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13 Jun 2007 : Column 768

John Reid: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The parents of this country have the right to the information that is necessary directly to protect their children. I briefed one thing a year ago: I said that it was no longer acceptable that officialdom should have the exclusive monopoly of information concerning the risk to parents and their children, and that I would examine a way to provide such information to them, commensurate with safeguarding public order.

I have done that. That is not a source of disappointment to those who have campaigned for it; it is a source of relief that, after years of asking for it, in the face of opposition from people such as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), we have delivered that. I would have thought that he would celebrate that.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that the reconviction rate for prisoners who have attended the sex offender treatment programme is as low as 5 per cent. Unfortunately, that is not applicable to those offenders, including high-risk offenders, who have not attended the sex offender treatment programme. I remain deeply concerned about the offenders currently in prison who refuse to enter into sex offender treatment programmes. What does he intend to do to address that problem?

John Reid: I have already said—and I repeat this—that it is not possible for me to stand at the Dispatch Box and promise a country without risk, in which children will never be under threat and paedophiles will cease reoffending as a result of treatment. There is a range of strength of paedophilic drive, which requires a range of responses. In some cases, the tendency to recidivism is such that, unfortunately, for the protection of society, some people may have to spend their whole life in jail. In other cases, although offenders are released, I want to be assured that they will be subject to the maximum scrutiny and supervision, which is why I am trying to strengthen the measures. Where it is possible to reduce the reoffending rate by psychological or psychiatric treatment, supplemented in some cases by drug treatment, we ought to use everything that is available. That is the only answer I can give to my hon. Friend. Such is the range of strength of the tendency to reoffend in these cases that we need the full gamut of treatment, protection and supervision to be deployed appropriately.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): The Home Secretary is right to adopt the view that we should protect children above all others. I discovered the importance of that when I was deeply involved in the preparation of the Protection of Children Act 1978, which involved a major shift from the so-called liberal attitudes of the 1960s. I suspect that he would acknowledge that one of his biggest problems in drafting legislation to achieve that objective is the panoply of human rights legislation, including the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), myself and others have mentioned, there are also the problems inherent in the charter of fundamental rights, which is currently under discussion. Will he therefore simply tell us that we will protect children in this country by legislating on our own terms in Westminster and that
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we will simply introduce into any such legislation the words “notwithstanding the Human Rights Act or the European Communities Act”?

John Reid: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I am convinced that what I have proposed can be done in compliance with the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act. Of course, if we found that the protection of our children was somehow diminished by any convention, here or internationally, we would have to take the necessary steps to make sure that our children were protected.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, through Operation Awaken, the police in Blackpool have developed some good joint working with the local authority, the Connexions service and other agencies to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation? Will he reassure me that, where there is such good joint working, it will be further enhanced, and, where there is not, it will be developed?

John Reid: Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend makes an important point. Both our overall regime and the multi-agency public protection arrangements are enormously strong at present—certainly when compared with other countries. In general, we have a very robust regime indeed, as a result of the sex offenders register and the Prison Service, the probation service and the police working together on MAPPA. I have tried to accept that we may need to strengthen supervision and treatment, and, where appropriate, to strengthen the information to allow the public to protect their children. At the same time, we need to do that on the basis of the framework of MAPPA. The police, the probation service, the charities and everyone else who is working so effectively—as my hon. Friend has pointed out—have been consulted and, I am glad to say, carried with us on this occasion. As we pilot the measures, we will attempt to do the same again.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): When a conviction is disclosed, what arrangements will there be for the counselling of the woman and, most importantly, the children who might have been exposed to the attentions of the paedophile?

John Reid: That is precisely why we will pilot the measures. Obviously, we are trying to achieve a balance when it comes to safeguarding and protection. Whenever information is released, other risks open up. We have tried to have a safeguard that is commensurate with giving the other information. We can rely on the police to handle matters sensitively in the vast majority of cases. Sometimes this is already done, but there is no statutory presumption that it should be. We want to change that and put resources in. As we pilot the measures, we will find out whether counselling or an additional panoply of services are required.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s proposals and think that the measures are very sensible. Does he agree that many sex offenders display their behaviour at a much earlier stage, in their childhood? What does he plan to do to tackle the issue of young children who sex offend, in
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order to prevent them from becoming dangerous adults? Will he consider targeted, specially funded programmes to address their behaviour?

John Reid: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is a tragic truth that in many cases a sex offender may himself—and it is mainly men—have been abused. There is a cycle of abuse. We continue to look at whatever projects we can so that we can intervene at the earliest possible stage. What I have suggested today is not in any way a substitute for punishment after conviction or the panoply of treatment and interventions that we try to carry out through the work of forensic psychiatrists, psychologists and so on. The measures supplement those things and we continue to look at the area that my hon. Friend has mentioned to see how we can more effectively deal with that issue.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I welcome the statement as part of a long series of statements that I anticipate we will have on this difficult area. I want to draw the Home Secretary out on a couple of points. First, we have been waiting for the statutory instrument relating to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and encryption for many years. Can he give us a date for that? Secondly, he will be aware that computer-generated imaging is now extremely sophisticated and is being used by paedophiles for what we could call cybersex between children and between adults and children. Will he comment on his and his Department’s thinking on that area?

John Reid: On the first point, I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman in order to be precise about the dates. His second point was a good one. The police-led online protection service, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection service—CEOP—has been looking at that very issue. We have brought in a range of measures to try to intervene to, at the very least, reduce the opportunities that the internet offers for grooming by paedophiles, to alert parents, and to try to get kite standards applied to the systems of software that alert parents if certain words or expressions are used. As regards the adult-to-adult transfer of graphics that are not actually pictures, he is absolutely right to say that those images are very realistic. We are presently examining how we can outlaw that, or bring it into line with the measures relating to normal photographs.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): May I reassure my right hon. Friend that my constituents will welcome this announcement? As someone who worked with paedophiles, I think that the announcement about satellite tracking will be particularly reassuring to my constituents. The sad case of Maddie McCann has affected the whole country. It is interesting that the press have stated that there are organised British paedophile groups in Portugal and Spain. I wonder whether he has given any consideration to restricting the travel of such individuals.

John Reid: Absolutely. I do not want to appear complacent when pointing to the successes that we have, on occasions, but if my hon. Friend checks the latest report from CEOP—the online protection service that we have established—he will see that we have
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recently smashed three such rings. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) and I recently visited some of the people who work on CEOP, including Jim Gamble and his staff, as they monitor some of that stuff. I thank them for performing a pretty gruesome task but a necessary one, and for the success that they have had.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I welcome the announcement by the Secretary of State and believe that it will help to reduce some of the risks, but I have one question. In his statement the right hon. Gentleman said that there would be a presumption that the police would disclose offences when a parent comes to them and draws attention to a relationship, but there are two caveats—two ifs. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that there are no circumstances in which, when a parent draws it to the attention of the police that they have entered into a new relationship and the police know that that relationship involves a paedophile, the offence will not be disclosed to the parents?

John Reid: I cannot account for human error, so to give such a blanket guarantee is not within my power. All human organisations, including the police service, and those involved in the MAPPA arrangements, the Prison Service and the probation service, can make a mistake. However, for the first time there will be a legal duty of presumption that where there is a risk at all, the parent should be informed. At the very least, if a decision is taken that someone who has such a conviction is not to have that information passed on, there would have to be pretty extraordinarily good reasons for it and those would be noted, so that if anything ever went wrong, people would be entitled to ask why there was alleged incompetence or negligence in that case, reflected in the decision not to release the information. That should be done where there is a risk. The procedure would be that the parent would register their interest with the police and register the name of the person. The police would check the records. If it was found that the person had a police record, they would, under the MAPPA arrangements, have to make the decision to release that. The presumption would be that where there was a risk, they would have to do so.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): I welcome the proposals. My right hon. Friend referred to new technologies opening up new avenues of risk for children. As he knows, we have developed in the UK the best system for bringing together internet service providers, charities, police and so on to deal with those who download images of child abuse—an evil multi-million pound industry. Will he ensure that the excellent CEOP and Jim Gamble, to whom he refers, get sufficient resources for continuing to oversee their work on online exploitation of children? Will he also look at my ten-minute Bill on the mushrooming use of child tracking devices and the need to license those because they are being bought by parents to give their children safety and security, but without licensing, the devices can just as easily be accessed by paedophiles for entirely the opposite reason?

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John Reid: I concur with the general sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend and with her specific comments about Jim Gamble, CEOP and the work that it does. I note the request that it be funded and resourced to meet the task. Of course there are always many demands, but I am glad to say that only recently we supplied an additional £400,000 for referral tests so that it is better equipped when people bring problems relating to the internet or suggestions that it could deal better with some aspects of interventions. We will continue to review the resources and, as I said, we have recently made more resources available.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I broadly welcome the Home Secretary’s approach, which I believe is incremental, as there will be still further steps to take in the future. I want to be constructive. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, because of a technicality, some child protection agencies and Church authorities are unable to put known child sex offenders who are Church ministers on the Government’s sex offender register, even when those ministers have admitted committing sexual offences against children in the past, for which they would and should go to prison if they committed those offences now? That prevents the authorities from taking appropriate action to protect children. Will he review this serious gap in the law?

John Reid: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s welcome and for the comments that he makes. I hope he will allow me to check that out and satisfy myself. We would all be surprised if a cassock and a collar were claimed as an exemption from the registration to which others are subject.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I welcome the proposals that my right hon. Friend has outlined. Can he say more about the nature of the public involvement and disclosure? I have seen probation officers bravely involve a residents council chair and other key community figures in the management of a sex offender in the community. Might such bold but effective good practice be underpinned by the terms of the disclosure of information in the new legislation?

John Reid: There are three elements to such information sharing. The first is the proactive obligation, which will be imposed upon the MAPPA officials and authorities to disclose any risk that they discover to the subject of that risk—the guardian or parent of the children in question. Secondly, an obligation is placed upon MAPPA to respond to an inquiry from someone who has a legitimate interest in the protection of children and registers it. Thirdly, we have not mentioned a great deal today the general education and information that the police have carried out in certain areas. We have provided several hundred thousand pounds so that that can be done better. Part of that is related to the nature of neighbourhood policing and the sort of partnership that my hon. Friend has identified. Terry Grange, the spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, this morning indicated the intention to try and carry that forward within the general framework of what we are doing.

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Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): In his statement the Home Secretary said that SSRIs have been shown to be effective in reducing sex drive and reducing offending. If he could place the published research evidence for that in the Library, it would be helpful. Following a request from me this morning, neither his office nor the Royal College of Psychiatrists could lay their hands on anything specific. I understand that it is a difficult area, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman is right to go ahead with the treatment, but if the evidence is not conclusive at present, would he consider doing that as part of a trial so that in a couple of years we can get a definitive answer once and for all and enable it to be used worldwide? He would be contributing to the worldwide research knowledge on that basis.

John Reid: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We try to learn from the rest of the world—in this case, Scandinavia and one or two other places. In a sense, we both want to proceed cautiously within a framework of treatment and then perhaps pass on our experiences to the rest of the world. At the appropriate stage we will try and issue a compendium of information. Many discussions and consultations have taken place in the United Kingdom and abroad showing the upside and the downside of some of the proposals, and we will publish that. We would do that in a manner that had regard not only to the benefits but to the risks, as we would with any medication.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. The proposals therein are well thought out and proportionate and will help towards protecting vulnerable children. Does he agree that the handling by certain sections of the press of this particularly difficult subject has left a lot to be desired, and has probably had more to do with circulation wars than with child protection?

John Reid: We have to distinguish between public opinion and some of the tabloid headlines. The truth is that ultimately, in a free country, none of us here is responsible for the press and the way in which they portray things. However, what I will not do in general terms is criticise campaigning newspapers for taking up issues. In a free country, issues that have the overwhelming support of the public should be aired. To be truthful with my hon. Friend, I was amazed at the hysteria that was caused by my simple proposition that some people might be entitled to information to protect their children, so I do not think that the alleged hysteria is all on one side.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): May I ask the Home Secretary for some reassurance on two practical aspects of the registering of an interest by a parent about a particular individual prior to the disclosure of any potential conviction information? First, will the Government ensure that that process is not unduly complex and that it is straightforward? Secondly, will it be possible for that to be done confidentially, so that it does not come to the notice of the person about whom information is sought, and so that women—it will, as the Home Secretary has said, normally be women—are not deterred from making those requests for fear of damaging or losing a relationship for apparently no good reason?

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John Reid: The hon. Gentleman makes two good, reasonable and constructive points. The answer to both is yes. The third point, which is implicit in what he said, is that we try wherever possible to ensure that the information is conveyed where it most effectively reduces the risk and does not go wider. It is not possible to guarantee that that will never happen. During the pilots, we will want to try to ensure that what he requests will happen. There is an array of weaponry, metaphorically speaking, available to the police, to deal with any public disorder issues that may arise.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): I welcome the Home Secretary's recognition of the importance of the use, and indeed the abuse, of technology in tackling those issues. The Internet Watch Foundation will no doubt have informed him that there is growing concern about the proliferation of commercial child abuse sites, 90 per cent. of which involve children under 12 and 60 per cent. of which involve grade four or five images—the worst possible images. In that context, will he look at tackling e-payment systems that allow paedophiles to bypass the ordinary credit card or banking payment systems, so that they can anonymously get on to those child abuse websites and perpetuate child abuse in this country and around the world?

John Reid: That is a very good point. As the House may know, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), chairs a taskforce on those matters, and it includes the internet service providers. We have touched on some of the problems and challenges that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) mentioned, and we will continue to do so. As she points out, the increasing sophistication of the internet is not always an opportunity for good and we have to be careful that we are ahead of the use by paedophiles of the opportunity to make contact with and to groom children.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The Soham tragedy was a ghastly, wicked affair and obviously it hit East Anglia particularly hard. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) has asked about the cross-referral information-sharing programme, which was postponed. Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition asked a similar question earlier and did not get an answer, either. That programme will not require legislation. Why has it been delayed? The legislation will be the weaker without it.

John Reid: I think that everyone in the House is committed to making sure that the recommendations put forward by Bichard are implemented as effectively, operationally and speedily as possible. Twenty-one out of the 31 recommendations are already deemed to have been substantially delivered, so it is not quite as simple as the hon. Gentleman makes out. Two thirds of the recommendations are already delivered in substance, and that is agreed. One, which I have already mentioned—the interim IMPACT system—is, with the agreement of Sir Michael Bichard, not being continued owing to concerns about operational effectiveness.

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