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One main reason is that sentences of imprisonment have become much longer in the intervening years, with the result that many people who would have been within the scope of the 1974 Act when it was enacted now receive sentences which disqualify them from claiming the benefit of that Act. Let me tell of one occasion which made me realise the difference. Some three or four years ago, I saw an excellent film entitled "Vera Drake". It was set in the period shortly after the end of the Second World War. In that film, Vera Drake was a woman who gave abortions to young women out of a wish to help them. She was caught, tried and convicted. The judge said words to the effect of, "This is a most serious crime and I must give you a severe sentence. You will go to prison for two-and-a-half years". I sat up at this and said to myself, "The scriptwriters must have done their research well. No one now would regard two-and-a-half years as a severe sentence for a serious crime". Clearly there has been an enormous change since 1950; most notably since 1974.

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Nowadays two-and-a-half years is the maximum sentence which enables any prisoner to claim the benefit of the 1974 Act. The increase in sentences since 1974 justifies the extension of the 1974 Act to cover sentences much longer than two-and-a-half years. As has been made clear, the Bill will bring into force reforms that were accepted by the Government in 2003 but never enacted. The Bill is not a complete answer. In particular, it does not deal with the problem that information about past convictions can often nowadays be obtained on the internet regardless of whether or not they have elapsed. However, the Bill is a good step forward.

I have some doubts about new subsection (9A), which seems to drag the Bill into the deeply unsatisfactory world of the indeterminate sentence. The danger-of-harm provision allows the court to declare at the trial whether it is necessary for the safety of the public to avoid the 1974 Act. Surely danger of harm in cases of this kind should be judged at the end of the sentence and not at the beginning. If the objective of making a convict a potentially decent citizen has been achieved, it should be recognised at the end of the sentence by making sure there is no extension of the period.

However, I welcome the Bill immensely. Whatever its chances of being enacted, this debate raises an important issue.

Lord Woolf: Before the next speaker rises, perhaps your Lordships might forgive me if I do now what I failed to do during my speech, despite the note that I made to myself about the need to declare an interest. I have the privilege to be an honorary officer of many bodies working in this field.

2.22 pm

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: My Lords, with your Lordships' indulgence, I am stepping into the gap because I want to support the Bill. Rehabilitation of offenders is such an important concept within the criminal justice system. As we have heard from all speakers, it is in urgent need of reform. I, too, pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, who has been a great champion of justice in this House. He has always shown considerable foresight and is one of our most distinguished and humane Members. It is not surprising that he has brought this Bill to the House's attention.

As your Lordships might know, I still practise in the criminal courts, but I am also, like the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, the patron of UNLOCK. I am also the chair of JUSTICE. I frequently hear from defendants shocking stories of their attempts to rebuild their lives after a conviction. The general public call for transparency in sentencing and often clamour for longer sentences. The Government have responded to that, reflected in the extent to which sentencing has increased in recent times.

This part of the law has not kept pace with that. The public are not really well informed about the way in which punishment continues long after people have served a sentence or completed what was required by the courts. The punishment often takes other forms, which we have heard about today; for example, the ways in which opportunities for employment are undermined, the loss of friends, the inability to take

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up particular roles in society and inhibition felt by ex-offenders even about volunteering for roles in the community because they are anxious about exposure, particularly in the face of their children. They are unable to get insurance; they often cannot get visas to travel, because they fear that question, "Do you have a conviction?" and how they should answer it. We as lawyers are often asked how they should answer it, too. Many of us feel that there is a lack of clarity for everyone involved-not only for potential offenders but also for ex-offenders.

This Private Member's Bill creates that level of clarity and I hope that the Government will seize the opportunity to reform the law. It is, I think, precisely what the Government had in mind when they set up the review group and endorsed its conclusions. Surely, with the consent of this whole House-I do not imagine that there will be many here who disagree with it-some time for the Bill could be found. I hope that we can hear something positive from my Front Bench.

2.24 pm

Lord Henley: My Lords, I offer my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, who is a tireless campaigner for the rehabilitation of offenders. He is to be thanked for producing this Bill.

The premise is relatively straightforward: the Bill amends the 1974 Act so that rehabilitation periods for various types of offences are reduced, meaning that the conviction will be considered spent sooner than is now the case. For example, a sentence of borstal training currently has a rehabilitation period of seven years, whereas under the noble Lord's proposals that would be reduced to two years plus a buffer period of two years. I see that the noble Lord nods, so I obviously have got that part right.

The noble Lord has drawn on the work of the Prison Reform Trust and the Howard League for Penal Reform, bodies which have long been highlighting one of the biggest problems with prisons and the criminal justice system, which is that they appear to do precious little to prevent recidivism. Among adult offenders, the rates for reoffending within two years are about 65 per cent, while for young offenders between 18 and 21 they are in the mid-70 per cent and for 15 to 17 year-olds the figure is over 80 per cent. There are many reasons to criticise the Government, but it must be one of their most damning failings that, despite the creation of 3,000-odd new offences and a deluge of criminal justice legislation which has poured forth from the Government-the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, has referred to it in the past as a torrent of legislation-they have not checked reoffending rates. The very fact that we are debating the noble Lord's Bill today is evidence of that.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, was highly critical of the inhibiting effect that a conviction can have. He argues that the rehabilitation periods are far too long and act like a millstone, preventing ex-offenders from making a fresh start. We have considerable sympathy with that position; we believe that the best way to ensure that an ex-offender does not become a reoffender is to offer them the chance of stability which, crucially, means employment. We do not wish to see unnecessary

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obstacles placed in the way of reintegrating offenders into society. It may be that the time limits set out in the 1974 Act are too long; it is 35 years or so since that Act was passed, and it is correct to say that we need some fresh thinking in this area. However, the noble Lord's approach, in taking a scythe to them and halving them, is possibly oversimplistic. I wonder whether we need a slightly more nuanced approach, adopting flexible periods, tailored to meet the needs of offenders and society at large. None of us has an interest in encouraging recidivism, but there is much to be done in this area and much to be looked at if this Bill passes Second Reading and we go on to Committee.

I also believe, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, that we have to have a very extensive debate on the balance between resettlement and protection. We hear a great deal about the Criminal Records Bureau and the Independent Safeguarding Authority, which seems to have its tentacles round virtually every person doing voluntary work in the country. As the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, made clear, it is obviously right that we need appropriate protection and that people convicted of child offences should not seek employment again in that field for a considerable period, if ever at all-and there would be other examples. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that the balance there is wrong and needs looking at, and this Bill may provide some small chance to have part of that debate. It is a debate that will have to take place in due course, and I would welcome the Minister's comments when he comes to reply on that balance between resettlement and protection.

I congratulate the noble Lord on getting his Bill, among so many other Private Members' Bills, before the House for debate today. He is right to give the Government pause for thought. We need to look at our rehabilitation laws. Whether it is appropriate for that to be done by a Private Member's Bill is another matter, but it certainly provides for a welcome debate, and we look forward to the Government's response and to debating the Bill further in Committee at a later stage.

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, the Government congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, on getting his Bill debated today. We are grateful to him for introducing it in the way that he has and giving the House the opportunity for this short debate on Second Reading. I can only repeat what my noble friend Lady Kennedy said: the noble Lord has the huge respect of the whole House for his work in this field.

This debate gives us the opportunity to remind ourselves of the fundamental changes that there have been in the criminal justice system in the past 35 years. I will say a word about rehabilitation and then move to the background to the Bill itself.

Rehabilitation is very much at the heart of our approach. Of course, turning offenders away from crime is not only good for them: more importantly, it benefits the wider community as a whole. As far as those in prison are concerned, we have worked hard to ensure that prison is a more decent, humane and constructive place than even 10 years ago, and a place

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where rehabilitation programmes can thrive. No one underestimates the need for ever to build on our work to tackle reoffending, but reoffending has fallen in recent years, I understand, for both adults and young people. We believe that part of that is as a result of the approach that we have taken. The noble Lord knows better than I do about the increase in prison drug treatment, which has increased tenfold since 1996-97, and the extra spending on offender learning too.

For those who have not been sent to prison, we have focused on making sure that particularly vulnerable non-dangerous offenders are diverted away from prison when it is the right thing to do. I remind the House that the number of women in prison fell by 3 per cent last year. After what had been a rapid rise, the number of offenders under 18 went down by 8 per cent over that same period.

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I hate to challenge the Minister in full speech, but at a meeting two nights ago with the Minister with responsibility for prisons, Maria Eagle, she told us that while the number of women in prison had gone down because of the longer sentences, the number of women received into prison during the year had gone up dramatically by more than 900. Therefore, the figure he gave is slightly disingenuous.

Lord Bach: I am grateful to the noble Lord for his intervention to my speech. Obviously, I will go back and talk to my honourable friend about that issue. My understanding is-and I did not think it was arguable-that last year the number of women in prison actually fell by 3 per cent. If that were so, I am sure that that is something that the noble Lord, above anyone, would be pleased about.

I was talking about community punishment and community sentences. We believe that a tough community punishment can often be much more effective in turning people away from a life of crime. It can allow more direct and visible ways to pay back to a victim and community and gives offenders a chance to turn their lives around. That is why we expanded community punishment from 140,000 sentences in 1997 to 195,000 by 2007. The different requirements for community sentences allow the courts to make offenders confront their specific problems, be they drug or alcohol abuse, or mental health and behavioural issues. A central purpose of community orders is, of course, punishment itself, through such penalties as community payback, curfews or banning orders.

Moving back to the background to the noble Lord's Bill, it reflects, as he told us, the proposals for reform published by the Government in 2003 and is based on the recommendations of the review Breaking the Circle. However, that report was a creature of its time and we must think carefully about whether those proposals continue to strike the right balance between the resettlement of offenders and public protection. I take the point that the Government's commitment in this area is now six years old, but we have been far from idle in the mean time. Much has happened which has been a more immediate priority, particularly in relation to public protection and the needs of victims, and which has had a bearing on how and when the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act might be reformed.

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Many of the changes that we have made since 2003 are still working through. First, the Bichard inquiry was set up in 2003 to look at the manner in which the police handled intelligence about Ian Huntley's past and the vetting process which ultimately led to his employment at a local school. The report made a number of recommendations relating to data retention and sharing, and about extending enhanced disclosures to more people who work with the vulnerable. Our response was to bring forward a major new piece of legislation which went through this House, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, to strengthen public protection for the vulnerable. This has an impact on the scope of CRB checks for employment purposes and has led to the establishment of the Independent Safeguarding Authority to operate a new vetting and barring scheme to prevent an individual working with vulnerable groups when there is a known reason why they may pose a risk to children or vulnerable adults.

This scheme has only just come into force in relation to regulated activity. As with any new scheme, there are some teething problems and issues have arisen on the scope and interpretation of the legislation. Sir Roger Singleton, the chairman of the Independent Safeguarding Authority, has been asked to look again at the scheme to make sure that the right balance has been struck on how many people are covered-that is, who will be required to register with the ISA. His recommendations are due to be published on Monday 14 December and may impact on who is required to have a CRB check and, therefore, who may or may not benefit from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.

The ISA, by its nature, will bring an independent, objective and consistent approach to the employment of ex-offenders in jobs where there is direct contact with children and vulnerable adults. The guidelines on making barring decisions require the ISA to take into account relevant offending history. Therefore, the creation of the authority will contribute to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act's aims of ensuring that ex-offenders are not discriminated against when seeking employment on the grounds of irrelevant offending history. We shall need to see this fully in operation to assess what changes might now be required to the Act.

Since 2003 we have also seen fundamental changes in sentencing policy and practice. This includes a new adult sentencing framework in 2005 and wholesale changes to the youth justice sentencing framework. It is important that all these new reforms are taken into account when looking at the Act. It is not sufficient merely to rest on what has gone before.

Lastly, the Government have also been concentrating since 2003 on the need to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. Any reform of the Act needs to be subject to full consultation, particularly to take account of the views of victims. In view of all those developments, the Government would need to take a fresh look at the Act in the round and what might be best considered in the current context rather than what was considered appropriate in 2003.

There are some technical deficiencies with the Bill; the noble Lord himself would be the first to say so. For example, not all sentences are covered by its provisions. One important omission is the need to

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consider the position of new indeterminate sentences. That was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, who has strong and definite views on those sentences, but they exist-they are in law. If there were to be such a change, there would have to be some way of dealing with them and we agree with him that Clause 1(9) may not be the most appropriate method. We made imprisonment for public protection available to the courts to deal with dangerous offenders who are considered to present a significant risk to the public through the commission of further serious offences. Frankly, it would be anomalous to go forward with any reform that took no account of indeterminate sentences whatever. I doubt that anyone would disagree that such sentences should never be regarded as spent; were it to be otherwise the offenders in, for example, the Baby P case could see their record wiped clean at some point.

Also, the Bill does not take sufficient account of the position with regard to Scotland. Amendment of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act is a devolved issue. However, it would be desirable to continue to have similar schemes on both sides of the border. Therefore, we need a dialogue with Scotland on the way forward. That would be appropriate rather than pressing ahead with a Bill that would create a somewhat different regime here in England and Wales from that in Scotland.

I am sorry that I shall disappoint the noble Lord in saying that we have some reservations about the Bill, for the reasons that I have given. Of course the Government will neither support nor oppose the Bill on Second Reading; we rarely do so as far as Private Members' Bills are concerned. I hope that he will accept that the Government are grateful for his giving the House the chance to have this debate by having put forward the Bill. However, much more work needs to be done to look at the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act in the round before we move to legislation.

2.42 pm

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in the debate. After 35 years of this legislation, it is rightly time for amendments so that we can meet the present situation. Obviously the tail-end of a Friday afternoon three days before the Christmas vacation is not the right time to enter into a detailed negotiation or discussion, but a number of important points have been raised.

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The noble Lord, Lord Henley, suggested a different approach, and I thank him for what he called a more measured approach to the length of the rehabilitation period. He said that he would support the general principle, and I would not hesitate to consider appropriate amendments in Committee on the matter.

My noble friend Lord Goodhart mentioned the risk of serious harm, and that it should be judged only at the end of the sentence. All I did was to take Clause 1(9) from the suggestion of the Home Office working group. There again, there is no reason why the matter could not be discussed in Committee.

The two areas that the Minister mentioned cause me some concern. The case for the Bill is not changed by the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, which introduced strengthened provision-including the introduction of the Independent Safeguarding Authority mentioned by the Minister-which applies to jobs that are exempt from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and would remain exempt if the Bill were passed. There is no problem as regards my Bill's provisions co-existing with the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act. I am unable to accept that this may be a legitimate ground for delay, but perhaps the Minister may wish to look at that between now and Committee stage, which I hope the House may grant me.

On the issue of serious offenders, I have a number of observations. I am very conscious of the time, but I shall take no more than a few seconds. First, ex-offenders who apply for any of the exempted provisions will still have to reveal all their convictions. That includes applications for jobs involving working with children and vulnerable adults, as I have explained. Secondly, anyone who receives a life sentence will always have to declare all their convictions. Again, there is no problem with that. Thirdly, many serious offenders, and all those whom the courts regard as posing a serious future risk, may receive indefinite sentences for public protection-the so-called IPP sentences. I would be prepared to consider amending the Bill in Committee to exempt IPP sentences if that would help to meet the Minister's concern. Finally, Clause 1(9) allows any judge, when sentencing, the power to disapply the provisions of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.

At this stage, all that I ask is that the House gives the Bill a Second Reading.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at 2.46 pm.

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