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19 Nov 2002 : Column 504—continued

Ministerial Code of Conduct

38. Norman Baker (Lewes): What plans he has to amend the ministerial code of conduct. [81360]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Douglas Alexander): A revised ministerial code was published in June 2001. It is kept under review. The normal practice is for the ministerial code to be updated and published after a general election.

Norman Baker : Does the Minister recall that the Prime Minister, on 11 December 2001, promised to review the ministerial code to ban advance leaks of public announcements? Why has that not happened? Is it because the Government wish to retain the right to brief the press in advance, as they did a week ago in relation to the Queen's Speech?

Mr. Alexander: First, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's characterisation of briefings prior to the Queen's Speech or the intimations made. On his substantive point, however, there is clear precedent on this matter. If there are changes in the code, which is kept under review, correspondence is passed to the relevant Ministers. None the less, a revised code is generally published immediately following a general election, as I believe was the case after the last general election.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): Does my hon. Friend believe that there should be an enhanced role for the Cabinet Secretary in the case of the ministerial code?

Mr. Alexander: I do not. I believe that the Cabinet Secretary can provide vital information to Ministers on their interpretation of the code. None the less, it lies within the domain of the Prime Minister to be the enforcer of the ministerial code.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Since the issue is killing by the state, in the light of the historic judgment in the High Court by Lord Justice Woolf at the request of the Wiltshire coroner, can the ministerial code of conduct be reconsidered? It might be helpful if it could deal—albeit in retrospect—with an incident that took place many years ago and if it could establish which Labour and Conservative Ministers knew what about the truly outrageous behaviour that allowed unsuspecting national servicemen, such as Ronald Maddison, to go to their deaths as a result of what were purported to be experiments on the common cold? In the light of the judgment, will the Government look at the matter?

Mr. Alexander: As I have stated, we keep the ministerial code under review. However, it is normal practice for it to be issued in revised form only following a general election. I have heard the points that my hon. Friend has made and, if he wishes to write to me on this matter, I will ensure that the letter is passed to the relevant individual in government.

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Sexual Offences Law Reform

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the reform of the laws on sex offences and offending.

Today, we are publishing a Command Paper outlining proposals to increase public protection and to modernise current laws. First, may I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) who, as the former Home Secretary, established these reviews? I pay tribute also to those who have contributed to the reviews and the consultations that followed. A summary of responses has been placed in the Library of the House.

Protection of the public from dangerous and sex offenders is a priority for this Government and for the House. All crime has a damaging effect on individuals and communities, but sex crimes, particularly against children, can tear apart the fabric of society.

We have already put in place important protection measures. We have established public protection panels to manage offenders in the community, and introduced sex offender and restraining orders. We have set up a taskforce on child protection on the internet and introduced disqualification orders to stop unsuitable people working with children. The registration requirements in the Sex Offenders Act 1997 have already been strengthened. But there is more that needs to be done, in addition to the revision of sentences and monitoring included in the new criminal justice legislation.

We are working in government and with other agencies to develop new measures to catch offenders who abscond or change their names without telling the police. As a step towards this, all sex offenders will be obliged to register with the police every year. Fingerprints and photographs will be renewed. Offenders will be required to provide their national insurance details. In future, we will aim to use biometrics to ensure that we know who they are and where they are. Those entering Britain who we know have been convicted abroad will have to register and to comply with the Sex Offenders Act.

The research that we are publishing today shows that some violent offenders have a greater propensity to commit sex crimes. We are not prepared to wait until they do before we take action. For that reason, we will allow sex offender orders and restraining orders to be taken out against anyone convicted of a serious violent offence if the police believe that they present a real risk.

The law on sex offences is archaic and incoherent. The Sexual Offences Act is 46 years old and was mostly a simple consolidation of 19th-century law. Our proposals for reform reflect changes in society and social attitudes and, most importantly, will better protect the public, particularly children and the vulnerable. All sex crimes are abhorrent, but none more so than those committed against children.

The internet has opened up a new world. Chat rooms allow children to contact each other. But we must deal with those who use the internet to groom children for abuse. To tackle that both online and offline, we will

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create a new offence of sexual grooming. That implements the recommendations of the taskforce on child protection on the internet. To further strengthen protection, we will create a new civil order to prevent inappropriate adult behaviour, such as sending children explicit e-mails or photographs. A further offence of an adult committing a sex act with a child will cover anyone over 13 but under 16, and where ostensibly consent of the child has been claimed. It will carry a maximum sentence of 14 years.

We do not believe that any very young child truly gives consent to an adult. In a recent case, a 32-year-old man was tried for having sex with a 12-year-old. The judge pronounced that he was not a paedophile. I beg to disagree. In future, such cases will be treated as rape. The issue of consent where a child of 12 or younger is involved will not be relevant.

We have no intention of interfering in consensual relationships between adults, but some people with a severe mental disorder or a learning disability are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Convictions under current laws are hard to achieve. There are often difficulties in gathering evidence from someone who is not only deeply distressed but does not understand what has happened. For that reason, we will create a new offence of sex acts with a person who could not have had the capacity to consent.

I want more criminals to be convicted, not at the expense of the innocent but because of the cost to society. Giving more rights to victims and communities does not erode the rights of defendants. This is not a zero-sum game. It is a miscarriage of justice when an innocent person is wrongly convicted; it is a travesty of justice when the guilty walk free.

Rape is one of the most terrible crimes. The current defence of honest belief in consent means that a rapist can claim in court, no matter how unreasonably, that he honestly believed that consent had been given, and walk away free. That is not justice. We do not wish to convict anyone who genuinely and reasonably believes that consent was given, but we expect a defendant to show that his mistake was not only honest, but in the circumstances, reasonable. I want to make it clear that I have no intention of asking anyone to keep a pen and paper by the bedside, but we will include a test of reasonableness in the law.

All rapes, including drug rape, will continue to carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. A new offence of administering drugs with the intent to commit a sex crime will carry a maximum penalty of 10 years. We are sending out a clear message that such offences will be treated very seriously. A new offence of sexual assault will cover a wide range of offending, from minor assaults to more serious crimes such as violent attacks. At the top of the range, offences will carry a maximum sentence of 10 years.

Much has been written about the question of anonymity. I am not minded to change the present situation for defendants who have been accused of sex crime, but I am prepared to listen to the arguments of those who feel strongly on the point.

There is increasing concern about the role of transnational and organised crime in trafficking children and adults for sexual exploitation. New offences with tough penalties will cover those crimes.

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We shall apply those offences to persons trafficked in the UK, whether they are British citizens or foreign nationals.

Many in the House will be aware of the terrible exploitation of women and girls through organised criminal activity, and the use of pimps to promote and control prostitution. Often that is linked to drug dependency and what amounts to organised slavery. It is time in the 21st century to face the reality of that sub-world of degradation and exploitation. We therefore intend to examine the scope for a review of prostitution. We will need to listen carefully to communities that are affected most. From antisocial behaviour to mafia-style criminality, communities are bedevilled by the terrible trade. We must aim to create a safer neighbourhood and an escape route for those trapped by vice.

Our current laws on sex offences are not only archaic but discriminatory. Criminalising acts between homosexuals that are not against the law for heterosexuals goes against the principle of equality and previous reforms. We will therefore update the law to ensure equality of treatment. Consensual sex in private that does not harm anyone should no longer be a criminal offence.

For the sake of absolute clarity and my own peace of mind, I want to point out that we will not be legislating to allow sex in public. Provisions in the Public Order Act 1986, together with common law offences, will remain in place. However, as well as those, we will introduce a new offence to deal with specific sex acts in a public place. That will reinforce a sense of decency and respect for others.

Our overall aim is to create laws that are fit for the 21st century and which provide confidence and protection—laws that remain true to the time-honoured and accepted parameters of a free and civilised society. That is why I commend the statement to the House.

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