Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

With the agreement of other relevant government departments, and following discussions with representatives of the dairy industry, the Food Standards Agency subsequently instructed enforcement authorities across the UK to apply a revised approach to the enforcement of EU hygiene rules in the dairy sector, in line with the Commission’s interpretation. In particular, enforcement authorities were advised that where raw milk tests positive in antibiotic screening, the food business operator has two options: either to carry out chemical confirmatory tests that will identify whether any antibiotic exceeds the maximum residue level or to reject the milk and dispose of it as an animal by-product. Appropriate advice was also provided in respect of the other practices about which the Commission had concerns. Given the wider implications of the changed approach, milk

6 Dec 2006 : Column 1225

producers were also alerted to the issue and advised on measures that they could take to prevent antibiotic contamination of milk in the first place.

In responding to the Commission’s legal action, the UK was therefore able to explain that a revised approach was being implemented in the UK, in line with the Commission’s views. Commission officials have subsequently informed the UK authorities that, on this basis, they are recommending that legal action against the UK be terminated.

The FVO’s follow-up mission to the UK took place a fortnight ago. I am pleased to report that no major issues were identified, and there was general acknowledgement of the steps taken by the UK to conform to the European Commission’s interpretation of the law. We now await the formal report.

Although we have heard today a number of reasons to support the annulment of the statutory instrument, noble Lords will appreciate that, as a member of the European Union, the UK was obliged to implement the terms of the Commission’s decision relating to Bowland. Failure to implement and enforce the decision’s requirements in domestic legislation would constitute a serious breach of our obligations under the EC treaty and would almost certainly result in the Commission reopening infraction proceedings against the UK. It is not immediately apparent that the UK Government would have sufficiently strong reasons to challenge such proceedings in the European Court of Justice.

The European Commission has also signalled its intention to either modify or lift the prohibition on Bowland once it has received the appropriate assurances from the UK authorities that all curd cheese manufactured by Bowland before the prohibition came into force has been properly disposed of as an animal by-product and has not been allowed to enter the food chain. We understand that appropriate disposal plans have been drawn up and are to be put into effect shortly.

I recognise noble Lords’ strong views about how Bowland has been affected, but I hope that I have clearly explained the reasons for the Commission’s decision and the need for the statutory instrument. The Commission’s approach throughout has been motivated by its desire to protect public health, and it would be wrong simply to categorise this as an attempt by it to usurp the authority and powers of the FSA. That is not the UK Government’s view. The fact remains that the Community legislation has been agreed and we are required to implement it. Not to do so would put us in conflict with the European institutions, and it would be a conflict that, in this case, we would not win.

Looking forward, I reiterate that, although there remain differences of view between the UK experts and the Commission about the science underpinning the EU rules on antibiotic testing for milk, the FSA very much welcomes the Commission’s commitment to further consider with member states and others the scientific and practical implications of testing milk for antibiotics. The FSA has urged this for some time,

6 Dec 2006 : Column 1226

and we hope that such discussions in the expert group can commence in the new year. It goes without saying—but I will say it anyway—that whatever the outcome of those discussions, we will certainly expect the Commission in Brussels to make the necessary changes to legislation and to provide clear guidance for the whole of the Community’s dairy industry to follow. As usual, the UK wants to play a full part in those discussions, working with the Commission in a transparent way to protect consumer health and, more generally, to make the single market work for all its citizens.

This was an unfortunate case, but it is a more complicated case and set of circumstances than some noble Lords acknowledge. We think that we have proceeded in the right way and that this statutory instrument is required legislation.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I have listened to the whole of this debate and would like to put four brief questions to the noble Lord, which he does not appear to have answered. First, do the Government think this product is safe? Secondly, has anyone been made ill by it?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, it is in order for noble Lords to speak before the Minister sits down.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I regret that I did not utter those words, but I did not think it was essential. My second question was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke, and I do not think that the Government have answered it. Thirdly, in these circumstance, what about compensation for this wretched company? Fourthly, does not this story, to which I have listened with sadness but no surprise, demonstrate the utter futility and dishonesty of subsidiarity?

Lord Warner: My Lords, the noble Lord will be astonished to know that I do not think that this issue in any way affects subsidiarity. I do not know, and have no means of knowing—nor, I suspect, does anybody else—whether anybody has ever been made ill by Bowland’s products because those products were used across Europe. We are talking about the processes agreed across Europe as the basis for investigating products consumed by human beings. I have explained at great length those processes and how things have come to pass in this instance. I must ask the noble Lord, whose views on the European Union I know very well, to accept that there was due process—although he may not like the outcome—in this case.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, before the Minister sits down again, will he answer the question I asked about interface milk? Do the Commission and the Government now accept that it can be used by processing firms in the dairy industry? Secondly, can he say whether his officials are talking to the owners

6 Dec 2006 : Column 1227

of Bowland Dairy Products Limited with a view to resuming production under an acceptable regime?

Lord Warner: My Lords, as I said, it is down to the local authority initially to decide whether Bowland can resume production. I will have to take advice on the issue of interface milk, but, as I said, the reason for concerns about Bowland was that residues of cleaning materials were found. That is the advice that I was given and the point that I was making. I will look into the more general issue of interface milk and write to the noble Lord.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, can he answer the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, about compensation to the firm?

Lord Warner: My Lords, I am certainly unable to answer that question. I shall see if I can throw any light on it by taking further advice, but I would not presume to know the intricacies of the law relating to compensation in these circumstances.

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, including the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and my noble friend Lady Verma on the Front Bench, for whom, I gather, it is a first appearance. I am delighted that she gave such a robust performance. They both called it a sorry story; I think that the Minister himself would agree with that. He presented the situation very fairly and clearly. I am grateful to him for that.

What he was really saying—wasn’t it?—was that we do not agree with what the Commission has done, nor does the Food Standards Agency, but we will have to comply anyway because of our so-called treaty obligations through our membership of the European Union. That is not an attractive story.

When I secured this debate, I gave an undertaking that I would not call a vote, although I believe that I am entitled to do so. Although I undertook not to press it to a vote, I am very tempted to be a naughty boy and call one, because I think that we would probably win it. However, under the circumstances, with some reluctance, I feel obliged to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974: Reform

8.02 pm

Lord Dholakia rose to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will bring forward legislation to reform the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend Lord Addington and the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, for putting down their names to speak in this short debate. Dealing with matters

6 Dec 2006 : Column 1228

affecting offenders is not a very popular cause. There are no thanks but, in a civilised society, we must never be afraid to raise our concerns.

There are some shocking statistics. More than 65 per cent of those released reoffend within two years. One of the most important factors in the rehabilitation process is the ability to hold on to a job. The question is: are we doing enough to achieve that objective? Look at our prisons. They are bursting at the seams. The statutory and voluntary organisations are trying hard to hold the tide. It is the duty of the Government to help in that task. Nowhere is that more important than in the ability of offenders to secure and hold a job.

In April 2003, the Government announced plans for reform of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, but since then there has been no sign of legislation coming before Parliament to implement that promised reform. The purpose of this debate is to reinforce the importance of reforming the Act and to press the Government to do so at the earliest practicable date. I do so because I have searched high and low for this subject to appear in the gracious Speech, but alas, despite the Government's emphasis on rehabilitation, nothing seems to have materialised.

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 provided that, after specified rehabilitation periods, ex-offenders do not have to declare spent convictions when they are applying for jobs. Let me spell out exceptions, in case someone thinks that this is a blanket provision. Sensitive areas of work, such as criminal justice agencies, financial institutions and work with young people or vulnerable adults are excluded. Since it was enacted, the Act has helped many ex-offenders to live down their past.

What are the facts? More than 30 years after the Act was passed, what do we find? The rehabilitation periods laid down in the Act are lengthy and many genuinely reformed ex-offenders never benefit from it. That is the experience of many agencies involved in rehabilitation work—my organisation, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, is no exception. In fact, we find that it hinders our work in those areas. For example, if an offender is fined, the offence becomes spent after five years from the date of sentence. If an offender is given a three-month prison sentence, the offence takes seven years to become spent. If he or she gets a nine-month sentence, the offence does not become spent until 10 years later. Sentences of more than two and a half years never become spent. Those provisions are notably less generous than the rules that apply in other European nations. Those countries typically apply rehabilitation periods to sentences longer than two-and-a-half years and their rehabilitation periods are much shorter, often half the length of ours or, possibly, less.

Since the Act was implemented, sentence lengths have significantly increased. Many offenders who would have received sentences of two and a half years or less back in 1974 are receiving sentences of between three and four years today. That means that many offenders who would previously have been helped by the Act now find that their offences will

6 Dec 2006 : Column 1229

never become spent during the whole of their lifetime. That is wrong. Many ex-offenders spend a purposeful life without recourse to crime. If they did not, we would not have enough prisons to hold them. Surely there must be a more constructive way of dealing with the issue.

In 2001, the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, set up a review group to examine whether, three decades after the Act's implementation, there was a case for reform. The review group was chaired by a senior Home Office official and it included representatives of the police and probation services, the legal profession, the judiciary, employers, voluntary agencies and ex-offenders. My organisation, NACRO, gave evidence to the group.

In 2002, the review group published its conclusions in the report entitled Breaking the Circle. Following a consultation period, the Government published their conclusions in April 2003. The Government accepted a modified version of the review group's proposals. Under the modified version accepted by the Government, the current rehabilitation periods would be replaced by new buffer periods which would begin after the sentence—including any post-release supervision—was completed. The buffer periods would be four years for custodial sentences of four years or more; two years for custodial sentences of less than four years; and one year for non-custodial sentences.

Those periods would apply to all offences except those which resulted in a life sentence. Sentencing courts would have discretion to disapply these provisions in any case where the sentencer decided that there was a particular risk. Again, I stress that the new provision would not apply to jobs in sensitive occupations, for which applicants would still have to declare their full criminal record.

A reformed system on those lines would greatly reduce the scope for unfair discrimination against ex-offenders, especially in the job market. Regrettably, such discrimination is still widespread. Surveys of ex-offenders in some projects undertaken by NACRO have shown that 60 per cent have been explicitly refused jobs because of their criminal records. Of course, it is sometimes reasonable to refuse an ex-offender a job because of his record. For example, we must obviously bar offenders with a history of offences against children from working with children. We should bar offenders with a history of defrauding elderly people from working or caring for elderly people. In many cases, however, employers are turning down applications because of offences that are not relevant to the job, and there is no particular way of examining what precisely has happened in all these instances.

The unemployment rates among black and minority ethnic young people may be of interest to the Minister. Evidence points to the fact that black and minority ethnic young people are twice as likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts. Fifteen to 17 per cent of people in our penal institutions are black, while black people are only 7 per cent of the community. I am not here to argue

6 Dec 2006 : Column 1230

about how we created this anomaly. Nor am I going to argue about whether the criminal justice system has treated them fairly. I simply want the Minister to reflect on the fact that many will come out of prisons, but their conviction record will not help them; indeed, it will put them at a great disadvantage. Surely this does not assist the process of rehabilitation, which is one of the objectives of our prison service.

The scope of discrimination is indeed very wide, because the decisions to employ or to refuse people jobs are taken not by people at the top of companies but by managers and personnel staff, many of whom have no specific training in how to deal with applications from people with criminal records. A large-scale research study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that no private sector employers in its sample and only one in seven public sector employers provided specific training on this point to staff taking recruitment decisions.

When the review group was set up, there was a particular concern that discrimination could increase when Part 5 of the Police Act 1997 was fully implemented. So far, this legislation has not been fully implemented. If it were, it would enable employers to require any job applicant applying for any job, not only for one of the sensitive occupations, to produce a basic disclosure certificate from the Criminal Records Bureau listing his or her unspent criminal convictions. Government-commissioned research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has found that if this provision were implemented, employers would be likely to reject people with criminal records for half their vacancies and to reject those with more serious convictions for 90 per cent of their vacancies. The researchers concluded that the introduction of basic disclosure was likely severely to reduce employment opportunities for people with criminal records. It is unclear when or whether the Government will implement this part of the Police Act 1997. I must stress, however, that the case for reform of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act remains powerful, whether or not the basic disclosure provisions of the Police Act are implemented. It is powerful because of the extent of discrimination that already exists.

Unfair discrimination against ex-offenders is wrong in principle because it imposes an additional illegitimate penalty of the refusal of employment on people who have already served the judicially ordered punishment for their crime. It also reduces public safety because an ex-offender’s risk of re-offending is reduced by between a third and a half if he or she gets and keeps a job. The whole community benefits when offending is reduced, but employers benefit in particular because crimes such as cheque and credit card fraud, shoplifting and the burglary of commercial premises have a particularly damaging impact on their businesses.

In conclusion, the reforms to which the Government committed themselves in 2003 would allow many more people with criminal records to start again with a clean slate. They would thereby reduce the risk of further offending by former offenders excluded from the job market. I urge the

6 Dec 2006 : Column 1231

Minister to restate the Government’s commitment to implement these changes, and to do so urgently.

8.14 pm

Lord Addington: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. It is a few years since I worked for the Apex Trust, which tries to get ex-offenders into the job market. I am now vice-president of that organisation. The experience was basically this. When you spoke to the offenders, you generally spoke to a bunch of young men with very low educational attainment and an amazing combination of bluster and servility towards anyone in authority. This group had tremendous difficulty in dealing with the world even-temperedly. They really did not know how to deal with any form of authority other than by cowering or blustering in front of it. They had never passed an exam and, sometimes even in their mid-20s, felt that taking an exam was a sign of weakness. They were probably the worst group for having any idea of what they were capable of. We should remember that exams give marks that show that someone has achieved a certain level; they do not tell you what the full potential of that person will be.

This very odd group then has to go through a process under the law of telling someone that they also have convictions. All this means that you have someone who will probably try to avoid such an interview if they can see any other way out, which brings them back into a cycle of re-offending. Anyone who knows anything about this—I know the Minister will excuse me for teaching grandmothers to suck eggs—knows that it is the under-35s who constantly offend. By the time they are 35 or even 40, with a spent conviction and no history of work, they may be tottering towards being unemployable. There must be some cut-off point at which the person can at least say, “I don’t have to tell you what I have done wrong. Here is what I have done right”. The temptation to go into another diatribe here about the shortcomings of the prison education service is considerable. Then there is the joy of unidentified special needs in prisons—dyslexia is one—but I refer noble Lords to my numerous speeches on the matter, which are already on the record.

This group will be difficult to educate and train in prison because of social conditions, because of needs that are unmet if they are undiagnosed, and because of the process by which people are moved around and education is applied. It may be slightly better than a school education, but it is very difficult. There will be problems unless we adopt a more realistic approach than the current approach of bringing forward sentencing.

When I worked for the Apex Trust—a good few years ago now—I sat in on a series of interviews and helped in minor ways to tell prisoners how to make this disclosure and, indeed, why they should make it. Most people who come from lower social and economic groups tend not to be very mobile and tend to go back into their groups. What happens if someone gets a job but has not disclosed a conviction, and discovers that someone from up the road knows

6 Dec 2006 : Column 1232

who they are and says, “Wait a minute. Didn’t you do X-amount of time?”? We heard a series of stories about people who ended up being blackmailed, having to steal to pay off the blackmailer to keep their job, being discovered, losing their job and going back to prison. That is the type of pressure. Although there should be safeguards in relation to certain groups—it is understandable that an employer would want time to make checks—if someone has had a period of unemployment but has taken some training, which is probably likely when they leave prison, they will probably be more attuned to keeping a job because they have established that they have broken the pattern. A disclosure made after a short period of time, not a long one, is then probably quite appropriate, or becomes irrelevant. When the Minister replies, will she say what work has been done and how close the Government are to changing this?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page