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7.59 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and thank him and the Minister for the opportunity to add a few words on the issue. We need an additional approach and the Minister will be aware of the direction I am coming from, because we discussed the matter in connection with the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

The police have a requirement to monitor and risk-assess people, particularly paedophiles, on the sexual offenders list. But as the Minister will know—this is a

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difficulty, as I think my hon. Friend will agree—it is my belief that we, like many western nations, should allow right of entry to the police when they knock on the door to risk-assess such individuals. Unusually in the western world, British police do not have that opportunity, and the particular individuals about whom my hon. Friend speaks could be risk-assessed at any time by the police if they had the opportunity to enter.

The Minister, in a letter to me, points out that the Association of Chief Police Officers reports that there is 90 per cent. compliance with the registration requirements, and that is fine, as I think everyone agrees, but that does not amount to risk assessment. The mere fact that offenders have filled in a form stating where they are and what they are doing to the limited extent required of them, does not give the police any opportunity to check.

The Act contains a new power to which the Minister refers in his letter to me, which will

As the Minister knows, that is happening now, but it allows the police to check only the information that they already have and does not help with risk assessment.

The Minister's letter goes on to talk about the multi-agency public protection arrangements, and to a fair degree they are already having an effect, but again the police say that they do not help them. Mr. Sarti, the detective chief inspector in charge of the Metropolitan police paedophile unit, who is known to the Minister because he escorted him round Scotland Yard and also presented the difficulties from the point of view of the police to the Committee that considered the Sexual Offences Bill, has sent me a considerable list of what he calls entrenched paedophiles who are not behaving within the spirit of the law, and that number is growing as it becomes apparent to entrenched paedophiles that the police do not have right of entry.

I shall take just one individual who is categorised as medium risk. He was convicted of indecent assault on a male aged eight years and received three years' imprisonment. I shall not go into details because it is before the hour and I see that a few are observing and listening in, but whenever the police knock on his door he refuses to let them in or even face them at the door, and talks to them through the intercom. There is fair knowledge that he has a live-in girlfriend, but because he lives in a block of flats the police are unsure whether she has any children. They have tried to monitor him and assess the risk, but they have got absolutely nowhere because this individual knows that the police have no right to step any further.

I should be grateful if the Minister could think about this again. I have an enormous list that I could provide him with, but he does not need it. He knows the situation, and I hope that even at this late stage there can be a rethink.

Before I sit down, I should say that I am extremely late, not for the Home Office party, but for another event that I must attend, so with the permission of the House I shall disappear; but I will read the Minister's words with considerable interest, and I hope that I will not have to follow them up.

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8.3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): If the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) has to leave, I know that it is not from a lack of interest in the issue: he and I served on the Committee that considered the Sexual Offences Bill, so I know of his long-standing interest.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) on initiating this debate, so giving the House the opportunity to discuss this important subject, which, as he said, he has raised with me and with the Minister for School Standards.

I welcome the way in which the hon. Gentleman has introduced the topic for debate and I am grateful for the prior notice that he gave me of the issues that he wished to discuss. He has put his finger on an important issue, which he describes as a loophole. I hope that some of the things that I say tonight will offer him some reassurance. I will consider the matter carefully, particularly the comments that he made at the end and the proposals that he put forward, and I look forward to having further discussions with him on the matter in the weeks ahead.

I am sure he understands that there is no difference between us at all in our objective, which is to protect children from sexual abuse. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands these matters, but it may be helpful if I make some comments about the sex offenders register and how it works. Part 1 of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 requires those convicted or cautioned for certain sex offences to notify their name, date of birth and address to the local police, as well as any subsequent changes to those details. Such offenders are also required to tell the police if they intend to travel overseas for eight days of more or if they stay at another address in the United Kingdom for 14 days or more. Those provisions are to be tightened up as a result of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. It is important to emphasise that, as the hon. Gentleman said, registration is an administrative measure that is intended to help the police manage sex offenders in the community. It is an automatic consequence of a conviction or a caution for a specified offence—the courts have no discretion over who goes on the register. As registration is not therefore an additional penalty or punishment, applying prohibitions to the notification requirements would undermine that status

It may also be worth mentioning that because registration is an administrative measure rather than a court disposal, it is not reflected in the disclosures that are provided by the Criminal Records Bureau, which show convictions and cautions for offences, not the fact that the person is a registered sex offender. All registered offenders would be covered by these disclosures, but that is because of their offences rather than the fact that they are registered.

The notification process is commonly known as the sex offenders register, but there is no central register as such: instead, offenders are identified as being subject to the notification requirements by a marker on the police national computer. That will change next year when we introduce VISOR—the violent and sex offenders register. That, together with the multi-agency public protection arrangements, or MAPPA, which we have already put in place, will significantly improve the way

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in which police and probation services manage sex offenders living in the community. Those improvements in the management of offenders will mean, for example, that the police will be far more likely to be aware when an offender is operating as a private tutor.

The purpose of the notification requirements is to ensure that the police know the identity and whereabouts of convicted sex offenders in their area. That helps the police in two ways. First, it helps them to manage sex offenders who are living in the community—for example, by enabling them to know when a sex offender is living next to a school or near a victim. Secondly, it helps in the detection of future sexual crimes, because the police immediately know the whereabouts of potential suspects. The notification requirements do not prohibit sex offenders from doing anything. They do not prevent them from moving house, from using another name or from travelling overseas—nor do they bar them from any form of employment. That has never been the purpose of the requirements, which are simply intended to enable the police to know where sex offenders are living and what names they are using.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act, which received Royal Assent in November, re-enacts and improves the provisions relating to sex offender registration. We have, for example, shortened the time scales in which offenders must make their notifications, and introduced a requirement whereby they must annually confirm their details to the police. We are also changing the period that they can spend overseas or at an address other than their home address before they need to tell the police; and providing a power to allow the police to photograph or fingerprint an offender each time they make a notification. Those changes will further improve the effectiveness of the register.

Although registration is not a suitable means of prohibiting sex offenders from working as private tutors, it should be noted that, as the hon. Gentleman said, convicted sex offenders can be made subject to a sex offender order. Those orders are made by the magistrates court and place prohibitions on an offender's behaviour where such prohibitions are needed to protect the public from serious harm. If someone with a previous conviction or caution for a sexual offence against children were to set themselves up as a private tutor, and there was evidence that in doing so they might commit further offences against children, the police could apply for a sex offender order that would prohibit them from working with children in that way.

There is therefore a way of stopping convicted paedophiles from working as home tutors. It could be used, for example, against someone who receives a caution or a fine for the possession of child pornography. The hon. Gentleman said that no such orders had been made in relation to private tutors, but we will make it clear in our guidance to the police that the orders can be used for that purpose. We will draw their attention to the use of that order, as he suggested.

Let us consider disqualification from working with children, including working as a private tutor. A person can be disqualified from working with children in three

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ways. First, in the case of teachers or those who work in the education sector, there are established procedures for anyone whose conduct has given cause for concern to be referred to the Department for Education and Skills. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman referred to List 99, to which names can be added.

Similarly, child care and other organisations are charged under the Protection of Children Act 1999 with referring to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills—previously to the Secretary of State for Health—the case of anyone who has been dismissed on grounds of misconduct, whether in the course of their employment or not, that harmed a child or placed a child at risk. The Secretary of State has the power to place such a person on the Protection of Children Act—POCA—list, which disqualifies a person from working with children.

When a person is convicted of serious offences against children, the court can also make an order disqualifying them from working with children in future. The orders, which are known as disqualification orders, are made by the higher courts against a specified list of violent and sexual offences when a sentence threshold is met. The orders seek to minimise the risks that known child sex offenders present by depriving them of the opportunity to gain access to children through work.

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