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Earl Russell: My Lords, I extend to the noble Earl my congratulations on his new fatherhood and my commiserations on his train. If I take a few moments of the time of the House, I shall try to be mindful of the train. None of us has yet thought our way round what is a very urgent and serious issue. The trouble is that it puts the two primary purposes of the law at odds with each other. On the one hand, the law is for the protection of the public, which is the one area on which the noble Earl has perfectly properly concentrated. On the other hand, it is also the purpose of the law, and has been for as long as there has been law of any kind, to prevent private vengeance. The danger of the amendment is that it may encourage the one in achieving the other. Clearly, that is not a happy state of affairs, any more than is the opposite.

The basic trouble we face with paedophilia is that we do not yet have any adequate way to reduce the marginal propensity to offend. Until we do, whatever measures we take will necessarily be imperfect and inadequate. I cannot be happy about the encouragement of private vengeance. If people have suffered the penalty appropriate to their crime and are discharged from prison, they have a right to live in safety so long as they live peaceably. I feel unhappy about anything which threatens that. As Sherlock Homes once remarked:

I do not want that to become recognised as the normal way to behave, because it weakens respect for the law. That is something which threatens us all.

What is really needed is more understanding of the roots of the offending behaviour. At the moment we have practically none at all. Until we have that understanding, we really cannot know the proper way to treat the problem. Therefore, if anything we do will be a mistake, I would rather try to understand the subject a little better than we do at present before we do more than keep up the eternal vigilance which is the duty of law enforcement. That something must be done--I think the noble Earl knows--is one of the most dangerous cries in politics. I agree that something must be done; but I do not know what, and I would rather not do it until I do.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, perhaps I may add my congratulations to the noble Earl. It is some 19 hours since my four year-old woke me so I understand the noble Lord's dilemma perfectly well.

The new clause is a troubling clause. It is a clause which as a parent I find very difficult. I find the whole area difficult because, like any other parent, I want to afford to my children the maximum protection that I can. My problem with the amendment is that I do not believe it will achieve the objective that it has at its heart. I cannot believe that it will protect people in the way some might argue that it will, although I do understand the strength of feeling behind it.

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The issue of access to the information contained on the Sex Offenders' Register obviously has sparked an extensive debate since the sad and tragic death of Sarah Payne. Like the noble Earl, Lord Russell, we are at a loss to be absolutely certain what is the right course of action. The noble Earl is right, we need a better understanding of what motivates that type of crime by the criminal. But, notwithstanding that, because the Government share the public's concern about sex offenders, they have moved very quickly indeed with a whole package of measures which are reflected in the Bill. They were considered during the Committee stage. They were also considered this evening when we put further measures into the legislation and extended their effect to Scotland. We are on the case. We are there. We are with the public on this. But it is getting the approach right that will drive us all forward.

The police already have the power to disclose information about registered offenders where they consider that doing so would prevent a serious crime being committed. Therefore, they already disclose information to individuals and to organisations in local communities when they believe the circumstances justify that approach.

The proposed new clause will affect the current position in two ways. First, anyone can apply to the police for such information. The question has to be, is that right? Secondly, the criteria for disclosure of the information will be changed from the prevention of serious crime to acting "in the interests of the residents of the local police area". Both of those changes would create further problems without necessarily enhancing the protection of the public and, in particular, children.

The Government have carefully examined whether there should be "controlled" access to the sex offenders' register but have concluded that there is no practical way of achieving that. Therein lies the difficulty in this whole debate. They have done so following careful and detailed consultations with those who have primary responsibility for protecting the public from sex offenders. Once information has been disclosed, it is not possible to control what is done with it, whether it is given on to a third party or how it is used or perhaps abused in the public domain.

The danger of the kind of public disorder incidents that we saw during the summer months is that they lead to a lower level of knowledge and monitoring about the behaviour of sex offenders. The understandable fear is that sex offenders will be driven underground and that it will be much more difficult for the police and Probation Service to keep track of their movements. A number of those who might have been affected by a controlled access approach, were it workable, have gone to ground as a consequence and their new identities and addresses are not known to the authorities. That makes it much more difficult to subject their activities to any form of monitoring or control. That fundamentally undermines rather than strengthens the protection of children and others and perhaps casts them into a more vulnerable situation.

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There are occasions when the police judge that, despite these possible reactions, it is not only necessary but essential to share information with individuals and organisations to prevent a repeat of some horrific sex crime. But such decisions have to be carefully balanced and considered. The lower threshold of "the interests" of the local community is another strangely ill-defined notion and would make it more difficult to control the disclosure of such information in a way which limits the risk of public disorder while at the same time maximising the protection of children.

For those reasons, while I certainly sympathise with part of the motivation behind the amendment--certainly the concern behind it--we do not feel able to accept the amendment. I am sure that the noble Earl understands that. I read in a News of the World cutting that it is a probing amendment. The noble Earl has repeated that across theChamber. But that is where we see public policy at this time.

It is worth placing on record that we have a debt of gratitude to all of those who have been involved in the Sarah's Law campaign and to Members of the party opposite who have given their support to our package of measures to strengthen the law and deepen further the protection of the vulnerable public.

11.15 p.m.

The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the Minister for their contributions. In many ways I understand the points they have made, but at the end of the day I speak as a parent. If someone on the sex offenders' register was living next door to me, I would want to know. I understand the arguments that have been made. In no way do I condone vigilante activity. I think that both the noble Earl and the Minister would agree with what I am saying. But I am thinking of the position of parents with young children who have someone on the sex offenders' register living next door. I shall read carefully what has been said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 87 and 88:

    Page 63, line 15, leave out from beginning to ("a").

    Page 63, leave out lines 21 to 23.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 89:

    Page 63, leave out lines 26 to 30 and insert ("or

( ) a person fails to comply with any requirement imposed by virtue of section 2(6D) above to give a notice, or gives a notice which does not disclose the required information or which discloses information which he knows to be false").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move.

Lord Brennan: My Lords, I appreciate that at this late hour it may be tedious for noble Lords to listen to a short speech dealing with an exceptionally important point addressed in this amendment. I regret that,

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because of the grouping arrangements, the House may not be aware that, since we considered the Bill in Committee, the Government, through Amendments Nos. 85 and 89, have substantially altered the Bill. They have altered it much for the better. The enforcement of the register kept on sex offenders who travel abroad has been rendered far more effective. While applauding them for that, I should like to raise points on the regulations that are to be made under the Act.

Noble Lords may recall that in a previous contribution I said that the register has achieved a 97 to 98 per cent rate of compliance. That is phenomenal. The Association of Chief Police Officers regards it as a most effective way both of controlling and of detecting sex offenders. That association, along with ECPAT (UK)--the NGO dealing with this problem--wants the register to be extended to cover people travelling abroad. These amendments achieve that and will increase the penalty imposed on those who breach the requirements.

The points I wish to raise are as follows. The regulations introduce a power to require the offender to give information on his movements while travelling outside the United Kingdom. Surely that should include details of the itinerary as well as the addresses of hotels or other accommodation. To frame regulations which state that such information should be given only where the offender knows exactly where he is going would demonstrate far too much latitude to a convicted sex offender. The requirement must be much tougher. The reason for that is obvious: the compliance that exists in this country could then be transferred abroad. The police authorities, once they have been notified over here, could then tell the police authorities in the relevant countries where the person was travelling. The children in those countries would then enjoy protection, just as the register seeks to protect children living here.

On a person's return, Amendment No. 85 would require that details of the journey should be given. Again, surely the relevant regulations should include a requirement to disclose the countries in fact visited. The immigration authorities can then examine the passport; and if someone states that he went to France, it will be discovered whether subsequently he visited the problem countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Philippines and so forth. What is the point of this requirement? It would establish, first, where such people were staying at the time when sex offences may have been committed. The information would be an aid to potential detection. Secondly, it would establish any change from the previously declared route. That in itself will be an offence under the restrictions provided in Clause 89.

These matters occupy not only this country, but also the United Nations. When I visited Geneva two weeks ago, I discovered that those in the United Nations Commission for Human Rights looking into the rights of the child consider that international sex crime has now reached major proportions. Informally--subject to studying the details of the Bill--the commission's representatives indicated that they thought that the

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Government's initiative on the development of the register was of major potential importance to act as a model for other countries.

With that important prospect in mind, I invite the Government to consider the following points, namely, that all existing offenders on the register must be notified both of the new law and of the penalties for not complying. Secondly, when are they supposed to give notice of their intended trip abroad? As I read the Bill, no precise timing is required. That timing will be required by the police in the countries they will visit, and notice needs to be given in due time.

Thirdly, a question arises as to the giving of the notice to go abroad, either orally or in writing. With due respect to our constabulary, if someone comes into a police station and mumbles four or five foreign names and three or four hotel names, there is no real likelihood that there will be accuracy unless it is written down then and there, one copy being given to the person orally reporting and the other being retained by the police to be acted upon. If it is given in writing, the notice can be checked for its adequacy. In either event, Section 2(6) of the Sex Offenders Act allows the police to acknowledge the notice--in other words, to keep a precise record of what they were told. The net result should be that the register is effective.

Your Lordships have been most patient. While the time is late and this topic comes up at the very end of the debate, it would be unfortunate, after the tribulations of today, if a change--which I think is welcomed on all sides of the House--was not properly recorded and the steps I have mentioned implemented to make this an effective reform.

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