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Lord Lucas: My Lords, I shall read what the noble Baroness said and I shall write if I am further concerned. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 96 not moved.]

Baroness Noakes moved Amendment No. 97:

(1) The Secretary of State shall publish each year a review of the operation of the Act.
(2) The review shall cover the following matters—
(a) conviction rates in respect of the offences contained in the Act, including trends in conviction rates;
(b) sentencing experience in respect of the offences contained in the Act in comparison with the maximum sentences prescribed by the Act.
(3) The review may contain any other matters that the Secretary of State considers to be relevant to an understanding of the effectiveness of the operation of the Act.
(4) The first report under this section shall cover the period from the commencement of the Act to the 31st March following the second anniversary of the commencement of the Act.
(5) A copy of the review shall be laid before both Houses of Parliament."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, noble Lords will be aware that when one reaches the amendment calling for an annual review, the end is certainly not far off. Amendment No. 97 asks for an annual report on the operation of this Bill once it becomes law. We have debated a similar amendment to this several times. In drafting it I have listened to the concerns expressed by the Minister. For example, the amendment allows for a two-year period of operation of the Act before the reporting requirement kicks in and is less prescriptive than any earlier version.

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The only absolute requirements are those set out in subsection (2)—the conviction rates and sentencing experience in respect of the offences contained in the Act. Those data are essential for the most basic of analysis that anyone would reasonably want to carry out in respect of the Act. Therefore, its publication could not be regarded as onerous.

Subsection (3) of the amendment states:

    "The review may"—

not "shall"—

    "contain any other matters that the Secretary of State considers to be relevant to an understanding of the effectiveness of the operation of the Act".

That is, we are prepared to trust the Government to decide what should be included in a report and how the tasks should be tackled. I understand the Government's reluctance to commit to any specifics in advance, which is why I have drafted the amendment in this way. The Government could report that they were reviewing nothing, but at least they would be open to question. I do not believe that this amendment can be described as onerous or inappropriate. In the spirit with which our discussions on the Bill have been conducted, the amendment is reasonableness itself. I beg to move.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I support this amendment. It is extremely important. Earlier today I drew attention to two conflicting factors—that is, the sexual drive on the one hand and the natural instinct to preserve, support, educate and care for children on the other.

When the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, was at the Dispatch Box at earlier stages of the Bill, he referred several times to the importance of achieving the right balance between convicting the guilty and protecting the innocent. Manifestly, the Government believe that they have achieved the right balance. I said at Committee stage—and, because I could not be here, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said it on my behalf at Report stage—that we have honest doubts about whether that has been achieved. My own inquiries indicate that there is a great deal of anxiety among ordinary, decent people working with children.

I urge the Government to accept this amendment. First, it would enable the Government with honour to look again at and if appropriate fine tune some facets of the Bill. Secondly, the effect of the Bill would be to show to people working in the field that the Government want to be reasonable and to get matters right.

Perhaps I may give your Lordships an example. The other day I spoke to a very responsible and serious youth worker with whom I have worked for 17 or 18 years. I said, "What do you think about the present situation in relation to sexual offences?" He said, "The trouble is that this is the only offence in the book in relation to which you are assumed guilty unless you can prove yourself innocent". That may be an illusion; it may be wrong; it may not be the law. However, that perception is held by a number of good people, and it is a perception of which we should be aware. I support the amendment.

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8 p.m.

Lord Monson: My Lords, I agree with virtually everything that my noble friend has just said. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, on the rewording of her amendment, which, as she said, amounts to reasonableness itself.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I also rise to support the amendment. Having sat on the Government Benches in the position now held by the noble Baroness, I am aware of the reluctance on the part of government departments to accept an amendment such as this. There is huge pressure from officials in the department to say, "We promise the House that we will monitor the position to see how this proposal works", and the reluctance continues. More than once I have succeeded in having my arm twisted by the arguments in this place for the importance of a monitoring report to the House.

I have listened carefully to all the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and others. In particular, the Bill covers much new ground, many sentences have been strengthened and some areas of concern have been eased or weakened. It seems to me that it is now absolutely imperative to ensure not only that there will be a promise to report back any concerns but also that it will be monitored, so that modifications may be made by tabling amendments and making adjustments for newer statutes. It seems to me that there should be an obligation on the Government to make such a report consistent with the amendment set out by my noble friend, which I support.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, nothing would give me greater pleasure, particularly as it is so late, than to be able to please the noble Baronesses, Lady Noakes and Lady Blatch, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and the noble Lord, Lord Monson. However, I am not quite able to do so.

The Sexual Offences Bill is, of course, a major piece of legislation. We shall need to keep a very close eye on the operation of the new offences following the enactment of the Act. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has quite rightly said that the Bill introduces some very new provisions. It will be important to monitor what happens in relation to those.

However, we are not sure that the best way of doing that is necessarily through a statutory requirement to produce an annual report to Parliament ad infinitum. We would therefore like more time to consider how best to monitor the operation of the Act, and we shall make our position clear as the Bill passes through the Commons. A number of models could be adopted more capable of keeping an eye on policy developments. Bearing in mind the new area, it may be that that will be the better course. We have not been able to settle the best way to follow it through, but we believe that there is a need for it.

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I therefore invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment. I can certainly assure her that we shall continue to consider the issue and shall make our position plain when the matter reaches the other place.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, the Minister's point does not surprise me. I shall take her at her word that consideration will continue to be given and that the position will be made clear when the Bill goes to the other place.

However, I want to underline the point that this amendment was not tabled lightly or as a vexatious amendment. However, because of the many difficult issues that have arisen as we have considered the Bill, and recognising that simply agreeing the Bill and turning it into an Act will not wish away those difficulties, I earnestly implore the Minister to use her new position of great authority within the Home Office to ensure that positive thought is given to this matter, so that positive assurances can be given to the other place.

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 3 [Sexual offences for purposes of Part 2]:

Baroness Scotland of Asthal moved Amendment No. 98:

    Page 77, line 15, leave out "16" and insert "18"

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, on the last day of Report my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton mistakenly accepted two amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. Those amendments reduced the threshold age of a victim of homosexual offences, which triggers the application of the notification requirements on the defendant, to 16 in England and Wales and 17 in Northern Ireland. I can, of course, understand why the noble Lord was bedazzled. However, I now seek to correct that anomaly.

As I explained in response to these amendments, we hope to establish a review to remove from the register those convicted of entirely consensual homosexual offences with persons aged 16 or over, or 17 or over in Northern Ireland. However, I feel that it is important to address each case individually in order to ensure that we do not remove from the register those who would have committed an offence, had they carried out the act leading to their conviction under the law as it will apply under the Bill, and who therefore remain a risk to the public. Government Amendments Nos. 98 and 102 therefore seek to remove the noble Baroness' amendments from the Bill.

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