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Further to the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Dear, Sir Ronnie Flanagan talks about not only the unsustainable level of the current police forces but the
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Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I fear that I have to say again that that is part of the detailed work being done at the moment. We will coming back with a response within a month, so those issues will be covered, but I cannot talk about them at the moment.
Viscount Simon: My Lords, my noble friend mentioned PCSOs. Are PCSOs police officers? Do they hold warrants? The same applies to Highways Agency traffic officers. They are not police officers. They do not hold warrants.
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, my noble friend raises a useful point in some ways, but PCSOs have been extremely valuable. They have done a remarkably good job. We are finding in local areas that people want more of them around. They are extremely valuable even though, clearly, they do not have all the powers of a proper police constable.
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I do not agree, because they are helping to do what is the responsibility of the police: protecting the public from anti-social behaviour right up to levels of terrorism. They help us in all those areas, so they are valuable.
Lord Bach: My Lords, we have expressed our concern about the tensions along Colombia's borders. In discussions with representatives of the Governments concerned, we have encouraged all parties to show restraint and pursue a political solution. We therefore welcome the outcome of the Rio Group summit on 7 March, where the Governments of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, together with other members of the Rio Group, made a commitment to peaceful co-operation in the region and to tackling the ongoing activity and influence of illegal terrorist groups, which was at the root of this crisis.
Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer, not only because is it very helpful but because it is good news that he has just brought us. However, is he aware that captured computers from the recent military operation revealed that some financial assistance is going to the FARC from the Government of Venezuela? Does he not think that that is rather unsatisfactory?
Lord Bach: My Lords, we are aware of those allegations. Clearly, it would be a matter of concern if any country were supporting a terrorist organisation, wherever that was and whatever form that support took. We therefore found it encouraging that the Rio Group members reiterated on 7 March their,
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, one of the problems throughout countries in that region has historically been impunity from the law. The Government have made bilateral efforts with some countries to strengthen the capacity of the rule of law. What is the Governments reaction to the rewarding of one FARC member for executing another, which was announced last night?
Lord Bach: My Lords, the measures taken by states to combat terrorism must be legal, proportionate and justifiable. We in the UK abide by our commitments under international law and we expect all countries to comply with their international legal obligations. It is vital for all states to provide security against atrocities carried out by terrorists, while, of course, respecting the rule of law.
Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, some of the Irish republican persons who were found guilty in Colombia of assisting FARC and who then absconded to the Republic of Ireland are walking openly around the Republic of Ireland. Why are Her Majestys Government not pursuing that matter?
Lord Bach: My Lords, if I may say so, that is rather wide of the mark in relation to the recent crisis in this part of South America. I understand precisely why the noble Lord asked the question. I do not have an answer for him today but I will write to him.
Baroness Tonge: My Lords, when I was in Colombia some years ago, I saw the terrible damage, torture and misery inflicted on peasants and farmers because of the cocaine habit in the West. Would the Minister consider setting up some sort of exchange scheme, whereby celebrities and City types who think that it is so fashionable and fun to snort cocaine could go there, take the farmers place, and grow the stuff themselves?
Lord Bach: My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with what the noble Baroness has suggested, although
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Much of that cocaine passes through the hands of illegal terrorists and paramilitaries. Cocaine is also a significant driver of regional instability, corruption and poverty, as the noble Baroness pointed out. It is important that the Government continue to work with Colombian authorities, which we do, to fight drug trafficking.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office & Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Lord Jones of Birmingham): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
The noble Lord said: I am pleased to see that the Bill retains the interest of your Lordships, even though we are in the eighth day of Committee. We move to the part of the BillClause 191that relates to the disclosure of information about convictions of child sex offenders to members of the public. Noble Lords will recall that as long ago as 2000 there was a campaign to introduce Sarahs law, as it was called, into this country to mirror, or perhaps to follow, Megans law in the United States.
It is interesting that the report commissioned in 2006 by the NSPCC on the impact of Megans law in the United States found that there was no one single version of Megans law but that there were many different variations of community notification. The laws were given legitimacy by assumptions about the nature of sexual offending, but there was little empirical evidence that community notification had had a positive effect on preventing reoffending and protecting children.
It was found that the level of registration of sex offenders in the United States had fallen since the implementation of Megans law. In this country, the level of notification of sex offenders under the Act is 97 per cent. In the United States, only 80 per cent of sex offenders comply with registration requirements and, in some areas, since Megans law was introduced the registration is as low as 50 per cent. Furthermore, in the United States, efforts to locate offenders again after they have gone missing are limited and ineffectual. That gives rise to the concern that we share on these Benches that compliance with the registration requirements in England and Wales will also fall if offenders are constantly moving and hiding themselves to avoid their details being accessed.
There are other problems. In this country, 80 per cent of children subjected to sexual assault will know their attacker, and in a high proportion of the cases it is a family member or a friend. Wider disclosure of the details of sex offenders would, we argue, lead to the identification of a previous victim where that victim is their child. There is also evidence that victims of intra-familial abuse may be deterred from reporting crimes because of fears related to community notification.
In this country, the Sex Offenders Act 1997 created notification obligations for persons convicted of certain offences to inform the police of their address and their changes of address. The current position is that there is multi-agency involvement in sex offender
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Clause 191 introduces measures concerning the disclosure of information that create a presumption of disclosure about the conviction of sex offenders to members of the public. The notification scheme clearly goes far beyond that envisaged and created by the Sex Offenders Act 1997. The responsible authority under the clause must consider whether to disclose information about the conviction of sex offenders to particular members of the public. As I have said, there is a presumption of disclosure: if the responsible authority has reasonable cause to believe that the sex offender poses a risk, disclosure is necessary to protect a child or children from harm. The presumption exists whether the person to whom the information is conveyed asks for it or not. It is also subject to conditions, which are not spelt out in the Bill. It may be a condition that you would not be able to tell your neighbour. It would be a very odd way of protecting children if information is passed to person A in order to protect the children of person A but they are prevented from passing it on to person B next door in order to protect their children. The conditions potentially impose at least a moral responsibility on the person to whom the information is disclosed to convey that information to others.
In any event, how are these conditions imposed on disclosure to be enforced? Let us suppose that a person who receives the information breaks the conditions under which it has been given. Does that create some form of criminal offence, civil liability, or what? It is not at all clear. It may be that the Government envisage passing on to a parent details of a sex offenders convictions, saying, You may not pass it on to anybody else, act on it or do anything against the individual with the convictions. We are just telling you. That does not seem to be a very useful provision.
We propose in our amendments to replace the presumption of disclosure with a discretion on the part of the authority concerned to pass on information. We also propose that the presumption in new Section 327A(4) as inserted by Clause 191 should not arise,
If there is to be disclosure to an individual, the very first condition should be that that person seeks it because they have fears for their child in relation to a person. Those are the proposals in our amendments. I beg to move.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I very much support the amendment. This is one of those areas where I think many of us feel that far more time and prelegislative scrutiny should have been given because the issue
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It is particularly important that the amendments are supported by both the NSPCC and Barnardos. That in itself gives a pretty clear indication of everyones concern about these areas, which are very troubling indeed. I urge the Government to think carefully about the wording and any disposition to change it. However, I would much rather urge them, as they have done on other occasions, to take back this bit of the Bill and to give it the consideration that it should be given.
The Earl of Onslow: Two things struck me about what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said. One was: what happens if someone who is told not to tell consequently does tell and there is nothing that one can do about it? The other is the fact that the cat is out of the bag. We must be very careful about the lynch mob in these circumstances. We saw this in Portsmouth, and when a lot of people gathered because they got paedophilia muddled up with
Furthermore, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said, the vast majority of this unattractive behaviour happens in families. The noble Lord made a very strong case for a problem which the Government seem to have handled quite well up to now, so why should one change it, except in the way in which the noble Lord has urged?
Lord Monson: Although the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, made an interesting and pretty convincing argument, at the risk of nit-picking I suggest that the grammar of his amendmentsubstituting discretion for presumptionis not quite right. I realise that he does not intend to press the amendment to a Division today, but I suppose he will return to it the next time around if he does not get a satisfactory answer today. When he does, perhaps it might be altered slightly.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): A number of amendments have been tabled to Clause 191 both by the Government and by the noble Lords, Lord Kingsland and Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner. I venture to suggest that we share the same overall aims for the clause. We wish to ensure the effective protection of children from sex offenders while wishing to guard against the perils of inappropriate and unduly widespread disclosure, for the reasons that have been given by a number of Members of the Committee. Those aims are also shared by the organisations and agencies
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In direct answer to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, this is not Megans law. It builds on the existing practice of controlled disclosure, and we took account of the NSPCC representations during the review and the passage of the Bill. It might be useful to give the example of an offender who is convicted of sexual assault against a child and becomes subject to the notification of requirements imposed by the Sexual Offences Act. That would place him under the management of MAPPA. The offender meets a new partnera single mother with young childrenand subsequently moves in with her. Under the notification requirements, he is obliged to inform the police of his new address, which he does. This being brought to the polices attention triggers a risk assessment as part of the MAPPA process. It is identified that the offender poses a risk to his partners children who also reside at his new address and under the new duty imposed by this Bill, the MAPPA responsible authority is under a duty to consider disclosure. MAPPA has identified that there is a risk to children and concludes that disclosing information on this risk to his new partner is necessary to protect these children from serious harm. Disclosure is made in accordance with all the relevant principles to ensure that this is done sensitively and in a planned and appropriately managed way, taking account of all the risks, including to the offender. I put that in just to give a flavour of the way this would apply.
We acknowledge that there are concerns about the nature of this clause, motivated particularly by the fear that it may lead to disclosure of information in inappropriate circumstances or to an unnecessarily wide extent. I wish to emphasise that this is not our aim. Our aims, as we made clear in the review, are to extend the use of controlled disclosure where it is an appropriate and necessary response to a risk of serious harm to a child or children to ensure that there is consistencyconsistency is importantin the practice of disclosure and to ensure that the decision to disclose results from a formalised and auditable process. When these provisions were debated in another place, there were some concerns about the liability imposed on MAPPA authorities, for example in circumstances where they decided against disclosure. Consequently, I think it would be helpful for me to make it clear that the amendments to the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which Clause 191 will introduce, are not intended to impose liability on the MAPPA authorities for breach of their statutory duty to consider disclosure in accordance with these provisions or for a failure to disclose, despite the presumption applying.
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