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19 Nov 2002 : Column 507—continued

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I am grateful to the Home Secretary for his usual courtesy in providing a copy of the statement.

We welcome the Home Secretary's statement. It has been a long time coming, but it has come at last. Some months ago, we made six suggestions to increase the protection of children from paedophiles. From the White Paper and briefings surrounding it, I detect that the Home Office has adopted—or is in the course of adopting—four of those suggestions, and that is very welcome.

The White Paper deals with a wider range of issues relating to sex offences. In general and subject to certain caveats to which I will come in a moment, it appears to have found a reasonable way through what is by any standards a nasty thicket. We welcome the Home Secretary's refusal to make sex offenders registers public. We welcome the protection of disabled people and of minors subject to exploitation as prostitutes, and we welcome the Home Secretary's decision to retain the presumption of innocence in relation to rape. I hope that he will profit from his own example in the Extradition Bill and the Criminal Justice Bill. I cannot say that I believe that the proposed changes to rape law are likely

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to make a difference to conviction rates, but the Home Secretary has at least avoided doing any harm, for which we must grateful.

We are conscious, however, that the detailed drafting of the law alone will determine whether it has the right effects in practice, and that Bills that receive little scrutiny from the Opposition usually make bad Acts—one is uncomfortably reminded of the Child Support Act 1995. We shall accordingly look in great detail at the drafting of each clause when the Bill is introduced. Will the clauses on grooming be drafted so as adequately to distinguish between a manifestly evil pattern of genuine grooming and a harmless or even arguably harmless gesture from an adult to a child? Will the clauses defining the new test of reasonableness in relation to consent to a sexual act, to which the Home Secretary referred in his statement, be drafted to reflect the delicate balance between the right of the woman to be protected from rape and the right of the man to be exonerated from slanderous allegations?

Will the clauses on voyeurism be drafted to distinguish clearly between the landlord who sets up invisible closed circuit television cameras in his tenants' bedrooms and the innocent individual who merely espies whatever is still allowed once the Home Secretary has explicitly banned sexual acts in public? We cannot expect the Home Secretary to answer those questions in any but the most general terms today. However, we and our colleagues in the Lords will want to explore them, and others like them, constructively, carefully and effectively when the Bill is introduced.

All good criminal law strikes a balance between public protection and the protection of civil liberties. The Government have begun, after long consideration, to build on the foundations laid by my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor, when he was Home Secretary, in the Sex Offenders Act 1997. We shall now do our job as an Opposition, probing and questioning to ensure that the right balance is struck when the Bill is enacted.

Mr. Blunkett: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's comments and the manner in which he delivered them. I am glad that we made four out of six. I thought that he might refer to suggestions that had already been floated—I caught the echo in the right hon. Gentleman's voice. That is the Opposition's job—to pick up what the Government are about to do, turn it into a suggestion and claim the credit for it. I am happy to let the right hon. Gentleman have a bash at that while I have a bash at what he described as the "nasty thicket".

The right hon. Gentleman is right—Governments of all persuasions have eschewed engagement with this for a very long time indeed. In my approach, I was mindful of the balance that he talked about at the end of his speech. The difficulties of being able to find a way through this have exercised me for several months, and the statement was drafted and redrafted. I accept entirely what the right hon. Gentleman said about the detailed drafting of the legislation. It is going to be a nightmare, and I invite him and all Members who have a contribution to make to assist us. I would like unanimity to establish a new foundation that will ensure that this aspect of the law, if nothing else, has the wholehearted backing of Members on both sides of the House, not just a majority.

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I agree that the test of reasonableness is difficult. It may not be easy to obtain true convictions of the guilty even with a reasonableness test. However, given that, since 1985, the number of convictions of the accused has dropped from 25 per cent. to 7 per cent., it is doubtful that people are coming forward with the relevant information or that this is being dealt with adequately under the existing law.

On grooming, I agree entirely that we need to be able to distinguish. The Crown Prosecution Service will have to make sensible judgments about what constitutes a genuine offence under the new law. We are all agreed. All parties were represented on the taskforce, as well as outside organisations, including my friends in Liberty. When I attended one of the first meetings after taking over, I invited them to come up with an alternative if they did not like what we were suggesting. I extend the same invitation to all those interested in the criminal justice system. It is easy to be against something, but very difficult to be in favour of an alternative if one does not have one.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly raises an interesting question concerning voyeurism. We do not wish to interfere with the freedom of the press or with people going about their normal business, but it is entirely wrong that people should be spied on and the product of that spying used for titillation or for exploitation in the sex market. It is long overdue that we should protect people in a civilised and free society from the entrepreneurship of those whose trade is in evil. For those reasons, I am pleased that we appear to have a rational and sensible debate as we create the legislation and introduce it in the early new year, to bring about a modern, more sensible approach to our laws.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I, too, welcome the consultation, the proposals before the House and many of the details. From the Liberal Democrat Benches, the Home Secretary will get full and constructive opposition. Particularly to be welcomed is the presumption from now on that nobody under the age of 13 can consent to sexual activity. That needs to be clear and straightforward to protect the young and to meet the great emphasis on the protection of the vulnerable and the apparently careful definition of consent, which seems to strike the right balance and which is welcome.

Does the Home Secretary accept that if the concerns of the public are to be allayed effectively by the legislation, we need to couple the next 12 months' legislative work with making sure that the Criminal Records Bureau is able to resume its checks, so that everybody in contact with the young and the vulnerable is checked? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether he is able to make sure that when British citizens convicted of offences abroad return to the UK, they will be known to the authorities in the UK from the moment their conviction is registered in the courts abroad? That has long been a matter of great concern, which I have raised with the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues.

Young people should feel comfortable and able to give evidence that is as truthful as possible. Has the Home Office come to a view on whether the Scottish system of children's courts is a better model for young people's evidence and trials than the conventional jury trial, which is often intimidating and off-putting?

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Do I take it that the Home Secretary is very clear—the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) also asked this question—that there will not be public access to the register of child offenders? The system that the Department has put in place is working well in making sure that those who need to know are told, and are told in time.

Lastly, one of the concerns in recent months has been about those who have been sex offenders and who return to the community. As well as monitoring, there needs to be treatment, which must be adequately resourced to make sure that they have the maximum chance of not offending again. Will the Home Secretary be able to couple these worthwhile modernising proposals with the resources to make sure that treatment is available in the community, to deal with people who are among the most difficult to deal with in the criminal justice system?

We welcome the proposals. It is 50 years since we modernised the law on sexual offences. I hope that the Home Secretary will see the measure as one that brings all sexual law reform together. If that is the case, we will welcome a great and consolidating opportunity.

Mr. Blunkett: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I winced slightly when he said that he would give full and constructive opposition. I wanted him to give full and constructive support, but I will take the small measures that I can get.

Yes, we do need to ensure that the Criminal Records Bureau works effectively, and we are taking every possible step to ensure that, including receiving the external evaluation report before Christmas and acting on it. We should remind people, incidentally, that—difficult as its birth has been—the CRB has lessened the risks and increased the safeguards enormously since 1 April.

As for British citizens convicted abroad, we need the co-operation of our embassies and those who monitor the incarceration of people apprehended in other countries. As I said in my statement, it must then be ensured that they are covered by the monitoring and registration provisions domestically.

Evidence given by children is a difficult issue, and the Scottish example is worth examining. We intend to produce a substantive discussion paper on children at risk early in the new year, and I want to include the development of children's courts and related measures.

The shadow Home Secretary was right: we will resist the request for public access to the register, for all the reasons that we have debated publicly over the past few months. It would drive people underground, it would be ineffective, and it would increase the danger of people—outside courts, that is—not understanding the difference between Xpaedophilia" and Xpaediatrician".

The question of treatment is important, and I am glad it has been raised. A lot is going on. We know from the difficulty of siting clinics what a delicate and difficult area this is, but we must plough on together, and we must ask local politicians as well as local residents to be understanding. If we are to stop people reoffending, treatment must be better than a free-for-all in which people remain in the community, but no work is done to ensure that they do not offend again.

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