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Sex Offenders (Hostel Accommodation)

Mrs. Helen Clark (Peterborough) (Lab): I am glad to have the opportunity to open this debate. I was first concerned about the issue of the allocation of sex offenders to hostels in Peterborough in 2002, when two sex offenders were relocated to the city without prior notification to me or to other relevant authorities and without adequate planning as to where they should be accommodated. As I stated at the time in a letter to the Home Secretary, one of the offenders had 115 convictions, including a particularly serious offence, yet he had to be kept temporarily in police accommodation, as there was nowhere else to put him.

In the case of the other offender, my local paper, the Evening Telegraph, seemed to be the first to learn that he had moved into the area, through a woman who had just moved into the city from the same original area as the offender. The local police and councillors, including cabinet children's minister and Conservative councillor Yvonne Lowndes, shared my concerns and asked me to raise the issues in Parliament.

At the time, the fact that two cases had arisen in one week made it look to some as though Peterborough was a definite target for relocation. I am glad to recognise that there has been progress in some respects with the treatment of sex offenders who have served their sentences. As I was informed in a response from a Home Office Minister, there is consultation between police and the probation service—they will soon, of course, come together in the National Offender Management Service, commonly known as NOMS—in order to assess and to manage the risks posed by offenders to the community.

The setting up of multi-agency public protection panels—MAPPPs—for the management of some high-risk offenders is clearly advantageous, despite the large resources required and worries about the response of some offenders to such close attention. That was vividly and, in my view, disturbingly, portrayed in Roger Graef's recent BBC television documentary, "The Protectors", in which those in the team that was featured discussed their worries that the offender in question enjoyed and in some ways manipulated their frequent attentions. It was a most disturbing programme to watch.

Such considerations are, of course, beyond my remit today, but I recognise the complexities involved. I also understand why the general public should not be informed of the relocation of offenders to their community. However, I am still not happy that adequate steps are taken to notify relevant authorities, including councillors with particular responsibility for the area or issue, head teachers of local schools and even the police.

Before I say more, I want to put it on record that neither I nor the authorities and individuals in my constituency are displaying crude nimbyism. Ex-offenders must live somewhere, which includes Peterborough, and they have served their sentences. However, we are concerned about the use of a particular hostel in Wesleyan road, which is near a children's play area, opposite a special needs school and within easy reach of nine other primary schools.
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My other concern has always been about the possible danger to other residents of hostels, especially young and vulnerable people, of close proximity to sex offenders. That is a general policy matter that needs urgent attention, and I will return to it later.

Since February, I have asked a number of written questions and also tabled early-day motion 924, which has attracted 30 signatures without any canvassing on my part. The motion drew attention to the concerns that I have described, and stated that proper notice should be given to local authorities and local MPs, as was always the case before the 2001 general election. It asserted that hostels should not be used if they are next to schools or other facilities for young people, or if they are used to house young people on remand.

As is often the case, the answers to the written questions were less than specific. One question concerned whether nine sex offenders who were recently known to be living in the Peterborough hostel had, as rumoured, been moved, and whether they would be moved back, as some feared, when the publicity following a BBC East programme had died down.

The Minister may be aware that I have again tabled nine questions attempting to unearth some facts and figures on the number of places in probation hostels and the number occupied by convicted sex offenders. What are the changes in the percentage of places in probation hostels occupied by persons on bail between 1991 and 2003? Are sex offender treatment programmes available in probation hostels, and if so, in how many? What specialist training is provided for staff working with sex offenders in hostels? What extra security measures have been introduced to hostels in which convicted sex offenders are housed? Do the Government plan to open any new probation hostels?

I am still asking questions and applying for an Adjournment debate because the more I found out about the general issues, which do not affect only Peterborough, the more concern I felt. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I was contacted by the National Association of Probation Officers, which had noticed my questions and with which I had already been in contact over other matters. I hope to speak tomorrow in another Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths).

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East) (Lab): I have indeed secured an Adjournment debate tomorrow. Something that I will not address in that debate, but which is still a serious concern, relates not to the location of hostels in my constituency, but to the fact that authorities are unaware of their existence and of the offences for which inmates have previously been convicted. That is a matter of concern and worry to many hon. Members.

Mrs. Clark : I thank my hon. Friend. I am sure that our concerns are shared on both sides of the House. Her debate is about the National Offender Management Service. Like the debate in March in which I spoke and last week's rally at Central hall, which I addressed with many other MPs, her debate will raise concerns about the structure of the proposed new organisation, its timing and its method of introduction. Such issues are relevant to those raised today, but I will not explore the implications in detail, although I can perhaps do so tomorrow.
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It is clear that police and probation services are already working well together and doing a good job in supervising sex offenders released into the community under the multi-agency public protection arrangements to which I referred earlier. NAPO believes that that is the best model for enhancing public protection. However, it is expensive and more resources are needed—when was it ever otherwise?

Probation hostels are a crucial element in MAPPA planning. Ten years ago, the 101 probation hostels in England and Wales provided space mainly for people on bail. However, by 2002, the number of such residents had dropped to just 35 per cent. of all places in toto. In contrast, the number of people resident on parole rose from 6 per cent. to 44 per cent. over the same period. In January 2004, it was reported in Napo News, the probation staff journal, that 42 per cent. of residents were now sex offenders. Naturally, such a change raises major concerns for staff as well as residents in the community. How have staff ratios changed over that 10-year period? What security measures have been taken? Has there been additional training for staff? Crucially, what is the level of the provision of the sex offender treatment programme?

I also want the Minister to elaborate on a report—in The Daily Telegraph I believe—that the Home Office was last year actively considering the provision of sex offender-only hostels. It may sound controversial, but it is easy to see the advantages in that. Treatment could be given on site, staff could receive appropriate training and suitable security could be provided. Will the Minister please say what the current thinking is on the provision of such hostels?

I have no doubt that there are difficulties, not least in funding such provision. However, in view of the rise in the number of sex offenders under supervision, such measures appear necessary to maximise public safety, particularly in terms of resident youngsters and neighbouring children. Such children are potentially easy targets for the grooming activities that the Government rightly made a new offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Such hostels would surely be preferable to the extreme measures adopted in the state of Kansas in the USA, where a statute was enacted in 1997 that allowed for the continued imprisonment of sexually violent offenders, even after the completion of their prison terms. The Washington Post described the position then as

and said that

Locking people up indefinitely because of "personality disorders" on the grounds of the estimated probability that they will commit future offences may not be likely in this country. The issue has been canvassed, as we know. However, I fear that if alternatives are not introduced, the current system will not work. In any case, building more special hostels would free up existing places for those in prison, whose presence surely adds to the well known problem of prison overcrowding.
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I would appreciate some reassurances that I can take back to my constituents and to my local authority and police that the Government regard their concerns as legitimate and that active steps are being taken to address them as we speak. Most of all, I would like an assurance that urgent steps will be taken to ensure that no sex offenders are ever housed in hostels that are close to schools or other facilities for children.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Clark) on securing this debate. She has raised some important issues and placed them squarely in the context of her constituency. I note the remarks that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) have made about the wider connection between such issues and the development of the National Offender Management Service. I will respond to tomorrow's debate, so I look forward to further discussions with them about the wider issues.

Doing everything possible to ensure that the public are protected and not put at any unnecessary risk is, of course, one of the Government's highest priorities. The safe management of sex offenders and other dangerous people in our communities will never be easy or straightforward. There are no simple choices. However, we should recognise that most sex offenders will eventually be released from prison and return to live in the community. When that happens, we must find ways to assess and minimise the risk that they may present.

The Government are rightly proud of the measures that we have introduced since 1997 to provide a framework within which all the major statutory and non-statutory agencies can work together to manage sex offenders. The multi-agency public protection arrangements, which my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough mentioned, draw together professionals from the probation service, the police and the Prison Service. Since the beginning of last month, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 has further strengthened those arrangements by placing a duty on other agencies, particularly local authorities, to co-operate in the assessment and management of the risk that sexual and violent offenders pose.

In practice, the process starts with an accurate risk assessment through which agencies share information and make a judgment about the level of threat that each individual poses. Key to the process is a joint action plan that is drawn up and agreed by all the agencies and that clearly spells out how an individual's risk will be monitored and managed daily and weekly. The knowledge that one is being monitored under MAPPA can act as a powerful mechanism of external control. People subject to the arrangements know that they are being managed and monitored, which can make a big difference.

The panel can also use a range of surveillance and monitoring powers, including tagging and a requirement to reside in approved premises, as well as sex offender prevention orders and antisocial behaviour orders. In addition, offenders can be required to develop appropriate internal controls, through attendance and participation in offender treatment programmes.
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Through joint working, MAPPA panels can also draw in the expertise and additional resources of partner agencies and organisations, which include the voluntary sector's important contribution.

We know that MAPPA are working. Some 20 per cent. of the highest risk offenders are judged too risky to live in the community and so are returned to prison. That shows a high degree of monitoring of the activities of risky people and a determination to act where they are felt to pose an unacceptable risk. Crucially, such people are returned to prison before they have an opportunity to commit a further serious offence. Only 2 per cent. are actually charged with a further serious offence. Such offences are of course deeply regretted, but those who in the past would have been subject to the MAPPA would have been in the community anyway, only without the much closer supervision of high-risk offenders that the new arrangements have brought about.

The published annual MAPPA report for Cambridgeshire for 2002–03 underlines the support for the arrangements expressed by the local professional agencies and identifies the added value that has been achieved in Cambridgeshire through multi-agency assessment and the effective management of the risk posed by the offenders. I am sure that my hon. Friend is already aware of that report. Apart from my introductory remarks and an explanation of the wider national picture in relation to MAPPA, I shall refer in more detail to her local report, as it goes into considerable detail in listing organisations that are part of the framework in her area.

The report confirms, for example, that whereas the average rate of sex offenders in the community is some 35 per 100,000, in her area it is 36 per 100,000. The prevalence in her area is therefore about the same as it is nationally. The report confirms that of the current 282 registered sex offenders who live not just in her constituency but in the whole of Cambridgeshire, only 12 have been assessed by the police as being very high risk. We are clear on the numbers and on the way in which we have to focus particular attention on those who are the most risky.

The report includes an illustration of the practical application of the arrangements. An example is cited of a Mr. B who is a relatively young offender who has committed serious offences of indecent assault against younger boys. He is a registered sex offender and has been continually tracked by police since his original release from prison in April 2001. He has previously been made the subject of a sex offender order, which includes prohibitions from approaching young children under the age of 16 and allowing young children to visit him at his home address. He disappeared from his last known address in Cambridgeshire but was tracked down to a new address in a northern town.

That young man posed a risk and even ran away from his home area, and yet the police, working with colleagues in other parts of the country, were assiduous in tracking him down to another area. The report continues:

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I quote extensively from the report to illustrate that that individual, who was assessed as high risk, was assiduously followed by the law enforcement agencies. He was followed when he was released from prison, and when he did not comply within hours, immediate action was taken. That level of professionalism is applied by the agencies involved in my hon. Friend's constituency and across the rest of the UK.

We recognise that such work is complex and requires great skill from the staff involved, and we also recognise the urgent need to build public confidence in MAPPA. That is why we have decided that the public should, in future, have the opportunity to become more directly involved as lay members in the oversight of its operation. That will give them better access to and understanding of what is done to protect them.

The probation service's management of approved probation and bail hostels, in some cases through the voluntary sector, makes a vital contribution to our efforts to protect the public from the risk of harm that is posed by those who have committed serious violent or sexual crimes. Generally, approved premises, as those hostels are now officially described, accept three categories of residents: bailees, or people who are bailed from court; those on community orders who have been given a condition, as part of the order, to reside at an approved premises; and those released on licence from a custodial sentence.

The Government acknowledge that, as my hon. Friend pointed out, there has been a change in the way in which approved premises are used, in that there are far more licensees in approved probation and bail hostels than 10 or even five years ago, when the proportion of bail cases was much higher. None the less, it is appropriate that approved premises are used to help to reintegrate into the community in as safe a manner as possible those who have served a prison sentence. As she also pointed out, such individuals would be in the community in any event, so ensuring that one of the conditions of their licences is that they reside in a particular approved premises helps in their effective management.

However, approved premises are not merely places to live. They provide high levels of offender support and containment through a series of measures: enhanced supervision in the community; 24-hour double staff cover; a night-time curfew; and rigorously enforced house rules. Some offenders will be subject to additional controls such as electronic tagging or additional curfews—around school arrival and departure times, for example. Some residents will also be required to attend offender group work programmes such as sex offender treatment programmes.

All approved premises maintain close relationships with local police crime management units. Information on the resident population is shared with the police on a regular basis. Many approved premises, including the one at Peterborough, have strong links with their local communities, for example, through a local residents committee. I am keen to encourage the development of such arrangements more widely as they can help to ease communication and help to break down any unnecessary fear that local communities may have.
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If high-risk offenders or bailees cannot go to an approved premises on release, probation areas have no option but to resort to other forms of unsupervised accommodation, such as local authority housing or bed-and-breakfast establishments. That means releasing into the community people who may be a risk, but without the monitoring arrangements that can minimise that risk.

Approved premises are therefore a key part of our strategy to maintain the safety of local communities. My hon. Friend has used the debate to express her concerns about the location of the approved hostel in Peterborough, and she asked several questions. I always try to give the best and most open answer possible; if she has tabled further questions I shall try to answer them as soon as possible. Of course, I understand her concerns and those of her constituents, but the key issue is not where a hostel is placed, but how well offenders are managed and the safeguards that are put in place to protect the public from potential threats to their safety. Playgrounds, swimming pools and shopping centres are never very far away wherever a hostel is located; the fact that people are managed effectively is far more important than the precise location of the hostel.

It may be helpful to look more closely at the experience of the approved premises in Peterborough. As my hon. Friend knows, the hostel has been there since the mid-1970s, and it has some of the most up-to-date security arrangements of any approved premises and a good track record in managing offenders of all types. I checked with the Cambridgeshire probation managers for the hostel, and I am assured that there have been no serious incidents involving sex offenders at the hostel in the past two years, and very few serious incidents of any kind in that time.

My hon. Friend is deeply concerned that there may be a specific danger because of the hostel's proximity to a special school. Although I stand by my comments about the importance of management over location, I understand that that might create some local anxiety. The children are, of course, closely supervised when they are at the school. It is pertinent to emphasise that the vast majority of sexual offences against children—about
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80 per cent. of the total—are committed in the home by a person known to them. I understand that the school is due to close at the end of this term, but I assure her that the staff in Peterborough take very seriously their responsibility for supervising their residents.

On concerns about the nearness of local playgrounds, the risks posed by particular individuals would be tackled through controls such as licence conditions, additional curfews, direct police surveillance and returning offenders to prison when that is judged necessary. Communities are being protected through the robust local management arrangements that have been put in place.

We now have some very effective tools for ensuring that the probation and police services and the managers of approved premises have the powers that they need to work with sex offenders and to protect the public. The Sex Offenders Act 1997, which introduced the registration requirements for sex offenders, has been exceptionally effective in monitoring sex offenders. Compliance with the requirements of the 1997 Act has consistently been about 97 per cent. The Sexual Offences Act 2003, which came into effect on 1 May, will make the notification requirement an even more effective tool for monitoring sex offenders. They must now renew their details every year and notify any change of address within three days.

Accredited programmes provide the cornerstone of interventions with offenders who are either in custody or placed in the community. The Prison Service started to develop sex offender treatment programmes in 1992; programmes now run in 27 prisons and there is a public service agreement to ensure that 1,240 sex offenders are completing treatment in 2003–04. The national probation service currently has three accredited sex offender treatment programmes. Implementation began in 2001, and by October 2003 all probation areas were running one of those programmes.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of sex offender-only hostels. She has written to me about it and I shall reply to her shortly. We do not have any plans in that regard at present, but we will consider the proposal carefully.

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.
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