, local people will be able to examine our process and judge for themselves. I insist that the review is as open, transparent and comprehensive as possible. I shall take advice on what can be published and I have no difficulty in publishing the detail of the scheme, its criteria and the how they have been applied. I will not guarantee at this stage the publication of the details of all the other sites that we considered, because to do so could have implications for other places in England and Wales. I shall ask for advice on that, but I shall publish what detail I may.

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Any property identified—the search found many—was first subjected to a desktop review against criteria, which I have made available. Sites that were assessed as having potential were visited and a full evaluation took place. The second task for the project team was to continue the dialogue with local people. I understand fully the concerns of parents and local people and it is for that reason that we have conducted the review and guaranteed that their views would be incorporated into the decision-making process. The meetings that have taken place between Tony Raban, the project team and local people have enabled us to hear directly their concerns and clarify some issues of misunderstanding.

Mr. Hammond : I in no way questioned the Minister's integrity. You would have ruled me out of order had I done so, Mr. Winterton. However, does the Minister accept that it will be difficult for local people to accept a decision if they do not know the other sites against which Silverlands has been compared? They will always stand accused of nimbyism. They do not want to be accused of that; they want to conduct a fair and objective assessment of the alternative sites on offer.

Beverley Hughes : I will be able to put into the public domain the evaluation process, our criteria and the weightings that consultants advised us to apply. The criteria try to create a balance between the two issues that the hon. Gentleman identified—the needs of the clinic and the impact on the local community. We have used weightings to ensure that both factors are given importance. As I said, I will take advice about publishing the names of individual sites and identifying them by location, but I am happy to publish the scheme's details because I am confident about our process.

The work of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation is important to the debate. The hon. Gentleman said that the debate was about Silverlands, Chertsey and the decision-making process, but it is not. The issues that he raised would be important in decisions to locate such a clinic anywhere in the country. They are the natural concerns of people, but we must examine them in the context of trying to protect children. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation and clinic are undertaking pioneering work in the field of child protection. It is critical that the clinic continues its work somewhere in the country and child protection would be much worse if it could not do so. I am determined that we will find a suitable location.

The protection of the public, and of children in particular, is clearly a high priority of the Government and one at the forefront of our minds after the recent conviction of Roy Whiting for the murder of Sarah Payne. There has been much debate about how we can better protect children and whether public access to the sex offenders register, for example, would help. We have concluded that it would not. Child protection is best served by the police and others knowing where sex offenders are, keeping them under supervision and providing treatment to reduce the risk of further offending. Clinics such as Wolvercote make a significant contribution to that. If we are to keep known sex offenders in our sights and enable the police to know where they are, clinics such as Wolvercote are essential. There is not an abundance of possible locations that are removed from housing and proximity to schools, so

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wherever there are clinics and hospitals, these issues will be raised and politicians and members of the community who, understandably, want to protect their children must face up to that.

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