I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill is an important further plank in the Government's strategy for protecting the public against sex offenders, particularly those who prey on children. It contains two distinct parts, both with the common purpose of protecting children from sexual abuse. Part I imposes a requirement on those convicted of sex offences against children and other serious sex offences to register their name and address, and any subsequent changes, with the police. Part II makes it an offence for United Kingdom residents to commit certain sex acts against children abroad. The Bill's measures represent an important step in our comprehensive strategy to combat sex offenders. I should say something about the overall strategy, of which the Bill is a part.
In the Crime (Sentences) Bill, as the House will recall, we are providing for automatic life sentences for those convicted, for a second time, of a serious sex offence: rape, attempted rape or unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 13 years old. Passing a life sentence on those who have demonstrated the propensity for repeated serious sexual offences will ensure that such people are not released unless or until it is judged safe to do so. In addition, the Crime (Sentences) Bill provides that all sex offenders will receive extended supervision after release for a minimum of 12 months or 50 per cent. of sentence, extendable up to 10 years at the court's discretion.
As well as the Crime (Sentences) Bill and the Bill before the House today, the Government are legislating, through the Protection from Harassment Bill, against stalking—a phenomenon that may often have a sexual element, sometimes directed against child victims. We are also supporting two important private Members' Bills. The Sexual Offences (Protected Material) Bill will regulate access to victim statements in sex offence cases, and prevent the despicable practice of such material being used for pornographic purposes, and the Criminal Evidence (Amendment) Bill will extend police powers to obtain DNA—deoxyribonucleic acid—tests for all convicted sex offenders still serving a sentence.
Finally, we are today publishing proposals for a prohibition on sex offenders seeking employment with children. Copies of the proposals have been placed in the Library. That was one of the elements discussed in last summer's consultation paper and it received widespread support, but it was clear from the comments received that further work was necessary to develop an effective scheme. The results of that further work are contained in the paper published jointly today by the Home Office and the Scottish Office and we look forward to receiving further comments from the public on how the arrangements should work.
To return to the Bill, the suggestion that sex offenders should be required to register was first put forward by the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales, and I am grateful to that organisation for its assistance in developing our proposals. We decided to issue a consultative document, "Sentencing and Supervision of Sex Offenders", in June last year to canvass opinions on a range of measures that could improve public protection against sex offenders, including a registration requirement. There was strong support for the idea of registration—as there was for all the proposals in that document—and the Bill has been drafted in the light of the detailed comments that we received on how the scheme should work in practice.
Recent tragic cases have brought home to all of us the risk posed to children by paedophiles. There is a clear need for additional measures to strengthen the arrangements already in place to protect the public against sex offenders. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that there will ever be a complete defence against the determined sexual predator, but the Government must, and will, do all that they can to make sure that children can be protected as far as is possible.
The primary purpose of requiring convicted sex offenders to notify the police of their name and address and of changes to those details is to ensure that the information contained within the police national computer remains fully up to date. At the moment, the address held in police records will be the last one known to the police, which is usually the one where the offender was residing when convicted. The unsatisfactory result is that the police have no means of learning when a convicted sex offender has moved into their area.
Are the arrangements different for any other sort of offence? For example, if a repeated drugs offender or repeated mugger moves house, does he have to register his address somewhere?
No, such offenders do not have to register their address. The requirement to register is an innovation and, so far, we are proposing that it should apply only to those convicted of the offences listed in schedule 1. Of course, prisons notify local police of people leaving prison who were convicted of serious offences, and those who have received a life sentence may have conditions built into their life licence that they should notify the police of any change of address. However, other than in those circumstances, there is no requirement on individuals to tell the police that they are moving or, indeed, that they have moved.
I am sure that the Government want to do everything possible to ensure that good information is held The Minister mentioned that the police are passed information when an individual is released from prison, and I believe that that information is also passed to social services departments. Will the Minister therefore clarify the instructions for local authority departments? In the paper, "Working Together", which was published a few years ago, it was said that local authorities should not keep lists of suspected offenders, despite the fact that there was a court case—Regina v. Devon county council—in which local authorities were held to be responsible for keeping such information and using it.
It may be legitimate for authorities to keep lists of offenders, especially when there is any likelihood of their seeking employment with children. As I continue my speech, the hon. Gentleman may be satisfied by comments that I make. In addition, I shall address another point that he raised in the press at the weekend.
Will the Minister assure us that he believes that the Bill's provisions are sufficient to deal with paedophiles who, as he probably knows, frequently change their names and the areas in which they live? One matter that concerns me is the difficulty that the police and social services have in keeping track of such people when they have changed their name or moved to another area. Is the Minister happy that the Bill's provisions will ensure that paedophiles can be tracked by the police and social services?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which I shall come to shortly. The short answer is no. That is why I am informing the House that I shall propose a small amendment to impose a requirement for additional information to be provided by the person, to enable the police to identify more accurately the person standing at their desk and giving them a name and address. I have concluded that the requirement for merely a name and address needs to be strengthened.
If the aim of the provisions is to give added protection and security to the general population and to act as a deterrent to a potential offender, and if that is such a splendid idea, why are the provisions not extended to other categories of dangerous people? There seems to be some illogicality in my right hon. Friend's proposals if he limits them in that way.
Yes, I did see the article and I shall refer to it in a moment, but I say to my hon. Friend that we must not attempt to bite off more than we can chew.
I believe that everyone accepts that, among criminals, paedophiles are in a special category. We can distinguish their sexual activity from that of violent criminals, muggers or other serious criminals because, as our research appears to show, usually paedophiles are highly manipulative and clever and often their offending behaviour intensifies as they get older. They are in a particularly dangerous category, and the request by the police for some form of register was made to tackle the particularly recognised problem of paedophiles.
That is a sensible starting point. Once those arrangements are in place—bearing in mind the fact that the police will have the administrative burden of dealing with the large number of paedophiles who will register under our proposals—we might be trying to run before we can walk if we try to go much further before we have a successful paedophile register in place.
Will the Minister reassure me and the House that the register is not only for paedophiles but is a register of sex offenders? He knows from my recent questions to him that in this country child prostitution is rife and successful prosecutions against those who entice young people into prostitution are minimal—there have been only six in the past five years. To be effective, a register must be backed by good detection and criminal proceedings.
Of course the hon. Gentleman is right. On his first point, the Bill is properly called the Sex Offenders Bill. For shorthand, we have tended to call it the "paedophiles Bill" and to talk about the paedophiles register, but schedule 1 of the Bill includes not only offences against children, but other sexual offences, including rape.
My right hon. Friend said that paedophiles were in a special category. Does he accept that paedophiles are mentally sick people for whom there is no effective treatment, so they should be detained indefinitely? Will he consider that point, and do so in the context of amending the mental health Acts, which effectively would do away ultimately with the need for a register?
I hear what my hon. Friend says. Some paedophiles may fall into that category, but I do not think that all could be defined as such—although I suspect that we would all say that those who kill someone else must be sick to do such a thing. One of the difficulties of dealing with hardened paedophiles is that they do not consider their activities to be wrong; hardened paedophiles believe that the rest of us have set unfair parameters to their sexual activity. They do not believe that having sex with children is wrong—many of them believe that it is a right thing to do and that we are the wrong ones for trying to restrain that activity. That is what makes them especially dangerous, and that is why some are so clever and manipulative.
I do not regard the Bill as a panacea to prevent all sexual offences against children; no measure can do that. No measure can control all paedophiles, but the Bill is a significant step in helping the police to track down the whereabouts of those who may be offending against children. If the police are armed with the information provided under the Bill, it will not only help them to identify suspects once a crime has been committed; it will act as a deterrent to some reoffenders.
I want now to explain the main provisions of this part of the Bill, and to describe the key clauses. The registration requirement will apply in any part of the United Kingdom to all who are convicted of a qualifying offence, either there or in any other part of the UK. It will apply equally to those convicted under courts martial, and to those convicted in the UK of offences committed abroad—under part II of the Bill. In England and Wales, it will also include those who are cautioned for any of those offences.
The qualifying offences are set out in schedule 1. They cover sexual offences involving children, including child pornography offences, and also the most serious sexual offences against adults: all cases of rape and attempted rape, and cases of indecent assault for which a sentence of 30 months' imprisonment or more has been imposed. The Bill is intended to protect children, both boys and girls.
The Government intend to add one further offence to the list set out in schedule 1. We wish to close a loophole in relation to the prohibition on importing indecent and obscene material featuring children. Difficulties with establishing possession under section 160 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 can sometimes arise; but on the same facts, it is possible to secure a conviction for importation under section 170 of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979. We shall therefore table an amendment in Committee.
It is the paedophile and the serious sex offender whom we are targeting. That is why a number of offences that would otherwise attract registration have age-related exemptions. Some people have sought to argue that all consensual homosexual acts should be excluded, but we must be careful that, in seeking to exclude consensual sexual offences from the requirement to register, we do not inadvertently place under-18-year-olds at risk. In his article in The Times last Friday, Matthew Parris suggested incorrectly that consensual homosexual acts between adults would be caught by the Bill. The age exemptions focus on consensual teenage sex and adult homosexual acts. By restricting the age exemption in that way, we have been mindful of the possibility of manipulative and coercive pressure being exerted by older people on younger impressionable people.
The requirement to register applies indefinitely to those convicted of the most serious offences—that is, those sentenced to imprisonment for 30 months or more. Those sentenced to shorter periods of imprisonment are required to register for a finite period: up to 10 years if the sentence is more than six months, and seven years for a sentence of six months or less. Non-custodial penalties and cautions will attract a registration period of five years.
Those are significant requirements—rightly so, in the Government's belief. Registration periods need to be long enough to reflect the long-term offending pattern of paedophiles. Should the offender be convicted of a further relevant sex offence, the requirement to register will be extended; or if it is after the expiry of a registration period, a further one will be imposed. Periods of registration also apply to persons found not guilty of one of the schedule 1 offences by reason of insanity or by having been found to be unfit to plead, even though they committed the act with which they have been charged.
Does the Minister recall the harrowing reports last year of two young girls, aged nine and 13, whose charred remains were found in a brothel in Bangkok? Will he assure the House that those guilty of offences committed overseas against children will be included on the register? If that is not done, surely there will be more of an impetus to export sexual offences against children, if British nationals believe that they can commit them abroad with impunity.
Will the Minister comment on whether he thinks that one month's imprisonment is long enough for someone who fails to register?
I shall shortly be commenting on sexual offences committed overseas, in the context of part II; but I believe that it is not possible to require people convicted of any offence abroad to register here. If a paedophile who has committed an offence abroad is convicted in the United Kingdom, we can certainly impose the requirement, but not on people convicted of any offence overseas who have not been convicted in this country.
I warmly welcome the Bill, but can my right hon. Friend help me with the thinking behind the point that he was elaborating? He said a very true thing that bears out my experience of more than five years in his office. He said that paedophiles are incorrigible, all the more so because they believe that society is wrong, and that they are not. Clearly, paedophiles are the criminals least likely to mend their ways.
Once the decision has been taken—a major and significant step—to require people convicted of paedophile offences to have their address registered with the police, why is a distinction drawn, based on how long each has been required to serve in prison? That depends on two variables, neither of which is particularly reliable. The first is whether the judge got the initial sentence right. The second is the difference between a fumbled indecent assault and the murder of a child, which depends on how clumsy were the attempts to restrain the child's efforts to protest. That has been my experience. Once people are convicted paedophiles, why should not they remain on the register throughout their lives?
My right hon. and learned Friend makes an interesting point. I believe that we have got the balance about right. It would be difficult to impose a lifetime registration requirement on any person convicted of a sexual offence of the type specified in schedule 1. There may be a philosophical difference between us. I am open to the suggestion that the registration periods are not right, that they could be extended or perhaps that they should be shortened, but it would be a draconian measure to impose a lifetime requirement on any person convicted of any of the sexual offences in the Bill.
The requirement as drafted is quite draconian. For anyone convicted of a sexual offence who gets a sentence of more than 30 months—not a long sentence—there is a lifetime registration requirement. For anyone who gets more than a six-month sentence, there is a registration requirement of 10 years. Those are fairly hefty, but I shall listen carefully to my right hon. and learned Friend's speech if he catches your eye, Madam Speaker. He might be persuasive, but at present he is not.
I congratulate the Minister on his approach and on his willingness to listen to other hon. Members' arguments. That is extremely helpful to the atmosphere of debate. The relationship between offences committed abroad, which are listed in schedule 2, and offences committed in this country, which are primarily listed in schedule 1, is extremely important. Is it the case that offences listed in schedule 2—those committed abroad—which the schedule brings within the ambit of United Kingdom law, will therefore require registration in the same way as offences committed in the UK under schedule 1? I note that schedule 2 is more narrowly drawn and I understand the reasons for that, but should there not be a requirement for the registration of offences dealt with under UK law?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. He may be slightly confused about what I said or by my answer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor).
It is clear that those who are convicted in the United Kingdom of offences in schedule 1 will be required to register. Those who may be convicted of offences overseas would not be required to register. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] That would be impossible. In most cases, we would not know whether people had been convicted overseas. In cases where someone had committed offences overseas that were tried in the UK under part II of the Bill, and the person was convicted in this country of offences committed overseas, the requirement to register would exist.
The Government are likely to be informed about offences committed overseas because, as the Minister well knows, most of the groundwork is performed by an international network of non-governmental organisations that would readily seek to protect children by providing the relevant evidence to the Government. Will the Government reconsider the matter, otherwise there will be a glaring loophole in the legislation?
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reconsiders the enormity of his suggestion. We operate—as does part II of the Bill—the dual criminality test. Everyone who is convicted by a British court of the relevant offences will be required to register. However, the hon. Gentleman suggests a haphazard registration system that would include those who might come to public attention because they had been convicted of an offence in a foreign country. I suspect that the vast bulk of such people would not have to register and that the British dual criminality test would not operate. People might be convicted in foreign countries of offences that are not recognised in British law and that are not compatible with our requirements. For instance, we all know that the age of consent differs between countries. It is a recipe for disaster.
Our prime duty at this stage is to deal with criminals who are convicted in this country of serious sexual offences—there are about 2,000 such cases a year. Once we get that system working correctly, I might be tempted to examine the radical extension that the hon. Gentleman proposes.
I appreciate the Minister's argument, but I press him to re-examine the matter even before we consider it in Committee. His proposal might send a signal to people who have such tendencies and who would be convicted in a British court to commit those offences abroad. I ask the Minister to reconsider his position.
I am always happy to consider carefully the views expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House about an entirely non-political issue such as this. I shall examine carefully all the points that have been made. However, I think that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) focuses on only one narrow question. The Bill has two parts and the second part deals with sex tourists. We intend to introduce powers to prosecute people in this country for offences that they have committed overseas. I think that there will be few such prosecutions in this country, not because people will wish to be prosecuted overseas, but because of the difficulty in obtaining evidence. Britain has a very good record of extraditing those who have committed offences overseas, and we shall continue that practice provided that the normal rules are satisfied. Those involved then face tough penalties in the countries where the offences were committed.
I welcome the legislation because my first Adjournment debate in the House of Commons addressed the problem of sex tourism in Thailand. We must do all that we can to ensure that people do not escape the law in this country by perpetrating dreadful acts abroad. I urge my right hon. Friend to reconsider the case of someone who travels abroad and who is tried and convicted abroad of a serious sexual offence. Is it not better to catch some such paedophiles on the register in this country rather than saying. "Oh well, people will fall through the net, so we had better have none rather than some"?
I am not sure how our obligations under the European Court of Human Rights would be affected by a provision that said, "We shall impose draconian conditions on those whom we know about but not upon those who have been convicted abroad but whose convictions have not come to our attention." That is not a sensible way to proceed legislatively.
If serious sexual criminals from this country are returned to foreign countries to stand trial, the National Criminal Intelligence Service will know about it. That organisation keeps tabs on such people, and it will notify the police if they return to this country after they have served their sentences. The National Criminal Intelligence Service performs a valuable liaison and intelligence role in keeping the police informed of the whereabouts of the most serious paedophiles and sexual offenders.
I am conscious of the fact that many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, so I must make progress.
Clause 2 defines the nature of the notification requirement. Any change of name or address must be registered within 14 days, either by personal attendance at a police station or by written notice to the police. The Government intend to tighten the notification requirement in the light of further views put to us by the police, who have argued that in practice they will need fuller information, to ensure the proper identification of the offender furnishing the information.
We shall therefore be tabling an amendment to require a person to notify his name and address at the time of conviction, his last notified name and address, his date of birth and the information which he is notifying the police has changed. We shall also be requiring that notification be made to a police station in the police force area where the offender's address falls. That will remove unnecessary administrative burdens from the police and will be more effective in ensuring that the local force is the first to know.
Clause 3 makes failure to comply with the requirement, or false notification, a criminal offence. At present, the penalty is a fine of up to £1,000—that is level 3 on the standard scale—or up to one month's imprisonment, or both. Once again, we have reflected further in the light of views expressed since the Bill was published, from a number of bodies including those concerned with the protection of children, as well as the police. The penalty in the Bill was decided upon in the light of responses to the original consultation.
We are now persuaded, however, that a more severe penalty would provide a more effective incentive in persuading offenders to comply with the registration requirement. We shall therefore be tabling an amendment to raise the maximum penalty to a period of imprisonment of up to six months or a fine of up to £5,000—that is level 5 on the standard scale—or both. We shall also table an amendment making it clear that the offence of failing to register, or false registration, is one that will continue to be triable beyond the normal six-month period for a summary offence.
I take the opportunity to thank those who have commented on the proposals set out in the Bill since it was published, enabling us to announce some sensible amendments even before the Bill is considered in Committee.
Clause 4 sets out certain provisions that relate to young offenders. The periods of registration that would otherwise be applicable, be they five, seven or 10 years, are halved for offenders under 18 years of age, and a custodial sentence cannot be imposed for non-compliance. In addition, the court has the power to direct that a parent or guardian should bear the responsibility for complying with the requirements if the offender is under 18, or under 16 in Scotland.
In some circumstances, the registration requirement will apply also to those convicted of relevant offences in the past. Those offenders still in contact with the criminal justice system—those in prison or on probation, for example—will be required to register. Those still in prison will be required to register after release if the period of registration from the date of their conviction for a qualifying offence still has time to run.
It would be a vast undertaking to track the many thousands who would be involved and then to calculate who should still be subject to registration having regard to the length of sentence originally imposed upon them. It would be a still greater exercise to subject all those persons to a fresh risk assessment, as some have suggested. We concluded that it would be impracticable to place such an obligation at large in that way.
Having examined the measures taken to protect children from sexual abuse in the United Kingdom, I come to the vile activities of British citizens and British residents who commit offences against children abroad.
I disagree with the last part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. The register will be of immediate use when it is set up. It will contain over 2,000 names a year from England alone. The hon. Gentleman is right in the first part of his observations, however, in that there are likely to be about 50,000 people—that is, if we go back far enough—who have been convicted of a sexual offence. Some of those previously convicted may still be active paedophiles. Equally, many of them will no longer offend.
It would be impossible to track down those who have been convicted since 1956, when the Sexual Offences Act was introduced, or who were convicted before the war. Some people would be in their 60s or 70s. We would have to go way back in taking account of a 70-year-old, for example, who was convicted in the 1920s, 1930s or 1940s of certain offences that do not match current offences. Assuredly, some homosexual acts would be brought into consideration, committed with or without consent. We would have a dog's breakfast on our hands. We are talking of information that the police would find impossible to make sense of and to assimilate.
I am happy to listen to what the hon. Gentleman has to say if he wishes to explain in detail—that is, if he catches your eye, Madam Speaker—the report that appeared in the weekend press. On the basis of the information that he provided over the weekend, I do not think that it is practicable to try to track back every sex offender who passed through the United Kingdom's criminal justice system and then to subject those people to a new risk assessment.
It is of deep concern to the Government that people from this country are among those who travel to countries where child prostitution is rife and sexually abuse young children there. Parliament recently showed its commitment to addressing the particular problem of child sex tourism when it enacted the Sexual Offences (Conspiracy and Incitement) Act 1996. It recognised the importance of extending the jurisdiction of our courts over acts of conspiracy or incitement in the United Kingdom to commit sexual offences against children abroad.
The question of taking extra-territorial jurisdiction over the offences themselves presented the UK with some difficulties, and has required some pretty careful thought. The requirement of oral testimony and the right of the defence to cross-examine witnesses are central to criminal trials in this country, and it is, therefore, much more difficult for us than it is for many other countries to mount successful prosecutions for offences committed abroad. Nevertheless, it was right that the Government should have considered carefully the concerns expressed to us, and in the light of those concerns, we set up an interdepartmental review of extra-territorial jurisdiction to consider the general position.
That review, which reported in July last year, confirmed that considerable practical difficulties would be involved in obtaining sufficient evidence and witnesses from abroad, but concluded that some prosecutions could be successful in certain circumstances. In view of that, and the particularly serious and unpleasant nature of the offences concerned, the Government concluded that extra-territorial jurisdiction could be justified in this case.
Clause 7, therefore, makes it an offence in England and Wales or Northern Ireland to commit, in a country or territory outside the United Kingdom, the offences listed in schedule 2. For England and Wales and Northern Ireland, those will be the same as those covered by the Sexual Offences (Conspiracy and Incitement) Act 1996, which include rape, sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of 16, buggery, and indecent assault on a child. In addition, the major child pornography offences will be covered.
The clause applies to offences committed by British citizens and residents of the United Kingdom.
The jurisdiction of the courts would be extended in that way only where the conduct concerned was a criminal offence both in the United Kingdom jurisdiction and in the territory of the state where it was committed. That is the so-called dual criminality test, and it is an important safeguard. We in this Parliament rightly consider that it is our function to pass laws that apply in the territory of the United Kingdom. We would take great exception if the law-making body of another country attempted to pass laws that would apply here. Equally, therefore, we must not attempt to export our laws overseas. The dual criminality test avoids that trap. The Bill provides that the test is to be taken as satisfied unless the defence shows grounds for believing that it is not so satisfied; in which case, it is a matter for the courts to decide.
Clause 8 contains the similar Scottish provisions. They are framed slightly differently from those applying in the other United Kingdom jurisdictions because of the differences in Scots law. For instance, several of the offences caught by the Bill in Scotland are common law rather than statutory offences. However, the effect is essentially the same in all jurisdictions.
The provisions will supplement the Government's other activities in discouraging child prostitution worldwide. We continue to believe that the best place for prosecutions is the country in which the offences are committed. If a British tourist was accused of abusing children overseas, we would look to the authorities in the country concerned to prosecute him under their own laws. This country, unlike many others, has no barrier to the extradition of our own nationals, provided of course that the normal extradition safeguards are satisfied. However, if extradition is not possible for any reason, for offences as obnoxious as these, it is right to make the necessary commitment to bring perpetrators to justice here.
The Government have a proud record in the fight against sex offending, particularly offences against children. That was clear from the prominent role that we were able to play at last August's world congress on the commercial sexual exploitation of children, in which the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), who will be winding up the debate, took a leading part. But there is always more to be done, and the Bill before the House today marks an important next step forward. I commend it to the House.
I welcome the Bill, and give an assurance that we will work with the Government to get it through as quickly as possible—although I hope that we can improve it in some respects during the process. We promise to do what we can to work positively, particularly in Committee.
I also welcome much of what the Minister has said. He promised to introduce a number of amendments, and, although we shall need to examine the drafting of those amendments carefully, from what the Minister has said it seems that they will be helpful and positive. He has expressed a willingness to listen to representations on points of detail, and I think that we can look forward to constructive discussion during the Bill's passage.
Nevertheless—despite the Minister's positive approach—I regret the way in which the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister delayed the introduction of the Bill. I remind the House that this is yet another example of Labour's setting the law and order agenda, and forcing the Government to take action against paedophiles. For a long time, the Government rejected Labour's call for domestic prosecutions against child sex tourists from Britain, and last year they blocked attempts by Labour Members—in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson)—to set up a national register of paedophiles.
Despite a clear statement from the Home Secretary at the Conservative party conference in October that he was taking action on paedophiles and child sex tourists, both proposals were dropped from the Queen's Speech, and only after the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), the Leader of the Opposition, did the Prime Minister—in one of the fastest U-turns in political history—accept the case for Government action.
I welcome the Minister's conversion in relation to offences committed abroad, which he has had to reject in a number of debates in which he and I have participated over the past couple of years. Having made that point—because I do not think that it is a piece of history that should be completely disregarded—I assure the Minister that we will co-operate with the Government to put the Bill on the statute book as soon as possible, and to ensure that it targets, in an appropriate way, those who should be targeted.
Important practical questions must be answered, and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will answer some of them at the end of today's debate. First, what will the Government do to ensure that the introduction of the legislation is effective in practice?
Secondly, how will information be held? Given the current stage of the development of information technology, it should be possible for information to be updated rapidly and made available throughout the country, without the difficulties that have featured in the keeping of manual records in the past. Are the Government acting to ensure that, from the outset, the information that is registered is up to date, and accessible to all who need to use it? Thirdly, how will the information be used? The question of access is not covered in the Bill.
Even more important, what is to be done with information that is registered with the police? I can tell the Minister that chief constables are not sure what their responsibilities will be. Their initial reaction is that information will have to be passed on; but to whom, and in what circumstances? That, too, is not covered in the Bill. It is important to have clear and effective guidelines on how information is used.
It may well be—I offer this as a suggestion to the Minister—that an amendment to the Bill, enabling the Home Secretary to set out clear guidelines in a statutory instrument after consulting widely, would ensure the existence of a protocol subject to scrutiny by the House, but absolutely clear to those holding the information. I think that it is only fair to the police to make it clear what they are expected to do with that information, and also in the interests of the public for everyone to be clear about the way in which that information is to be used and acted on.
Much of the good work in the Philippines, Thailand and other countries is done by British non-governmental organisations. Does my hon. Friend incline to the view that responsible organisations should in certain circumstances be able to consult the register here to find out whether individuals they suspect of being involved in paedophile activities in those countries are registered here?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the way in which information about paedophiles is exchanged between countries. Access from people overseas to the register is different from access by British NGOs. It is a sensible point to consider in Committee, and I hope that the Minister, who said that he would listen to points made during the debate, will consider that one. I look forward to discussing the point in Committee.
To return to the practicalities of handling the information, there is the question of how the registration of information in the Bill relates to the Police Bill, which we will be debating in the near future. We also need to set the Sex Offenders Bill in context with other activities in which Government should be taking a lead. The Minister has presented the Bill as part of a coherent strategy, but a real strategy needs action by Ministers, not just legislation, important though Acts of Parliament should be.
I am sure that the Minister agrees that the low level of sex offence convictions is worrying, that the high level of abuse shown by different indicators is a matter of concern, and that there is the wider context of child protection, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) will particularly deal with in the debate. We cannot just shrug off the responsibility of dealing with these issues to local authorities and social workers. There must be a proper understanding of the problem, and a lead from Government.
The extent of the problem is illustrated, for instance, by the fact that, in 1994–95, Childline counselled more than 89,000 children about all sorts of problems and concerns, but 21 per cent. of those counselled—more than 18,000—rang about physical or sexual abuse, and often both. The recorded crime statistics do not always identify the age of the victim, but it is sufficient to point out that, for unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 13, there were 178 convictions in 1995—considerably lower than two years earlier—that there were 1,287 convictions for gross indecency with a child, 3,150 convictions for indecent assault on a male, 4,986 convictions for rape of a female, and 150 convictions for rape of a male—although, as a new offence, that last statistic may be less reliable.
There is considerable evidence of the extent of the problem. For instance, "The Cook Report" questioned more than 300 child sex offenders in prison. The findings are clear. The programme said:
Our respondents told the police they'd committed between them some four thousand eight hundred offences, but in truth, as the survey shows, the total was nearer fifty thousand. We also asked them how long they'd got away with it before they were caught and these are fairly typical examples. This man, nine a half years, this man fifteen, this man nearly twenty, and this one a staggering thirty-two.
Like the Minister, I feel that, to an extent, we are dealing with the tip of the iceberg. It is therefore important to set the Bill in context against the nature of the problem as a whole.
That has led to organisations welcoming the Bill as a step forward, but seeking to remind us of the context. For instance, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children said:
A Child Sexual Offenders Register will assist in the protection of children, but it must be co-ordinated with other measures which will offer a more complete package of protection. For example, there must be improved vetting procedures linked to a public education campaign about child sexual abusers.
It also calls for investigation systems in court procedures that will offer a comprehensive package of child protection.
Getting the law right is one aspect of the matter, and I do not underestimate its importance, but the systems that are used to investigate, prosecute and try offenders and the way in which the wider context of child sex abuse is dealt with are also extremely important. We deal only with what we put in legislation at our peril. I hope that, during the debate or in Committee, we will go further and set the measure in context. The Minister sought to set it in the context of other legislation, but in terms of this measure, we need to look at the Government's wider responsibilities.
Recently, some of my hon. Friends from a number of Front-Bench teams met representatives of children's charities to discuss issues that worry those charities. The need for co-operation and co-ordination between the public and private sectors came out as a clarion call from those discussions, and it was clear that that is not the way that the public and voluntary sectors are used to operating. In the light of that, I note the comments on the Bill by the Children's Charities Consortium:
whilst the Bill's purpose is to be welcomed, it can only form a very limited part of a much more comprehensive response to child sexual abuse. The majority of children are not abused by convicted offenders and that in the minority of cases where prosecution follows the disclosure of abuse, the rate of convictions remain disturbingly low.
In relation to prosecution, the consortium calls for the full implementation of the Pigot committee's recommendations on children's evidence. The Opposition, and especially my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), have been pressing for that for many years. There are concerns about the way in which judges use the facilities currently available to them, and that matter needs to be pursued.
On the other side of the equation, Liberty and others have expressed concern at the possibility that some people who are not a danger to children or to other adults may be inadvertently affected by the Bill. I welcome the Minister's acknowledgement of that. I am not sure that the targeting is yet sufficiently precise, and I hope that the Minister will listen to constructive debate in Committee. There is also a risk that we might miss some offenders who are a danger to children. For example, a 13-year-old girl who was subjected to abuse by a man who is just under 20 would not be caught by the register as it stands.
I understand the difficulty of targeting such cases, which the Minister and I have debated in the past. However, if we use the clear consensus to target the right offenders in the right way, amendments could be used to fine-tune the legislation. The issue of child sex offences overseas has been mentioned, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson).
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could expand what he said earlier. He said that the vast majority of acts of abuse were not committed by convicted criminals, and that they could make up only a small part of the total. Many hon. Members agree that we need to use the Pigot committee recommendations. Does the hon. Gentleman think that a register should include information on those against whom there are strong grounds for suspecting child abuse—perhaps even grounds that have been tested under civil conditions in court? Is the hon. Gentleman arguing for the broadening of the register?
I am certainly not asking for that at this stage. The Government left that as an open question for the future, and there is enough to be done at this time in targeting convicted abusers. There is considerable evidence that many convicted people have a string of offences over a long time. Therefore, some of the most dangerous abusers are in that category.
I should make the point—which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport will deal with again later in the debate—that other registers exist in education and social work. We should be clear about how the Bill's provisions will fit in with those registers. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) was right to highlight the problem, but the Bill deals with specific, targeted activity. We have enough problems in dealing with that activity without now attempting to deal with the issue too generally. I believe that the Government came to that conclusion—although the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—and I think that it is the right conclusion.
The hon. Gentleman's summary of the Government's position is about right. Trying to impose a registration requirement on people whom the police suspect are apt to abuse would be a very radical measure. How would people know that they were supposed to register if the police have not told them that they are suspect of activities? I do not know how we could force people to register if they are merely suspected of abuse.
However, I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury that, if police and their local intelligence systems have information on individuals, they will maintain that information. There is no requirement for an individual to register. If the person seeks a job, however, the police may share their information—there are proposals on access to criminal records—with relevant child protection agencies.
The Minister's remarks confirm the Government's view—which is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House—on how far we should proceed now, and leaves open the possibility of linking and developing information in records in future, when more experience has been gained.
In the past, the Minister and I have stressed the need for international co-operation on child sex offences overseas. It is much easier to agree with him now that he has accepted extra-territorial jurisdiction, at least in some cases. I ask him to consider—as hon. Members asked in earlier interventions—provision for registration of offences abroad, at least in the clearest and most flagrant cases. Such provision would be consistent with his earlier remarks, especially if it were part of a wider protocol and of the development of agreements between nations on how to deal with that international problem.
I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that few crimes are more appalling and devastating than sexual crimes committed by adults against young children. The Labour party has clearly and often expressed its position on the issue, and, in June 1996, published "Protecting our Children". As they are already on the record, I shall not go into the document's details now.
However, the document stresses the point that measures must be complementary if we are to deal adequately with the problem. It is vital to ensure that our procedures for tackling child sexual abuse are as effective as possible, and that the Bill's objectives are efficient and well-targeted. In that context, we look forward to considering the Bill's details in Committee.
In the debate on the Crime (Sentences) Bill, we underlined the importance of the effectiveness and availability—in prison and in the community—of treatment programmes for convicted and unconvicted sex offenders.
There are some problems in the Bill's details on targeting, as some of those who should be covered by the registration requirements may be missed out. There are also problems in ensuring that the Bill's provisions do not apply accidentally to those who are not a danger to others, and particularly not a danger to children. The Minister made it clear that, so far as possible, his intention is to hit the right targets, not unintended targets. I accept that assurance, and offer to work with him to help to fine-tune the Bill. I believe that we can make constructive proposals towards a well-targeted measure.
I should point out the dangers of the Bill's current phraseology in respect of notification of address. It requires the address of a person's
sole or main residence in the United Kingdom".
Why is it limited to that? People in a number of professions have more than one important address—the office of Member of Parliament springs to mind. Most hon. Members spend a considerable part of each week at two different addresses. Many people who work in London are in similar circumstances, as are people who live in one part of the country and work in another. Should that not be covered in the Bill?
A person may have a flat or home in one place, but spend part of the week with a partner, who may have young children. That could cause difficulties, as the Minister well understands. The Bill does not cover those circumstances. There is no requirement for offenders to inform the police where they spend the most significant part of their time.
Commercial travellers, business people and lorry drivers travel a great deal, and there have been examples of that being relevant to offending behaviour. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board, and that we will be able to amend the Bill in Committee.
There are also problems in that the public will assume that the police have certain information once the register becomes law. It is important that the register should not only aid the investigation of new sex crimes but act as a deterrent to those on the register and assist agencies that offer treatment programmes.
I do not know whether the Minister heard a former offender being interviewed on radio last Thursday night. That individual acknowledged that he would always be a danger. He was reminiscent of a former alcoholic when he spoke about the danger of constant temptation. Unlike the people to whom the Minister referred, he acknowledged the long-term nature of that danger. I am sure that the Minister accepts that the fine tuning of the Bill should reflect the need to offer such people help and the opportunity to avoid further offending, as well as the capacity to assist the police in investigating offences.
Some organisations have expressed concern about the Bill in respect of cautions. As a caution requires the admission of guilt, some of those fears may be misplaced. Perhaps the Bill should be amended in Committee, however, as a lack of clarity could produce unintended consequences.
Finally, it is important in this and other legislation not only to be sure that information is available to employers who are considering taking someone on—whether they are public bodies, in the voluntary sector or private organisations involved in activities such as child minding—but to provide for clear checks on employers. The Government did not accept that proposal in respect of the private security industry, where there is clear evidence of offenders running companies. However, it becomes even more important in respect of the care of children.
This is an important measure, which should be targeted on offenders who are a danger to children and others. It is important for the confidence of the public that we are clear about what will happen to the information on the register, and that the police and other agencies will work together to ensure that appropriate action is taken to avoid reoffending. Those issues need to be dealt with in the House. I welcome the Minister's acknowledgement of that, and I look forward to a constructive—albeit brief, I hope—Committee stage, so that the Bill can be improved and can pass on its way without delay. I welcome the Bill and the spirit in which the Minister has introduced it.
I echo the welcome given to the Bill by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) from the Labour Front Bench. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on bringing it forward. The approach of those on both Front Benches to the Bill is a model of how Parliament should operate. On some subjects, deep and often embittered partisanship is inevitable. On others, hon. Members do the House no disservice by working together, pooling our experiences and talking sensibly about an issue that is beyond party politics but is of fundamental importance.
I shall not waste precious time saying how much I agree with the Bill when so many others want to speak. However, although I do not want to appear to be making the best the enemy of the good, there are ways in which the Bill could be improved. I see it in a John the Baptist role, pointing the way towards further changes that may become inevitable, following the thinking behind the Bill. I entirely accept that it will be a major achievement to get the Bill on the statute book before the election. I do not want any of my thoughts to impede that progress, but it is important to look ahead to work which the next Parliament will have to do on this important topic.
The Bill applies to all sex offenders, but to avoid exceeding reasonable time, so that everyone who wishes to participate in the debate has the chance to, I shall confine my remarks to paedophiles.
I should like to return to the point that I raised with the Minister. It is in no sense a carping point. I appreciated what he said about the nature of paedophilia. It is important that we understand it. Many hon. Members have extensive experience of working in the courts, including the hon. Member—I could almost call him my hon. Friend without embarrassment—for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), who has had many years at the Bar, and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence). I have also had extensive experience working in courts and spent a number of years discharging the Home Secretary's discretion, under his superintendence, on the release of mentally disordered offenders and others. That experience brought me face to face rather starkly with the problems of paedophiles.
Many middle-aged and elderly men who now sit in armchairs tut-tutting about the crime wave and the behaviour of the younger generation were, in their day, teddy boys, mods or rockers, and engaged in all manner of anti-social and often criminal activity. However, people grow out of such behaviour. The teenage burglar, the teenager who takes and drives away, or the teenage serial offender, often grows out of all that—and thank goodness they do, because, if certain people continued offending in adult life at the rate at which they offended in their teens, the situation would be pretty sad.
That is not true for paedophiles, as my right hon. Friend the Minister eloquently pointed out. Paedophilia is perhaps the most deep-seated of all the perverse emotions and feelings with which people can be inculcated. We talk about paedophiles being "cured". I suspect that paedophilia is an inherent problem rather than one that people acquire. We therefore have to think about how it can be controlled. It is a variant of pathetic fallacy to think that it can be cured. I know of no basis on which it can be cured. It is a particularly devastating problem.
Many crimes are vicious and unpleasant, but the crime of sexually abusing a young child, robbing that child of its innocence and sometimes of its life, is surely so repugnant that we are entitled to look for special ways of dealing with it and making clear society's abhorrence of such activities.
I should like to develop my argument. I shall not take a long time.
As the Minister so eloquently said, the problem with paedophilia is that so deep-seated is the paedophile's predilection that he is likely to think that society is wrong.
How many of us remember trying to outlaw the Paedophile Information Exchange some years ago? In countries such as the Netherlands, these people are still allowed to move about freely, which has caused the problems that have emerged in Belgium. Allowing them to spread and proliferate suddenly brings a dreadful day of reckoning. Anyone who has seen the national outpouring of grief and concern that followed the discovery of the activities of the paedophile ring in Belgium will know that we must not allow our country to deteriorate to that extent.
Against that background, I should like to make one detailed point. Because of the difficulties of getting children to give evidence on oath and obtaining convictions based on the uncorroborated evidence of a child—even though the Government have been able to make significant changes to prevent the evidential burden from being heavily against the child, some of them during my time at the Home Office—no more than 5 or 10 per cent. of paedophile cases come to the attention of the courts. Few experts would disagree with that—my right hon. Friend the Minister will have access to more experts than I do. When cases come to court, we should not create artificial barriers to prevent the full weight of the Bill from being brought to bear on paedophiles while they are likely to remain active.
I mentioned in an intervention that may have gone on too long the important point—at least, I think that it is an important point, and I hope that I can persuade others to agree with me—that it is profoundly unlikely that a person just dabbles in paedophilia. Once a paedophile, always a paedophile, is a much more certain saying than once a burglar, always a burglar, or even once a rapist, always a rapist.
I appreciate that there is a tendency not to go too far, and to offer a few concessions to those who oppose a measure. I understand why the barriers at 10 years and six or seven years have been introduced, but where is the opposition to the measure? I do not see it.
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is involved in the Home Secretary's discretion on life sentence prisoners, but when he considers dreadful child sex murders and looks at the previous convictions, he will realise that rarely does the tendency come out of the blue—there is normally a sign. It is rarely an equally serious matter, but lurking somewhere in the past is the clear evidence that the person in question has that particular intent.
We are being asked to legislate on the basis that judges—almost as fragile a breed as politicians, as likely to get things wrong as right—pass the right sentence. My experience does not suggest that that is invariably—or even very often—the case.
I know from reading more than 1,000 life sentence prisoner cases when I was at the Home Office, many of which involved the sexual or sadistic murder of children, that the difference between a nasty sexual assault and murder is not great. A child protests at the indignities that it suffers. The clumsiness and crudeness of the attempts to suppress that child's resistance will often make the difference between an offence that can be written off as indecent assault, punishable by a few months' imprisonment, and a murder, punishable by life imprisonment.
I strongly support what the right hon. and learned Member is saying. He has identified the same issue as I picked out. Is it not true that many judges are not trained to deal with sexual cases, and pass too many lenient sentences, even when the children get caught? Only a fortnight ago, a case was brought up in the House. That case has gone back to the Court of Appeal because of the leniency of the sentence. The barrier of seven or 10 years seems artificial.
I am glad that the hon. Member has mentioned that point. She was an indefatigable campaigner on these issues back in the 1980s when I was doing the job that my right hon. Friend the Minister is doing now. I welcome her further intervention.
I found myself on television this morning discussing the case of Myra Hindley with someone who took the view that she should be released, and who thought that politicians should not intervene in such cases because they were a matter for the judiciary. However, I well remember how in 1983, when Leon Brittan, with my assistance, decided that the minimum period of imprisonment for those who were convicted of the sadistic or sexual murder of a child should be 20 years, there was an outcry from the judiciary. I regularly saw cases in which the Lord Chief Justice of the day would recommend only 14 years of imprisonment for such a murder.
Against that background, I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to put into practice the conviction he so eloquently expressed about the deep-seated nature of paedophilia. Given that, to use the old cliché—I suppose that clichés become clichés because they are true—we are dealing only with the tip of the iceberg when we deal with the cases that come before the courts, I ask my right hon. Friend please to make the law apply to all these people. In the sexual lifetime of an adult, seven years is the twinkling of an eye, and 10 years is not much more. We would have cause to regret somebody escaping the full force of the recommendations merely because their conviction became time-expired. That is one change to the Bill that it would not be difficult to make.
I now move on to matters that are probably too difficult to deal with at this time, but which relate so directly to the Bill that it is worth at least pointing ahead.
Having decided that it is right that the police should be able to keep tabs on people and that their addresses should be notified, we shall have to confront the problem—I am slightly surprised that the point has not been raised already in this debate—that is already quite commonplace in America. The problem is that, if the police have a right to know, why do the public not have the right to know? If someone with a string of convictions for sexual offences against children moves into a house, why should the nice young family living next door not be told about him? Why should the community not be told?
I understand all the points about vigilantes and about people taking the law into their own hands. We need, however, to consider carefully the right way in which to deal with the problem. If we believe that paedophiles are in a category entirely on their own, we should consider whether it would be appropriate to take the exceptional step of saying that, when a paedophile lives in a neighbourhood, all those living in the neighbourhood should know.
My right hon. Friend the Minister is right. One reason for requiring registration with the police is that it becomes easy for the police to trace someone who may have been responsible for a terrible offence. The other reason is deterrence; someone will feel that he is under pressure. It is a way of putting likely persistent offenders under pressure and telling them that they are unlikely to get away with the crime if they give way to their urges in a way that causes serious harm to young and vulnerable children. I believe that, in the longer run, we shall be hard put to resist the claims, which will undoubtedly come, that something should be done so that the public are let in on the secret about who is living in their street.
It is important that, although we see the Bill as a significant step forward, we do not make too many large claims for it. I want to draw attention to two recent cases which show how much further we shall have to go if we are serious about tackling the problem of paedophiles.
I refer first to the murder of Sophie Hook. Sophie's father Christopher is someone I know well; I have discussed these matters with him, and I know that he has also discussed them with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. Indeed, he discussed them with him back in November, and he raised with him the question whether the public should be told where convicted sex offenders lived. My right hon. and learned Friend undertook to talk to the Association of Chief Police Officers about the matter. Two months on, it would be interesting to know whether there has been any response. I am sure that not only Christopher Hook but some of the rest of us would like to know what the Home Office's latest thinking on the matter is.
Sophie Hook was a nine-year-old. She was not one of the "streetwise" children we are told about—poor little mites who are left to wander the street by parents who do not care about them, and who are therefore in a vulnerable state. Sophie Hook was a cherished child, who illustrated the fact that good parents are as vulnerable as bad parents to having their children abducted; that is a salutary lesson for all of us.
On a hot night two summers ago while on holiday, Sophie Hook was sleeping in a tent with her two cousins in a garden in north Wales. From there, she was abducted by a creature called Howard Hughes. He was notorious in his neighbourhood for his paedophile and other anti-social tendencies, and was regarded as a ticking time bomb. He was 6 ft 8 in tall, and wandered round the town dragging his rottweiler behind him; everyone was afraid of him. Sophie Hook, aged nine, was taken out of the tent, sexually abused, battered, beaten, tossed into the sea and left to die.
The Bill will do nothing about Howard Hughes. We have to ask ourselves a question which came up, strangely enough, on television; television stations are usually the least likely places to find a real insight rather than a soundbite. I appeared on "Heart of the Matter" with Chris Hook to discuss the issue. One of the foremost forensic psychiatrists dealing with the problems of paedophiles put in a nutshell the dilemma we face as legislators, when he said that the trouble was that we were concerned with punishment and not with dealing with dangerousness.
Howard Hughes could not be punished, because, until he abducted Sophie Hook, he had not done anything for a good many years that the courts could pick up on; but he was manifestly dangerous and known to be dangerous, to the extent that, when Sophie's body was found, everybody in the district said, "Well, it's Howard Hughes. It must be him."
There is an issue that we shall have to leave hanging in the air for the moment, but which we shall have to grasp eventually. If we are indeed of the view that to be a paedophile is to be beyond the pale, if we wish to protect our children, and if we know that paedophilia is a deep-seated instinct—once someone is known to be a paedophile, they are known to be a ticking time bomb—is there not a case, as one of my hon. Friends said earlier, for some kind of finding to be permitted to the courts? It would not necessarily rank as a conviction, but might be equivalent to being bound over to keep the peace, which is not a conviction, but which sometimes operates as a deterrent against the bad behaviour of certain ill-disciplined people.
Could we not have a finding of being a paedophile, whereby some form of supervision was carried out on people such as Howard Hughes, to the extent that, if the framework of good behaviour set out by that supervision was disobeyed, it would be possible for some form of preventive detention to be imposed? If not, we shall always find ourselves being wise after the event. It sounds tremendous to say that there will be life imprisonment after the second serious offence, but that second offence is predicated on the fact that two innocent youngsters will have to suffer horribly before society nerves itself to take action. We need to think about that.
That point leads me to the second case that I want to bring forward, without wearying the House—the case of Trevor Holland. He came to the notice of some as recently as last summer, when, having been convicted as a serious paedophile, he was taken to Chessington World of Adventure on a day trip. It was rather like taking an alcoholic to a brewery for a little R and R. Trevor Holland absconded, and there was a great deal of concern about the case.
It might be worth considering the case of Trevor Holland again. He was convicted of a serious assault against a 12-year-old boy, and he went to prison for a number of years. He would therefore be caught by the Bill, and would have to register his address. However, when Trevor Holland was released from prison, he made threatening telephone calls to the home of his victim, blaming the victim for the fact that he had been in prison and saying that he would go round and sort out the victim and his family. He put those people in fear, but they were then told by the police that they could do nothing until something happened.
Interestingly, such was the danger posed by Trevor Holland that it was found possible under the mental health Acts to detain him last summer—I hope that he is still detained—not because he was still serving the prison sentence for the offence of which he had been convicted, but because he was regarded as a danger to the public. Somehow, the authorities found a basis on which to confine him under the mental health Acts, but they had to bring into use Acts that were not intended to be used in that way.
It should not be too long, if we are serious about paedophilia, before a proper court or tribunal is set up to make a finding about paedophile tendencies, and, as a consequence, a form of lifelong supervision is introduced—which could be waived at some point if good behaviour was evident—that would allow society to intervene before rather than after a terrible event. In that way, we could close the stable door before the horse had bolted.
In a sense, my speech has been a mixed message. Yes, the law will be improved by the Bill, and I hope that this afternoon's spirit of co-operation will prevail through the remaining stages and take it on to the statute book before the election. However, we have taken only a small bite out of the problem, and many terrible cases will continue to happen. We will have to screw our courage to the sticking place and take further, severe action if we are to curb some of the worst cases that have been reported in the newspapers in recent months and have caused us so much dismay.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I have long supported the calls for the Bill, as have many other right hon. and hon. Members present—the old gang. I was an Opposition spokesman on home affairs for four years. The right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) disagreed with me on many issues, but we agreed on one or two, and one of them was the protection of children.
The Bill is not just about paedophilia. I want to talk about a category of people who will be covered because they are the same kind of wrong-doers as paedophiles. They are evil people who take away childhood and innocence. That is why the House should concentrate carefully on the Bill. I was pleased by both Front Benchers' speeches, because it was made obvious that the Bill can be improved in Committee, even if we have a short Committee stage, perhaps more than any other Bill that I have taken an interest in.
The Bill covers not just paedophiles who take children's innocence away: it also covers those who entice children into prostitution. When I first entered the House, if we talked about paedophiles, people did not want to know. It was an unpopular subject and people thought that there were just one or two crazed individuals who might be interested in that kind of perversion. I pay tribute to the former hon. Member—now, sadly, deceased—Geoffrey Dickens, who represented Huddersfield, West when I represented Huddersfield, East. He introduced the subject to the House and made much headway in bringing the subject to our attention. I remember when he first spoke in the House; people were not interested, or found the subject amusing, but we have learnt more about paedophiles and their ghastly interests over the years and now we have the Bill.
Many people think that they would have to take a trip to Bangkok to find out about child prostitution. We know the figures for child prostitutes—between 200,000 and 800,000—in Asia, but child prostitution is also rife in this country. There are child prostitutes down the road from the Palace of Westminster, and child prostitutes are available in most towns and cities in the country. Investigation and research into the problem shows that there is a cycle of abuse of young people who run away from home or who are enticed from home and are found on the streets. The problems do not start with young people of 15 and a half, but at 11, 12, and 13—a very young age.
There are real problems in dealing with child prostitution, and the national register will not be effective unless we do something more positive about the problem of the exploitation of children. That exploitation goes deep and starts very young. Often, a group of men—it is normally men—find young, innocent children, usually girls, who can be seduced into a way of life. Evidence shows that groups of men specialise in enticing young children into a relationship that leads, inevitably, to prostitution. We know those people as pimps—people who live off the immoral earnings of, usually, women.
I looked at the statistics in preparation for the debate. It is worrying that the number of prosecutions of pimps has declined. Ten years ago, there were 150 successful prosecutions for the offence of living off immoral earnings, but that figure declined to about 50 in the last year of record. Even more worrying, 10 years ago there were three recorded successful prosecutions for the offence of enticement of children into prostitution, but in the past 11 years there have been only 16 successful such prosecutions. How does that square with the fact that child prostitution is rife, as any hon. Member will find if he talks to his chief constable?
The figures are not the police's fault for not prosecuting offenders. The problem, under our law, is that if the police see an under-age child working as a prostitute—on the game, as it is called—their prime responsibility is her welfare. They must take her out of that way of life and put her into a safe place or into care. That is the real problem because successful prosecutions for living off immoral earnings depend on surveillance.
My hon. Friend is making an important point and the south London area that I represent suffers from the problems that he has mentioned. Does he agree that we also have to deal with television companies that give enormous publicity to that way of life, which undoubtedly has a serious effect on many youngsters? It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us what action he intends to take to stem the glorification of child prostitution.
While researching this issue, I have watched and listened to all the investigative programmes on television and radio over the past two or three years. I hear what my hon. Friend says, but must disagree with him in one sense. Good television and radio programmes have drawn the subject to the public's attention. Indeed, their attention has been focused on the subject as a result of some very good programmes, especially those on Radio 4, Roger Cook's on Central Television, and others, which have addressed the issue, highlighted it and reminded us all of what is going on. The issue has been addressed not only by television and radio programmes, but by The Children's Society, in its report "The Game's Up", which redefines child prostitution.
The difficulty of which the House should be aware is that, if we do not tackle the police's problems identifying the people who entice others on to our streets as prostitutes, our poor record of targeting evil pimps, prosecuting them and putting them in prison will continue.
There is an anomaly in the law, which I hope the Minister will tackle. Why can the offence of living on immoral earnings receive a penalty of as much as seven years in prison, but the maximum penalty for enticing a child into prostitution is two years? What is the logic behind that? I am sure that many hon. Members would agree that the penalty for enticement should be at least the same as—if not greater than—that for living on immoral earnings.
All of us must focus on some very difficult issues on Second Reading and in Committee. The Bill is not a magic wand. Establishing a register is a very positive step; we must make it as good, comprehensive and sensitive as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) and the right hon. and learned Member for Putney put their fingers on it when they said that we must have a fully co-ordinated approach. From asking questions of a range of Ministers, I have formed the overall opinion that they are all saying, "It is not really my business, Guv." Such a response is replicated in local authorities, education authorities, social services and the police. There is no co-ordination, either nationally or locally.
I call on the House to provide the impetus to tackle the issue in a positive and purposeful way over the coming years. We have been ignoring the problem for too long. Now that we are fully aware of the extent of the crime—the young lives of hundreds of children are being ruined; their childhoods are being taken away by evil people—we must address it and its causes. I wish the Bill good speed and hope that it tackles the broader issues as well as the specific issues concerning the register.
The Bill and the debate sharply illustrate the extreme seriousness with which we all view the offences to which the Bill refers. The debate reflects our awareness of the public's strong feelings of justifiable outrage when such offences are committed against innocent children, young people and even very elderly people.
I had personal experience of such public reaction when a little girl, Sophie Hook, to whom my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) has already referred, was snatched from a garden tent at night while on holiday with relatives in Llandudno in my constituency and brutally murdered by a local paedophile, Howard Hughes, who had been known to the police for some years. Although there was a history of complaints about this man's behaviour, the only previous conviction secured against him was for common assault on a boy in the early 1980s. Had the Bill been in force at that time, it is doubtful whether Hughes would have had to give notification under it. That fact—and that case—have rather dominated my view of the Bill. I know that it is very dangerous to draw general principles from particular cases, so I shall put forward suggestions.
I am told that paedophiles tend to amass a great deal of material relating to their obsession. Hughes was no exception. Perhaps we should try to create an offence of possessing such material in certain well-defined circumstances, which would lead to notification under the Bill. I was very glad to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister say that he intends to table an amendment in Committee to deal with the importation of paedophile material, but I doubt whether, with the best will in the world, that would cover the fact of possession if imported, and possibly non-imported, material is found in an individual's possession.
I think that I can help my right hon. Friend. We have already included a provision that requires those who have been convicted of possessing indecent photographs of children, or of taking, showing or possessing such photographs with a view to distributing them, to register. The Bill does not cover only importation. We are now plugging that loophole.
I am very glad to have my right hon. Friend's assurance. I do not want to discourage him in any way, but he will be aware that the sort of material that appears to excite the imaginations of paedophiles is very extensive, and even extends to court records. I therefore hope that he will refine his requirements in the amendment.
It concerns me that the Bill deals only with convicted offenders. I think that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney was concerned about that too. We know that, although there is a history of complaints about many paedophiles, the complaints have not been pursued due to the reluctance of parents and children to become involved in court proceedings—all of which is perfectly understandable. Surely there should be some investigative service, possibly under the national health service or social services, which considers complaints about which the police and other organisations are aware but can do little about.
We know that, once established as a personality trait, paedophilia tends to persist and may—obviously—cause concern to the paedophile's relatives and friends. They might be glad to unburden themselves in response to sympathetic inquiries. In the event of a positive outcome to such an inquiry, therefore, at least the authorities and everyone else would be aware of the tendencies inherent in an individual.
I dare say that it would. I am basing my remarks on my experience of a particular case in my constituency, but I am sure that the matter is covered in the Pigot report. Nevertheless, and as I am sure the hon. Lady will understand, it is a difficult area.
The issue on which we are all being pressed is the use that the police will make of the information resulting from notification. I am bound to say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that I had expected to see that spelt out in the Bill and I am disappointed that it is not. However, there is no doubt that the police will find the information helpful, especially in implementing the various child protection strategies to which schools, the probation service and other organisations contribute.
In respect of the dissemination of the information, we are all aware that antipathetic feelings towards paedophiles run high. It is difficult to believe that the diffusion of knowledge about their location—as practised by the police in Washington state, for example—would not result in unhelpful public houndings of convicted paedophiles from one locality to another, thus discouraging notification to the point where the purpose was defeated. Dissemination of knowledge of convicted paedophiles' whereabouts and physical appearance through distribution of photographs and so on should, therefore, be confined to those with a need to know—for example, head teachers of schools where persons with an unhealthy and obsessive interest in children are pestering pupils, or child care employers who are suspicious of persons whom they are thinking of engaging.
As one who has recently visited Washington state and spoken to the Seattle district attorney—I have even been out on patrol with the Seattle police—may I put it to my right hon. Friend that one merit that Washington state possesses, unlike its near namesake, Washington DC, is a rapidly falling crime rate? I believe that Washington state has had the second or third largest fall in crime in America. Perhaps there is something to be said for looking at the methods used there.
I certainly agree that we should look at those methods, which were shown on the television programme to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney referred. My personal opinion, however, is that it would not be wise in this country to disseminate photographs to neighbours of paedophiles as was done in Washington state. I have a feeling that the result would be more crimes, not fewer.
I am aware of the controversial and sensitive nature of the proposals in the Bill. Notification must not become an additional punishment; it must be a preventive measure. The police must be careful when using the information that they gain as a result of the Bill. I agree with the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) that some guidelines for the police might be welcome.
The question has been asked: why pick on sexual offenders, rather than some other group of criminals who might be more likely to reoffend? The answer lies in the particular horror and revulsion felt by the public when the defenceless are attacked and in the extreme terror that sexual offenders can strike in communities.
We all believe that the police are well informed about convicted offenders in our midst, but that is not invariably the case. I am frequently surprised by their lack of knowledge about offenders who find their way back into the community from prison or psychiatric hospitals. That is an area of police information that should be subjected to closer examination and scrutiny. I am especially concerned about the actions of some of our mental health tribunals, which give little warning, and consult very little with the police before releasing individuals into the community.
I welcome the Government's action in introducing this important Bill. It would have been a mistake to have left it as a private Member's Bill; the public's concern is massive and the Government were right to make it a Government Bill. In some respects, however, they have been timid—not a word that I often associate with the Minister—and I am glad to hear that some amendments are proposed, such as an increase in the penalty for non-notification. I urge the Government to go further; the Bill represents only half a loaf and we should attempt to explore in Committee whether we can make it more effective.
The public need to know that there is an overall register containing all the information that is needed. The danger is that the Bill will lead only to one more list being prepared—one that will not be the comprehensive list that is needed. From the Minister's recent answer to me, I gather that we already have six national lists: the police national computer list, the national identification service list, the National Criminal Intelligence Service list, Scotland Yard's national paedophile index list, list 99 of the Department for Education and Employment, and the Department of Health consultancy index list—not to mention the other lists held by local police stations.
Local authorities are in a confusing position because of guidance issued by the Government telling them that they should not keep lists, despite the fact that they have a legal obligation to use the information that they have. Finally, lists are also held by voluntary bodies such as the Scout Association and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
What is the register to be? Is it to be only the seventh list, or is to be the overall list that is needed and that the public want? If it fails in that respect, there will be a deep sense of disappointment. I know from my discussions with the Greater Manchester Police Federation that its members were disappointed to learn that the list would not be fully retrospective: to be useful to the police, it must be retrospective. Even if the register established under the Bill cannot be retrospective, as the Minister explained, there must be an overall list containing all the information available, including details of suspects. All the evidence shows that, if the list is to be effective, there must be close co-operation between all those who are concerned with the problem.
The whole question of who should and should not be on the list has already been discussed. The Childrens Charities Consortium made an important point when it said that the list should not include those cases where there had been victimless, adult consensual acts, because that would add unnecessary names to the list.
I hope that the requirements for Scotland will be fully in line with those for the rest of the country. We need global information, but without common information covering Great Britain, it will be difficult to get common information covering the rest of the world. I am appalled to hear that individuals who are known to have been convicted for serious sexual offences abroad will not be on the register here. I agree with the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) that it is absurd that such offenders should be omitted.
People who are known to have been convicted of one of these serious offences and are known to the police should be notified that they must inform the police of changes of address. In that way, we can make the register more useful more quickly than if we leave matters as they are; otherwise, it will be decades before sensible action can be taken.
Suspects must be included on the list where the information on them is sufficiently serious. The National Association for the Development of Work with Sex Offenders says:
There is an urgent need to address the issue of known sex offenders who are not convicted. There should be clear guidance about the management of information in such cases.
According to the Childrens Charities Consortium,
the majority of children are abused by unconvicted offenders, and in the minority of cases where prosecution follows the disclosure of abuse, the rate of conviction remains disturbingly low.
Research shows that, on average, before a child sex abuser is caught, he or she will have attempted or committed more than 200 offences.
How can we leave strong evidence of abuse off the register? If a local authority requires a man to move out of a house because he has been found to be abusing the children, and if he complies with that requirement, there may not be a conviction but surely his name should be on the register with those of people who have been convicted; we know that in many cases it is difficult to secure a successful conviction.
In 1994, the latest year for which we have figures, there were 54,000 protection referrals for child sex abuse, which led to fewer than 500 convictions: fewer than one in 100 were convicted. The information that is available to social services must be included on an overall register if the register is to have value.
It is ridiculous that the names of children at risk of sexual abuse are placed on a register but the names of people who have committed the crime are not. It is the only crime where the victim's name is placed on the register but the perpetrator's name is not. I ask the Government to give more thought to creating an overall list that includes such information. I understand that the National Criminal Intelligence Service already maintains a database of about 4,500 suspected paedophiles, so the Government already keep some of this information. We all expect the Government to try to maintain more of it.
I said earlier that the courts established in R. v. Devon County Council ex parte L that social services have a duty to maintain surveillance of suspected child abusers, even if they are unconvicted. There is, therefore, a clear duty on the Government to maintain the best possible information systems and to assemble an overall list that will pull all that information together.
As the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) said, we need clear guidance on who should have access to the information in the register. There is nothing explicit in the Bill about access to the register. Matthew Parris said on Friday that the principle of public notification is unsound. I urge caution in the way in which the information is used. I would be satisfied to leave it to a chief constable to decide how it should be used and to notify people when he thinks it necessary, but the Bill should say clearly how that guidance should be issued.
I am pleased that the Government accept the need for a higher penalty. One month was obviously inadequate and would have led to paedophiles risking discovery rather than coming forward, as they should. I hope that offences abroad will be counted as offences for the purposes of the Bill. If not, there will be a temptation for paedophiles to commit their offences abroad.
The right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) said that he thought it was impossible to treat offenders, but I draw his attention and that of other hon. Members to the very good work done by the Faithfull Foundation at Wolvercote. Its residential treatment centre has achieved high success rates but, sadly, it faces closure because the Department of Health, which owns the property, apparently intends to sell it shortly. In the light of that success, I urge the Government to ensure that there is at least one residential treatment centre in every region. It is appalling that the Government have no plans to secure the future of the Faithfull Foundation treatment centre or to establish treatment centres elsewhere.
I look forward to an active Committee stage, during which amendments may be introduced to strengthen the Bill and ensure that it becomes the type of Bill that the public want. If the names and addresses of previous offenders are known to the police at present, surely it is no problem for the police to notify them that they must inform the police of any future move. That would not impose a great burden on the police, and it would help to assemble the necessary information.
It is perfectly possible to strengthen the Bill's ability to deal with people with previous convictions and where there is strong evidence of abuse although there may not have been a conviction.
I look forward to the Committee stage and hope that the Government will give full attention to the need to develop treatment centres and assessment centres.
I have heard the main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's plea that we should impose a requirement on people who do not know that they have been convicted, because they have not been convicted, to register with the police and that they should be liable to six months' imprisonment if they do not do so. How would he justify to the House, to the country and to his new party a sentence of six months on people who failed to register when they did not know that they had to do so because they had never been charged with or convicted of any offence?
If the Minister had been listening, he would have heard me say that, when the person's name and address is already known it will be possible to notify him of the need to inform the police of any move that he might make, and if there is sufficient evidence against him the conviction could be secured on the basis of existing evidence. It is perfectly possible to bring a prosecution if it is thought that that would be in the public interest.
I agree with the thrust of some of the remarks made by the right hon. and learned Member for Putney that, in effect, an indeterminate sentence is needed. Why release a person if it is known that he poses a risk to the public? If he is known to pose a risk to the public, there should be a full assessment before sentence is passed. There should be treatment during the period of sentence and no release without an assessment that the risk to the public was at a minimum.
At present, people can be released when they are known to pose a risk to the public and it is then necessary to wait for them to reoffend before they are reconvicted. I urge the Government to consider more closely the need for a full assessment before sentence is passed, so that indeterminate sentences can be imposed on people who continue to pose a risk to the public. The Government should propose much stronger measures.
I join the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) and many other hon. Members in applauding the introduction of the Bill, especially part II, and I wish to say a word of congratulation to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has involved himself in this subject exhaustively over a long period.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State reminds me of one of those great capital ships that one used to see in documentary films about naval encounters, speeding towards the war. There was a period when, some of us thought, the great guns that my right hon. Friend carried tended to face in the wrong direction; but, slowly and deliberately, those massive guns have undergone a switch in trajectory and they have swung right round to focus their powerful charges on this appalling and horrible type of criminal.
Not only has my right hon. Friend involved himself deeply in this subject, but I think he will agree that he has received substantial help from outside pressure groups such as the Coalition on Child Prostitution and Tourism, and his proposal gets to grips with the problem. I warmly congratulate him on that and thank him for the part that he has played.
I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would give me some further advice when he replies, or on another occasion, or even in Committee. The Coalition on Child Prostitution and Tourism has made a point relating to the exclusion proposed in clause 2(3)(d), which applies to someone who
is outside the United Kingdom"—
while the time requirement of up to 14 days is ticking away. Can the fact that such a person is outside the United Kingdom at the relevant time provide him with an indefinite escape from registration? He might, for instance, decide to stay outside the UK for one of the periods stipulated on page 2 of the Bill—five years. That might enable him never to have to register, because the time for which he has to register would expire before he returned to the United Kingdom. I should be glad of the Minister's guidance on that technical point.
Another aspect of the Bill slightly worries me, and it was vividly put in interventions by the hon. Members for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) and for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton). My slight misgiving about the Bill is paradoxical. The aim of the Bill is to protect vulnerable children and juveniles in overseas countries and territories. Certainly, part II will indirectly benefit children in this country, but its essential purpose is to help to safeguard poor, vulnerable children or juveniles in overseas countries. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to reassure the House that this part of the Bill will not inculcate a tendency or preference on the part of paedophiles for going overseas to commit their crimes.
A paedophile might go overseas because of the difference between what constitutes a culpable offence in Britain and such an offence in another country. My fear is that paedophiles might concentrate their activities on, say, girls over the age of 14 in some Asian countries; at that age they become marriageable and are allowed, without committing an offence, sexual intercourse. Thus a group of girls who may be protected under our framework of law are not necessarily so protected in other countries: they are therefore more vulnerable.
Does the Minister share my anxiety, furthermore, about the possibility—this is a double jeopardy—that those guilty of offences against girls outside the narrow age range of 14 to 16, and susceptible to charges under the Bill, might go abroad to commit their crimes, and then hand themselves over to the local jurisdiction if they have the faintest suspicion that their activities have been discovered by, for instance, investigators from a non-government organisation? They might then plea bargain, asking to be prosecuted for the alleged offence, and in exchange for pleading guilty they would demand a sentence of deportation. Many less developed countries try to deport overseas visitors caught in criminal activities as rapidly as possible, because the last thing they want is the image that attaches to countries that prosecute tourists. For them, deportation is a quick and easy way out.
If such a plea of guilty has been entered and deportation has ensued, does that mean that the case cannot be tried back in the United Kingdom?
Is my right hon. Friend certain that we are not introducing any measure that will promote such activities against children in overseas countries—such locations being, from the point of view of those who may be apprehended, the lesser of two evils? I wish to reinforce the point argued by the hon. Members for Bolton, North-East, for Swansea, East and for Mossley Hill. Serious consideration must be given to registration when an offence has been tried abroad and knowledge of that event has reached us.
Otherwise I warmly endorse everything positive that has been said about this Bill, and I congratulate Ministers on the action that they have taken.
Anyone who saw Sue Lloyd-Roberts' excellent film on child prostitution in Sri Lanka, shown about 10 days ago, will have no hesitation in arguing that people convicted of sexual offences in other countries ought to be on the register in this country too. Anyone who saw the film will have seen a Swiss millionaire who has been accused of abusing about 2,500 young people in Sri Lanka and who is currently being tried in that country. It is terrifying to think that he might come to live here without anyone knowing that he had been convicted of sexual abuse in another country. His and many other examples argue strongly in favour of including such people on our register as well, in case they plan to come and live here.
We tend to speak of our own direct experiences. In my constituency a few months ago, a man was convicted of sexually abusing 18 young children—this in one small village. The man had moved to Cynon Valley from Liverpool, where he had been convicted of sexually abusing under-aged children. He had served his sentence and then moved, presumably because he knew that he would be anonymous in Cynon Valley. Like many paedophiles, he was very clever. He was married with two children. He kept horses, and had a bouncy castle in his back garden. He had a great many things that attracted young children to his house. Indeed, he offered to baby-sit, so parents in the area thought he was a nice man—he seemed kind to children. He was also a taxi driver.
It was almost by chance that the man was eventually caught out. The parents of the children concerned are extremely upset and angry because they believe that he has been given a relatively short prison sentence. I do not want this evening to discuss the length of prison sentences. Suffice it to say that if parents in my area had been aware of the man's conviction of serious sexual offences elsewhere, they would have been on their guard and would have protected their children.
That is why I believe that the register must be retrospective if it is to have any worth. I know that several right hon. and hon. Members feel the same. Many of these people continue to pose a serious risk to the public, and will do so for many years to come. Some repeat sex offenders are known to have been given short probation and community service orders or short custodial sentences even though they have previously served longer sentences. I therefore ask the Minister to think again. There are all too many examples to show that, had there been a retrospective register of this kind in the past, many people would have been enabled to protect vulnerable children.
There is another case in my constituency where several local business men have been accused of sexual offences against under-age children. That is proceeding, so I shall say nothing about it, except that as we roll over the stones, the ghastly picture of what is happening in our society emerges.
When I heard the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts)—the former Minister at the Welsh Office—speaking about his concerns, I wondered why the Welsh Office had not sent inspectors to examine a problem that had been evident in north Wales for many years and about which plenty of evidence had been given to the Welsh Office. Where was that inspectorate?
What happens when the state is responsible for the protection of young children? It must be the most awful thing of all, when children are taken away from homes where they have been physically or sexually abused, put in the care of the state and find that things are worse than they were at home, and when the state allows abuse to go on against those children. As we know, a tribunal is meeting in north Wales. Some of my constituents are involved in it and will give evidence there, and some will choose not to do so, because they find the experience so painful.
For many years children who were in the protection of the state were continually sexually abused by those who were supposed to care for them. Unless the register is retrospective, it will not identify people who have previous convictions and who are still in positions of responsibility, working with children.
Someone who is in charge of an organisation that trains young people telephoned me in July and said that he was concerned that when he was taking on new staff and asked the police for information because he had doubts about certain members of his staff, the information was withheld from him. It is essential that such information is given to those who are responsible for employing staff who will come into contact with young people.
Do the Government intend to give direction—not just guidelines—to chief constables on the policing of known sex offenders, and the disclosure of information to child welfare protection agencies, housing agencies, prospective employers and the general public? Without such direction, it is arguable whether police forces will be any more effective than they are at present in preventing further offending, bearing in mind the fact that they already have at their disposal information through the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and existing police intelligence reporting. Indeed, police forces nationally, as the Minister well knows, complain that limited resources impede their ability to reduce crime. The added task of collating information, with no direction on its usage, becomes increasingly questionable.
With such limited sanctions as fines not exceeding scale 3 and/or imprisonment, with the maximum term not exceeding one month, the Bill should not be viewed as a deterrent to serial sex offenders who we know are skilled in concealing their identity and whereabouts. At best it may serve as a further deterrent to lesser-risk convicted offenders—those who have committed opportune offences where the process of detection and conviction has already reduced the likelihood of recidivism. The Bill would give the police considerable power over lesser-risk sex offenders, but with regard to serial paedophiles, part I is unlikely to deter their activities and therefore to protect children or other vulnerable sections of the public.
The Bill does nothing to alter the rate of prosecution for those alleged to have committed sex offences. For example, the number of prosecutions resulting from a major police inquiry into child abuse in north Wales was minimal, considering the number of complaints made. If Parliament wants to address more effectively the prevention of sex offending, it should consider measures intended to distinguish between different types of offenders, enforcing treatment where appropriate, and measures to protect the public when that is deemed necessary.
The Bill will not help to deal with the problem that only a small number of sex offenders are caught, and that most are free and will not be affected by the Bill. We are only beginning to uncover the problem in the United Kingdom. The young people whom I interviewed, who are now in their thirties, were sexually abused while in state care when they were aged 14. Such abuse at that age has destroyed their lives. I have five of those young people in my constituency. All have served prison sentences.
It is extremely moving to hear those young people talking about their experiences. I am surprised that they can talk about them at all, but they find it easier to talk to women. When they speak about their experiences, they say the same thing over and over again: they are not after compensation. I must refute recent claims that those who now give witness to what happened to them when they were teenagers are after compensation. The majority want to know why it was done to them, why it took so long for the abuse to be uncovered and why no one ever said to them, "I'm sorry."
That was a moving speech from the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd). I strongly welcome the Bill. I support the measures in part II which allow the prosecution in the United Kingdom of British citizens who go abroad to abuse small children in foreign countries.
I was present for the first Adjournment debate in the small hours of the night four years ago, when we discussed the matter, and I was privileged to serve on the private Member's Bill last year and to support pleas from my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) and others for a more far-reaching measure to be introduced. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who took so much trouble to listen to our arguments then, has introduced such a measure in part II of the Bill.
None the less, as time is short and many hon. Members want to speak, I shall focus on part I. Earlier speakers have dealt with individual details of the Bill. Instead, I shall focus on the only strong argument that has been put forward against the Bill—the argument advanced in an article by Matthew Parris, which has been alluded to several times. It is important that the article is answered strongly, for two reasons: first, because of Norman Tebbit's famous dictum that the worst legislation that goes through Parliament is usually the legislation that everyone in the House agrees with and which is therefore not properly scrutinised—not the case with this Bill, but there is some truth in the observation—and secondly, because if the argument is not properly answered in this place, we may have difficulties in another place, and as we are so close to an election, the Bill is particularly vulnerable.
Mr. Parris claimed that "the central principle" of the Bill is
that a great swathe of offenders who have served their sentences and returned—disgraced at the workplace, disgraced with landlords, disgraced among their families and their friends, and almost certainly unemployed—to try to begin their lives again, should now be bound to the 20th-century equivalent of the leper's bell. This"—
is primitive nonsense. Will nobody say so?
His views may well by echoed by the legal establishment—for example, let us look at the way in which it has resisted many of Mr. Pigot's recommendations. Curiously, Mr. Parris outlines the skeleton of the opposing argument in a subsequent paragraph. He says:
Apologists for the Home Secretary will object that although sex offenders are victims, they create victims of their own.
Most people would not accept that sex offenders are victims, although they certainly create victims. He continues:
Are these not our first concern? There is a clear answer to this. If we judge a person so dangerous that his neighbours must be warned about him, he should not be allowed back into the community.
Many people would say, "Amen to that." The danger to which Mr. Parris refers can be measured in two ways: the nature of the danger and its numerical extent.
First, many hon. Members have pointed to the horrendous primary damage caused by the sexual abuse of children, but two secondary forms of damage have scarcely been mentioned. The first is the fact that the increased number of AIDS cases in this country heightens the risk of children catching serious sexually transmitted diseases that may affect their health for the rest of their lives. In AIDS cases, they are likely to result in death.
The second form of secondary abuse to which the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) referred—I pay tribute to her tireless pursuit of this cause—is the abuse that continues in the criminal justice system after the primary offence. In seven or eight speeches and ten-minute Bills in this place, I have referred to cases of untrained or unvigilant judges allowing lawyers to abuse grossly their powers in court. I have described the way in which children are sometimes treated in court. A whole range of organisations point to the secondary abuse of children in court that may continue for a year or a year and a half after the original offence.
Children are deliberately tormented again and again by being forced to wait hours—sometimes days—before they take the witness stand. Children as young as 11 or 12 are sneered at and often face allegations that they encouraged their attackers. That kind of treatment, which goes far beyond the bounds of normal cross-examination, can make the original abuse much worse. That is why, even when there is an overwhelming case against a sex offender, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and social services feel compelled—even before the parents intervene—to abandon proceedings.
That brings me to the second danger: the numerical incidence of sex offences. According to the overwhelming body of academic evidence, only rarely does a convicted paedophile cease offending. The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) called for more treatment for sex offenders. The problem is that I have seen no academic work—I have examined a number of studies—that shows that a course of treatment for paedophiles has had anything more than the most modest success rate. The danger of re-offending is numerically very high.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the work of the Faithful Foundation. It has produced evidence—which others have accepted—of a substantial reduction in sex offences of 60 per cent. or more.
I shall look at that study. The evidence points to a large number of repeat offences, and the danger is both grave and frequent.
My answer to Mr. Parris's article and to those outside Parliament who will continue to claim that the measures in the Bill are too draconian—when many hon. Members believe that they should go much further—is that, when dealing with threats to children, the tiny proportion of offenders who are caught and convicted deserve to be placed on an offenders register. I believe that that register should be made publicly available because parents have a right to know when a convicted paedophile moves into their area. The rights of children—the most vulnerable group in our society—must come before those of convicted criminals.
The most important single service that the House can perform for the victims of sexual offences is to pass the legislation before the election. Therefore, I would not move any troublesome amendments if I were selected to serve on the Committee to consider the Bill. Let us pass the legislation quickly and put the provisions on the statute book.
I shall try to be brief. I am concerned that, although hon. Members appear to be enthusiastic about the legislation, they are not granting it the means of success. Page ii of the explanatory and financial memorandum states:
There will not be any significant financial burden on public expenditure arising from the Bill. Any additional costs will be met from within existing resources.
We are kidding the nation if we try to claim that we will resolve the situation by changing the law without providing extra resources.
As to part II of the Bill, I believe that we should do everything we can to halt sexual tourism. However, I do not believe that we will achieve that simply by changing the law. The only way to stop sexual tourism is by changing the law and ensuring that we secure a series of high profile prosecutions. We must make it absolutely clear that a civilised society will not tolerate such behaviour. That will cost money, so we should not pass legislation unless we are prepared to make the necessary finances available. I add the caveat that we must be aware that the provision may encourage entrapment and blackmail in some cases. I believe that the change is worth while, but that we must find the money to pay for it.
I have many more reservations about part I of the Bill. How useful would a register be? The evidence from the United States suggests that such a register does not work. The Government tell my constituents that they will have to pay for the register, which will result in fewer resources for the police. There will be fewer policemen on the beat—despite the calls for an increased police presence on our streets at every meeting that I attend in my constituency. Fewer resources will be allocated to pursuing breaches of probation—a low-priority activity for the police—to witness protection and so on. The Minister has said that there will be no extra resources. Therefore, the police must reduce their efforts in other areas and relinquish some of their resources in order to make the register work.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way—although it makes it more difficult for me to say that he is talking nonsense in his latter point. The expensive resources are there: the updates to the police national computer system and to the police national database, which links every police force in the country with digital communications equipment to each other and to the PNC, are the essential resource. The only extra work for the police will involve transmitting the new information to the PNC when a person turns up at a police station and provides his name and address. We have already allocated the resources required.
I am not convinced that the resources are available, but I want to develop the argument. It will take police time to process new information, and people will turn up at police stations only if the police take action against those who do not bother to show. That involves enforcement. A voluntary register will not work: the register will work only if it is enforced, and that will involve extra resources.
What is the purpose of the register? If it is merely to show that Big Brother is watching, there is some point to it. However, there is an implication that it will go further and identify suitable and unsuitable residential areas. What will happen if someone who has been convicted of offences against young children registers, giving an address that is adjacent to a children's playground or day nursery? Do the Government expect the police to do nothing about that? If they do nothing and there is an incident involving that person, there will be a public outcry.
The police will have limited powers and some of the convicted will still be subject to various forms of supervision. It would be possible for the police to say, "That is not a suitable place. What should we do?" If registration merely means providing a name and a place and nothing more, there will be many unhappy people in our communities.
When registration takes place, confidentiality ensues. There is a danger that information will get out, as it were, and that people in local communities will take action. Where will registration take place? My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) took up the issue. I am concerned about people who do not have a regular home. The phrase in the Bill, which is pretty vague, is "regularly visits".
I am conscious of problems in my constituency. Men who are registered and live in bed-sits in my constituency sometimes spend little time at those addresses and most of their time in someone else's household. They often mislead the person in the other household about their past record. They are often a serious threat to the young children in that other household. Registration will relate to the bed-sit where occasionally such people will be found rather than the address where they are living fairly permanently. The Government must take that on board.
It seems that we are changing the nature of cautions. Originally, someone was given a caution if he committed an offence that was out of character and one that he was unlikely to recommit. If that is the nature of a caution, paedophiles should not be entered on a register. If the nature of a caution is being changed to include people who are likely to recommit an offence, they should not be cautioned. Surely they should be prosecuted. That is unless a deal has been made, stitched up by the police and the individual, on the basis that he would not like the nasty publicity of going to court and, perhaps, pleading guilty. That is an unsatisfactory use of a caution and something that we should examine.
My main message to the House is that it is extremely dangerous to enact legislation unless we are prepared to find money to make it work.
I find myself in the sad position of raising a slightly dissenting voice. I wish to sound a note of caution on the registering of sex offenders. I wrote to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary about the matter in early November 1996. I set out my concerns, which were reinforced in an article in The Times on Friday.
I am concerned with justice and the freedom of the individual. I believe that all men must be capable of redemption. I find it strange, however, to hear myself arguing for more civil liberties. It is not normally a position in which I find myself.
I would never describe myself as a liberal. God forbid. Nor am I a lawyer. I was unhappy about the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. Employers and others should be able to ascertain the background of those whom they wish to employ. Indeed, a year or two ago, I was entirely opposed to the reduction of the age of consent for homosexuals. Matthew Parris and I might part company on that one. I believe that the state should not send such a message to young people who may be confused about their sexuality.
I voted for hanging. I would most certainly hang paedophiles who kill children such as Hughes, who was mentioned in the Sophie Hook case. I might vote for corporal punishment. I might vote also for chemical castration, which I believe is practised in some parts of the United States. I do not know a great deal about it. A register for sexual offenders gives me cause for concern, however, on the ground of justice.
There is a revulsion for some sex crimes. A man who exposes himself in a park commits a sex crime, but that is no more revolting than a mugger who beats up an old lady and leaves her for dead, or someone who sells drugs to children. Indeed, children who are on drugs are often tempted to engage in prostitution. Organised drug syndicates and their bullies commit awful crimes. The same can be said of muggers who use knives or other forms of gratuitous violence. I have a revulsion for all violent crime, including sex crimes against children and others.
We are faced with a huge paradox. Over the past 40 years, we have seen much more sexual licence. Sexual activity used to be confined largely to marriage. Sexual activity outside marriage did not meet with approval. The breakdown of the family that we have seen over the past 40 years has led to many more children being brought up in children's homes. We often see child abuse in step-families.
Since the early 1960s, we have encouraged everyone, including children, to consider casual sex as almost an ordinary part of life. At the same time, homosexuality has been given almost official sanction. About two years ago, we came close to reducing the age of consent to 16 years. Labour Members who voted for that reduction in the age of consent should understand that if a man has consensual sex with a boy of 15 or perhaps 17—my right hon. Friend the Minister might correct me—that act will be punishable within the terms of the sexual offenders register, for at least five years. That is my understanding.
The Sun, which passes for a newspaper, titillates its readers with pictures of girls aged 16 wearing school socks. I have never bought The Sun, but I have read it. It contains captions such as, "Look at little Tracy in her school uniform. I would like to teach her a thing or two." What passes for an editorial is called "The Sun Says". In contrived outrage, this so-called editorial states that The Sun would like sex offenders to be hanged, drawn and quartered, and castrated for good measure. Those who have read "Howard's End" will know "only connect", meaning that we will see the connection even if it kills us. Some guilt lies there, and those who shout loudest often wish to shift the guilt on to others.
I should like my right hon. Friend the Minister to discuss reoffending rates. I understand from Home Office figures that sexual offenders have a reoffending rate, or reconviction rate, which is different, of only 16 per cent., compared with a reoffending rate of 17 per cent. for burglary. I do not pretend to be an authority on paedophilia and I have learnt much about the subject during the debate. I am interested, however, when others say, "These people are paedophiles and these people are not." I suspect that the issue is more complicated than that.
My right hon. Friend described paedophiles as clever and manipulative. Surely cleverness and the ability to manipulate are skills that are not linked to paedophiles alone. I am aware, of course, that there are some vile individuals. I would lock them up until they were no longer a threat to anyone. Myra Hindley has been mentioned during the debate. She and her friend, Brady, should have been hanged back in 1966.
I fear that a sexual offenders register may catch pathetic old men who have flashed in the park. One of my constituents is ostracised in his village. As I understand it, he has never been convicted of anything. He says, however, that a former police officer accused him of something unmentionable. Bricks are thrown through my constituent's windows. I do not know whether he is a dirty old man. Similarly, I do not know what he has done in the past. Perhaps he should be treated with caution, but surely the House should be prepared to treat him and others with some pity. As I said, he accuses a former police officer of having spread information about him that has led to hostility.
I remember the death of my hon. Friend Stephen Milligan, who represented Eastleigh. The press reports of the time stated that each Metropolitan police station had a police officer in the pay of newspapers. I do not know whether that is true, but I am aware that the police are not renowned for being entirely secure with their information.
Matthew Parris's article about a "baying mob" at Garrets Green in Birmingham described a man who was forced to flee. Yesterday, I asked a colleague why he would want to know that a convicted sex offender had moved in next to him. He replied, "I would want to get him out." Surely that only moves the problem along.
We must, of course, protect children from vile paedophiles, vile pornography and other evil things. Let us have a central computer, so that we might ensure that convicted paedophiles cannot get jobs with children. Let us keep an eye on them. I fear, however, that the Bill is akin to branding them on the forehead. In effect, the Bill states that prison cannot rehabilitate, that there is no cure and that there is no chance of rehabilitation. I cannot accept that. I was taught that when a person has been punished and the punishment is finished, he has paid his debt to society and the slate should be wiped clean. That is not to say that we should forget everything, but we should keep that in mind. I expect that I shall be pilloried in tomorrow's tabloids—the comics that pass as newspapers: the same ones that have such a prurient interest in our sex lives and the sex lives of everyone else.
My son is seven weeks old. If anyone should harm him, I, like any parent, would want to harm that person. Of course, we must protect children, but there must also be justice, and I do not think that this measure will prevent children from being harmed. The register may lead to mob rule. Under the Bill, for having sex with a girl aged 15 years and 364 days—an offence that may be worth a caution—a boy aged 20 years and one day will be placed on the sex offenders register and will have to report to the police for five years. Will the police differentiate between him and others on the register, or will he be merely an offender? Will not people who find out think that he is an offender and a threat to their children?
Do hon. Members remember Mr. Diggle, the rapist in a kilt? He was the rather pathetic man who committed rape after a highland ball in London. As a rapist, he will go on the sexual offenders register. That is fine, but do we really think that he will reoffend? The case caused hoots of laughter: it was a sad, pathetic case, particularly for the woman. He will be on the sexual offenders register for an indefinite period, and I am not sure that that is just.
I doubt whether the measure will serve justice well. Criminals who have finished their sentence also have rights. Above all else, we should protect the innocent, but I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider very carefully how the measure will work in practice, and whether its effects will be just.
Like other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, I intend to be brief. Unlike the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), I do not follow his line of argument. My hon. Friends and I broadly welcome the Bill, and we welcome the Government's change of heart about introducing it in Government time.
All of us have read about the hideous and appalling crimes that have recently been committed against children. I was horrified by two cases in particular—as were my constituents and everyone in the country. The appalling murder of Sophie Hook and the hideous crime committed against Daniel Handley have increased public concern about the activities of paedophiles. The whole country is looking to the House to find ways to increase the protection offered to the public against the criminal activities of sex offenders, and to enable the police to keep a better eye on the movement of such people.
If the Bill is to be effective, it must be practical. It is reasonable for the Bill to define those who are to be covered by the notification requirements. I think that the hon. Member for Blaby was wrong: the rapist to whom he referred will not be covered by the notification requirements. Extending the retrospective application of the Bill could cause significant practical problems for the police, by imposing difficult burdens on them. I do not think that loading the police with additional administrative burdens will help them to offer greater protection to the public.
In all these cases, a reasonable line must be drawn between the type of offences that will be on the register and the people who will be covered by the notification requirement. In the context of the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), I think that the lines drawn by the Bill are, in broad terms, about right.
As many hon. Members have said, we must reconcile the requirement to protect our important civil liberties with the need to provide greater protection to the public and to help the police to pursue sex offenders. I accept that it is difficult to draw that line. The Government are right to include in the terms of the Bill persons who have been cautioned for committing certain sexual offences. That is the right balance to strike. If there is a trade-off to be made between protecting the public, helping the police and protecting civil liberties, I am in doubt about where that line should be drawn. It should always be drawn in favour of protecting the innocent, protecting children and helping the police.
Some of these people have committed foul and hideous crimes against innocent children, such as Sophie Hook, whose family come from my constituency, and Daniel Handley. If it is a choice between protecting the innocent—indeed, the lives of those children—and protecting civil liberties, in my book there is no difficulty about where that line should be drawn.
I welcome the Government's inclusion of cautions in the Bill. We must operate along the lines of a precautionary principle. If someone is evidencing behaviour that gives rise to serious concern that he may offend against innocent children and others, he should be on the register: we should know where such people are, and the police should know about their movements.
Many hon. Members have spoken about the need for wider access to the register. The right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) drew the House's attention to the need for the Bill to extend access, and for members of the public to be notified of the whereabouts of paedophiles. This is a difficult area, and we must exercise caution and common sense about where we draw the line.
I have four young children, and many of my constituents have young families. A reasonable question that we could all ask ourselves is: would we want to know that we were living next door or in close proximity to a person who had been convicted of a serious sex offence against a child? If we were honest with ourselves, our answer would be, "Yes, of course we would want to know that."
I am not saying that the Bill is defective because it does not extend the principle of public access—we shall return to that issue in Committee. Have the Government considered widening public access not to every offence included in schedule 1, but to certain offences in that schedule? We must be careful, but in the case of sex offenders, particularly those who have committed sex offences against children, we should seriously examine our normal concerns about protecting civil liberties.
I have a number of specific concerns about the Bill, to which I want to draw the House's attention. Clause 2(2) is an example of poor parliamentary drafting. We appreciate that parliamentary drafting is not a precise art: some problems emerge only through litigation in the courts; some problems hit us right between the eyes when we look at the Bill. This is an example of an obvious problem. I know that this is a Committee point, but it is not clear whether the present drafting of the Bill properly covers the case of a known sex offender who changes his or her address during the period after conviction.
The Bill provides that the person is under a duty to notify the police if there is any change that would falsify the original notification details. What a convoluted provision. What a load of gobbledegook. Why does not the Bill simply provide that a person is required to notify the police if he changes his address? The Bill does not do that: it imposes a duty to notify the police if a subsequent event occurs that may falsify the original entry in the register. I do not understand why the Government have chosen that wording. That is an obvious problem. Some people may argue that they are not required to notify the police, even if they change their address. That would strike at the purpose of the Bill, which is to keep offenders under proper observation.
The other obvious problem with the Bill is that it refers to the list of offences in schedule 1. Hon. Members have referred to the fact that, as the Bill stands, there is no obligation on a person who comes to live in this country and has committed a sex crime against people abroad to notify the police of his address and details. That is an obvious mistake.
A more obvious mistake is that the schedule does not include persons who, in this country, have been convicted of a crime under the Sexual Offences (Conspiracy and Incitement) Act 1996. I know that there are problems about how we would define offences in foreign jurisdictions, and make them broadly compatible with the list of offences in schedule 1, but we are talking about offences that a person would commit under that law, which would be dealt with in an English court. Why are they not included in the list? We are discussing people in this country who have conspired with others to commit sex crimes against children abroad. They are paedophiles, however we define that word: they have committed serious sex crimes against children.
I trust that the Bill will do two things. I believe that it will help the police to monitor sex offenders; I also believe that it will reassure the public that the police are taking such offences seriously, and are developing new information systems to ensure that we know where the offenders are. It is a modest Bill, and I do not think that it will stop the commission of offences overnight, but I think that it takes us in broadly the right direction. It should be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I am sure that it will be broadly welcomed by our constituents as well.
Along with everyone else who has spoken, I welcome the Bill as a substantial step forward in protecting children from the vilest of offenders, who prey on their innocence and ruin their lives.
I am particularly grateful because, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and I went to see Ministers some two or three years ago, I can only say that we encountered polite interest but were given little hope of immediate action. It is praiseworthy that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and the Home Office team did listen and allowed themselves to be persuaded to act, and I thank them.
We should also compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall), whose Sexual Offences (Conspiracy and Incitement) Act 1996 started the track followed by this Bill by giving our courts jurisdiction over the organisers of sexual tourism abroad. The Bill constitutes the next stage of that Act, which was inherently flawed. Clearly, many cases will be brought under this rather than the earlier legislation.
I welcome the Opposition's support for the Bill, but I think it a little churlish of them to criticise the Government for not leaping on to the Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson). We keep talking about speedy Bills that are bad law, and it was plainly sensible for the Government to consult, take soundings and obtain research before producing their White Paper and, subsequently, the Bill. Consensus naturally prevailed, and has produced a good result.
Our revulsion has been generated by the astonishing number of offences against children. In the United Kingdom, a newspaper headline in December 1996 read: "15 forces hunt child abusers". According to the accompanying report.
A third of Britain's police forces are now investigating allegations of abuse in children's homes".
These are astonishing revelations to most of us, who lead ordinary, decent lives.
The same applies to offences committed abroad. A recent article in The Criminal Law Review refers to
Paedophile murders of children in Belgium",
which are currently being investigated. It states:
In July 1996 Stephen Mitchell, a British sexual tourist, was convicted and imprisoned for 17 years in the Philippines for paedophile acts. In October 1996 a British tour organiser … was sentenced to … 16 years for promoting child prostitution in the Philippines.
Also in October 1996, a Dutch court jailed a man
for having sex with six young girls, some of whom were aged only 11. A senior diplomat … was convicted and imprisoned for the importation of videos depicting sex acts with children.
The former Australian ambassador to Cambodia is standing trial charged with abusing youths in that country.
We are learning horrifying details from the newspapers, and we feel that we must do something. Such crimes transcend international borders, which is why the Council of Europe, UNICEF—the United Nations Children's Fund—and the European Union, in its third pillar manifestations, have all published, or are publishing, views on what must be done. Because activity of this kind is so often international, we must be prepared to deal with it internationally. NCIS, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, is also compiling details of organised criminal gangs that go in for this sickening activity.
I do not want to confuse parts I and II of the Bill, but, just as there is a case for a sex offenders register for United Kingdom crime, there is obviously a case for including foreign paedophile offenders on our register when that is possible. My right hon. Friend the Minister's response that that is impracticable is roughly the same as the response that we received originally, when we went to see my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary two or three years ago to ask about the kind of legislation that we are now passing.
The fact is that we must do all we can. Not every paedophile conviction in foreign countries will be notified to us, but a few will, and measures such as this will ensure that that is more likely to happen. We may be able to stop some hideous offenders getting away with it by extending the register to some of those overseas offenders.
The question that so many of us have been considering during today's interesting debate—a question asked by, in particular, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor)—is, what more can we do to deal with the horrors of paedophilia? My right hon. and learned Friend suggested action after danger manifested itself, but before conviction. That is a tempting thought, but the trouble is that, in our legal system, a person can be punished only after he has committed a crime and that crime has been proved by evidence. Suspicion and rumour are not enough; nor are failed prosecutions. We cannot punish people without strict proof, or we shall find ourselves punishing the unpopular as well as the innocent.
Perhaps we should not despair. I am not sure that the gap is all that great between all the provisions that are now being made available and those that we would in our hearts like to see. Some deviants do seek help and submit to treatment; others are caught, tried, convicted and sentenced, and are then treated in one way or another. Under the Crime (Sentences) Bill, they can be subjected to more supervision—in some circumstances, for up to a lifetime.
Under the same Bill, even those who commit trivial offences, and are therefore cautioned, will appear on the register. Those who are convicted a second time may, thanks to the Government's courageous action—which, even now, is probably being attacked in the other place—be removed from circulation for life, or for as long as it is considered a matter of public safety for them to remain in custody.
Those who have been convicted once will now be on the register, and some of those who have not yet attacked—stalkers—can perhaps be brought within the ambit of the Protection from Harassment Bill, if a child is the target. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will examine the possibility of extending the register to such offences. Can anything be done about those who are merely suspected? I do not think that we would be realistic if we thought that the local police did not put such people on an unofficial list, and watch them very closely. They watch them as potential offenders waiting to be caught and they ensure that as much attention as local resources will allow is directed there.
I have professional experience of one such case. A very serious alleged child offender, who was charged with murdering children, was watched and watched and watched and finally caught and convicted. He is now serving a long sentence, so the fact that the names do not appear on the official register does not mean that the local police will not watch anyone against whom suspicion is strong.
There are other suggestions for strengthening the law. In some states in America, communities are informed when paedophiles move into the district. Should that happen here? My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney asked why ordinary people did not have the right to know what police officers know. The problem is vigilantism: people seeking to take the law into their own hands and getting it wrong. Most of us in the House, however angry we are, might hesitate to encourage that behaviour because the evil could be even greater than that of a possible paedophile who is at large and is being watched.
It has been suggested that there should be a criminal offence for convicted sex offenders to seek jobs that give them access to children. What has happened to that proposal? Has it been discarded? Has it been discussed with the police and other involved parties? What conclusions have my right hon. Friends come to? It would be better to have that weapon in the armoury than one that incites vigilantism.
I conclude, as many have concluded, with a hearty welcome for the Bill and with a desire to find out what more can be done in Committee or elsewhere. However, may I end on this slightly different note? Several hon. Gentlemen have said that paedophilia is not susceptible to cure. I doubt that. In Britain, there is evidence, which is growing, that some paedophilia can be cured.
The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) said that a scheme in an area that he knows has been successful, and I have met some of the organisers. We must be prepared to spend some resources on treatment in prison and some on treatment after prison. Treatment must also be a part of our weaponry against this most detestable of all offences, towards the control of which the Bill takes a substantial step.
I follow the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) in saying, with a lawyer's hat on, that there are problems in relation to the dissemination of the names on the register, access to it and the information that it holds, but I will briefly comment on part I.
I hope that the Government will, on consideration, ensure that there is some means of including the list of offenders who have been prosecuted abroad. That is clearly a loophole, and inclusion would be a deterrent. Relatively few cases would be brought to the Government's attention by our embassies and by the network of non-governmental organisations. I hope that all addresses where offenders habitually reside will be on that register. I would like the Government to consider carefully access to our register by some outside organisations if, for example, they suspect an individual who operates in his own country. I hope that people who seek to leave the United Kingdom to avoid registration will nevertheless be obliged to register with British embassies overseas and that that will be considered.
I welcome part II, for the same reasons given by the hon. and learned Member for Burton. Clearly, one must have a consistent and co-ordinated attack on exploitation of children across the board. There must be co-operation among police authorities and an attack on corruption. We must be prepared to assist NGOs in this sector, particularly the consortium of NGOs working on behalf of street children in developing countries.
I was therefore particularly unhappy with the Government's response on 14 January to my parliamentary question. They claimed that their promise on 27 February 1995 in the Official Report, at column 689, was "an unfortunate error." They admitted that, since February 1995, they had provided only £46,000 to the consortium. I hope that they will reconsider that and provide more adequate means for the NGOs, which are doing a magnificent job overseas.
The contributions of hon. Members on both sides of the House demonstrate their loathing and disgust for people who abuse children. The Bill will provide extra protection for children, but, for it to achieve its objectives, underpinning the legislation, there must be a comprehensive package to improve the reporting, detection and conviction of people who sexually abuse children. A widespread criticism of Government machinery is the failure to deliver a coherent and consistent policy across the various Departments. The agencies that are responsible for the protection of children—local authorities, the police, probation and health departments, which have achieved much at local level—must be supported by a coherent policy nationally.
I would be interested to hear from the Minister what discussion he has had with his colleagues with responsibility for health and education. Both Departments keep lists. The Department for Education and Employment maintains a list of people who are barred from employment by a local education authority, school or further education establishment, as a teacher or in any other capacity that involves contact with children or young people up to the age of 18. The Secretary of State for the Home Department may also bar people on the ground of misconduct or on medical grounds. Anyone convicted after October 1995 of a sexual offence against a child under 16 years is barred automatically. That is list 99. Employers must check that list.
The Department of Health operates on an advisory basis a consultancy service that applies to England and Wales, whereby local authorities and private and voluntary agencies can check—it is not mandatory—the suitability of people they wish to employ in a child care post. On 26 July 1995, in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), pointing out the differences between list 99 and the Department of Health consultancy service, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment said that the latter was to alert employers to people whose applications they should consider with particular care, but that it was up to the prospective employer to decide whether the person was suitable for appointment in each case.
The difference is clear. If someone commits an offence against a child under the age of 16, he can never teach as long as he remains on the Department for Employment and Education's list 99. However, that same person is not barred from working with children in children's homes, in a foster home or in other settings. As the Minister said, it is a matter for the prospective employer.
I am sure that no responsible employer would dream of employing such a person, although, in 1995, the social services inspectorate study into small registrable homes discovered criminal convictions among owners of such homes, including a sexual offence. However, that is not the point. The point is that both lists are kept to protect children and should have the same status in terms both of mandatory consultation by employers and of barring employment. If the Secretary of State for Education and Employment can decide that a person is not fit to teach a child, the Department of Health should decide that the person is not fit to have access to children in a caring situation.
Although agencies' access to information on the national register is not being determined by the Bill, it would make sense if the additional information provided by the register in updating addresses and the use of other names were also available to other Departments that keep lists with the aim of protecting children. The determination of paedophiles to gain access to children must be matched by a determination to stop them. I hope that, in Committee, the Minister will be able to clarify how the national register will operate with those other lists.
I am interested in the Minister's discussions with his colleagues in the Department of Health, which has major responsibilities for child protection. Under section 47 of the Children Act 1989, local authorities have a duty to investigate allegations of abuse, including sexual abuse. However, there seems to have been a shift in the Department of Health's approach to child protection following the publication of the document entitled "Messages from Research". There is widespread promotion of a lighter touch, and although I can understand that approach in relation to the debate on smacking, I am not sure how it will operate in terms of allegations of sexual abuse, or how a new severity criterion might operate, especially as, alongside that, messages seem to be emanating from the Department of Health about introducing a substantiation criterion.
The document "Messages from Research" notes that some types of allegation are rarely substantiated and suggests that they might be pursued or dealt with under the "in need" rather than the child protection procedures. The most common form of unsubstantiated allegation is sexual abuse. Perpetrators are fully aware of the difficulty of proving that sexual abuse has taken place. Indeed, some paedophiles target lone women with small children for that very reason.
Irrespective of the message from the Department of Health, the Children Act continues to place a duty on local authorities to investigate. To enable a lighter touch, there would need to be changes to that Act. I warn the Government against any attempt, arising from an ideological war with local authorities, to weaken child protection procedures in the area of sexual abuse. The losers would be children and the gainers would be the abusers.
What discussions have Home Office Ministers had with colleagues in the Department of Health to ensure departmental consistency? There is little point in a Home Office Bill to increase protection for children if Ministers in another Department undermine the procedures that detect that abuse, enable convictions and protect the public by a national register.
We welcome the Bill's principles and its aim of giving children better protection from those who would sexually abuse them, but it can be effective only as one of a number of measures. A commitment to the protection of children cannot be judged solely on fine words. In every aspect of government and in every Department there must be effective legislation and procedures.
I am pleased that we have had an opportunity to discuss the Bill, and I am encouraged by the commitment of hon. Members in all parts of the House to the need for firm and effective action to tackle the scourge of sex offending, particularly that involving children.
Those who spoke in the debate included my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor); my right hon. Friends the Members for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts) and for Selby (Mr. Alison); my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and for Blaby (Mr. Robathan); and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence). Opposition Members who spoke included the hon. Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd), for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) and for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson). The number of hon. Members who spoke shows the great interest that the debate engendered. I am sure that the Bill will continue to engender such interest as it proceeds.
Nothing could be more hateful than sexual offences against the most innocent and vulnerable members of our or any other society, and the Bill contains important provisions for tackling the problem. It responds to widespread public concern. Many will be watching our proceedings with interest, and the lives of many others will benefit from the Bill's provisions. Its enactment will mean that the police will have up-to-date information on the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders and will be able to use it for the investigation and prevention of crime.
The registration requirement will also be a powerful deterrent. Offenders will be aware from the moment they register a change of address that the police know about them and have them in their sights. Those who are tempted not to register should know that that would result in the commission of a further significant criminal offence.
The provisions are tough, and we make no apology for that. They will place some offenders under an obligation to report their movements for the rest of their lives, and that is right. Any measure that strengthens the power of the police in tackling the scourge of sex offending, particularly against children, is to be applauded.
I am sorry, but time is too short to give way.
Part II of the Bill is significant. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said in opening the debate, it was my privilege in August to represent the United Kingdom at the Stockholm world congress on the commercial sexual exploitation of children. I was moved by what I heard about such exploitation is some parts of the world and by the determination of everyone present to deal with the problem.
It was clear that we have much to teach others about the investigation of child sexual abuse and the care of child victims in the criminal justice system. I am especially pleased that the Bill will enable us to put in place a key further element in our response to the phenomenon of child sex tourism by extending the jurisdiction of our courts to cover offences that have been committed by Britons abroad.
There is not enough time available to reply to all the hon. Members who spoke. However, I should like to deal with one or two matters. In her winding-up speech, the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) specifically asked about co-ordination and liaison. Not only is there fully developed co-ordination between Departments but there is a good relationship between Departments of State and the non-governmental organisations which were mentioned by some hon. Members. That relationship is important, and since Stockholm I have been keen to encourage it. There will shortly be another meeting with members of the coalition against child prostitution who have worked hard to focus attention on issues relating to international child abuse. By such means we are able to take forward our plans.
I should like to make a slight correction to the comments of the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael). I mentioned in August the Government's decision to extend the jurisdiction of United Kingdom courts to allow trials in the United Kingdom of those committing child sexual abuse abroad. I gave a clear undertaking that the Government would make progress as soon as possible when a suitable vehicle was available. I do not want to trade words with the hon. Gentleman about who said what first, but we have always recognised the importance of these matters. I made that clear last summer, long before some of the dates to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
The hon. Members for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) asked whether it was possible to take account of convictions in foreign courts and to use them as a basis for registration here. To place an obligation on the authorities in respect of those who have been convicted abroad would undoubtedly imply recognition of the judgment of a foreign court. It would also assume that the sentences were compatible with the sentences that would have been imposed here and that the standards of evidence and procedure in the foreign courts were compatible with ours.
Such a recognition of foreign criminal judgments, passed anywhere in the world, would create precedent. Therefore, it is difficult for us to move down that path, although it might be regarded by many as worth considering. Perhaps it could be considered further in Committee. As the House knows, there is compatibility in our extradition arrangements and it is based on the concept of dual criminality. That removes the problems that might otherwise occur in the proposals that have been suggested.
There is insufficient time to deal with other matters that have been raised. Most hon. Members who spoke expressed the wish that the legislation should proceed as quickly as possible. I agree, and in Committee we shall be interested to hear their further thoughts on improving the legislation, because it is important that it reaches the statute book as soon as possible.
We have had an interesting and informed debate. We have also heard of the determination of all hon. Members who have spoken in this debate to make a real impact on the terrible problem of sex offending. The Bill is an important contribution to efforts in dealing with the problem, and I hope that it will very quickly reach the statute book.