House of Commons
|Session 2006 - 07|
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Public Bill Committee Debates
Draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2007
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk
attended the Committee
First Delegated Legislation Committee
Tuesday 10 July 2007
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
Draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2007
The Chairman: Before I call the Minister, for the convenience and comfort of hon. and right hon. Members, I should indicate that they may remove their jackets if they wish to do so. I have also taken a fairly close look at the order, and it seems to me to be pretty clearly defined. I am happy to have a full debate on it, but I would not be so happy to entertain a full debate on the entire remit of criminal justice and the rehabilitation of offenders.
That the Committee has considered the draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2007.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Gale, and I praise the optimism with which you suggested that we may remove our jackets if we wishit is not the warmest of summer days. My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble has shown commendable expertise by taking his jacket off at an early stage. May I welcome the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk to his new responsibilities on the Conservative Front Bench, and my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting to the Whips Office?
The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 allows ex-offenders not to disclose all spent convictions in order to improve their employment opportunitiesan approach that the whole Committee will welcome. The order sets out the categories of work to which, for reasons of public safety, the Act does not apply. Prospective workers in certain categories of work are not entitled to conceal convictions, irrespective of whether they are spent, and the Criminal Records Bureau is permitted to release information on convictions, also regardless of whether they are spent. Inclusion in the order does not mean that it is mandatory for employing organisations to carry out checks, but simply that they are able to do so.
The amendments to the exceptions have been brought forward to keep the provisions current and to ensure that the needs of ex-offenders, employers and the general public remain appropriately balanced. As right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, the provisions were amended twice in 2006, and twice in the preceding five years. Again, I have introduced the order today to allow for pressing, high-risk employment categories relating to children to be taken into account, and to cover other categories that have been proposed for inclusion.
I intend to introduce a further order in the near future to reflect the original recommendation of the Bichard inquiry, which covered the Soham case a couple of years ago, so that all posts involving work with children and vulnerable adults are subject to the disclosure regime. That order will coincide with the implementation of the provisions contained in the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, which we will introduce and implement in 2008.
In the meantime, I did not wish to delay several vital changes to the provisions, which I shall outline. Simply put, I wish to ensure that we give protection as quickly as possible to children and vulnerable adults in respect of the employment categories set out in the order. Some amendments to the provisions relate to the Bichard reforms; others include allowing checks for employees of the Gambling Commission, which has law enforcement responsibilities in respect of the gambling industry; and the strengthening of the position of the Financial Services Authority so that it may consider any criminal offences.
For the convenience of the Committee, I shall go through some of the amendments that the order will make. We are updating the provisions to enable the finance industry and the FSA to consider all spent offences committed by individuals who fall within the provisions by deleting reference to relevant offences. That will bring the provisions for the industry into line with other provisions by allowing the FSA to take all convictions into account.
As I mentioned, following recommendations by the Bichard inquiry into the Soham case, I have included a number of measures in the order. Article 7 makes a number of additions to the list, including:
People working in the Department for Education and Skills, the Office for Standards in Education, Childrens Services and Skills or...in the Government Offices for the English Regions.
This will of course apply to the new Government Departments that have been announced recently.
Operators and users of ContactPoint, a database containing basic information about children in England aged up to 18 such as their name, date of birth, address and contact details of parent or carer, GP practice, health visitor and so on will also be included, as will persons giving advice to children over the telephone or other forms of electronic communication, such as the internet and mobile telephone text messages.
I also include the chairman, members and staff of the independent barring board, which will come into effect soon. It has not yet been established, but the exception will apply to prospective appointments to the board. The first provision relating to staff at the Department for Education and Skills was drafted before the recent changes in Whitehall, but we shall ensure that it is relevant to the new Departments that were put in place several weeks ago by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
Several other changes in the order relate to staff working in the Public Guardianship Office who have access to data relating to children; the Commissioner for Older People in Wales and his deputy; and any person appointed by the commissioner to assist them in the discharge of their functions following the creation of the position under the Commissioner for Older People (Wales) Act 2006. I have also included
Anyone in employment whose usual duties involve caring for, training, supervising or being solely in charge of persons aged under 18 serving in the armed forces will come under the duress of the order. That follows the recommendation made by the Deepcut review in March 2006. I am very pleased to meet the commitments given at that time by Ministers to ensure that the recommendations in the review are implemented.
The amendments are necessary. They provide a proper balance between the needs of vulnerable groups for protection and the necessity of maintaining the integrity of our regulatory and public bodies. They are also in line with the broad principle that we should help ex-offenders to be rehabilitated through employment. As the Committee will be awareand I hope that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk will share my viewit is important that we look not only at how ex-offenders can be reintegrated into society through employment, but put down minimum standards to ensure that the public are protected during that consideration. Todays order will amend the 1974 Act, and I commend it to the Committee.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. I thank the Minister for his kind remarks. I wish him and the new team at the Ministry of Justice well and I look forward to encounters with him in the future. I appreciate the way in which the right hon. Gentleman explained the workings of the order. As he rightly pointed out, it is an important priority for society to strike a balance between the rehabilitation of offenders and doing all that we can to make sure that people do not reoffend. One of the best ways of doing so is to ensure that they are properly motivated and have self-esteem, and that is far more likely to happen if they have a good job.
At the same time, I accept entirely that the public must be protected and what the Minister said certainly has resonance in East Anglia, a part of the country that I represent. The Soham murders were unbelievably brutal and appalling. The Bichard report made various recommendations and I am pleased that some of them will be implemented under the order. No one could have been anything other than horrified about what happened at Deepcut barracks. Extra protection for youngsters who are training for a career in the armed forces from people who might abuse them is to be welcomed.
The Minister mentioned consultation with different organisations. In fact the explanatory memorandum states:
Public interest in this amendment is expected to be minimal.
Presumably there was some consultation, but that statement seems to imply that consultation has not really taken place. How did the Howard League for
The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2006 added to the list of exemptions Her Majestys Revenue and Customs, traffic officers, court auxiliary staff and so on. The Government have now come back with a new order, which is driven partly by the Bichard report and the report on the Deepcut tragedy, but other organisations have requested exemptions. They are listed in annexe A of the explanatory memorandum and include the Financial Services Authority, the Gambling Commission and the Border and Immigration Agency.
As far as the Border and Immigration Agency is concerned, there was a specific commitment in the 2006 legislation, but surely the Financial Services Authority and the Gambling Commission could have been added earlier. Would it not make sense to ensure that such orders are as wide ranging as the Government see fit when they are introduced, so that we do not need to return to them in a piecemeal fashion? I know that the latter approach might give us more time for discussion, but is it a good use of the Houses and Departments time to come back to matters that could be wrapped up in a bigger order? Will the Minister comment on that?
The Ministry of Justice has apparently requested that staff working in posts that involve specific operational security risks in the Public Guardianship Office be added to the exemptions. Will the Minister elaborate on that, because it is unclear exactly what it means; it could mean a number of different things. On the FSAs request for the provisions to be updated, the explanatory memorandum says that that would
enable the finance industry and themselves
to consider all spent offences committed by individuals falling within the Order.
That is very wide ranging. Does it include every single financial services company or business regulated by the FSA? In other words, could all spent offences be considered for anyone applying to work in the FSA and FSA-regulated businesses?
Financial services are the one part of our economy that is doing well and some of the back-office operations in financial services employ people in many parts of London and other great cities outside the main financial centres. Some of those people might not have particularly good qualifications and do not necessarily have degrees and so on. On the other hand, such people contribute to back-office operations, and there are jobs for which many people who have been offenders in the past want to apply. Will the Minister look at whether the measure will completely rule them out of such jobs?
We will listen to what the Minister has to say. We realise that a balance has to be struck between the rights of the offender and the need to rehabilitate them, and protecting the public and children in particular. That is why we support the Government this morning.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): As the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk has just said, the issue before the House is the balance between the interests of society in reintegrating offenders to work
I wish to ask a couple of questions about the applications of the exemption. First, on the Criminal Records Bureau, the explanatory memorandum states:
The Criminal Records Bureau has requested that signatories be included in the Exceptions Order in order to bring the legislation into line with operational policy.
Normally, it is thought to be a good idea to bring operational policy in line with the law. It seems rather odd to imply that what has been going on may not have been in accordance with the law and that what has been happening so far has been illegal. If that is the case, will the Minister comment on the consequences of the bureaus failure to act in line with existing legislation and what the Government propose to do about that state of affairs?
Secondly, the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk mentioned the Financial Services Authority. The effect of the order is to allow the Financial Services Authority to take into account spent convictionsnot only relevant convictions but irrelevant ones as well. The definition of a relevant offence under the existing legislation applies to
an offence involving fraud or other dishonesty;...an offence under the legislation (whether or not of the United Kingdom) relating to building societies, companies (including insider dealing), industrial and provident societies, credit unions, friendly societies, insurance, banking or other financial services, [money laundering,] insolvency, consumer credit or consumer protection.
Those are the first two definitions. There are two more definitions, including one covering any offence to do with tax.
That definition I quoted is quite a good definition of a relevant offence with regard to financial services jobs. The explanation that the Minister gave, which also appears in the explanatory memorandum, is that the order brings this area of the law into line with other areas, but is that necessarily the right thing to do? The law should never be too broad. It should be relevant to the particular problem at hand and should not allow investigations of offences that are not relevant to the job. It could be that in another part of the law, it is very difficult to define relevant offences. Here, it has always been the case that relevant offences have been defined in quite a sensible way. In this particular case, I wonder whether the interests of society in reintegrating ex-offenders into jobs which, as the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said, are an increasingly important part of the economy, outweigh the interests of the Financial Services Authority or others in protecting the public from people who are applying for a job that is not relevant to their previous offence.
That is a point that the Minister should respond to. He should not just say that the order will bring this
Mr. Hanson: I shall try to answer the points that hon. Members have raised. First, on the question of consultation, we trawled for views on the issues, and we received a very positive response from the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. NACRO wanted a balance between looking at spent convictions and protecting the interests of the public. I believe that our discussions today have struck that balance. There was widespread consultation on the implementation of the new vetting and barring scheme, which will come into effect next year and received overwhelming support during our consultations about extending the eligibility for disclosures. I believe that we have struck a balance, but obviously as hon. Members have mentioned, it is a matter that is under constant review.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk asked why we had not consolidated these matters previously and why we have waited until now to deal with them. We have introduced the proposals now and in this form because there have been changes as a result of the Bichard inquiry. Some aspects of the order deal with legislation that has been introduced during the past 12 months, or that will come into effect shortly. One example is the National Assembly for Wales Government amendment on the Commissioner for Older People (Wales) Act 2006 (Commencement) Order 2006. The post is currently being considered for appointment in October 2007, and this is the first opportunity to make changes accordingly.
Similarly, the Gambling Commission came into effect in 2005, and this is the first opportunity to bring legislation up to speed with what has happened in other Committees. I want to ensure that in future a bigger order can consolidate all the information. I will be looking at that in relation to the further recommendations made in the Bichard report, and I hope that we can consolidate that work in 2008 to bring it into line with the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006.
A number of points have been made by members of the Committee about specific bodies and I will try to answer them. The hon. Members for North-West Norfolk and for Cambridge mentioned the FSA. I accept that we have extended its potential to gain greater knowledge of people with spent convictions as part of its considerations on employment matters. I believe that the FSA, its employers and relevant organisations need to consider all spent offences committed by individuals falling within the order.
From my perspectiveand I am sure that hon. Members will endorse thisthe FSA is responsible for monitoring and assessing the fitness and propriety of individual candidates to perform particular functions. Most of those functions require the individual to have honesty, integrity and reputation. To help the FSA assess that, it needs to look at all criminal convictions. It does not mean that individuals with criminal
Mr. Bellingham: That applies to people who deal directly with the public, such as those who sell financial service products or are involved in a trading operation in the City. However, I was referring to the very large number of jobs in back-office operations, which are often far away from the City in various suburbs and other parts of the country. In those operations, there are plenty of jobs available that are not particularly skilled, but are reasonably well paid, and which give people a chance to get back on to the employment ladder. Should the same strict procedure be applied to those jobs as is applied to those people who deal directly with the public?
Mr. Hanson: The exception order applies to specific posts which are set out in detail in article 3 of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975. However, the basic principle I am proposing is that the FSA needs to look at all convictions within the scope of the measure to make an assessment. It does not mean that individuals cannot be employed, but when an organisation employs them, all convictions need to be disclosed to the FSA.
David Howarth: I am having difficulty understanding why those provisions apply specifically to the FSA and to almost no other employer. If we say that any employer needs to know about an individuals entire character and therefore needs to know about spent convictions, that would undermine the whole purpose of the 1975 legislation. Why are those employersthe regulatorsspecified with regard to the jobs that they are regulating, because that appears to be taken into account already by the way in which the law works?
Mr. Hanson: I am in danger of repeating myself, but I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. The FSA and other relevant financial organisations need to have access to information that they require to fulfil their statutory and employment objectives, because their purpose in life is to organise and regulate financial services. Those organisations need access to information relating to spent convictions. We could debate that issue, but the purpose of the measure is to ensure propriety in financial services. The financial services industry is important in the UK. We need to examine the points in context, and I think that the case is made.
David Howarth: I shall make one final attempt. Can the Minister give an example of an offence that is not currently covered by the definition of relevant offence that he thinks the FSA should take into account in carrying out its functions?
Mr. Hanson: That is a positive question on which I should like to reflect. I want to help the Committee and should not like to mislead it by drawing attention to a particular offence. However, I will certainly reflect on that during the course of our debate and come back to the hon. Gentleman in due course.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said that the order was being extended to cover the Ministry of Justice in particular and the Public Guardianship Office. He will know that the Public Guardianship Office is an administrative arm of the Court of Protection and provides financial protection services for clients who have difficulties managing their financial affairs due to a range of issues, not least mental incapacity. One reason why we introduced the order in this form is that such incapacity may be related to an illness such as dementia or may be the result of an accident or negligence, or it may involve mental illness such as schizophrenia.
We are trying to ensure in the order that the Public Guardianship Office staff are given access to criminal record checks to enhance the disclosure level. Pursuant to the Bichard inquiry recommendations and the vetting and barring scheme that comes into effect shortly, staff and contractors that have such a level of access must ensure that they are provided with sensitive data with regard to children. We need to ensure that there is proper vetting of individuals with convictions. None of that precludes an individual being employed in this field; it is simply that, under the 1974 Act, such individuals need to provide the relevant information at the time of consideration of their employment.
The hon. Member for Cambridge said that it is difficult to define a relevant offence. The definition, in the order, is shown to be increasingly outmoded. Our experience is that crime is outstripping the speed of legislation and we need to take into account new crimes and new changes as we proceed. To clarify an earlier point, relevant offence is defined in the order. Specifically, financial fraud or dishonesty offences regarding taxation or the administration of justice are included. The definition of a relevant offence is clearly wider than that, but it includes crimes of violence. There is a range of issues to consider. In the final analysis, those who are regulating financial services need to be aware, for the propriety of various schemes, exactly what spent convictions individuals have.
David Howarth: One must remember that a conviction that has given rise to a sentence of more than two and a half years can never be spent, but we are talking about a conviction for a violent offence that has not led to a long prison sentence. If a conviction is relevant enough for financial services bodies to know about it when it is spent, why is it not relevant to all other jobs?
Mr. Hanson: I am trying to make the distinction that, in my view, the FSA and the organisations that it regulates are dealing with matters that need to be covered by the order. I am trying to determine from which angle the hon. Gentleman is coming from, and whether he means that we should extend the order to cover all organisations or delete the FSA. We have taken the view that, because of its regulatory nature, the FSA needs to have that information to hand in exercising its duties.
The Government have made a judgment that I hope that the Committee will support. I am happy to reflect on the matter and discuss issues relating to the orders
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2007.[ Mr. Hanson. ]
Committee rose at Eleven oclock.
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