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Sex Offenders

3.30 pm

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East) (Lab): I am pleased to have this chance to raise the important issue of involving the community in the treatment of sex offenders.

What is the point of raising this subject today? When people have questioned me on what I am about to discuss, I have been asked whether I am interested in supporting the sex offender only, and not the victims. In other words, is this just a woolly liberal desire and do I care only about the sex offender? I want to make it clear at the start that, like most people, my motivation and interest in raising this matter comes from a desire to prevent people from suffering sexual abuse. The point is to consider what can be done in practical terms to protect people from such abuse. It is important to be clear about that from the outset.

What happens when a convicted sex offender is released into the community? Normally, when an offender is released, police and social services are aware of where they live. There will be systems in place to protect the public. The offender will get visits from the police public protection officer, and the number of times that they are visited will depend on the perceived risk from the offender to the community at large. Usually, family and friends will shun them, leaving them feeling isolated. Often, they will not be where their home was. They might suddenly have to move a few times if people living nearby find out about the offence that they have committed. That is just the sort of situation that is believed to be most likely to encourage the sex offender to reoffend, and that is not good news for people in the community.

How does a community respond to the release of a sex offender into its midst? It is understandable that there will be fear and concern for the safety of those in the community. In an extreme, that can lead to what happened to Arnold Hartley, a convicted sex offender who was murdered in his home in Redcar, Cleveland, last November. Similarly, we all remember the scenes in Paulsgrove, Portsmouth. That is not the kind of community involvement in the treatment of sex offenders that I am seeking through this debate. That would just reinforce the feelings of isolation and otherness that play a key part in offenders repeating their behaviour, and would not reduce sexual abuse. In fact, such involvement risks increasing it.

Can something be done to change the situation? One solution put forward by the media, particularly the News of the World, is Sarah's law, named after Sarah Payne. That aims to involve the community by informing it of where sex offenders live. The view is that the community could then protect itself from the sex offender, monitor his behaviour and hold him accountable.

Among those dealing with the management of sex offenders living in the community, general community notification is thought likely to cause more problems than it would solve. Fear in the community would be exacerbated. The offender might be made to feel more isolated, and there would then be more examples of the sort of behaviour that arose in Paulsgrove, and what happened to Arnold Hartley might be repeated. For anyone who wants a reduction in sexual abuse, that is
 
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not a good prospect. Such action would not reduce the amount of sexual abuse, and a reduction in such abuse was, as I said, my motivation for seeking the debate.

In the mid-1990s, a scheme known as circles of support and accountability started in Canada. It was the coming together of two groups. There was recognition in the criminal justice system that most offenders were released from prison on a licence before the end of their sentence, and were provided with support to resettle into society. The licence also provided a mechanism for ensuring the accountability of the actions of the offender, and the ability to recall them if they offended again or were at risk of reoffending. However, prisoners too dangerous to be released early had no support or accountability when they left prison at the end of their sentence. There was also a feeling of powerlessness within the community when a potentially dangerous individual was released into its midst. That is the kind of feeling that led to calls for Sarah's law in the UK a few years later.

In Canada, the response was for groups of people, primarily churchgoers, spontaneously to group together around one or two offenders. From this experience, a project grew, funded by the people who ran the prisons and probation service in Canada and administered by the Mennonite church. The police in the part of Canada where circles have been operating for some time have become convinced that the scheme works and co-operate with it.

In fact, in those parts of Canada where circles have operated, recidivism among sex offenders has been cut by more than 50 per cent. to just 10 per cent. Of the 30 offenders who had taken part in the pilot in Ontario, just three had reoffended, whereas the statistical expectation would have been for seven to have done so. Let us think of the people who have been saved thereby from the trauma of sexual abuse.

Having heard about the Canadian experience, the Quakers organised a workshop in June 2000 at which five Canadians addressed representatives from the Home Office, police, probation services, Church groups and charities, and described the circles of support and accountability. Following the meeting, the Home Office decided to carry out a pilot project and asked for expressions of interest. Hampshire volunteered, and a project was established.

Present at the meeting was the manager at the Wolvercote clinic, which focuses on reducing abuse by assessing and treating sex offenders. He was aware of the situation of men who leave prison or the clinic to be met by nobody. Inspired by the meeting, he set up a circle for an offender leaving the clinic, and that has now grown into a full-blown pilot managed by the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. A third pilot has been established in the Thames valley, managed by Quaker Peace and Social Witness.

What is a circle of support and accountability? An offender is identified anything up to a year before release. He will be a high-risk sex offender with high levels of need and little or no support from family or friends in the community. The offender is referred to as the core member of the circle, and he could have offended against children or adults. Typically, four to
 
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six volunteers join a circle. They have to be prepared to commit a substantial amount of time over one year in the first instance. They need to be responsible, to have their feet on the ground and to be mature about their own sexuality. The project screens volunteers, and if they are not suitable, they are not taken further. Only after that are checks taken up. In the Thames valley project, which I will focus on, the police provide the references. That means that as well as any record of criminal convictions, the scheme also receives any intelligence that the police have on the volunteer.

Volunteers receive 16 hours of training and will have met as a group for at least three weeks before meeting the core member. One session will involve a visit from the sex offender registration officer. The aims of the sessions are: introduction exercises and team building; practical issues; group boundaries, guidelines and individual contact; circle contact; essential information about the core member; discussion of the introduction of the core member; and any fears or concerns. The aim is that the circle will have a robust diversity in age, gender, interests and so on and that it will generally meet the core member before their release. Initially, the circle meets once a week with the core member. In between, at least one circle member will be in touch with the core member each day, with contact ranging from a phone call to going out for breakfast or to a cinema or other social event.

As its name suggests, the circle's aim is to provide support and accountability in stages such as moving from a hostel into other accommodation, finding work or starting to establish a social life. The circle provides support when things go wrong, such as when there are rejections from work or promises of accommodation that do not materialise, and in managing working relations with other inmates of the hostel. Basically, the circle is there for when things go wrong—things that might otherwise dishearten the core member and tip them back into patterns of behaviour that lead them to reoffending. Studies show that although it can take 28 months for an offender to be caught, it can be one month before they reoffend.

The core member has to apply for the circle before release. As a rule, they must be motivated to change and not to reoffend, although one offender in Oxford is an entrenched paedophile who still believes what he did was not wrong, but is motivated to make the circle work because he does not want to go to prison. Clearly, that is a telling motivation for anyone.

Let me quote the words of core members from a study conducted as part of a placement with the Thames valley project by Sarah Bell, a social work student at Oxford Brookes university. One said:

Another said:

According to another member:


 
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The other side of the project is accountability. The circle challenges the core member and monitors their behaviour. For example, one offender in the Thames valley scheme was taken back into custody as a result of information he gave to his circle. The circle is in a position to monitor things that it is otherwise difficult to monitor in such detail and on such a regular basis. To quote another core member:

The circle seeks not to replace probation or public protection services, but to assist them in their work, to protect the public and to help the offender rebuild their life as a productive member of society.

In the Thames valley scheme, there are 10 circles, and 51 people have been through the training. About 50   per cent. of the volunteers are from faith-based communities, and about 20 per cent. are survivors of sexual abuse. There are no hard and fast rules about whether volunteers should be survivors of sexual abuse or whether that should be raised in the circle. However, people who have suffered abuse and who seem to be using the circle as part of their therapy will not be accepted as volunteers.

The benefits of the circle will not necessarily all be in one direction. To quote one British volunteer:

In Berkshire, there are four circles, three managed by the Thames valley pilot and one managed by the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. I am grateful to the programme manager of the Thames valley project, Chris Wilson, for his assistance in providing me with the information for my speech today. I would also commend to hon. Members the interim report about the project from November 2003. Reading that report inspired me to seek to have this debate.

I will finish by citing two parts of the report. The first is details of what has been learned from the project, and the second is the introduction of the report by Tim Newell, which for me sums up the project. Before doing so, I commend the project to the Minister. I know that he was at a national conference this morning on circles of support and accountability. I hope that this success will spread out around the country.

First, those involved have learned that it is important to consider the mix of volunteers. Five volunteers can be an intimidating number, so there should be flexibility. Attention must be given to team building. Supervision and support is essential, but a balance must be achieved. Volunteers are part of the team and should be included in all decisions.

The introduction to the report states:

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3.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins) : I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) on securing the debate. I am sure that everyone is grateful to her for her clear explanation of the development of circles of support and accountability. A little later, I shall refer to some of the work undertaken by circles.

How to engage the community in helping offenders to rehabilitate and break the pattern of offending and reoffending is a key question that arouses considerable public interest and debate. That interest and debate are significantly heightened when the offender in question has committed a serious sexual offence.

The most unwelcome and unhelpful public responses have been those thankfully rare occasions when members of a local community have decided to take vigilante action against particular individuals. My hon. Friend referred to one or two such incidents. I welcome the opportunity to respond to her and present some of the positive ways in which the community is increasingly involving itself in this important work. She was entirely right when she said that it is not soft-headedness or misdirected compassion but hard-headed, practical action that will ultimately reduce reoffending rates.

As the Minister responsible for the correctional services, I am keenly aware, as is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, that one of the first duties of Government is to ensure the effective protection of the public. Since 1997, we have introduced a number of important measures to give our criminal justice agencies the powers and tools they need to address the risks and dangers caused by sexual offending.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 was the culmination of the most comprehensive review of sexual offence legislation since the mid-1950s. Through measures such as creating a new offence of "grooming", we will put in place increased protection for children and other vulnerable people and make sure that the perpetrators of such offences are dealt with appropriately.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides additional powers to ensure that the most dangerous offenders, including dangerous sex offenders, are not released until it is safe for them to be so. We have established the taskforce for child protection on the internet, and the national high-tech crime unit will also provide a    powerful enforcement tool to combat child pornography on the internet.

These measures should not be seen in isolation but as a range of complementary initiatives aimed at improving public protection. However, it is the multi-
 
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agency public protection arrangements—the MAPPA, as they are known—which provide the essential framework in which the criminal justice agencies work together to assess and manage the risks posed by sexual and violent offenders.

I reported in an earlier Adjournment debate on sexual offending—a debate I know my hon. Friend attended. The early indications are that the MAPPA are helping to reduce serious violent and sexual crime. For example, in 2002–03 only 2 per cent. of highest risk MAPPA offenders were charged with a further serious sexual or violent offence.

It is important to mention at this stage the recent statutory changes we have introduced to create a new role for lay advisers to the MAPPA. We have successfully piloted this arrangement in eight areas and are now appointing lay advisers in all 42 probation areas.

Lay advisers are not directly involved in the management of offenders, but they can attend case conferences to observe how risk management is carried out and they will be part of each area's MAPPA strategic management board. I would like to share with my hon. Friend the comments made by the chief constable for Dyfed-Powys on the role of lay advisers. He said:

The concept of a reality check is important and reflects the balance that we need to strike between the rehabilitative treatment of offending behaviour and the monitoring and management of the risks posed by sex offenders in the community. My hon. Friend was right to point out that there is no contradiction between the roles of statutory agencies and those of community volunteers. Those complementary roles give added protection when people work effectively together.

The Government recognise that long-term protection of the public requires sex offenders to address their offending behaviour. That starts with structured and effective assessment. In the offender assessment system, known as OASys, the Prison Service and the probation service have developed a highly effective tool to assess risk and work out how offending behaviour can be addressed. OASys provides the objective basis on which those services can build effective supervision and intervention programmes to manage risk and make offenders face their unacceptable behaviour. The services are developing a comprehensive range of sex offender treatment programmes to challenge unacceptable behaviour. Programmes are based on carefully evidenced research into what is effective in addressing sexual offending.

The managers of voluntary sector-managed approved premises and other residential facilities have also developed a mature understanding of the challenges of managing sex offenders in a community setting. That allows them to complement and add value to the work of statutory agencies, which reinforces my hon. Friend's point.
 
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The activities of the Prison Service and the probation service to help sex offenders to be rehabilitated through a combination of careful assessment and targeted interventions are making a difference, but treatment in the community must go hand in glove with effective monitoring. The introduction of sex offender registration in 1997 and the strengthening of the notification requirements that we undertook in the Sexual Offences Act 2003 are proving effective in that regard.

It is important that statutory agencies are organised and equipped to meet the challenges posed by sex offenders, but my hon. Friend rightly highlighted the role that the community can play. I assure her that the Government are keenly aware of the wealth of imagination and energy that local communities and voluntary sector organisations can bring to understanding how sexual offending occurs and, even more importantly, how it can be prevented. The correctional services, for which I have direct responsibility, work closely at a number of levels with a wide range of voluntary sector agencies in this sphere. Indeed, when I became the Minister with responsibility for prisons and probation, I was heartened, if not a little surprised, by the level of involvement by voluntary organisations in prisons, the probation service and communities. An impressive array of organisations work in that way.

My hon. Friend spoke eloquently about the role of circles of support and accountability, which is an impressive example of a community-based initiative. She was right to say that I spoke this morning at its first national conference. Fourteen circles are running, including those in her constituency, which she mentioned. A circle of support is precisely as she described: a group of volunteer members of the public who come together, with the help of a central organiser, to provide a network of personal relationships with a sex offender. I was grateful to her for highlighting the emphasis that is placed on appropriate screening, training and support for such volunteers. They are not left to do the job without support; they are given appropriate help.

Through such a network, a circle can provide social and practical support. Circles build on the good work undertaken in sex offender treatment programmes and the MAPPA. As well as supporting offenders, volunteers act as the eyes and ears of local agencies by passing vital information to the multi-agency public protection panel.

I am pleased with the initial feedback that I have received from the earliest circles, which includes a range of evidence on such matters as offenders being supported in a way that enables them to live more independently, by getting a job, for example, or moving to their own accommodation, thereby helping them to overcome personal crises that are, perhaps, inevitable after a long period in prison. They are also helped to develop their own social networks, as my hon. Friend described, which can be difficult.

I believe that the circles' working in partnership with the police and probation service in monitoring the high-risk behaviour of one particular offender, who may have been quite close to my hon. Friend's constituency, led to that offender's recall. That shows that there is effective
 
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support and also the right kind of feedback to the statutory agencies, so where there is a real risk, an offender can be removed.

I am particularly impressed by the way in which circles can engage people from across the community. It is interesting to look at the backgrounds of the scheme volunteers. They form a diverse group that includes a retired farmer, a university professor, a journalist, a secretary, a computer software engineer, a member of the clergy, a solicitor, a nurse and a warehouse worker. That is indeed a rich, varied group.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): No politicians.

Paul Goggins : Indeed, but perhaps in the future, Mr. Olner.

One volunteer in the Thames Valley project, who was quoted in the report to which my hon. Friend referred, captures the essence of the participation in active citizenship that this Government are keen to encourage. They said:

Everybody wins: the offender is supported, the community is protected, and the volunteer gains a sense of citizenship and pride in what they do.

The Home Office provides £173,000 to fund three separate three-year pilot projects with circles of support and accountability, of which just under half—some £82,000—is for the Thames Valley project. The three pilots involve three different voluntary sector organisations, all of which bring different skills, experience and approaches to their projects. Our funding is guaranteed until the end of the current financial year. I will be receiving a detailed end-of-year evaluation of the projects, but I have asked for an interim report to be made available to me in September.
 
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The evaluation will examine the experience of offenders taking part in a circle and explore whether involvement leads to improved psychological well-being, through increased self-esteem, for example. It will also assess other benefits, such as better access to work, education and accommodation. In the longer term, that information will be linked to reconviction outcomes for the offenders on a case-by-case basis to develop a firm evidence base for circles in England and Wales, in the same way that we have developed treatment programmes under the "what works" principles. It is too early to say whether we shall then be in a position to maintain the projects on the present basis  or roll them out more widely. However, I will be meeting representatives from the Thames Valley circles project on 12 July to discuss the issues concerning the future of the project  that is linked to my hon. Friend's constituency.

Support circles is an important programme, but there are other initiatives with which the Home Office agencies are working to deliver community engagement with sex offenders. The "Stop it now!" campaign is a public health education campaign aimed at preventing child sexual abuse by increasing public awareness of how abusers operate. My hon. Friend will be aware that one project is based in the Thames valley area, and the freephone helpline is available for members of the community to contact the project for advice and information.

The Leisurewatch scheme is another example of community involvement. It trains leisure staff to identify suspicious behaviour on the part of potential child abusers. The voluntary community sector makes a significant contribution to the education, employment and resettlement of offenders. I gratefully acknowledge that community groups are beginning to make a real contribution to the way that sex offenders are managed.
 
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