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Baroness Blatch: I am a great supporter of the home detention curfew. I introduced it into this House a very long time ago. I did not receive much support from noble Lords opposite when they were sitting on these Benches. It has many applications which are beneficial to the criminal justice system. But the home detention curfew is a cop-out for many people. One of the things which destroys public confidence in the criminal justice system is to hear in court or read that someone has been given a six-month prison sentence and to see them home in a matter of weeks. That takes a lot of explaining to the public.

Obstructing a policeman in the course of duty is a serious matter. If somebody receives a six-month sentence, they should not be out in the community until they have served it. I am concerned about public confidence. I make no apologies for the fact that Amendment No. 148 would blow the scheme out of the water.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 60, as amended, agreed to.

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 143:


(" . Schedule (Amendments of the Sex Offenders Act 1997) (which amends the Sex Offenders Act 1997 in respect of persons who are subject to the notification requirements of that Act to make provision, in particular, for--
(a) altering the requirements,
(b) increasing penalties,
(c) enabling courts to make restraining orders, and
(d) improving the information held about such persons),
is to have effect.").

The noble Lord said: I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 157 and 157A.

This is more of Sarah's law. The aim of the amendments is to improve child protection. It would not be right to delay these measures until some of the more intractable issues relating to sex offences have been considered. We shall discuss later other amendments relating to the Sex Offenders Act 1997. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has tabled Amendment No. 157A, which I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, will address. It would insert in the Bill some of the details that might be required when a person required to register wished to leave the country.

With the exception of the proposed new sex offender restraining order, all the order-making powers in the amendments will apply to Northern Ireland as well as to England and Wales.

I shall outline the key measures. First, we propose to shorten the time before initial registration must take place from 14 days to three days, to require that registration is done in person and to allow the police to take fingerprints and a photograph at that stage. That

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reduction in the time limit is necessary to avoid the possibility of a sex offender disappearing within the 14 days presently allowed for.

The taking of fingerprints and photographs will allow certainty over the identity of the person registering and provide a visual impression of his current appearance. We believe that three days is the minimum to allow a sex offender time to make arrangements for accommodation and to locate and visit his local police station. We shall return to that on later amendments.

Secondly, we are proposing an enabling power to allow the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring some or all sex offenders to notify the police when they intend to travel abroad and on their return. That crucial step has been argued for by the police and other organisations since the Act was originally implemented. This seems the right opportunity to take such a power. The other side of the coin--the registration in this country of those convicted abroad--raises difficult issues and is being looked at actively as part of the major review of the Act.

Thirdly, we intend to increase the penalties for failure to register. The proposed new penalty of a maximum five years in prison also carries the power of arrest, for which the police have again long argued to prevent unregistered sex offenders slipping out of sight.

Fourthly, we propose a new sex offender restraining order, which could be imposed on a sex offender at the point of sentence.

Finally, we intend to tighten up the information flow between the various agencies and authorities that may hold a sex offender--such as prisons or hospitals--before release so that the fact that the offender is required to register on return to the community is not lost if he or she passes from one organisation to another. We want to ensure that the information is always passed to the police on release. We propose to do that by regulations after discussion with the organisations concerned.

Amendment No. 157 will insert a new schedule. I apologise for having to go into such detail, but it is important that the issues should be put on the record. Paragraph 2 provides that the period specified in the Sex Offenders Act 1997 during which an offender subject to its requirements must notify the police of his details will be reduced from 14 days to three days. It provides further that when initially notifying the police of his name and address, the offender will no longer be able to do so by post.

Paragraph 3 goes to the point about reporting to the police to register the name . There is also provision for regulations to be made under the negative resolution procedure to specify the particular police station in any given area.

Paragraph 4 provides a delegated power by which the Secretary of State may make rules concerning offenders who are required to register and intend to travel abroad.

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I turn to the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. He has written to me on this issue and has tabled an amendment to probe further. I am extremely grateful to him for raising this. There are two key points to make. First, I do not think that this level of detail is appropriate to be on the face of the legislation. However, I entirely accept that it is something which needs proper debate in Parliament. This is why we are proposing that the regulations should be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.

But secondly, the noble Lord is entirely right to probe to ensure that the power that we are proposing would cover all the details we might wish to specify. Our present thinking is that we should be able to specify the date of leaving this country and the country or countries of intended travel but not further detail such as addresses. That is because we feel that that is the point at which the country to which the offender is planning to travel should take on the responsibility, if the police here have notified the authorities there of the intention to travel. The offender would then be within their jurisdiction and that is not something which we could properly police at one remove.

I accept there is room for different views on this point and I shall listen to what the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, has to say on the matter. We can look again at the exact wording of the proposed power in the light of the noble Lord's comments. We shall need to be sure that it will cover all the areas which we might wish to specify. If necessary, I am happy to give the undertaking that we shall bring forward an amendment on Report if any change is needed to reflect the wishes of the House.

Paragraph 5 amends Section 3(1) of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 in order to increase the maximum penalties available following conviction that takes place after this paragraph comes into force for an offence of failing to comply with the Act's requirements. It provides that a failure to comply with the Act's requirements will be an offence triable either way, increasing the penalty on indictment to a maximum of five years in prison. It also provides that an offender who is required to register under the terms of the 1997 Act will be liable to the new penalties introduced by this paragraph.

Paragraph 6 introduces a new power for the higher courts, including the Youth Court in certain circumstances, to impose a restraining order on conviction of an offender for a relevant sexual offence. The courts could exercise the power when imposing any custodial sentence on an offender liable to registration, including mental health disposals. For the Youth Court, this power would be limited to a sentence of 12 months or more.

However for all courts we feel it important that a custodial sentence be awarded to trigger consideration of the new order. Where the risk that the offender is seen as presenting at the point of sentence is insufficient for a custodial sentence, such an order could not be justified. But I must draw attention to the sex offender order which would still be available in

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such circumstances if such an offender demonstrated that he posed a risk to the public subsequently, and to the strengthening of community penalties generally elsewhere in this Bill.

Together with the new order, we consider that this provides an interlocking set of measures to protect the public from sex offenders .

I have provided a considerable amount of detail. I could bring forward further details at this point but in view of the lateness of the hour, I think that they are perhaps unnecessary. I should not like to have a dramatic effect on some Members of the Committee who are obviously not following fully some of the matters that are before it. I beg to move.

10.45 p.m.

Lord Brennan: I speak to Amendment No. 157A on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. Circumstances have conspired to raise a matter of considerable importance at a time which is not at all propitious to your Lordships' timetable. I propose to be brief but, nevertheless, direct about the importance of the matters with which I am now going to deal.

Amendment No. 157A seeks to enlarge upon paragraph (4) of Amendment No. 157, introducing further material into Schedule 5 to the Bill. The purpose is to extend the utility and effect of the sex offenders' register under the 1997 Act. Of considerable importance to make such changes effective is to ensure that police authorities and those who deal with them for the protection of children know the whereabouts of registered sex offenders. The mere fact of being on a register is in itself a deterrent. However, when international travel occurs, detail is important to exercise control.

The register under the 1997 Act has been an achievement of some importance in this country. It has a compliance rate of those registered, or required to register, of over 97 per cent. That produces a deterrent effect because, by registering, each and every one of those offenders puts himself at risk should he endanger the safety of children.

The Association of Chief Police Officers, exercising its powers under the register system to investigate and assess it, welcomed a review which the Home Office said that it would carry out in the recent past (the date of which I shall check in a moment). ACPO said this summer:

    "The Sex Offenders Act is widely regarded, not only in the UK but also abroad, as being successful. Indeed, a number of other countries have expressed their interest in developing similar arrangements. However, over the past two and a half years a great deal has been learnt and the time is now right to build on the current arrangements and explore how further improvements can be made".

Therefore, as I understand it, a review is presently under way. It would be most unfortunate if the provisions of this Bill, or any consequential regulations, were to be finalised before that review had been completed.

The reason why I participate in this debate is that I have a connection with ECPAT (UK), which is an NGO specifically directed at protecting children

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against international sex crime. It is currently showing a video film in cinemas up and down the country which is very dramatic indeed and, so far as I am aware, has aroused considerable interest in the importance of the work that it does.

ECPAT (UK), with its experience, and associating its experience with the opinions of the Association of Chief Police Officers, asked for, and from the Government has now received, arrangements to control the registration of the people in this country who leave or return to the UK having been registered as sex offenders here. I travel considerably in Asia, the Americas and North Africa. It cannot be emphasised too greatly to this House and to the public that the international aspect of child paedophilia sex crime is of enormous and dangerous importance. It would be a shocking dereliction of national duties that each should not do what it can or should refuse to co-operate with all others to protect children against this international criminal activity.

That is why the Association of Chief Police Officers want outbound and inbound registration--outbound so that a registered sex offender can tell those administering the register where he or she is going. With due respect to what my noble friend the Minister said, it would represent a remarkably significant lack of effort by the civil servants involved if they were to restrict their enthusiasm on this matter to saying, "Register, yes; but the address is for the other country to find out". I should find that particularly unimpressive. It goes to the point of international co-operation.

There is no problem whatever in a registered sex offender, on leaving this country, identifying the addresses to which he intends to travel. We all leave addresses with our families so I cannot see why a registered sex offender should be in a different position when he leaves this country. It is perfectly straightforward.

In that situation the police here could send the details to the country to which that person is travelling. If there is 97 per cent compliance in this country, we can assume much the same level of compliance from another country when an offender travels there, especially as he may be visiting that country for the purpose of committing a sexual crime against children.

I hope that the Minister and those advising him will think again and become much more positive in the requirements that they seek to impose on convicted criminals. What about the return of the sex offender? The importance of return is to re-establish that a sex offender is once more within our jurisdiction, so the detail as to the port of re-entry is extremely important. He then resumes the measure of registered control.

I invite the Government to consider what I have said, speaking as I do on behalf of ECPAT and the Association of Chief Police Officers. I invite them to consider several clear means of making what I have suggested effective, in primary or in secondary legislation.

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First, there is the use of Interpol blue notices. I do not suggest that that should apply to every trivial sex offender; I am much more concerned with those convicted of serious crimes against children. I do not see why it should be regarded as any less important to protect children through the Interpol blue notice system than to protect others against adult crime. Secondly, within the context of our neighbouring European countries, the Schengen database can be used. That is the product of the Tampere meeting in Finland, and provides a means whereby police officers and government organisations can exchange data about relevant criminal activity. Thirdly, they can revitalise, in so far as it can be revitalised, the immigration warning index when people re-enter this country.

The reason I have pressed the Government with a degree of precision is because this summer there was a round-table meeting between ECPAT, police representatives and the Home Office. It was subject to Chatham House rules. I shall not go into the detail. That simply demonstrates that the Government have had time to consider that which I invite them to consider--for example, incorporating provisions in this Bill, or in secondary legislation.

Brevity has had its day. I finish by plainly telling the Government that I shall raise this matter again--I hope in more comfortable chronological circumstances--at Report stage. On that basis I shall not press the amendment.

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