Ninth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Thursday 13 March 2003
[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]
Draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2003
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) (England) and (Wales) Order 2003.
Good morning, Mr. Griffiths. It is good to see you in the Chair. I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate this important order. Its measures are compatible with the rights that are protected under the European convention on human rights. Members of the Committee will be aware that the order needs to be considered in the context of the rehabilitation of offenders' policy as a whole. I am sure that we all agree that it is important that those who have offended can reform, pick up their lives and have a fresh start. That is necessary if we are not to have an underclass of people who can never work again.
We must have in place some means for rehabilitation, not least because we know that having a job is the greatest indicator that someone who has offended will not reoffend. At the same time, it is important that we balance the need for rehabilitation against the risk to society from ex-offenders, particularly its most vulnerable members. That is what the exceptions to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 are about, and the order will extend those exceptions. As long as the Act has been place, there has been a list of positions for which the offender, even if his or her conviction under the Act is spent, cannot escape his or her past.
Members of the Committee will know that there has been a review of the Act. A consultation document was published last summer to which several responses have been received. The Government are considering how to take that forward. In the meantime, however, we need to make further exceptions for the reasons that I shall set out briefly. First, let us consider applicants for private hire vehicle driver licences in London. The exceptions order already includes an exemption for taxi drivers. It covers drivers of hackney carriages and private hire vehicles who are currently required to be licensed. The order will cover London's private hire drivers, who will become subject to licensing on 1 April 2003.
Secondly, the order will cover those applying to be licensed by the new Security Industry Authority, which will be responsible for licensing people employed in several private security industry sectors. Licensing will be introduced by sector, beginning with door supervisors and wheel clampers from early 2004.
Column Number: 004
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I cannot recall whether the private security industry legislation covers companies that provide security at airports and ports of entry. Will the Minister say whether the exemption will cover those who work in such places?
Hilary Benn: I do not know the answer to that question, but I shall find out and let the hon. Gentleman know.
My third point is that social workers and social care workers, including those in training, will be registered by the General Social Care Council in England and the Care Council for Wales. The order will permit criminal record checks as part of the registration process, which is due to commence on 1 April. The order will cover any employment or other work within high security hospitals. Those are Ashworth, Broadmoor and Rampton. The existing health service exception covers many, but not all, of the posts in those hospitals, so it is necessary that such an extension is made.
Finally, we are proposing to cover all members of staff who work in probation and bail hostels, when their work involves contact with residents. In essence, our aim is to ensure that we have the right balance between the beneficial effects of rehabilitation and the need to ensure full access to information on the ground of public protection.
It may be helpful to tell the Committee that the order has effect in England and Wales only. There is a corresponding provision in separate legislation for Northern Ireland, and any changes there will be made by a separate amending order in due course. Scotland has responsibility for making its own changes.
When individuals apply for posts in the areas covered by the exceptions, the Criminal Records Bureau will provide information on previous convictions. We are mindful of the implications for the CRB, but the amendments are necessary, for the reasons I have spelt out, because of the timetable. We have made the necessary arrangements to ensure that they will not affect the ability of the CRB to function effectively.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Griffiths.
I assure the Minister that we shall not have a lengthy debate on the order. I am grateful to him for having set out and explained its purpose. Having read the explanatory memorandum and listened to him, I have only one question. I agree with him entirely on the categories that he identified with perhaps one exception. He includes those whose work
''within a probation and bail hostel involves contact and interaction with residents.''
That refers not only to staff who deal directly with residents, but even to those who
carry out cleaning services or . . . work in the kitchens''.
The justification is that they
''are directly involved in training and skills development''.
I just wonder whether we are not going a little too far.
Column Number: 005
Many of those who end up in bail hostels are in touch with people, probably on a daily basis in their ordinary lives, who commit or have committed crimes. The people working in bail hostels may have spent convictions but, as the Minister knows, those convictions would not be for the most serious offences or they would never be spent. If those people have succeeded in keeping out of trouble for a considerable period and are carrying out the sort of work that the Minister characterised as being desirable, I wonder whether such a prescriptive rule is beneficial to the needs of the bail hostel. As the Minister rightly said, the trend that we are trying to achieve is to ensure that people can acquire a clean slate with spent convictions so that they can get on with their lives. The situation is different from that in a special hospital, and I understand exactly why all convictions should be revealed in the various secure areas that he identified. Could further consideration be given to that?
Mr. Heath: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue goes further than being a disbenefit to the individual? It is a potential benefit to the institution and those within it if someone who has committed crimes in the past is seen subsequently to have gone straight and stopped committing crimes. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a question mark over whether the provision is appropriate.
Mr. Grieve: The fact that a conviction must be declared does not mean that the applicant will not be employed, but in reality the requirement tends to make people reluctant to apply for work. My experience is that when people must reveal even very minor convictions the requirement can, unfortunately, be a terrible blight. I remember a highly qualified lady who had worked as a nurse in care homes for many years and wanted to apply for a job as a supervisor. She had two minor convictions for shoplifting in cases involving trivial amounts, which had clearly occurred at a time of great stress—there is a well-known correlation between people's psychological condition and that offence—and she had to reveal those. As a consequence, she never got the job as supervisor, even though it was 15 to 20 years since those events had taken place. Although that is not exactly on point, it is an example of what happens.
We are often not able to make proper assessments of convictions when they are not spent, and sometimes they are used to the detriment of society in general, and the individual. However, people are not prevented from getting a job if we are prepared to make a sensible assessment of their convictions. I ask for the Minister's views on that point.
Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): Most of the points have been made, and I hesitate to repeat them for the sake of it. We clearly need to strike the right balance, and that is the difficulty. If we ask ourselves whether it is a good thing to increase the regulation of certain people working in certain professions, we will say yes. I have a personal thing about taxi drivers, mini cabs and private hire vehicles, and I recall sitting on the council taxi committee years ago. I decided that it needed a
Column Number: 006
female perspective in its decision-making from someone who had daughters. That is a bit of baggage that I carry with me, which is bad because those are jobs that some people get to re-establish themselves into society. We all carry a certain amount of inbuilt prejudice, and we must take great care because at the end of the day we want to get as many people as we can back into mainstream society.
The wider and complicated question is whether it is appropriate that more and more people have to declare any and every conviction. I share the query about bail hostels, but everything else seems to make a great deal of sense.
I have one further question for the Minister, which relates to the Criminal Records Bureau. Will he reassure us that the bureau is coping with its present requirements, and will be able to cope with additional requirements?
Hilary Benn: First, I am able to offer some further advice to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) in relation to security staff at airports. The answer to his question is that some employees may be covered if the service is provided by security firms under contract, but staff employed in-house would not be subject to licensing by the Security Industry Authority. Their employers would be able to apply to the Criminal Records Bureau for checks in future.
In the example given by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), he made a powerful case for the Act and the philosophy that underlies it. It is a fact that all of the posts within bail hostels, which, as hon. Members who have visited them will know, are small intimate places where everyone knows each other, involve contact with residents. The judgement of the national probation service is that the exception should cover all those posts.
The hon. Gentleman answered his legitimate question by saying that the fact that the exception will apply in relation to probation and bail hostel staff does not mean that people will not be able to be taken on. The probation service is, and should be, more aware than almost any other employer of the importance of rehabilitation, but we must be absolutely sure about the staff working in bail hostels. Just because we have made the exception—for good reasons given the nature of the work undertaken—that does not mean that the probation service and companies applying to provide support under contract are not acutely aware of the importance of rehabilitation. I would expect those employers to be at the leading edge, and that if someone had spent convictions and disclosed them, it would not necessarily mean that he or she would not be taken on.
Finally, I tell the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) that we are conscious of the pressures that the Criminal Records Bureau is under; hon. Members will be only too well aware of them. The recent announcement will lift some of that burden off the CRB, so that the programme of improving its performance is not overwhelmed by the additional checks that it takes on. The effect of the
Column Number: 007
changes in the order, which we need to make for reasons that all hon. Members accept, will be small in comparison to the totality of the burden that we have lifted from it recently. For that reason, we are confident that the CRB will be able to accommodate these necessary and important checks arising from the
Column Number: 008
exceptions in the order, which I hope we are about to agree.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) (England) and (Wales) Order 2003.
Committee rose at ten minutes past Nine o'clock.
The following Members attended the Committee:
Griffiths, Mr. Win (Chairman)