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13 Jun 2007 : Column 761

Child Sex Offender Review

12.31 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the child sex offender review. Few crimes are more horrific than sexual offences against children. Ensuring that that most vulnerable group in society are safe should be, and is, at the heart of the Government’s agenda and of my role as Home Secretary.

I am delighted to be able to say that the United Kingdom already has the strongest restrictions on child sex offenders. We have now considered how we can further improve the system to provide maximum protection to our children. In June last year, I commissioned a comprehensive review of the management of child sex offenders. Over the last year, Home Office Ministers and officials have consulted widely with stakeholders in the UK and abroad, including all the major children’s charities. I would like to put on record my thanks to all those who contributed to the review, especially the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), who led the review, and Sara Payne for her support and understanding throughout—and for her long years of campaigning when it seemed that no one was listening.

The Home Office today publishes the report of that review, and I am delighted with the welcome it has received, including that from Sara Payne. The report contains a number of actions that will make short, medium and long-term improvements in the way we manage child sex offenders. The review shows that the multi-agency system we operate to manage high- risk offenders—the multi-agency public protection arrangements, or MAPPA—can work well, and that the professionals working on the front line to protect children deserve praise for the excellent work they do. However, the review has also identified some areas where improvements can be made and our regime can be strengthened: we can share more information with the public; the treatment of offenders can be improved, and MAPPA can be enhanced; and the supervision and management of offenders can be strengthened and improved, including through the use of technology. I shall deal with some of those points in turn.

On the sharing of information, when I commissioned this review I started from the position that information should and could no longer remain the exclusive preserve and monopoly of officialdom. Although the police and other agencies can already disclose information about specific offenders to members of the public, local practice varies, sometimes significantly, and some areas do this far more than others. In addition, there is no statutory obligation on them to do so. I wanted then, and still do, to see much greater consistency between areas and a new presumption in law that, where there is a potential risk, relevant members of the public should and will be told about that risk to themselves or their families. That information sharing will now be both proactive and reactive.

On the proactive side, we will therefore update the law to give police and other local agencies a duty to consider—in every case—whether a member of the public needs to know about an offender’s history in
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order to protect a child or children. There will also be a presumption that the authorities will disclose that information if they consider that the offender presents a risk of serious harm to a member of the public’s children.

However, I want to go further than this and to give the public a more active role and right in this process. At present, information is disclosed only on a limited basis and usually with the consent of the sex offender—himself, in most cases, or herself—for example by agreeing to a criminal records check for employment with children. However, we already know that 90 per cent. of child abuse occurs in different circumstances from employment, by those who are known to the child, such as a family member or close acquaintance. Therefore, we will target paedophiles who deliberately ingratiate themselves into families, and the risk that that carries with it to children.

So in a reactive sense, we have determined that parents and guardians who are concerned about someone with whom they have a relationship, and who has unsupervised access to their children, will be able to register an interest with the police in that person. If that person has convictions for child sex offences, there will be a presumption that those offences will be disclosed to the parent or guardian if it is considered that the child would be at risk, and if disclosure is necessary to manage that risk.

This new system, I believe, is proportionate but significant. Moreover, it will initially be piloted in three police force areas as soon as the legislation can go through—hopefully from April 2008—and will be backed by about £2 million in new resources and overseen by a national stakeholder advisory group. The Association of Chief Police Officers has written to every chief constable to inform them of the plans. I am grateful for the support that has already been given to these plans by Terry Grange, ACPO’s spokesman on these matters. The Ministry of Justice will also be writing to chief probation officers. In addition, we will be committing £150,000 to the piloting of a community awareness campaign, in partnership with the Stop It Now! charity. This will develop messages and deliver information better to equip parents and carers to safeguard children effectively.

I turn to improving the multi-agency public protection arrangements and the treatment of offenders. We intend to introduce national standards for all MAPPA areas to improve the quality and consistency of decision making, and to increase MAPPA’s capacity to manage dangerous offenders. The Home Office and the Ministry of Justice will provide an extra £1.2 million to MAPPA areas to enhance a number of things: to underpin standards and to promote public protection outcomes; to introduce a standardised set of rules of residence for approved premises housing offenders on probation; and to introduce compulsory programmes of purposeful activity to occupy offenders’ time in approved premises, thereby increasing the amount of supervision that they are subject to.

We will also work towards developing a more flexible approach to providing treatment to maximise the number of offenders treated and the effectiveness of that treatment. That will include developing the use of drug treatments alongside existing psychological treatments. For example, anti-androgen drugs and SSRI—selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor—antidepressants have been shown
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to be effective in reducing sexual drive and reducing offending, sometimes significantly. But that will obviously need to be on a voluntary basis to prevent re-offending effectively, because to succeed it relies on the co-operation of the offender. It is not a substitute for punishment or prison, but an essential element of expanding treatment.

I turn now to the use of technology in management and supervision. We will improve the supervision and management of registered sex offenders by increasing the amount of information they must provide to police, such as their email and internet identities; their passport details; and when they begin new relationships with single parents. That is another element of enhanced supervisory mechanisms. They can be further supplemented by the development of new technologies. However, new technologies such as the internet have opened up new avenues of risk for children, and new opportunities for offenders. Our response must match those new risks, and we must ensure that we take the fullest advantage of technology to protect children. So we will increase the use of the internet to publicise and track down high-risk offenders who have gone missing. We will review the use of satellite tracking to monitor offenders on licence and extend it where it is effective and appropriate. We will pilot compulsory use of polygraph—lie detector—tests and this House has already agreed the necessary amendment to the Offender Management Bill earlier this year.

I want to make it plain that polygraphs, or lie detectors, are routinely used by probation officers in the US. I am recommending them, and we intend to use them here not as part of the route to conviction, but as part of the strengthened supervision mechanisms after conviction. Initial trials in this country on a voluntary basis showed that polygraph testing may be useful in the supervision and treatment of offenders, and in preventing further offending. I am now committing £800,000 for further trials and a scientific evaluation of compulsory lie detector testing to determine whether it is an effective risk-management tool and, if so, to adopt it.

These actions, and many more outlined today—20 in all—will bring considerable improvements to the way we manage child sex offenders. We already have probably the most robust regime in Europe, but the improvements will continue our agenda of refocusing the criminal justice system on the rights of the victims—in this case, innocent children—rather than the rights of the offender. Above all, they will further enhance the protection of that most vulnerable group of people in our society, the future generation and today’s children.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I thank the Home Secretary for his statement. I cannot honestly express any surprise, however, that the Government are in an awkward position today. It was unwise to give the impression that they were about to introduce some version of Megan’s law. Senior police officers, probation officers, the official Opposition and even one of his predecessors as Home Secretary predicted exactly what his junior Minister found on his trip to the US: states that have implemented Megan’s law found that up to 25 per cent. of paedophiles went underground. As they were often the most serious
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offenders, the rate of paedophile offending did not go down. Sometimes it went up. The question that has to be answered is whether the Home Secretary’s new compromise proposals will avoid those problems. In particular, will he say how they will ensure that information passed to mothers of at-risk children—clearly, that is a tense environment—stays private? If it does not stay private, might the proposals still drive some paedophiles, and perhaps the worst ones, underground? The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has warned that the police are overstretched and do not have the resources to manage the system properly.

I turn now to the much wider issue of enforcement. No policies will work without competent implementation: they may give a false sense of security, but they will give no protection. Today’s headlines are all about “chemical castration”, which is an odd and probably inappropriate phrase. A voluntary system of medication may well be useful in some cases, as the Home Secretary said, but the reality is that it will not deal with the worst offenders who do not wish to reform.

Another problem has to do with the sex offenders register, which is central to all the Government’s public protection measures in this area. Three years ago, the Police Federation warned the Home Office that a loophole in the law allowed sex offenders to give only vague addresses to authorities. The Home Office did nothing, and as a result more than 300 potentially dangerous sex offenders are unnecessarily at large today without the knowledge of the police.

The Home Secretary, I think wisely, has promised satellite tagging, but in March this year it became apparent that a number of supposedly tagged paedophiles were going completely unmonitored. No technology will work if it is not monitored. Also, we need to understand how many offenders the police are able to keep track of. Low-risk offenders are visited by police once a year, and medium-risk offenders up to twice a year. The police visit the absolutely highest-risk offenders only once every three months. Is that really enough?

However, that is not the worst problem. In August 2002, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were murdered by the vicious paedophile Ian Huntley in Soham. In June 2004, the Government’s Bichard inquiry showed that a massive failing in police intelligence-sharing arrangements had allowed the Soham murders to happen. The report recommended that a

The Home Office set in motion a plan to introduce such a system, and the first stage of it was the cross-regional information-sharing programme, or CRISP for short. That would have allowed every police force access to critical databases, including the intelligence database and at-risk registers of every other force, and the sex offenders register, among other things. The programme was due to take effect this year, but it was cancelled on 31 May—because of a lack of money, according to reports. Its substitute will not be in operation until 2010 or 2011, at least three years late. Therefore, our police will be handicapped, and our
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children kept at risk, for an unnecessary further three years—that is, until almost nine years after the tragic events at Soham.

The Home Secretary said this morning, and has repeated just now, that protecting vulnerable children was his highest priority. In which case, they deserve much better than this.

John Reid: I can cover some of the points that have been raised. On the risk of public disorder, it is not within my power or the power of any hon. Member to create a society without risk. Whatever we do here, there will be a degree of risk—a degree of risk to children and, no doubt, a degree of risk to paedophiles. I have tried to minimise that, but I wish that some of the commentators would show the same sensitivity when it comes to protecting children as they do when it comes to protecting the interests of paedophiles—both are important, but with innocent children, the burden of the obligation on us to go that bit further and err on their side is, to me, one that we should take. So we have reached a system of sharing information that gives more information and, indeed, for the first time, in a significant step, the right to the presumption that information will be given to ordinary members of the public to protect their families where that is relevant. Despite the hysterical accusations that were levelled against me at the beginning, we have done it in a way that safeguards public order and is acceptable to all the children’s charities. That is always what I intended to do. I will come back to the question of Sarah’s law and what we call it later.

On resources, police effectiveness and their lack of resources, first let us note that we should ask the police themselves before we ask the politicians. The police today have welcomed the recommendations and plans that we have outlined. Secondly, we have made it plain that there will be more resources: £1.2 million immediately and £1.5 million for the pilots.

Of course, drugs will not deal with the worst offenders. What will deal with the worst offenders—those recidivist paedophiles who are likely to commit crime again—is indeterminate sentences that keep them in prison for as long as necessary and for life if necessary—proposals which the right hon. Gentleman voted against when we brought them to the House. So let us be quite clear: the drugs element is not meant to deal with recidivists who cannot be released from prison. Our other measures have dealt with that: indeterminate sentences. For those of the lower risk, we are strengthening the supervision by using new technology, and I hope that we will get support for satellite tracking and lie detector tests. In that context, we are saying that the evidence suggests that drugs can be very effective in reducing reoffending—in some cases, by up to 50 per cent.—and we are suggesting that as part of the treatment.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the no-fixed-abode issue. He misrepresents the position. Until three years ago, sex offenders who were of no fixed abode—he mentioned 300, out of the 30,000 who are on the register—did not have to give any address whatsoever. They had an automatic way around giving an address by saying that they were of no fixed abode. What we required of them, even if they were of no fixed abode, was to give the location where they could be found most
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regularly, even if it was a park bench. So that was not a weakening of requirements; it was a strengthening of requirements, compared with the position under the last Government.

As for the Bichard report, why do we not ask Sir Michael Bichard himself? Sir Michael publicly agreed with the decision recommended by ACPO—the police chiefs themselves—that the interim IMPACT system should not be continued owing to concerns about operational effectiveness. So when we are asking these things, why do we not refer to the people who are named in the reports?

That brings me finally to Sarah’s law. It does not matter to me what the law is called—what matters to me is that it protects children more than it did previously—but if I was asking anyone whether or not this merited a welcome as a massive step and as a link with a campaign for Sarah Payne’s law, I would ask Sara Payne, which is precisely what I did as late as yesterday, at the latest meeting that she has had with myself and Ministers. I am delighted that Sara Payne has welcomed this as, in her words, “a massive step forward,” and it is more of a consolation to me that it is welcomed by Sara Payne than that it is opposed by the Opposition Front-Bench team.

Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): The onus on offenders to provide information such as DNA samples if they have not already done so, passport numbers, e-mail addresses and other information is very welcome, but has the Home Secretary any plans for judges to be encouraged to provide the kind of sentences that make it an offence for offenders even to approach children or try to work with them, as part of the sentencing that they have been given?

John Reid: We continue our discussions with Ministry of Justice colleagues on all these matters. Let me make it plain: I have tried in this case to take a significant step forward in the sense that we have now established a principle that people other than those in officialdom should have the right to the information that is necessary to protect their children. We will road- test that; we will pilot it; we will treat it cautiously. It is possible to be both radical and cautious. That is what we will do. If the evidence suggests that that needs to be changed or strengthened, I believe that the Government should and would strengthen it. We would, however, do that in a way, as we have done, that carries all the charities, all the professionals and all the stakeholders involved alongside it. It was predicted that we could not do that; we have done it today, and I wish that the Opposition would be rather less churlish on the political points and a little more welcoming of the substantial step forward.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of the statement and broadly welcome the proposals—although, of course, they raise a lot of questions about how they will work in practice. He is right to say that nothing is more important in this House than our taking the necessary measures to protect all our children.

I welcome the proposals broadly as much for what is not in them as for what is in them. Why did the Home Secretary, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, announce
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in a fanfare of headlines in the News of the World that he would look into importing a version of the US Megan’s law into British law, when he knew at the time that his predecessor, the police and every child protection expert in this country said that it was not a good idea and all the evidence from the United States showed that, far from bolstering child protection, it would undermine it? Why did it take him 12 months to arrive at the same conclusion that most of us had reached before he had even taken up his present position?

Does the Home Secretary not worry, again with the benefit of hindsight, that his various pronouncements have a very deleterious effect on the deepest fears and anxieties of many parents of young children in this country? Why was his office furiously briefing the press last night that it would pilot so-called chemical castration—a phrase that has appeared in headlines all over the country today—when I understand that it is a lurid euphemism for voluntary hormone treatment, which has been available for the past 20 to 30 years?

Why, when the Government rightly pledged in 2004 to build five new treatment centres to deal with the most serious offenders, has not a single one been built? Would that not have been a better use of the Home Secretary’s time and energy over the past 12 months?

Will the Home Secretary publish authoritative evidence of the utility of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor antidepressants, given that medical experts tell me that there are serious doubts about their efficacy as used in Denmark and other countries?

There is much to welcome in the package; but frankly, over the past 12 months, we have seen the constant drumbeat of populist headline-grabbing announcements, as the background to the Home Secretary’s proposals, unveiled today, when the public rightly expect a sober, considered assessment of the evidence about what is the best way to protect our children. Does he not think that the public deserve better?

John Reid: I think that the public deserve better than to be treated with patronising contempt for their opinions on this matter . [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman should distinguish between the sincere views of the public, represented by parents such as Sara Payne, who have gone through hell, and tabloid headlines. If he spent a little more time listening to the public rather than the Westminster elite, perhaps he would be on the side of the public on these issues.

Let us be absolutely plain about why I took 12 months. I said that I would consider this with all the stakeholders and the evidence at home and abroad. The problem with the hon. Gentleman is that he predicted that we would not, should not and could not share this information outside of officialdom. He is on the side of the officials and the professionals; we have now carried the officials and professionals with us. [ Interruption. ] The parents of this country have the right to the information —[ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Members for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) and for Taunton (Mr. Browne) will let the Home Secretary answer. That is courtesy in the House.

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