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Baroness Walmsley: I rise to speak to Amendment No. 430. I acknowledge that Amendment No. 431 would have a similar effect to mine, except that it leaves the matter either to the court or to the police to define what the period of notification should be. In my amendment the court would make such decisions, although I did not think it necessary to say so in the actual amendment. I do not believe that it would be

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right to ask the police to make such decisions. The courts have all the information about the defendant and are in a better position to decide.

My amendment includes the words, "on an individual basis" because I believe that when we are dealing with young offenders we must treat them as individuals. There are many factors that need to be taken into consideration when deciding on a penalty. Inclusion on the register of sexual offenders is primarily for the purposes of protecting the public, but it should also take into account the effect on the offender himself. If he is very young, that effect may be considerable and may even get in the way of his education or effective treatment by consolidating unhelpful attitudes. That is why a "one size fits all" approach is inappropriate when dealing with young people. I hope the Minister will look favourably on this group of amendments.

The Earl of Listowel: I rise to support Amendments Nos. 407, 408 and 431 which stand in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Astor. He has clearly put the case for them. I shall not distract the Committee at this late hour by repeating that. I draw the Committee's attention to one group of children who, increasingly, are caught at the young age of 10 or 11. Treatment is available for them—though we wish for much more of it—and they can make rapid progress in a year or two. Some will still be left with the stigma of being a sex offender. They may be required to report to a police station each year, give their name and address, and have their photograph and fingerprints taken—even when the professionals caring for those children are fully confident that they are no longer a risk.

Although such children are not caught by the amendments, they may require further thought at the next stage of the Bill to ensure that when they have been rehabilitated, the stigma can be lifted. We recognise the importance of the potentiality of registration to protect others but where offending children are clearly no longer a risk, there should be some means of removing the stigma of being placed on the sex offenders register.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: The purpose of the amendments is to give discretion either to the police or the courts on whether it is appropriate for a young sex offender to go on the register—and if so, for how long. The proposed amendments are not necessary because the procedures that lead to a young offender being placed on the register and the length of time that he or she is required to register already takes into account age, maturity and the individual circumstances of the case.

Before any charge is brought, the matter is looked at by the youth offending team. It will consider all the circumstances and usually decides to prosecute in the most serious cases. If the team considers that prosecution is appropriate, it will refer the case to the Crown Prosecution Service—which in turn will consider whether it is in the public interest to proceed.

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If there is a conviction, the court will take into account the child's age when considering the most appropriate disposal. Unless the offence is serious, such as rape, the notification requirement is triggered for offenders under 18 only where the offender is sentenced to a period of detention of at least 12 months. In many cases, the sentencing process determines whether or not a young person is required to register. A wide range of disposals short of a 12-month prison sentence is available.

The offences that trigger notification are set out in Schedule 2, from which it will be seen that the 12-month sentence threshold applies to offences that cover a range of behaviour, such as sexual assault and child sex offences committed by young people. Where a person under 18 is convicted of such an offence, their age will be taken into when they are sentenced.

The sentences passed will therefore affect whether or not an offender is subject to the notification requirement. Where the offence is by definition always serious—such as rape—no sentence thresholds apply. In such cases, the offending behaviour by the child, whether 10 or 18, is considered sufficiently serious to justify making him subject to the notification requirement. That view takes into account that the CPS will have decided to proceed with a prosecution in the public interest and will have already considered the age of the offender.

In such cases, the requirement to notify will bring with it access to treatment programmes and management of the offending behaviour by the relevant agencies. The sentencing process also determines the length of time that a young offender will be required to register. When sentencing the offender, the court will take age into consideration unless the sentence is for an indefinite period. For example, where the offender has been sentenced to a period of detention for more than 30 months, the young person will remain on the register for half the period that would apply to an adult offender. A young person given a community sentence for an offence would be required to notify for only two and one half years.

It is worth remembering that notification is an administrative requirement, not a penalty. Its purpose is to ensure that the police know the whereabouts of persons convicted of more serious sexual offences. The system works. I have seen no evidence that a young a person has suffered any serious detriment arising from the requirement to register—as opposed to their conviction for an offence. For those reasons we consider that the notification requirements are a proportionate means of dealing with young offenders who have committed serious sexual offences and that the current procedures adequately take into account the circumstances. I hope that in those circumstances the noble Lords will feel able to withdraw their amendment.

11.45 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever: I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for their support. I take the noble

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Baroness's point about the courts and the police. We mentioned the police because they have to decide whether to caution.

I am also grateful to the Minister for his response. We will read Hansard carefully. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 408 not moved.]

Clause 82 agreed to.

Schedule 2 [Sexual offences for purposes of Part 2]:

Lord Thomas of Gresford moved Amendment No. 408A:

    Page 68, line 24, leave out "18" and insert "16"

The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 408B, 408C, 408D 412A, 413A, 414A, 416A, 421A, 421B and 424A. The purpose of the amendments is to equalise the age of consent which, as your Lordships are aware, is 16. We feel that 18, which is set out at various points in Schedule 2, is the wrong age. For example, paragraph 5(b) states:

    "the victim or (as the case may be) other party was under 18".

Paragraphs 6 and 7 contain similar provisions. I beg to move.

Lord Alli: I rise to support this group of amendments in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. The amendments have a simple important purpose: to remove anomalies in the current operation of the sex offenders' register. I want to make it clear from the beginning that the amendments would in no way weaken the operation of the register. I believe that they would strengthen it.

The age of consent was equalised at 16 for heterosexual and homosexual acts in 2000. Your Lordships may recall those debates. However, the law governing the sex offenders' register was not equalised at the same time, which has been the cause of a range of anomalies affecting people who are very distressed. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some comfort that changes are on their way.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I make the same assumptions as my noble friend Lord Alli: that the intention behind the amendments is to release those involved in purely consensual activity from the notification requirements of this part of the Bill. If it is the case that it is not to do with the equalisation of the age of consent but to deal with the registration point, I broadly support the amendments' aims. I am grateful that they have been tabled and that we have an opportunity to discuss this important issue.

The issue is slightly more complex than it first appears. Some of the convictions for indecency and buggery before the age of consent was lowered in 2000 will have involved non-consensual activity with 16 and 17 year-olds. There may be a small number of cases from before 1994 that involve anal rape of a 16 or 17 year-old. The amendments also propose reducing the age threshold that applies to the offence of indecent

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assault on a man. That offence involves non-consensual activity and is equivalent to the offence of indecent assault on a woman. For both those offences the current age threshold for registration is 18. That is not based not on the age of consent—it applies to both male and female victims over 16—but on the need to provide extra protection to the public from offenders who commit offences against young people.

Noble Lords will note that there are other offences; for example, exposure and sexual assault, that use the same age threshold. The reason is that we want registration to apply automatically where young people are the victims of such non-consensual sexual offences. The amendments cut across the recommendations of the Cosgrove report on sex offending in relation to Scotland. We have already proposed to table suitable amendments to give effect to those proposals. I cannot accept the amendments as they stand, but I am willing to consider the issue further and to try to find a solution that would remove from the register those involved in purely consensual activity between men aged 16 or over while at the same time ensuring that potentially dangerous offenders continue to register.

I should stress that it is important that we do not act in a way that causes a possible risk to the public. Any changes must be limited to those in which the activity that formed the original offence was consensual and involved only those over the present age of consent. How we do that may cause real problems and difficulties, not least because the issue of consent would not have been addressed in some cases prior to 2000. However, we shall continue to consider whether there is a satisfactory way to resolve those problems and return to your Lordships on the issue. I hope that, in the light of what I have said, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

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