Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Masham of Ilton: Before the noble Baroness withdraws her amendment, perhaps I may offer her my support. A few years ago, Barnardo's produced a report on child prostitution which looked in particular at children between 13 and 15 years of age. They were enticed into prostitution by being given drugs.

4 Oct 2000 : Column 1527

Parents of children with drug problems in Glasgow visited us here in the House of Lords. Those parents were desperate because people were giving drugs to their children. This problem is bigger than perhaps the Minister truly realises.

The Earl of Listowel: Perhaps I may voice a concern as regards a particular point. It is quite credible to believe that young people are often supplied with drugs by their peers. For that reason, we may encounter a difficulty here, in that young people may be disqualified from working with other young people, perhaps as the result of a minor episode which occurred when they were still rather immature.

Baroness Blatch: The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, makes an important point and I take that on board. Indeed, if one examines the list of offences in the schedule, the same observation could be made about many of them. However, it is my understanding that when a disqualification order is contemplated by the courts, they have the ability to consider exceptional circumstances. It could be that the discretion conferred on the courts to make such a judgment is the best way to deal with that kind of situation.

Furthermore, we have in place revocation procedures whereby people may apply to the tribunal for a revocation order. If we are discussing young people under the age of 18 giving drugs to each other, while that is not something I condone, the period during which they can apply is somewhat shorter than for those who are over 18. The discretion is in place in the Bill as regards the application of a disqualification order and would deal with that point.

I regard this amendment as extremely important. The supply of drugs to children is the scourge of the age. The problem is so serious that we need to do as much as we can to prevent it. Furthermore, it is serious enough to warrant allowing the Minister time to reflect once again upon it. I shall return to this issue, but if at that stage the Minister is still not minded to accept an amendment along these lines, I shall then seek the opinion of the House. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 4 agreed to.

Clause 26 agreed to.

Clause 27 [Disqualification from working with children: adults]:

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 84:

    Page 12, line 38, leave out ("either") and insert ("one").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 84 I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 85, 87 and 96. I shall not be moving Amendments Nos. 86 and 88 and I shall explain why in a moment.

4 Oct 2000 : Column 1528

Amendments Nos. 84 and 96 are consequential. Perhaps I may therefore move on to the core of this grouping; namely, Amendments Nos. 85 and 87. They introduce additional conditions which, if met, will result in disqualification from working with children.

Amendment No. 85 invites the court to make a determination, having regard to all the circumstances, that a convicted person over the age of 18 is likely or not, as the case may be, to commit a further offence. Amendment No. 85 applies the same condition to a convicted person who is under the age of 16.

As I have just said, I shall not be moving Amendments Nos. 86 and 88 on the ground that, on reflection, the word "further" in Clause 27(5) and 28(4) have the same effect as my amendments would have had. When he comes to reply, I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm my understanding of these amendments. I apologise for that. I need to table these amendments myself and, since I am not legally qualified, I do not always get it right. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: These amendments raise an important issue, crucial to the balance of the scheme in Part II of the Bill. Perhaps I may deal with them carefully and in some detail.

The Government's aim here is to ensure that an effective scheme to protect children is put in place. As currently drafted, the provisions seek to provide the strongest scheme possible but at the same time to ensure that the entire scheme is properly justified by the need to protect children.

There are three main reasons why we do not think it right to adopt the approach of allowing the courts to disqualify from working with children anyone who commits one of the trigger offences listed in Schedule 4. First, the disqualification has a serious impact on an offender's private life. It must be imposed only where clearly justified by the underlying criminal offence. It is no substitute for the imposition of lengthy custodial sentences where these are warranted by the offence and necessary for child protection. That is a vital point.

To make the disqualification available on a discretionary basis might encourage sentencers who are wavering on the issue of custody not to impose it on the basis that the disqualification would be an adequate safeguard. We believe that this would be a retrograde step.

I should also draw the attention of noble Lords to the express provision contained in Section 2 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991, which has now been consolidated in the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000, on custodial sentences. This is that the sentence shall be:

    "where an offence is a violent or sexual offence, of such longer term (not exceeding that maximum) as in the opinion of the court is necessary to protect the public from serious harm from the offender".

That is clear and unequivocal. Where the individual poses a risk to children, his sentence should reflect that. I should note in this context that if there are, for example, compassionate circumstances which make a prison sentence unsuitable, a suspended sentence will also attract the disqualification order.

4 Oct 2000 : Column 1529

Secondly, it is essential that the disqualification is imposed automatically, unless there are very exceptional circumstances, on all serious offenders against children. This adds enormously to the strength and coherence of the scheme. The requirement of a penalty of 12 months' imprisonment as a trigger serves to identify an offender for whom an automatic ban is justified. Underneath this level of penalty, there would have to be unfettered discretion for the courts, which would need to consider the risk likely on an individual case basis.

The discretion envisaged would serve only to dilute and weaken the scheme. It would bring its underlying principle in doubt. It would also add to its complexity, administration, bureaucracy and, inevitably, to its room for error.

I should like to make one further point in this respect. We regard it as essential to get the scheme off to a strong start. We should like disqualification to be seen as inevitable for adult offenders when the conditions are met--which is similar to registration under the Sex Offenders Act--although its severe nature makes the need for some residual discretion important. But that is not to say that, when the scheme has bedded in, the issue could not be revisited if the evidence is that this would add to child protection. As I said earlier, at present such a step would weaken the protections, but obviously this is something we properly need to keep under close review

Thirdly, we believe that it is essential for the disqualification order to be awarded at Crown Court level or higher. Magistrates are not trained or qualified to make such decisions and they would be inappropriate people to award a lifetime ban. The use of 12 months imprisonment as a trigger serves to set the ban firmly at Crown Court level for cases either heard at Crown Court or referred there for sentence.

Of course, award of the ban could still be restricted to Crown Court level with lower penalties allowed. However, this would mean either that the same case could be liable to fundamentally different disposal depending on the mode of trial, even if the primary sentence was the same, or that provision would have to be made to refer large numbers of cases to the Crown Court for sentence to consider the ban. This could lead to great additional costs in time and money to the criminal justice system.

I should also draw attention to the substantial safeguards which exist against those receiving lesser penalties for the criminal offences in Schedule 4, or who are convicted for offences falling outside the schedule, to stop them working with children. First, once the criminal records bureau is up and running, if offenders seek any such work their full criminal records, including spent convictions and cautions, should be available if a check is made countersigned by a registered body. Secondly, if they were already working with children in areas covered by the schemes run by the Department of Health or the Department for Education and Employment and committed a criminal offence with a lesser penalty, they could nevertheless be banned.

4 Oct 2000 : Column 1530

Of course there will be cases--such as that of Gary Glitter--in which the immediate reaction might be, "He should be banned", but the ban is no substitute for the proper prison sentence if risk to children is involved. Moreover, the disqualification order should be seen as part of a whole network of child protection measures and as only one part of what should be an increased culture of vigilance by all organisations involved in working with children, parents and so on.

I must stress that this a difficult, complex and tricky area. While we do not wish to weaken the disqualification scheme, we appreciate that there is a need for complementary measures to deal with those who fall outside the scheme but who may nevertheless, on the basis of a detailed assessment of their individual cases, pose a risk to children. This was debated at great length in another place and we listened very carefully to the concerns raised there. This is an area where we are all working to a common goal--the protection of children.

We have already in place the sex offender order which can be imposed on a sex offender after he or she is sentenced if there is a subsequent cause for concern that the public is at risk of serious harm from them. But this cannot be imposed at the point of sentence, even if there is already evidence of such risk.

To meet concerns over cases where there is a clear need for additional public protection evident at the point of sentence, we are bringing forward a new sex offender restraining order, to be available to senior courts at the time of sentence. We will discuss this in detail later in our consideration of the Bill, but it is perhaps worth saying now that it would allow a senior court, if the circumstances--particularly the need to protect the public--fully justified it, to impose the equivalent of a disqualification order at the point of sentence on any sex offender receiving a custodial sentence. This would be imposed on the basis of the merits of the individual case. This should go a long way towards answering concerns about any apparent rigidity of the present scheme and allow for flexibility without the dilution which would result from the noble Baroness's amendments.

The noble Baroness asked me to confirm her interpretation of her own wording. I am happy to do so. But, for the reasons I have outlined, I suggest to the noble Baroness that it may be advisable for her to withdraw her amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page