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Session 2007 - 08
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General Committee Debates

Risk Assessment and Management of Sex Offenders

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Dr. William McCrea
Anderson, Mr. David (Blaydon) (Lab)
Bailey, Mr. Adrian (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op)
Battle, John (Leeds, West) (Lab)
Blackman, Liz (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)
Campbell, Mr. Gregory (East Londonderry) (DUP)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Cooper, Rosie (West Lancashire) (Lab)
Cormack, Sir Patrick (South Staffordshire) (Con)
Creagh, Mary (Wakefield) (Lab)
Davies, Philip (Shipley) (Con)
Davies, Mr. Quentin (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab)
Devine, Mr. Jim (Livingston) (Lab)
Dodds, Mr. Nigel (Belfast, North) (DUP)
Donaldson, Mr. Jeffrey M. (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
Durkan, Mark (Foyle) (SDLP)
Fraser, Christopher (South-West Norfolk) (Con)
Hepburn, Mr. Stephen (Jarrow) (Lab)
Hermon, Lady (North Down) (UUP)
Joyce, Mr. Eric (Falkirk) (Lab)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
McDonnell, Dr. Alasdair (Belfast, South) (SDLP)
McGrady, Mr. Eddie (South Down) (SDLP)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Mulholland, Greg (Leeds, North-West) (LD)
Norris, Dan (Wansdyke) (Lab)
Paisley, Rev. Ian (North Antrim) (DUP)
Paterson, Mr. Owen (North Shropshire) (Con)
Pound, Stephen (Ealing, North) (Lab)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Robinson, Mrs. Iris (Strangford) (DUP)
Robinson, Mr. Peter (Belfast, East) (DUP)
Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
Simpson, David (Upper Bann) (DUP)
Wallace, Mr. Ben (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Wilson, Sammy (East Antrim) (DUP)
John Benger, Mike Clark, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Northern Ireland Grand Committee

Tuesday 17 June 2008

[Dr. William McCrea in the Chair]

Risk Assessment and Management of Sex Offenders

4.30 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Sexual Abuse

1. Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the law in protecting school pupils in Northern Ireland from sexual abuse by teachers and other figures of authority. [210336]
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): The criminal law on sexual offences is undergoing reform through the draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. It is proposed that all sexual activity with children under 16 will be an offence, as will sexual contact with those over 16 but under 18 by those adults, including teachers, who are in positions of trust.
Dr. McDonnell: Can screening, vetting or preventive measures be taken either through the law or through implementation of it? It strikes and distresses me that every now and again we have this teacher, that coach or somebody else popping up who has been guilty of abuse and has taken advantage of their position of authority.
We have the worst of both worlds. Decent people who are trying to provide football coaching or other activities for children are grossly inhibited and nearly afraid to do the job that they have opted to do or to provide the voluntary activity that they have opted to provide, yet continually those who are guilty of sexually abusing children seem to be able to get away with it. They contrive to get around whatever system we have.
Can the Minister ensure that either in the new laws or in the implementation of those laws, screening, vetting and preventive measures will be improved so that we can catch the guilty and not inhibit the innocent?
My hon. Friend asks about prevention. Two elements of it are important here. First, every institution that has children in its care—particularly schools, children’s homes and so on—should have proper child protection procedures in place so that the whole organisation and its staff are aware of their responsibilities to protect the interests and welfare of children.
Secondly—we have recently taken steps to strengthen this procedure considerably—anyone applying for a job in which they would be in a position of trust with children now has to apply through Access Northern Ireland for an enhanced check. That means that there is a check against every police record in the United Kingdom and every list that a Government agency holds of people who are unsuitable to teach and to care for children, so that we can be as sure as possible that people are fit to do the job for which they have applied. Of course, it is incumbent on us all to be ever vigilant about those in our community who would seek to prey on children and vulnerable people.
Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): May I point it out to the Minister that he told the Delegated Legislation Committee considering the draft Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 that
“there will be with key stakeholders and others further consultation on guidance, which will be issued prior to the enactment of the legislation.”?—[Official Report, Second Delegated Legislation Committee, 2 June 2008; c. 18.]
Unless he did so while I was being briefed about another issue by a colleague on this Bench, will he tell us when that guidance will be published? Will he also expand on any consideration that he is giving to protecting teachers from false accusations of abuse?
Paul Goggins: The second matter is now entirely for the devolved Minister for Education, although I will be only too happy to assist if I can, as I still have responsibility for criminal law.
The guidance that will follow the passing into law of the order still has a little way to go, because having been considered by a Committee of the House it must pass through the House of Lords. I am clear about the fact that as soon as it is on the statute book, I want to engage all the statutory and voluntary agencies in helping to ensure that the guidance that flows from it is as well informed as possible. We need to listen to the experts in child welfare and child care to ensure that we get that guidance right. That work will begin immediately the order is on the statute book.
The Chairman: As no other Members are seeking to catch my eye, we shall move on to the main debate.

Risk Assessment and Management of Sex Offenders

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that the debate may continue for up to two and a half hours.
4.37 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the matter of MASRAM (multi-agency sex offender risk assessment and management) and the management of the risk posed by sex offenders living in the community in Northern Ireland.
It is good to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Dr. McCrea. The debate is about the arrangements in Northern Ireland for protecting the public from the risk posed by sex offenders in the community. I know from the many exchanges that I have had while I have held my responsibilities how important the issue is for all Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland and beyond. It might help if I give the Committee some background information, including details of the multi-agency sex offender risk assessment and management arrangements—quite a mouthful—known as the MASRAM arrangements for short. I also want to give the Committee some sense of the future direction of that important work. I hope that, like other criminal justice issues, it will shortly pass to the responsibility of the Assembly.
At the outset, I wish to pay tribute to those involved in delivering the MASRAM arrangements—police officers, probation and prison staff and many others—for their commitment and dedication and their work to protect us all from some particularly unpleasant and harmful offending behaviour. Eight years ago, we had no specific, dedicated multi-agency structures in Northern Ireland that were focused on protecting the public from the risk posed by sex offenders in the community. There were measures in place for supervising offenders, but no method of tying together what individual criminal justice agencies and others were doing with individual offenders as part of their statutory responsibilities. Nor was there any structure to encourage the sharing between those agencies of information that might have made all the difference in reducing the risk of harm to the public. The approach was essentially ad hoc and more or less dependent on informal networks.
The professionals on the ground felt that more needed to be done to harness the skills and knowledge that each agency possessed and to focus them on prevention. As a result, the MASRAM arrangements were born, their roots laid down at an aptly named conference of key stakeholders and professionals, held in 1996 under the working title of No Hiding Place. Despite the progress made, for a long time MASRAM remained practically unheard of across the community at large. Even when it was known, there were many misperceptions and misunderstandings about its work.
It might help if I set the scene by outlining some of the facts about sexual offending in Northern Ireland as well as the scale and nature of the risks involved. Reported sexual crime in Northern Ireland makes up less than 2 per cent. of all reported crime, with about 1,800 cases a year. That rate has remained fairly consistent over the years.
On 31 March, there were 774 offenders living in the community who were subject to the notification requirements of the Sexual Offences Act 2003; they are so-called registered sex offenders. Those are offenders who have been convicted of sexual offences since 1997, or who were convicted before that date but were still serving their sentence at that time.
Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): Does the Minister accept that, although those figures are obviously very accurate, they do not necessarily reflect the total number of abuses committed against young people, simply because of the judicial system and young people’s fear of having to go to court, give testimony and bear witness to what happened to them?
Paul Goggins: I strongly agree with what the hon. Lady says. First, there is under-reporting of sexual crimes. Of course, one reason for that, tragically, is the fact that often the perpetrators of sexual crimes are people who are known to their victims; they may even be members of the victim’s own family, or acquaintances, neighbours and so on. The cloud of secrecy that then envelops such offending behaviour prevents it from coming to the knowledge of the police and therefore prosecutions do not happen.
We also know that sometimes, particularly in cases of rape and serious sexual assault, victims do not wish to follow through with a prosecution, even when they have reported crimes initially to the police. With Minister McGimpsey, last week I launched a major strategy for dealing with sexual violence in Northern Ireland. The aim of that strategy is to provide victims with better personal support and also the opportunity to give evidence that, in the long run, will convict the perpetrators of such terrible crimes.
So, the hon. Lady makes a very important point. It is incumbent on us all to manage those sex offenders whom we know about and also to work with key agencies such as the health service and schools to ensure that, wherever possible, we prevent sexual offending from happening in the first place.
Therefore, MASRAM is a set of arrangements that a number of criminal justice and other agencies have signed up to in order to promote public protection.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The fact is that the arrangements allow for head teachers and others to be aware of sex offenders who may live close to schools, but that information is not available to the wider public. Does the Minister accept that that situation sometimes puts school headmasters and principals in an invidious position where they know information that they cannot give out to the public, even though the public often have an expectation that they should have such information in their possession? How does he intend to deal with that issue, given that many principals feel that they are privy to information that they would like to give out but cannot?
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