Risk Assessment and Management of Sex Offenders

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Paul Goggins: Perhaps a good place to start would be with the final comment from the hon. Member for East Antrim, who reported to the Committee the feelings of revulsion that that professional had in the face of the people whom he had to manage. That takes me back to my first point, which was to pay tribute to those who do that work on our behalf. When one contemplates what some people do to children and vulnerable people, one realises that it is a disgusting thing to have to think about, but we need people who are committed to dealing with and managing those people and reducing the risk that they pose. I am sure that the whole Committee will agree with that.
I shall try to respond to the points that were raised in the time left. This has been a good debate and as I said at the outset, this issue seizes the minds of all Members throughout the House, and particularly those of Northern Ireland Members with regard to this afternoon’s debate. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury praised the work of the criminal justice inspectorate and I join him in that. The inspector frequently causes me to pay attention to matters of concern to him, which is helpful in developing appropriate systems and structures. The hon. Gentleman asked about the extension of the MASRAM arrangements. It is true that we are seeking to extend those, first, by putting them on to a statutory basis and then by extending them to include violent offenders. Of course, we have to do that in a phased way. We cannot put all violent offenders on this system because that would overload it, so it needs to be done carefully. We will start with the most serious violent offenders first and introduce them in a phased, managed way.
I am confident that the new public protection arrangements for Northern Ireland—PPANI—will be robust and will provide the same measure of reassurance in respect of violent offenders that we have had and are developing in relation to sex offenders. In the last full year, seven interim and two full risk of sexual harm orders were made, and in the same period 14 interim and 53 full sexual offending prevention orders were made. So those orders are being used as civil orders to prevent offending, which is precisely what Parliament intended when introducing them.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the parole board’s being an important aspect of managing offenders coming back into the community, particularly when judging when the time is right for them to come back—when the risk has reduced—and overseeing their return to prison if they fail in relation to conditions that are set. He also asked about supervision of those convicted of paramilitary offences. That is an old chestnut in Northern Ireland. There is a view that those convicted of such offences are not suited to the supervisory arrangements available through the probation service, for example. My conclusion is that that assessment is correct. However, that does not mean that the statutory agencies do not take any interest in such people. The Security Service and the police are very interested in those who have engaged in such criminal activity in the past—to ensure that, should they do it again, they can be brought to justice. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, even if those people do not get a probation officer, others still pay close attention to them.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned ViSOR, which is an important database containing information about those who pose risks. It is now making good use of new technology and new systems to ensure that, wherever people are in the system, they can be spotted if they are likely to pose a risk.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the awful murder of Attracta Harron, as did other hon. Members. I am pleased to say that, just a few weeks ago in a Committee room just up the corridor, we put in place the new criminal justice order to do away with automatic 50 per cent. remission. Mr. Harron was able to watch those proceedings and he spoke to a number of hon. Members afterwards. He felt vindicated in his own personal campaign, seeing the wrong that was done to his wife put right so that others could at least be protected better in future. I am sure that all hon. Members who met Mr. Harron on that and other occasions know how pleased he is with the reforms that he has done so much to promote out of his own bitter experience.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann mentioned the awful case of Patrick Coleman. Nothing can ever turn the clock back, although sometimes we wish we could do so. However, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the agencies involved have learned a great deal from that experience and from handling that case. We can only learn from tragedies such as that and try to improve the work of the agencies for the future.
The hon. Gentleman skilfully made a connection between our debate and pre-charge detention and the debates last week. I shall not stray too far into that, although I welcome his support on that measure, and that of his colleagues. In respect of risk assessments of sexual offenders, including of those who may not have a conviction but who might pose a risk, civil orders are in place—the sexual offences prevention order and the risk of sexual harm order—that we can use to pre-empt and prevent such activity. The people involved can therefore be made subject to strict supervision and conditions. Of course, if they break those conditions they can be sent to prison, because breaching a sexual offences prevention order is a criminal offence. Under the new legislation, somebody who breaks those conditions might get an indeterminate sentence and go to prison indefinitely. We are putting in place the kind of pre-emptive measures that can, hopefully, prevent offending.
There is not a standard, one-size-fits-all assessment for every case. There is a standard approach to assessment. In the arguments that the hon. Gentleman put forward, he may have had in mind particular cases where assessments have been carried out. I cannot second-guess in this Committee the assessments carried out by the agencies; the agencies have to make those assessments. Clearly, however, in the case of anybody who is high-risk, who moves into a household where there are vulnerable children and who has committed offences against children in the past, the agencies involved will take extremely close interest in any move of that kind and they will take the necessary action. That action might be child protection measures taken by a social services department to protect the children, or it could be a sexual offences prevention order to prevent that individual from going into that street or neighbourhood, for example. So there are measures in place that could be used, but I will not comment on individual assessments; that is not my appropriate role. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that any move such as that from somebody who is a highly dangerous person would be taken very seriously.
Regarding day release from prison, there are escorted and unescorted day release arrangements. Those arrangements are made after very careful scrutiny and assessment, but the hon. Gentleman raised an important point and again it is about risk management. Sometimes people might think, “Well, why are we allowing these people out of prison at all?”, but we have to manage their reintroduction to the community because if we do not—if we just release them without any preparation—we could be posing a greater risk to the community by doing so.
All these arrangements are subject to very careful assessments. Of course, we then place licence conditions on people coming out of prison. At the moment, unfortunately, that is only the case for those who are placed under licence conditions because of sexual offences or because they have received a life sentence. In future, all prisoners coming out of prison will be subject to those conditions, and I think that that will mean that we can manage them even more effectively.
We have had a debate this afternoon about levels of reoffending by those who have committed sexual offences. In fact, the level of reoffending for those offences is relatively low compared with other forms of offending such as burglary, car crime and so on, for which there are much higher levels of reoffending. Of course, that is not to say that those people who have committed offences no longer pose a risk; many of them do, and that risk must be managed. I will address some of the comments made by the hon. Member for East Antrim shortly.
The level of reoffending for these offences is relatively low, but where I agree with the hon. Member for Upper Bann absolutely is on those who abuse children—paedophiles. I share his view that there is no cure for those who unfortunately have that predisposition. We can help to manage their behaviour and they can help to manage their own behaviour, but there is no ultimate cure for that predisposition. It is something that must be managed and I strongly agree with him on that.
The hon. Member for East Antrim made the important point that, wherever we can, we need to have those sex offenders compliant and working with the authorities to manage their own risk and to be in a position to alert people when they feel that they are losing control of their own behaviour. That is extremely important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South was pre-empted in some of his comments by the hon. Member for Upper Bann, in relation to south Belfast, but I think that there is general recognition of the particular issues that my hon. Friend faces. Of course, he briefly described his constituency, including the universities within it. There is a high level of privately rented accommodation and two of the hostels are in his constituency, which adds to the number of people in his constituency and to some of the issues that he raised.
I say to my hon. Friend that I am happy to meet him outside the Committee, with senior representatives of the MASRAM arrangements, to talk about the specific issues that he faces in his constituency. I say that because he made a very fair and balanced speech about managing the risks against giving people an opportunity, after they have served their sentence, to come out of prison and lead a law-abiding life. He could not have been fairer in what he said, so if my meeting him will be of some help, I am more than happy to make the arrangements and ensure that we have that meeting to take account of the specific issues that he raised.
I say to my hon. Friend and to other members of the Committee that some licence conditions that can be put in place when somebody is released from prison after they have committed a grave sexual offence are very detailed. They can include, for example, a requirement to attend sex offender treatment programmes. They can relate to accommodation or prevent the use of alcohol, association with children or going into particular areas. They can include a requirement to register with a GP. All manner of conditions can be put in place and there are consequences if they are not kept. Conditions are not placed flippantly or with undue care by the authorities. They are thought through and put in place as required.
I was pleased that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute underlined the structure of the MASRAM arrangements. He mentioned communications, which I pay particular attention to because it is important that the public are well informed about what is happening so that they can have confidence in the arrangements, rather than being afraid of them. That is something that I want to improve under the new arrangements.
One of the advances in the new arrangements will be the role of lay advisers. It is important that amidst all the professional judgment and assessment, which are considerable, we also have the voice of the community and an understanding of the impact on the community of the behaviour of such individuals. It is important that lay advisers will now form part of the new arrangements.
Several hon. Members referred to co-location of key professionals, particularly the police and the probation service. We will have in place from October new co-location between the police and the probation service, which will, in a very active way, improve the management of sex offenders in the community.
The hon. Members for Argyll and Bute and for East Antrim asked about sex offender management in the Republic of Ireland and the interplay between the two systems. There are similarities but there are also differences. It is worth reflecting on the fact that the UK and the Republic of Ireland are among only four countries in the world that have a registration system, so we are part of a very small group and even among ourselves there are some differences. I have regular meetings with the Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The last meeting I had was with Mr. Lenihan who, of course, has now changed his role. Sex offender management was the No. 1 item on our agenda and we discussed the whole range of issues.
There are some practical issues that we could, perhaps, fruitfully spend more time considering. I hope to do that in due course with colleagues in the Home Office and in Scotland, because we obviously need to do things on a UK-wide basis where we can. We can consider other ways of improving how information is shared and passed on.
However, I can reassure the hon. Member for East Antrim that if police in Northern Ireland become aware that somebody has committed an offence in another jurisdiction that would require registration had it been committed in Northern Ireland, they may go to the court and get a notification order, which has precisely the same effect. That measure is in place, so if the police have information and concerns, they can act in that way.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute asked about hostels. Five hostels in Northern Ireland are approved for providing accommodation for sex offenders; four of them are in Belfast. Obviously, part of my responsibility is to ensure that they do their job effectively and that there is sufficient capacity. I pay close attention to that, because as we identify more sex offenders and more come out and are subject to registration and conditions, we will need the right number of hostel placements to be available if the authorities are to manage them. I do not deny that.
Funding was raised by several hon. Members. The costs of co-ordination of the MASRAM arrangements and the new arrangements for public protection fall to my Department, and we meet them and the communications costs mentioned by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, but the bulk of the resources for the management of offenders is within the main agencies that do the work. The Prison Service, the probation service and the police are resourced to be able to do that work. The Department provides resources for co-ordination. I am happy to say that we are putting in sufficient resources to ensure that it is done properly.
The hon. Member for Strangford began her remarks by referring to Ian Huntley, and it is true that his horrendous crime gave rise to substantial improvements in how information is recorded and shared—improvements that, I am pleased to say, extend to Northern Ireland. The recent launch of Access Northern Ireland will put in place far more robust systems for ensuring that all information on UK police databases and Government agencies’ and Departments’ lists about unsuitable people is shared across the United Kingdom and with all employers in Northern Ireland.
Further improvements will follow next year with the introduction of the new safeguarding arrangements that will take over from the area child protection committees, which the hon. Lady also mentioned. Although that case was horrendous, we have learned from it and improved our systems.
The hon. Lady mentioned the issue of a time bar. I want to reassure her that a time bar can be applied to civil cases, but not to criminal ones. It does not matter how long ago a criminal offence was committed—if the evidence is there, a conviction can and should be brought.
I thought that the hon. Lady would inevitably touch on the issues of the sex offender order and the age of consent. I was pleased that she prefaced and concluded her remarks by voicing strong support for the vast majority of measures in the order, because they will substantially strengthen the arrangements and send out a very strong message that if people prey on children or seek sexually to abuse vulnerable people, there will be a higher price to pay in terms of the punishment to be faced.
We started our review of sex offences in Northern Ireland from the basis that we would look for a level playing field with the rest of the United Kingdom, unless we saw compelling reasons for creating a difference. That is why we began with the assertion, and concluded, that 16 should be the age of consent. In arriving at that decision, which we did not do lightly, we took into account the evidence from Barnardo’s, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the majority of Northern Ireland’s health and social services trusts, which all supported 16 as the age of consent. Their overriding concern is to remove barriers between advice that they can provide and the young people who need it. That is very important.
In relation to the Assembly’s strong recommendation, the wording of the resolution was “strongly recommends”, but the vote in the Ad Hoc Committee was split five to three, and indeed the Committee Chairman agrees that 16 should be the age of consent. I acknowledge the sincerity of the hon. Lady’s views, but in all conscience, having looked at all the evidence, I think that 16 is right.
I agree with the hon. Lady that it is a shame that such a huge piece of legislation is being taken through by Order in Council. As a Home Office Minister, I took through the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and there is no comparison between the time spent considering that Act on Second Reading, in 18 Committee sittings, and on Report and Third Reading and the one and a half hours spent debating the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008. However, she knows the solution—I shall say no more than that.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): There is a solution—introduce the measure in primary legislation rather than under the Order in Council procedure. The simple devolution of such matters is not the only solution. Other solutions would be equally adequate.
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