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28 Feb 2007 : Column 935

However, given the self-selecting sample involved in the pilot and the lack of a randomised control group for comparison purposes, it is not possible to attribute with any certainty the new disclosures to the effect of the polygraph test. On average, only 43 per cent. of those eligible volunteered for testing. We, of course, need to be concerned about what was going on with those who did not volunteer.

We have listened to, and are now responding to, points raised in the very helpful debates in Committee. We believe that, if polygraphy is to be taken forward, we should do so cautiously, learning from small-scale implementation. That will give us an opportunity to assess any problems of process, as well as making the expected benefits clearer.

Government new clause 8 introduces mandatory polygraph testing for the categories of offender that I mentioned earlier, to be piloted initially in three probation regions. We will commission a scientific research study, to run alongside the mandatory testing pilot, with a view to determining whether the polygraph test is efficacious and whether the use of evidence collected genuinely facilitates effective offender management without disproportionately affecting the rights of those tested.

Taking all the above into account, we think the proposal represents a sensible way forward. To ensure consistency in testing and post-test procedures, the new clause provides the Secretary of State with the power to issue clear procedural guidance, or rules, which will be developed in order to ensure that polygraphy is conducted in line with the best evidence of what works. In addition, there will be appropriate safeguards to ensure that polygraph testing is undertaken by suitably qualified people, following set procedures and using approved equipment. The safeguards that we intend to put in place will also cover what use is made of the information gained from polygraphy. We will set standards for any reports that are produced on offenders by polygraph officials.

Of course, we need to concern ourselves with the rights of those we intend to subject to polygraph testing. In particular, we have considered whether polygraphy interferes with an individual’s right to a private life as set out in article 8 of the European convention on human rights. The use of a polygraph condition will have to be considered carefully in each individual case, as the convention requires. However, as a general rule, we anticipate that where article 8 is engaged, the conducting of a test and the potential use of the resulting evidence will not amount to an unjustified or disproportionate interference with an article 8 right, because of the clear benefits to effective offender management that we believe will accrue from the imposition of the polygraph condition.

As I have explained, offenders will be required to undertake polygraph tests as a condition of their licence on release from prison. The offenders to whom the condition will apply will be selected by prison, probation and, where appropriate, Parole Board staff, who may be informed by multi-agency public protection arrangements. As will be clear, we want to establish whether information from the polygraph will provide offender managers with an additional risk management tool that is useful in its own right.

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The use of polygraph material raises a number of difficult issues that we will need to consider carefully once we have clear data demonstrating its effectiveness. However, one decision that we are more than content to make now is that polygraph evidence should not be used in criminal proceedings against the individual who has taken the test. We want to make that clear in the Bill. Only if it can be shown that polygraph testing is a useful and objective additional tool in assessing and managing the risk posed by sex offenders, will we return to the House to seek an affirmative resolution to extend mandatory testing to all probation areas.

We anticipate that a study of such magnitude and sensitivity will take at least three years to complete. Given the safeguards, and bearing in mind the potential benefits of polygraphy in protecting the public against the dangers of sexual abuse, I ask the House to accept the new clause.

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): These proposals give us the opportunity to debate the important issue of child protection and to ensure that there are appropriate measures to prevent the trust and innocence of childhood from being shattered by sexual abuse. There is no doubt of the importance of the issue.

In 2000, a study of nearly 3,000 children conducted by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that 21 per cent. of girls and 11 per cent. of boys surveyed reported having been sexually abused or assaulted. The issue is complex and sensitive, and one of the challenges is to assess the scale of offending and to ensure that those who have suffered abuse are properly supported in their recovery from trauma and allowed to bring their abusers to justice.

The new clauses on the use of polygraph testing reflect wording introduced in the draft offender management Bill of 2005, and the Government’s thinking and approach are largely the same as in that measure. As the Minister said, the proposal builds on the pilot study conducted by Professor Don Grubin of Newcastle university—the results of which were published just before Christmas. The emerging findings from the pilot indicate that in up to 80 per cent. of cases the offender made new disclosures relevant to their behaviour, supervision or treatment and that 94 per cent. of probation staff found the information gained from the polygraph “helpful” or “very helpful” in assessing and managing the risks posed by offenders. We should examine that information closely when considering the wider application of polygraphs to ensure that the public, and children in particular, are protected from paedophiles and those who want to commit sexual abuse.

A number of issues and questions flow from the proposals, however, and I hope that the Minister can respond to them when he winds up the debate. As he pointed out, the initial pilot study was in many ways self-selecting, so it is important properly to reflect that aspect in the further three studies to which he referred. Can he provide further detail about how the Government will ensure that safeguards are put in place and appropriate measures are effected to address the self-selection issue in the follow-on studies? If polygraphy is to have wider application, it is essential that its effectiveness on those who may not want to take a polygraph test is properly examined and assessed.

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On the mandatory testing requirement, the Minister said in Committee that he would consider carefully the ambit and scope of the application of polygraph testing and whether it was appropriate to limit it to offenders who had been subject to imprisonment for 12 months or more. Given the necessity to ensure the widest possible public protection, can he explain the approach that he is taking and why high-risk sex offenders may not fall within the current scope of the mandatory testing regime?

In Committee and during his speech today, the Minister highlighted the need for training in the conducting of tests and for safeguards in respect of the equipment to be used, and I note his comments. However, what further requirements will there be to ensure that information gained as a consequence of polygraph testing is used appropriately and effectively, and that if heightened risk of offending is identified appropriate action will be taken? Those are key aspects of the effectiveness of any further roll-out of the proposal, so some more detail about the arrangements would be appropriate.

There will be real concerns that the introduction of mandatory polygraph testing and the ability to attach it to licence conditions may be seen as a means of allowing the earlier release of convicted paedophiles. Seeing perpetrators released early could deal a severe blow to the survivors of abuse and could heighten risk, so what assurance can the Minister give that prisoners convicted of a specific sexual offence will not be released earlier as a result of the proposed measures?

If the proposed arrangements are to work effectively, they have to be underpinned by the consistent application of multi-agency public protection arrangements, so what steps has the Minister taken to ensure that the disturbing failures in confirming and identifying the location of offenders have been addressed? It is utterly unacceptable that offenders can provide addresses such as “park bench” before their release from custody. It is essential for us to know that there are effective systems for monitoring and tracking offenders. Can the Minister assure us that suitable measures are already in effect, or are being introduced, to ensure that appropriate address details are provided and are being followed up? Are the police actively checking addresses given by offenders and gaining access to ascertain that the offender is indeed resident at the address?

The use of global positioning systems and other technology to assist with the tracking of offenders has been suggested. Given that, as the Minister said, the Government will shortly report back to the House on their overall assessment of child sexual abuse issues, it would be helpful if he clarified the Government’s thinking on that matter. Are they actively considering GPS in that context?

1 pm

One issue that I touched on initially was victims. The NSPCC and Barnardo’s certainly provide fantastic support to child victims following abuse, helping them through the process. Often, though, it can take years for the abuse to come out and for the person who has suffered it in childhood to receive therapy. Just before
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the February recess, I had the opportunity to visit a charity based in Devonport, Plymouth, which specialises in dealing with male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. It is one of only four organisations known nationally to deal with the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse. What I saw there was quite humbling, quite shocking and disturbing, but at the same time quite uplifting, because I saw what can be done to assist people who have suffered from childhood sexual abuse to move on and lead comparatively normal lives. The sad fact is that many suffer from drug abuse, mental health issues and problems of self-respect because of what they suffered during their childhood and the decades of impact that it has had. In looking for solutions to deal with and stop childhood sexual abuse, it is essential that the victim’s voice is heard loudly and clearly. The work of organisations that provide support and assistance to those who have suffered abuse, even though that abuse might come to light years and years later, is essential too.

In that light, the work of Twelve’s Company in Devonport is instrumental. Although its work is limited to people based in Devonport, its findings over the past few years are certainly worth putting on the record. In its experience, the average age when a male survivor first experiences ongoing and prolonged sexual abuse is just nine years old. Within two years of being abused, most survivors have their first taste of drugs or alcohol. For many, 11 years old is when they start a long battle with addiction, and by the time that they are 14, criminal activity will be funding their habits. That gives an impression of the damaging impact of childhood sexual abuse and the decades of dealing with the problem that follow. We need to remember that most seek support only in their mid-30s, even though, as the figures suggest, the abuse may well have started when they were only nine years old.

In considering the proposals, it is important to focus on strangers—those who might be predatory paedophiles—but in the context of the wider debate, it is worth recognising and putting on record the fact that about 80 per cent. of victims know the attacker who perpetrates the sexual offence, whether they be a relative, friend, employer or some other person in a position of trust who is known to them.

In finding appropriate solutions to deal with this complex area, it is essential from a public protection aspect to focus on the 20 per cent. at whom these measures are largely, though not exclusively, targeted. However, if we want to provide effective longer-term solutions to the problem of dealing with childhood sexual abuse, it is essential to recognise that figure of 80 per cent. A multi-agency approach needs to be applied if we are to provide solutions that will have a long-lasting effect on this most significant, important and serious issue.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I thank the Minister for tabling the new clauses. As he knows, I raised this issue in Committee and tabled new clauses along similar lines. The issue was drawn to my attention particularly by Barnardo’s, which pointed out that the Bill which fell at the 2005 general election had similar clauses and that, therefore, it was not really clear why they had not appeared in the Bill before us. I am grateful to the Minister for responding so
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positively—and I look forward to his responding similarly positively to amendments that I may move later this afternoon.

How to protect children who have been the victims of sexual abuse is, of course, a difficult issue and Barnardo’s and similar charities really know what is happening. Barnardo’s runs 11 specific projects that deal with children and families where children have been sexually abused. As has been pointed out, the common perception, which is sometimes driven by press coverage of some extremely distasteful and unpleasant crimes, is that the real danger to children is from strangers snatching them off the street. That can of course happen and it is appalling when it does so, but the fact is that the vast majority of incidents of child sexual abuse are, sadly, committed by a relative or family member or someone known to the family who is regarded as a friend.

That is why charities such as Barnardo’s want to explore the proposed mechanism to provide greater protection rather than going down the road of openly naming people who are convicted sex offenders—sometimes referred to as Sarah’s law. In the light of that pattern of 80 per cent. of perpetrators being relatives, friends or in the family, there is one obvious flaw with that approach. If that person’s name were made public, there would be a great danger of the abused child’s name being made public. That problem really must be thought about and dealt with carefully.

Barnardo’s pointed out that the present multi-agency public protection arrangements allow for individuals and agencies to be given details of registered sex offenders, where it is thought necessary. Barnardo’s drew our attention to one example of a convicted sex offender who, on release, was targeting single mothers and trying to build up a relationship with them—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Perhaps it would help if the hon. Gentleman mentioned polygraphs now and again.

Mr. Gerrard: I am trying to argue the case for moving in the direction of the new clause rather than some of the alternatives suggested, but I will not try your patience by going on much longer on this tack, Mr. Speaker. If I may just mention it, in that particular case, when this man tried to form those relationships after his release from prison, those operating MAPPA—multi-agency public protection arrangements—were able to get involved and pass on the information.

On polygraph testing, it is right to do it through a pilot scheme. As has been pointed out, we have had a pilot that appeared to offer some real success, but it had the disadvantage in the longer term that it was carried out only on people who were willing volunteers. We obviously need to ensure that it can work efficiently in that wider context. I appreciate the Minister’s point that we need to take some time to make absolutely sure that it works effectively.

As I said at the outset, I am grateful to the Minister for taking this issue into account. The children’s charities and particularly Barnardo’s felt quite strongly about this approach as an avenue that should be explored in the interest of better protecting children from convicted sex offenders who had been released on licence.

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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I first pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) and for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), who made a substantial contribution in Committee?

I thank the Minister for the proportionate way in which he has introduced these proposals, and for the careful way in which he has expressed the Government’s intentions. In considering the issue of polygraph testing, the unworthy thought came into my head that some integral arrangement attaching a polygraph to the Dispatch Box could be of huge benefit to the House—but of course it would give a negative result in all cases, and would therefore lose any value.

It must be appropriate for us to consider any measures that will enhance the protection of the public in relation to sex offenders who are in the community. Several aspects of the Government’s proposals puzzle me, however. Why is the measure being introduced in the form of a new clause, albeit in response to amendments tabled in Committee by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), given that it was a Labour manifesto commitment to introduce the regime? It was incorporated into the previous Bill, which did not see the light of the statute book. It might therefore have been expected to be an integral part of this Bill from the start. Was there a concern related to the original drafting of the Bill, which has now been allayed to enable the Government to table the new clause at this stage?

The second big issue is the admissibility of material derived from polygraph testing, including statements made under polygraph testing conditions and the physiological responses to questioning in those circumstances. The Minister has tabled an amendment that makes it clear that the material obtained from polygraph testing under this arrangement will not be used in court proceedings, and he is absolutely right to do so. Will he go a little further and make it clear that the Government do not intend to introduce polygraph testing in other circumstances—for example, in the context of police investigations? Some countries allow polygraph testing during such investigations, and some allow such evidence to be admissible in court. We would need a great deal of persuasion to support that as a general principle, and it would be helpful if the Minister could differentiate between this use—which, as I see it, is a matter of the management of an individual—and the collecting of evidence, which would be more difficult to accept.

I think that the Minister said that he could certify that the provisions in the new clause were compliant with requirements of the Human Rights Act 1998. I am glad that that is the case, and that there will be no need for any derogation in order to implement the proposals.

Does the Minister agree that, to establish the effectiveness of the pilot schemes, we shall need not only quantitative information—on recidivism, and so on—about the use of polygraphs, but qualitative material that can be analysed? What matters is not whether someone has failed a polygraph test under the supervision of probation officers, but whether that has resulted in an effective change of regime, and a change in the way in which the case is managed. We would
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need to know what kind of change had been made, and how effective it had been in producing the desired result—namely, the protection of the public and the rehabilitation of the offender.

Is it the Government’s intention to produce a code of conduct for the operators of polygraph technology, so that everyone can be clear about the right way not only of operating the equipment—a technical issue—but of determining the kind of questions that it is appropriate to ask? Such questions should not be too intrusive into the personal life of the individual, but should be designed specifically to address potentially offending behaviour.

1.15 pm

I have no reason not to support the proposed pilots. Anything that can be done to mitigate offending behaviour, particularly among this group of individuals, is to be welcomed. As we know, there is a common characteristic among many sex offenders of behaviour that is intended to deceive and to obscure their activities. In the light of that, and of the compulsive nature that is exhibited by many sex offenders, polygraph testing might become a very valuable tool. We do not know whether that will be proved in practice, but that is what the pilots will enable us to establish. I hope, for the sake of every child in the country, that they are successful.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Subsection (2)(b) of new clause 8 refers to the bar on the use of a polygraph test on anyone under the age of 18. I raise this point because I am aware of the excellent work with young people who have been victims of sexual abuse and who have themselves begun to commit offences relating to sexual abuse that is carried out by an organisation in my constituency. Almost all the young people assisted by that organisation are under the age of 18. I know that the organisation carries out careful management of the young people. I have had discussions with the representatives of the organisation, and they might consider the option of introducing polygraph testing, yet I note the bar on its use for people under 18. Will the Minister tell me why that bar has been proposed?

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I apologise to the House and to the Minister for being late and for missing the Minister’s opening remarks. He knows that, even though I did not serve on the Bill’s Committee, I have a deep interest in the subject of the protection of people from paedophiles and sex offenders.

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