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I have only one question for the Minister-who looks as though he is in need of some questions to answer. He will remember that in the past, Welsh disestablishment has been somewhat controversial. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, quoted from Lloyd George's speech during the passage of the Bill in 1912. As I remember, the Church of Wales Act did not become law until 1914, and it was the first Act to be passed using the Parliament Acts, which gives an indication of the controversy of the measure. We are very grateful that this measure is not as controversial and is unlikely to need the Parliament Acts to get it
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, on behalf of the Government, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord on securing this Second Reading debate. He will know-we have had words about this-that in accordance with normal practice for Private Member's Bills, the Government do not normally support or oppose them, and we make no exception in this case. I think that he will be able to tell from what I have to say which way the Government are minded on the Bill.
The Bill seeks to widen the opportunities for couples who wish to get married within a parish of the Church in Wales to have the ceremony held at a church with which they have a connection. Equivalent provisions have existed for couples wishing to get married within a parish of the Church of England since October 2008, as the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, reminded us. Our understanding is that these provisions have been successful in meeting a demand that already existed from people wishing to get married at a church or location which holds some special significance for them; for example, a place where they were brought up or regularly worshipped, or where their parents or grandparents were married. It does not seem unreasonable that the Church in Wales would wish to extend a similar welcome to people who wish to get married within one of its parishes but do not satisfy the current qualifying connection that demands that at least one of the couple is resident in the parish.
I have the answer to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Henley. This change has to be made by a Private Member's Bill because, unlike the Church of England, which can pass its own rules, the Church in Wales cannot make legislative changes relating to its own administration and organisation. It therefore needs an Act of Parliament if it is to make such changes.
The Lord Bishop of Salisbury: My Lords, I am not sure that I am going to be able to help definitively, but I think the reason is that the Marriage Act has always stood independently of any ecclesiastical disciplinary matters. Therefore, because it is the law of the land, even when the Church in Wales was disestablished, it could not control it. I hope that that answers the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Henley.
Lord Rowe-Beddoe: My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have participated in this debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury was completely right in his intervention to assist the Minister. It is just a quirk of history. The Church in Wales is disestablished, but it requires the Bill. I warmly thank the right reverend Prelate for his support and thank the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for reminding us of Lloyd George and the tempestuous birth pangs of this church and for referring to Lord Gibson-Watt. This time, we have a senior member of the Liberal Democrat Party and a bishop in the Chamber, so we have moved along a bit. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for his support and for the indication that his party will support the Bill, which has to pass through another place once it has completed its passage here. I thank the Minister for his reply and for wishing the Bill bon voyage.
The purpose of my Bill is to enact a series of changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 which the Government announced they would implement in April 2003. When I initiated a debate on this subject on 6 December 2006, these proposals received all-party support. I was pleased when the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, responding from the Conservative Front Bench, said:
"In the current climate of crisis in our prison service, I would have thought that cutting the numbers that reoffend would make a significant difference to an already over-stretched system".-[Official Report, 6/12/06; col. 1233.]
The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 provided that after specified rehabilitation periods, ex-offenders do not have to declare spent convictions when they apply for jobs except in sensitive areas of work such as criminal justice agencies, financial institutions and work with young people or vulnerable adults. Since it was enacted in 1974, it has helped many ex-offenders to live down their past. However, the rehabilitation periods laid down in it are lengthy, and many genuinely reformed ex-offenders can never benefit from it. 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
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Since the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 was implemented, every length of sentence has significantly increased. Many offenders who would have received sentences of two and a half years or less back in 1974 receive sentences of between three and four years today. This means that many people who would previously have been helped by the Act now find that their offences will never become spent during their lifetime.
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 included representatives of the police and probation services, the legal profession, the judiciary, employers, voluntary agencies and ex-offenders.
In 2002, the review group published its conclusions in its report Breaking the Circle. Following a consultation period, the Government published their own conclusions in April 2003, and accepted a modified version of the review group's proposals. Under that version, 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. These periods would apply to all offences except those that resulted in a life sentence. Sentencing courts would have the discretion to disapply these provisions in any case in which the sentencer decided that there was a particular risk. The new provisions would not apply to jobs in sensitive occupations, for which applicants would still have to declare their full criminal record.
These are the proposals in my Bill. A reformed system along these lines would greatly reduce the scope for unfair discrimination against ex-offenders in the job market. Regrettably, such discrimination is still widespread. A survey of ex-offenders in the projects in which the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders is involved demonstrates 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, you must obviously bar offenders with a history of offences against children from working with children, and offenders with a history of defrauding older people from work caring for older people. In many cases, however, employers are turning down applications because of offences that have no relevance whatever to the jobs for which they are applying.
The scope of discrimination is potentially wide because the decisions to employ or refuse people jobs are not made at the top of companies. They are made by a large number of individual managers who have
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At the time when the review group was set up, there was particular concern that discrimination could increase when Part 5 of the Police Act 1997 was fully implemented. That legislation is likely to be implemented in the near future. It will enable employers to require any job applicant for any job, not just one of the sensitive occupations, to produce a basic disclosure certificate from the Criminal Records Bureau listing his or her unspent criminal convictions.
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 their vacancies and to reject those with more serious convictions for 90 per cent of their vacancies. That research has concluded that the introduction of basic disclosure certificates was likely severely to reduce employment opportunities for those with past criminal records.
My Bill would help to reduce the risk of an increase in such widespread and unfair discrimination by shortening the periods after which convictions became spent. That would reduce the number of old offences that would appear on basic disclosure certificates. The case for reform of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act would be a powerful one, whether or not the basic disclosure provisions of the Police Act were implemented; it would be powerful on the basis of the discrimination that is already there against ex-offenders.
Unfair discrimination against ex-offenders is wrong in principle because it imposes an additional, illegitimate penalty of 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 reoffending is reduced by between one-third and one-half if he or she gets and keeps a job.
"I am an ex-offender who committed a single criminal act at the age of 18 whilst in the grip of an addiction to gambling, for which I was sentenced to three years in a young offender institution. At the time I thought the loss of my liberty and my chosen career was the greatest punishment but I was so wrong. Having to live in fear at every job interview that I will be asked 'the' question has hung over me like a cloud since the day I was released over 21 years ago, even leading to bouts of depression".
The reforms to which the Government committed themselves in 2003 would allow many people who committed offences many years ago to start again with a clean slate. They would therefore reduce the risk of further offending by former offenders who are excluded from the job market.
"I will note with pleasure in my diary that this is something about which there is unanimity in this House. Therefore, we can all go joyfully to the Whips who, I am sure, will find a space".-[Official Report, 6/12/06; col. 1238.]
I hope that noble Lords of all parties will support this modest and long overdue reform. In conclusion, I should like to thank also my researcher, Paul Cavadino, and the Bill Office for their help in drafting this Bill. I beg to move.
Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I salute the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for once again bringing forward a Bill to rectify the Government's shameful delay in honouring their 2003 commitment to review the outdated Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and for his habitual skill in so clearly outlining its content and intent. In vain we have waited for a Bill in all five Queen's Speeches during this Parliament. To be quite blunt, I believe that when the Government look back over what they have not done, they must hang their head in shame over the time that they have taken to do nothing to honour publicised commitments such as the review of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and acting on the European Court's ruling on the right of prisoners to vote, each of which exceeds the total length of World War 2.
However, 1975 saw the start of an increasing diminution of that position, which continues to this day, by the introduction of an exceptions order to limit the rights of the offender to ensure the protection of the public. Particular and understandable concern was expressed over the safety of children and vulnerable adults. I say "diminution" because the period since then has been marked by the inflation of sentence lengths, which affects the time during which disclosure is required, and the addition of more exceptions, quite apart from the problems faced by those awarded indeterminate sentences for public protection, which have yet to be resolved.
In 1999, the Better Regulation Task Force recommended that the Government should review the periods during which disclosure applies, following which the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, ordered a more fundamental review of the Act. He felt that what the task force had recommended had not gone far enough. The resulting 2002 report, Breaking the Circle, has been mentioned many times today, and I merely remind the House of its key findings. First, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act is not achieving the right balance between resettlement and protection and, secondly, it was confusing for offenders and employers alike.
I should like to focus on the second finding for a few moments. I believe that not only is the current Act confusing, it is also arcane and complex. To put those feelings in context, I must repeat that I find it extraordinary that a Government who continually praise themselves for their concentration on the reduction of reoffending and the successful resettlement of offenders should fail to follow up their announced intention to remedy one of the principal impediments to their being able to turn those claims into realities.
The present Act is confusing to offenders, who not only do not understand it but are unsure of what they are required to disclose. As a result, they often inadvertently disclose convictions that are spent, which may be used unofficially by an employer to disadvantage an applicant for a job. In their eyes, the legislation constitutes nothing less than an additional punishment because the fact that employers have the freedom to ask about all convictions puts offenders in a particularly difficult position. Many feel that while they have the freedom to lie about spent convictions, to do so potentially initiates a dishonest relationship with an employer. Here I must declare an interest as president of UNLOCK, the National Association of Reformed Offenders.
The Act is also confusing to employers and insurers, who in turn have a poor understanding of the Act, leading to their inadvertently asking questions to elicit information which may result in illegal discrimination. The Act is a paper tiger in this context because the consequences of contravening it are minimal. Finally, the Act is confusing within the criminal justice system itself, among prison officers, probation officers, legal advisers and third sector workers, whose lack of understanding often leads to inaccurate advice being given to offenders.
As far as achieving the right balance between resettlement and protection is concerned, I believe that in bringing forward the Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has not presumed to rectify all the shortcomings of the 1974 Act but has rightly focused on the one issue on which every other reform depends; namely, the length of the disclosure period. I hope therefore that the Government, not least to exculpate themselves from the shame of having done nothing over the past five years, will make time to ensure that it reaches the statute book before the end of this Parliament. Once that is done, the next logical step must be for the next Government, from whichever party they come, to commit themselves to a full-scale revision of the 1974 Act at a very early stage.
There is no need to conduct yet another review of the situation because all the information they need has already been established and articulated. Numerous organisations such as the Prison Reform Trust, NACRO and UNLOCK can produce countless papers detailing the results of hours of research and study. All that is needed, as it has been for the past six years, is action and not prevarication in the certain knowledge that a strong body of supporters, certainly in this House, are ready and willing to help with such work. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that that process is put in train by pledging his support for the Bill today.
Lord Woolf: My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow in the footsteps of the two noble Lords who have already spoken in favour of the Bill, but while it is a pleasure, it makes the task of someone coming third a difficult one because, in many ways, everything that can be said has already been said. However, perhaps I will be forgiven if I detain your Lordships for a short time to stress that, while this is a modest and certainly a sensible proposal to improve the criminal justice system, it is also one that has an important dimension. We know that, within the criminal justice system, we
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Criticism has been made of the lack of action. There can be many explanations for that. We know that there is always pressure on the legislative programme of any Government, but this is just the sort of measure which must not disappear because of that pressure. Like my predecessor and successors as Lord Chief Justice, I have gone on record on many occasions in complaining about the amount of unhelpful legislation which arrives annually within the criminal justice system.
This Bill is truly helpful to one of the principal objectives of the criminal justice system-to reduce offending. In those circumstances, this measure is an opportunity to show commitment to the need to assist those who seek to break the habit of crime to do so. I ask the House to give the Bill a fair passage.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I agree with everything that has been said by my noble friend Lord Dholakia, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. I have a particular interest in this Bill because I have been a member of JUSTICE for 50 years and a member of its council for most of that time. The 1974 Act was one of its proudest achievements. This was due, in particular, to the late Paul Sieghart, who was for many years the chair of the executive committee of JUSTICE. To a large extent, the Act was his idea and he lobbied tirelessly to achieve it.
The Act has enabled many people convicted of crimes to later lead normal and productive lives as a result of being given qualified legal rights not to disclose their previous convictions. However, 35 years later, it is now time to consider whether the 1974 Act needs to be looked at again to see whether it still performs adequately the purpose for which it was enacted. I am afraid that it is all too obvious that it does not.
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