Criminal Conviction Certificates

Orders of the Day — Police Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 19 March 1997.

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Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 4:45, 19 March 1997

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 48, line 33, at end insert— '(5) Any day appointed by an order made under section 135 below for the coming into force of this section shall not be earlier than two years after the coming into force of sections 113 to 127 below.(6) This section shall not come into force until the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament a report containing an evaluation of the effect of sections 113 to 127 below and his assessment of that evaluation.'.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 5, in clause 135, page 59, line 11, after '(1)', insert 'subject to section 112 above,'.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

We now come to a completely different part of the Bill, but one of fundamental importance, which has not been widely enough discussed. It concerns the power under which every employer in the land, for any job of any kind, can require an applicant to produce a criminal conviction certificate. That certificate will be the means of showing whether the person concerned has any unspent convictions.

There are clearly some sorts of work for which it is vital to obtain this sort of information; indeed, it can be vital to obtain even more information, and other provisions in the Bill allow for enhanced certificates to provide information that may be relevant to considering whether a person can be trusted to work with children or the elderly. But that is not what we are talking about here; we are discussing the general provision for criminal conviction certificates.

The amendment would delay the introduction of such general certificates until we had some experience of the working of the enhanced and other higher level certificates.

Outside this House and the Committee that considered the Bill, it has not perhaps been sufficiently appreciated how fundamental a change in our society will be brought about by this measure. Employers, because they have a duty to shareholders or to the organisations that appoint them, may increasingly feel a responsibility to see that no one is admitted to their firms if something on their record might have offered a clue to any subsequent misbehaviour.

Hitherto it has not been the practice in this country to make this requirement. Certainly, some employers have used the existing data protection legislation to get people to bring along the information. That has been one of the reasons for introducing the new provisions, but it could be dealt with in other ways—the Government are still considering the problem of enforced subject access. But the rehabilitation of offenders will be made extremely difficult if everyone with an unspent criminal offence on his record has to produce this certificate.

Many people will give up applying for jobs because they cannot produce a clean certificate. Some will give up because their certificate includes an offence that is irrelevant to their job application. It may be something as minor as a driving offence conviction, even though the job for which they are applying carries with it no responsibility for a motor car.

Another example might be someone who had committed a sexual offence involving consenting males which is no longer a criminal offence but was when it was committed, because it involved someone between the ages of 18 and 21. The Minister has already confirmed that possibility. I drew his attention to the example of someone with such an offence on his record who has completely changed his life style. He might go for a job only to be told that he has to get a certificate. He would then tell his wife and family that he could not get the job because he needed to produce a certificate. "Well, you have never done anything wrong, have you?" say his family. He then has to disclose to them that there is something in his past, not part of his current life at all, which he has put behind him. It may be a matter of quite legitimate privacy, no longer constituting a criminal offence.

Those examples may relate to only a small number of people, but a far larger number will be affected by past mistakes of other kinds. One third of all males under the age of 40, I think, have a criminal offence on their record—a terrifying number—but most of them go straight thereafter and have nothing more to do with crime. We do not want them to apply for jobs with labels around their necks.

The amendment would delay the widespread use of general criminal conviction certificates until we have some experience of using enhanced certificates in posts for which it is clearly necessary to have such information. If we do not do that, we may have a Child Support Agency situation on our hands, with a huge body charged with an enormous task—there may be a huge take-up of those certificates because employers insist on them—with which it cannot cope. It may then start to make mistakes. We all know that the Child Support Agency has mistaken the identity of parents and caused terrible family distress. We do not want that to happen in this case, so let us deal with the urgent problem and see how we get on.

5 pm

General conviction certificates will be a problem in another kind of case, which the Minister has not explained properly. It is the case of an informer who has committed criminal offences but who assists in the prosecution and conviction of people guilty of serious offences and is then given a new identity, and encouraged and enabled to settle in some other part of the country. The practice occurs mostly in Northern Ireland, but it also occurs in Great Britain, and resettlement from Northern Ireland to Great Britain is common.

When that person goes even for his first job, let alone his second, in the new life that the state has determined it is in the public interest to allow him to undertake, he will have to produce a criminal conviction certificate. He has a string of convictions, which, it has been decided, can now be overlooked because of the amount of assistance he has given in putting behind bars people who would pose a real threat to public security in the future. How will that be dealt with, given that there is no provision in the Act?

The obvious and sensible way to sort out those problems is at least to take some time over doing so. Many people who deal with the rehabilitation of offenders are extremely concerned about the provision's total effect. John Monks of the Trades Union Congress wrote to Committee members pointing out that the provision could create a class of permanently unemployable people, many of whom have only offended once, and would be highly unlikely to do so again, particularly if they have steady employment.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe , Kent Mid

When I worked in the criminal justice division of the Scottish Office, some 67 per cent. of all first offenders never offended again. I do not know whether the figure has changed, but it is something of that order.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I, too, recall that figure. I have no other figure to hand. Everybody agrees that getting employment may be the biggest single factor in somebody subsequently going straight, so we must make it easier for people to get employment, not put a barrier in the way. We should confine the barrier to cases where there is a proven need. The Bill contains clauses that do that, particularly in relation to the worrying area of people with paedophile offences working in children's homes. We all realise how urgent it is to take action to resolve a problem that should not have been allowed to build up as it did.

Let us get that system under way before looking at general criminal conviction certificates, and give the body that will introduce those certificates time to prove its effectiveness and competence in the area where urgent need exists. Following the Government's unwillingness to accept my view about criminal conviction certificates generally, the amendment is a constructive suggestion about how we could proceed. We could then make progress in the most urgent area and see how that works before introducing into our society something that will worsen our crime problems, cause great personal hardship and distress, and achieve little value in the process. We may be able to judge the matter more effectively once we have seen how the enhanced certificates work.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael , Cardiff South and Penarth

I have some concerns about the amendment and shall listen carefully to the Minister's reply. Some of the concerns expressed by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) are sensible in terms both of rehabilitation of offenders and of what should be the priorities, but I am not sure that they lead to the delay suggested in the amendment.

The priorities should be clear. The top priority must be the protection of children and vulnerable adults. I hope that the Minister would agree. The provisions of the Bill must be co-ordinated with the requirements of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 and the work of child protection at local level. Careful thought must be given to the way in which we should use the various pieces of legislation, each of which takes us a step further forward.

That is not the only issue that would be addressed by the checks for which the measure provides. A further element is honesty and integrity, which may be important not just to the employer, but to the public. The third element is the situation in the private security industry, which has been a matter of great concern over a considerable period.

We must ensure that employees in the private security industry do not have long criminal records. In Committee I gave an example of employers with a criminal record. A police superintendent told me about a partnership between someone with a record for grievous bodily harm and someone with a record for financial offences. In a business sense they may make a fine team, but in terms of the public interest, they are a dangerous team to run a private security firm. There must be protection against such employers, and in fairness, the industry wants regulation to protect the good name of firms that are doing a good job.

The private security industry is a case where information about a past record, not necessarily involving financial irregularities, is important and should be available as quickly as possible in the form of ordinary certificates, not necessarily the enhanced information that the Bill would make available.

We want the protection of children and vulnerable adults treated as the first priority. Thereafter, there may be a good deal of sense in implementing the Bill progressively, rather than adopting a big bang approach. There are examples of several Government agencies and initiatives where trying to do everything at once led to mistakes in details, which might have been discovered at an early stage but which brought down the entire system. The Minister would be wise to ponder that, and consider the timing of the introduction of the measure.

Part of the suggestion made in the amendment therefore has some attraction, but I am not happy that it specifies a period of two years after the full implementation of one part of the measure. That would narrow down and potentially delay the introduction of provisions in the Bill, with no clear justification. It might be more sensible to reconsider the time scale for implementation. We were not given much detail about that in Committee. Perhaps the matter has not been thought through to the extent that would allow a detailed time scale to be set out for the implementation of this part of the Bill.

For those reasons, I hope that the Minister will reassure us about the way in which the Bill is to be implemented and the amount of thought that has been given to that, without going so far as to accept the specific constraints for which the amendment provides.

Many people are anxious that we should achieve the right balance between the rehabilitation of offenders and ensuring that those with a criminal record who are likely to reoffend do not get into positions where they can prey on the public generally, and on children and vulnerable adults in particular. I have worked with young people who have been involved in offending, and I have had people working with me as a result of good work by the probation service on rehabilitating people after offending.

Individuals with that background can become valued members of society if they are given the opportunity to change their ways and to earn the respect and rehabilitation that should be open to anyone. The task is to get the balance right.

The Bill's implementation could achieve the right balance or it could introduce dangers. I hope that the Minister will say that, like me, he wants to ensure that in building in protections rehabilitation will be achieved, and that the proper balance lies within the thinking through of how we implement the Bill, which is intended to protect and assist the public.

Photo of Mr Timothy Kirkhope Mr Timothy Kirkhope The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I hope that I have been fair to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in responding to the amendments. The amendments would delay the introduction of criminal conviction certificates and it might be suggested that they have been tabled because the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues— this is the impression that they have given—greatly distrust the certificates. The issue has been much debated during the Bill's passage through both Houses.

I wish to assure the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed again that CCCs will not be as intrusive and unwelcome as he suggests. The certificates will be issued only to the individual who makes the application. They will contain only details of unspent convictions, which is entirely consistent with our commitment to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, which has been referred to by the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael). The certificates will enable employers to confirm that the information that they have been given by an applicant is full and accurate.

I would be amazed if employers taking on an employee did not want to be provided with full information about the prospective employee. The nature of the relationship between employer and employee is one of trust. Nothing could be worse than a situation in which an employer was not fully aware of the background of the person he is about to employ.

The introduction of the certificates is likely to be phased in after the introduction of the other two types of certificate. The hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth asked me to ponder about the timing of the introduction, and I have been pondering for some time. It is clear that the fledgling agency should not be flooded with applicants from the outset. I agree that it must be able initially to concentrate on issuing the more important and probably less numerous criminal record and enhanced criminal record certificates.

However, the eventual introduction of CCCs is an administrative matter concerned with workload and timing, and not as the right hon. Gentleman suggested. It will be done when it is considered that the agency will be able to manage the extra work. In all likelihood, it will be phased in at a slightly later time than the other certificates.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe , Kent Mid

I hope that my hon. Friend will take into account the real need for educating employers about the value of the information in the certificates. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has said, the rehabilitation of young men, particularly, often takes place as a consequence of obtaining employment. Many employers have experience of taking on people with one conviction and finding that there is nothing wrong with them. I hope that we shall consider carefully preparing employers for the information that they will be seeking.

Photo of Mr Timothy Kirkhope Mr Timothy Kirkhope The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. It is necessary for employers to take an intelligent approach towards these matters. They do so in the vast majority of cases now with information that they have requested and received. I hope that that attitude will continue when the certificates are available.

I have listened carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman has said but I do not accept that it is necessary for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament an evaluation of the initial success of criminal record and enhanced record certificates before any CCCs can be issued. The introduction of CCCs is not dependent upon the perceived success of the other certificates. These will be different types of checks that will be carried out for very different purposes, and it is unlikely that the effects of criminal record and enhanced criminal record certificates will tell us much about how CCCs will be used.

During the Bill's passage the purpose and nature of all three types of certificate have received full parliamentary scrutiny. We shall, of course, keep the operations of the agency and the extent to which criminal record certificates meet the purposes for which they have been created under review. But by delaying the introduction of CCCs by at least two years, which is the right hon. Gentleman's intent by means of the amendments, we may be delaying the implementation of a new criminal record system that, we believe, will be coherent, cost-effective, transparent and, above all, fair. For these reasons, I ask the right hon. Gentleman not to press the amendments.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 5:15, 19 March 1997

The Minister might have come close to persuading me to withdraw the amendment. He revealed that one of its effects would not be very far from what will in fact happen. He revealed that it is the Government's intention that the enhanced certificates— those dealing with the urgent cases in respect of paedophiles and those who will be employed in residential homes and have access to the vulnerable— must be given priority and that the agency must get on in dealing with them. The introduction of the general conviction certificate is likely to be some time after the enhanced certificates have been dealt with. The two years that is stated in the amendment, which the Minister considers to be a long delay, might well turn out to be reality.

It became clear that I had to press the amendment when the Minister said that there will be an administrative decision. It is not an administrative matter. We are talking of a fundamental change in our society. That will be the position when a prospective employee cannot get a job anywhere without producing a piece of paper showing whether or not he has a criminal conviction. In that way, we have changed our society beyond recognition, and in the process, I believe, we shall greatly impair the rehabilitation of offenders, and especially of young people whose only offence may have been to get into a fight outside a pub at a time when they were less responsible than they have since become. However, they will still have to produce a piece of paper.

We are talking about a profound change and one on which Parliament should decide. We should reflect on the experience of using new and better certificates to deal with the special cases of people whose work is with the vulnerable or who work in the security industry. Let us then decide whether the proposals before us remain particular to certain types of employment or to every person applying for whatever job throughout the country. There is nothing in the Bill that will affect so many people as the provisions that we are now considering. Parliament should return to the issue. I shall therefore press the amendment.

The House divided: Ayes 26, Noes 271.

Division No. 97][5.17 pm
Ashdown, Rt Hon PaddyNicholson, Miss Emma (W Devon)
Beith, Rt Hon A JPaisley, Rev Ian
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Rendel, David
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Carlile, Alex (Montgomery)Skinner, Dennis
Davies, Chris (Littleborough)Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Foster, Don (Bath)Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Harvey, NickThurnham, Peter
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Tyler, Paul
Llwyd, ElfynWallace, James
Lynne, Ms LizWigley, Dafydd
McGrady, Eddie
Maclennan, RobertTellers for the Ayes:
Mallon, SeamusMr. Archy Kirkwood and Mrs. Diana Maddock.
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute)
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)Burt, Alistair
Aitken, Rt Hon JonathanButcher, John
Alexander, RichardButler, Peter
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)Butterfill, John
Allason, Rupert (Torbay)Carlisle, John (Luton N)
Amess, DavidCarlisle, Sir Kenneth (Linc'n)
Ancram, Rt Hon MichaelCarttiss, Michael
Arbuthnot, JamesCash, William
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Ashby, DavidChapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)
Atkins, Rt Hon Robert
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)Clappison, James
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)Clark, Dr Michael (Rochf'd)
Baldry, TonyClarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)Coe, Sebastian
Bates, MichaelColvin, Michael
Bellingham, HenryCongdon, David
Bendall, VivianConway, Derek
Biffen, Rt Hon JohnCoombs, Anthony (Wyre F)
Body, Sir RichardCoombs, Simon (Swindon)
Bonsor, Sir NicholasCope, Rt Hon Sir John
Booth, HartleyCouchman, James
Boswell, TimCran, James
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)Curry, Rt Hon David
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs VirginiaDavies, Quentin (Stamf'd)
Bowis, JohnDavis, Rt Hon David (Boothferry)
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir RhodesDay, Stephen
Brandreth, GylesDeva, Nirj Joseph
Brazier, JulianDevlin, Tim
Bright, Sir GrahamDorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Brown, Michael (Brigg Cl'thorpes)Douglas-Hamilton, Rt Hon Lord James
Browning, Mrs Angela
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)Dover, Den
Budgen, NicholasDuncan, Alan
Burns, SimonDuncan Smith, Iain
Dunn, BobKnapman, Roger
Durant, Sir AnthonyKnight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)
Dykes, HughKnight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Eggar, Rt Hon TimKnox, Sir David
Elletson, HaroldKynoch, George
Emery, Rt Hon Sir PeterLait, Mrs Jacqui
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'ld)Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Evans, Nigel (Ribble V)Legg, Barry
Evans, Roger (Monmouth)Leigh, Edward
Evennett, DavidLennox-Boyd, Sir Mark
Faber, DavidLester, Sir Jim (Broxtowe)
Fabricant, MichaelLidington, David
Fenner, Dame PeggyLord, Michael
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)Luff, Peter
Fishburn, DudleyLyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Forman, NigelMacGregor, Rt Hon John
Forsyth, Rt Hon Michael (Stirling)MacKay, Andrew
Forth, Rt Hon EricMaclean, Rt Hon David
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir NormanMcLoughlin, Patrick
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)Madel, Sir David
Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley)Maitland, Lady Olga
Freeman, Rt Hon RogerMalone, Gerald
French, DouglasMans, Keith
Fry, Sir PeterMarland, Paul
Gale, RogerMarlow, Tony
Gallie, PhilMarshall, John (Hendon S)
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon TristanMarshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Garnier, EdwardMartin, David (Portsmouth S)
Gill, ChristopherMates, Michael
Gillan, Mrs CherylMayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Goodlad, Rt Hon AlastairMerchant, Piers
Goodson-Wickes, Dr CharlesMitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)Mitchell, Sir David (NW Hants)
Greenway, John (Ryedale)Moate, Sir Roger
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)Monro, Rt Hon Sir Hector
Grylls, Sir MichaelMontgomery, Sir Fergus
Gummer, Rt Hon JohnMoss, Malcolm
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir ArchibaldNelson, Anthony
Hampson, Dr KeithNeubert, Sir Michael
Hanley, Rt Hon JeremyNewton, Rt Hon Tony
Hannam, Sir JohnNicholson, David (Taunton)
Hargreaves, AndrewNorris, Steve
Harris, DavidOnslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Haselhurst, Sir AlanOppenheim, Phillip
Hawkins, NickOttaway, Richard
Hawksley, WarrenPage, Richard
Hayes, JerryPaice, James
Heald, OliverPatnick, Sir Irvine
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon DavidPatten, Rt Hon John
Hendry, CharlesPattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Heseltine, Rt Hon MichaelPawsey, James
Higgins, Rt Hon Sir TerencePeacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hill, Sir James (Southampton Test)Pickles, Eric
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (Grantham)Porter, David
Horam, JohnPowell, William (Corby)
Hordem, Rt Hon Sir PeterRathbone, Tim
Howard, Rt Hon MichaelRedwood, Rt Hon John
Howell, Rt Hon David (Guildf'd)Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk)Richards, Rod
Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)Riddick, Graham
Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)Robathan, Andrew
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensb'ne)Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn
Hunter, AndrewRobertson, Raymond S (Ab'd'n S)
Hurd, Rt Hon DouglasRoe, Mrs Marion
Jack, Rt Hon MichaelRowe, Andrew
Jenkin, Bernard (Colchester N)Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela
Jessel, TobySackville, Tom
Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir GeoffreySainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy
Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Jones, Robert B (W Herts)Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Kellett-Bowman, Dame ElaineShepherd, Sir Colin (Heref'd)
Key, RobertShersby, Sir Michael
King, Rt Hon TomSims, Sir Roger
Kirkhope, TimothySkeet, Sir Trevor
Smith, Tim (Beaconsf'ld)Trend, Michael
Speed, Sir KeithTrotter, Neville
Spencer, Sir DerekTwinn, Dr Ian
Spicer, Sir Jim (W Dorset)Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Spink, Dr RobertWaldegrave, Rt Hon William
Spring, RichardWalden, George
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)Walker, A Cecil (Belfast N)
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir JohnWalker, Bill (N Tayside)
Steen, AnthonyWaller, Gary
Stephen, MichaelWard, John
Stern, MichaelWatts, John
Stewart, AllanWells, Bowen
Streeter, GaryWheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Sumberg, DavidWhitney, Sir Raymond
Sweeney, WalterWhittingdale, John
Sykes, JohnWiddecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Taylor, Ian (Esher)Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strangf'd)Wilkinson, John
Taylor, John M (Solihull)Willetts, David
Taylor, Sir TeddyWilshire, David
Temple-Morris, PeterWinterton, Nicholas (Macclesf'ld)
Thomason, RoyYeo, Tim
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Townend, John (Bridlington)Tellers for the Noes:
Townsend, Sir Cyril (Bexl'yh'th)Mr. Matthew Carrington
Tracey, Richardand
Tredinnick, DavidMr. Timothy Wood.

Question accordingly negatived.