In March this year, I was notified by the Home Office on the Friday morning before the Thursday in question that a violent rapist was to be sent to a bail hostel in my constituency. The Home Office expressed regret at the lateness of the notification, but the Minister, Lord Williams of Mostyn—to his credit—arranged to see me at short notice. That meeting took place on the day before the violent rapist was due to come to the Stonnall road bail hostel. I quite understand that he was not able to see me before that, because he had urgent duties in Parliament. He saw me at the earliest possible time.
I was able to make representations about this case. I first raised the issue of the unsuitability of the site as evidenced in the planning inspector's inquiry into an appeal by west midlands probation committee in which the inspector noted that the Home Office guidance note on the location of bail hostels was not met at Stonnall road. I also reminded the Minister of the fear element that was weighed in that judgment and that was subsequently addressed in an appeal by the probation service first to the High Court and then to the Court of Appeal. Both courts found that the inspector had considered those matters appropriately in the context of his responsibilities.
The second point that I raised was about the process of evaluation of placements whereby, in the case of the violent rapist, even the officer then in charge of Aldridge police station did not know that a released category A violent rapist was to be moved into his bailiwick.
My third point was that the category A prisoner in question would, because of his size and colour, not pass without comment in the very homogeneous community of Druids Heath and that his secret introduction into the bail hostel would exacerbate and reinforce the local fears already raised by the management of the bail hostel and by the incidents perceived by residents. Officers of the probation service have attended public meetings and have heard the alarm of local residents, of local councillors and of myself.
Fourthly, I have made representations and expressed concerns about a system of management that could set aside the observations and conclusions of a planning inspector that have significant implications for the original purpose of the building as a bail hostel. Although the planning inspector's approach was upheld in the High Court and Court of Appeal, it was decided to accommodate a man described by one of the senior representatives of the agencies involved in placement as "my worst nightmare". I advised Lord Williams, as I had done the chief probation officer for the west midlands, that I would feel in conscience bound that it was my duty to notify local residents that there may be a danger. I also argued that the appropriate way forward was for the authorities to apply what is known in the United States as Megan's law and to notify local residents of the possibility of an increased risk to the community.
In the event, and to forestall disclosure, the west midlands probation service did not place the released violent rapist in Stonnall road. The Home Secretary and his office were aware of my concern.
Two weeks ago, at 9.49 am on Thursday 28 October, I received a fax from the office of the Minister of State advising me of the arrival that day of a convicted paedophile. This man has spent 39 of the last 43 years behind bars. He was last sentenced in January 1998 to three years in prison for the attempted abduction of a 13-year-old boy. When he was released earlier this year, he broke the conditions of his bail within 24 hours and was subsequently returned to prison to serve a further six months of his sentence. The authorities had, therefore, more than six months to prepare for his release back into the community. Apparently, as in the earlier case I described, they did not think it appropriate to give much notice to the Minister to enable him to notify the local Member of Parliament or to make such inquiries as he may have thought necessary to satisfy himself that the arrangements were suitable.
The Minister has been placed in a difficult position. His office received details of the release very late—on the day before. His private office then faxed me the details—as I said, at 9.49 am on the morning of the release—and the fax was signed by a member of his office and dated the day before. I immediately telephoned the Minister and, when he was notified of my urgent call, he responded as soon as possible, about an hour later, while on a ministerial visit to Feltham young offenders institution.
In the meantime, I telephoned the Home Secretary's private office and advised them that the circumstances of the release that day left me no alternative but to notify local residents of the authorities' decision to place in the Stonnall road hostel a potentially dangerous man. When I spoke to the Minister, I advised him that the timing and the intent of the authorities left me with no alternative but to release to the public his confidential letter.
I then spoke with our most senior local police officer and with the assistant chief probation officer and advised them that I was releasing the Minister's letter. They already knew that I would do that, because of the earlier case of the violent rapist, but the Minister may not have known, because he had had no opportunity to review my previous representations and my stated intent of advising my constituents if the possibility of a danger to them arose. I released the letter, and the authorities directed the paedophile away from Stonnall road bail hostel.
The Home Office issued a press released head "Statement from the Home Office on Dangerous Offenders", thus confirming that the man in question was dangerous. It stated:
It is not Home Office policy to discuss the detailed arrangements for the release of dangerous offenders.
We inform MPs of these announcements where they involve a placement in their constituencies so that they are reassured about the importance attached to public protection, and to assist in ensuring that an understandably apprehensive public are properly informed. We rely on MPs to exercise proper judgement in these matters.
Two paragraphs later, it adds:
The police, probation service and other agencies are experienced and effective in managing the risk posed by the release of dangerous offenders and deal with cases on a routine basis.
One of the most significant problems in managing this risk can be public attention. It is understandable that the public are concerned about the presence of dangerous offenders in their communities. But if those offenders are being managed and monitored by the relevant professional agencies the risk they pose is minimised. The risk to the public is greatly increased if public attention forces offenders 'underground' and out of contact with the public protection agencies.
As the press release contains the most recent formal expression of Home Office policy on notifying Members of Parliament, I should like to ask what it means. When it states:
We inform MPs of these announcements where they involve a placement in their constituencies",
the obvious question is, what announcements? It continues:
so they are reassured about the importance attached to public protection".
In what way can a same-day fax reassure me, or anyone else for that matter, of the importance attached to public protection? The actions of the authorities in the case that I have described provide evidence as to why I am not reassured about the importance attached to public protection. The fact that I am not able to make representations and that a 24-hour curfew may be in place even though a senior police officer is unaware of it undermines confidence in what I am increasingly coming to believe is merely a bureaucratic exercise.
The press release goes on to say that the purpose of the announcements is
to assist in ensuring that an understandably apprehensive public are properly informed.
In what way? The authorities, despite having the power to inform the public in these cases, resolutely, and often indignantly, refuse to do so. Who, then, informs the "understandably apprehensive public"? The police will not; the probation service will not, and Ministers will not.
The release continues:
We rely on MPs to exercise proper judgement in these matters.
If that judgment, as in my case, leads an MP to the conclusion that what I shall call "Megan's law" should apply, and he or she should advise those affected, whom they are elected to represent, the authorities express anger and even outrage to the media. Having denied the Minister the opportunity of notifying the MP in good time, they then round on the MP for notifying his constituents of the possibility of danger or advising them to be more cautious on behalf of themselves and their children.
The notification of elected representatives must mean more than trying to envelope the local MP in a cloak of complicity should anything go wrong. It is intolerable that I should know of such a situation and therefore be able quietly to make arrangements further to ensure my safety or that of those whom I love, while denying my friends and neighbours and those who elected me the same opportunity. Should anything go wrong with what experience has reluctantly led me to conclude is now a rather mechanistic and bureaucratic framework, and a child were abducted or a woman raped, when such a crime might have been avoided if children were accompanied and women warned, would I not be party to a great wrong?
For my part, I believe that it is the duty of the authorities to notify all those affected—those who are at risk if something should go wrong—and not just the MP. That is not only a discretion for Ministers and the authorities; it is a duty, and I would argue that, in this country, it is the right of those who might be affected to be notified. We are warned about burglars, but not about something that might be far more dangerous.
Coming into the Chamber, I received a letter signed by the Home Secretary, which I shall quote because it is
germane and should be a warning to everyone who represents constituents. The letter said:
I am writing to express my disappointment and frustration that you have failed to respect the confidence placed in you by Paul Boateng in his letter to you of 28 October regarding the release of a dangerous offender.
You have on many occasions expressed the concern residents feel about the presence of known dangerous offenders and sex offenders in their communities. That is understandable. Protection of the public is a primary function of the police, prison and probation services. That is why, as you know, great care is undertaken through multi-agency public protection planning by prison, police and probation services to put in place procedures to supervise such offenders on release from prison. The aim is to ensure that the public are properlý protected. This includes, in appropriate cases, arranging 24 hour curfews and surveillance in a suitable probation hostel. If those plans are jeopardised the services may have to resort to alternatives which offer less protection. In extreme cases offenders have to be released without supervision into the community, which puts the public more at risk.
The final paragraph of the letter states:
I believe we acted responsibly in giving you full information in confidence and that you did not act responsibly in betraying that confidence. Fortunately in this case alternatives were found and the public were not put at risk. But they might have been. I am afraid that I can no longer guarantee that you will be notified of any future cases.
That is the Home Secretary's response. I do not blame him for that. It was probably manufactured in the probation unit within the Home Office. I think that there is a symbiotic relationship between captured agencies that now no longer view these matters objectively. How dare the Home Secretary, who clearly has not read his own press release, which talks in some peculiar way about the release of information, say that when there is a threat in the community, he will now deny that information to the elected representatives of that community? That creates a closed, secretive world of bureaucratic administration.
I may sound indignant about the Home Secretary's response, which does not address the responsibilities of elected Ministers to notify and keep informed Members of Parliament if there is a danger within their constituency. The burden of the argument is, as I have made clear, that no one is appropriately notified. In the case of the rapist earlier this year, neither the Minister nor the senior police officer within the division affected by the 24-hour curfew was notified. Much, much worse, in that case, is that not even the inspector in charge of the local police station in Aldridge was aware that a violent rapist who had been released from prison was about to descend on his area.
I am told that this bureaucratic melange is, in the Home Secretary's view, secure and wise. I want women to have the opportunity to close windows that might give access to a rapist, or parents of the young children at the two schools in the vicinity of the establishment to be advised that they may want to walk 11, 12 or 13-year-olds to school. Why is that burden placed on me? It is the duty of the authorities to notify people of such dangers.
The authorities cannot say that my actions came as a surprise. The Home Secretary himself knew that I intended to take action where there was a possible danger to my constituents. Lord Williams of Mostyn knew that. The west midlands probation service knew that. The police authorities, including a representative from Birmingham with responsibility for the matter, knew that. Notwithstanding all that knowledge, the authorities placed the Minister in the position of having to fax me a letter on the morning of the prisoner's release, and they are trying to tell me that the arrangements are secure, suitable and reliable. My experience has led me to believe that all is not well in the management of the probation service in the west midlands.
The Minister will, by this time, know full well the planning history of the case. He will know that a former deputy chief probation officer misled the local councillors about whether Walsall magistrates court and Aldridge magistrates court had specifically stated their agreement that the location was appropriate for a bail hostel. He will also know of the corrective letter from the Walsall magistrates clerk saying that, in the minutes, that agreement had not been given. Such events undermine local attention to the activities of the probation service and the system in which it works. Doubts are justified, and any Member of Parliament would have been concerned.
Those events have taken place over years, and I do not now take at face value what I am told by those who administer the probation service. I know that their task is enormously difficult, but what I am saying applies to every MP who has a prison or a bail hostel in their area. These are not easy decisions, yet it is cast on MPs to take on themselves tasks for which they are not properly prepared. I cannot oversee the work of the probation service and I cannot sit outside the bail hostel to see whether it works; I have to use the eyes and ears of those who live in the immediate area. I live not far from that area.
In the United States, a tragic incident occurred—the murder of a little girl called Megan. She was murdered by a neighbour who, the authorities subsequently acknowledged, had twice been convicted of sexual offences. In New Jersey, laws, based on the old common law, were passed to give common law rights to citizens to be advised of a danger. I shall read "A Citizen's Guide to Megan's Law" which answers common questions about the law. The guide is accessible through the modern media—through the internet and in other ways. The guide states:
What is the purpose of Megan's Law?
Megan's Law is designed to help protect our communities by providing information about convicted sex offenders to law enforcement agencies and, in the case of moderate and high risk offenders, community organizations and the public. The notice will allow communities to take informed and responsible steps to prevent harm.
Are all sex offenders required to register with local police?
Sex offenders who have been released from custody since Megan's Law went into effect on Oct. 31, 1994, are required to register with the police. In addition, offenders who were on parole or probation on the effective date of the law, as well as offenders who have been found to be repetitive and compulsive by experts and the courts—regardless of the date of sentence—are required to register. Some registrants must verify their addresses annually; others must verify their addresses every 90 days.
What types of offenses require registration?
The offenses include aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual contact, endangering the welfare of a child by engaging in sexual conduct which would impair or debauch the morals of the child, luring or enticing and, if the victim were a minor and the offender not a parent, kidnapping, criminal restraint and false imprisonment.
How does the notification process work?
The state Departments of Corrections and Human Services are responsible for informing county prosecutors about the anticipated release of sex offenders. In turn, the prosecutors must determine risk to the community—the likelihood that the offender will commit another crime. Hearings are provided to those offenders who challenge the prosecutor's risk determination or the proposed scope of notification.
Will I always be notified if a convicted sex offender moves into my neighborhood?
Under the law, sex offenders who reside in the community are classified by prosecutors in one of three 'tiers' based on the degree of risk they pose to the public: high (Tier 3), moderate (Tier 2) or low (Tier 1). Neighbors are notified of high risk offenders. Registered community organizations involved with children or with victims of sexual abuse, schools, day care centers and summer camps are notified of moderate and high risk offenders because of the possibility that pedophiles and sexual predators will be drawn to these places. Staff members at those facilities who deal directly with children or victims are provided with information about the sex offender. Law enforcement agencies are notified of the presence of all sex offenders.
What factors are considered in determining the risk of re-offense?
Megan's Law and its guidelines list numerous factors to be considered in weighing the risk of re-offence, including post-incarceration supervision, the status of therapy or counseling, criminal background, degree of remorse for criminal acts, substance abuse, employment or schooling status, psychological or psychiatric profile, and a history of threats or of stalking locations where children congregate.
What information is provided in a notification?
In all three levels of notification, the information provided includes the offender's name, description and photograph, address, place of employment or school if applicable, a description of the offender's vehicle and license plate number, and a brief description of the offense.
How will I be informed?
You will receive personal notification of the location of all Tier 3 (high risk) offenders in your neighborhood that you are likely to encounter. A law enforcement official, such as a police officer, state police trooper or investigator from your county prosecutor's office, will come to your door and provide you with the pertinent information about offenders in your neighborhood.
The guide answers the question
What should I do if I receive a notification"?
Are there any other steps I can take to protect my family?
Yes, There is no law that can ever completely protect us. Adults need to teach children about basic safety precautions. Check with your child's school to determine whether a program is in place to teach children about strangers. Also, check with the school and other locations where your child spends time on a regular basis to determine whether safety precautions are in place.
What am I prohibited from doing?
The prosecutor and the courts are responsible to determine who should receive notice about the presence of a particular individual in the community. You should not take it upon yourself to provide any information you receive to others in the community; that is the job of the prosecutor and local law enforcement. Any actions taken against the individual named in the notification, including vandalism of property, verbal or written threats of harm, or physical violence against this person, his or her family or employer, will result in arrest and prosecution for criminal acts. Vigilantism is not only a crime, it is an action that will undermine the efforts of those who have worked hard to enact this law.
Order. It is not for the Chair to stop an hon. Member who has initiated an Adjournment Debate, but it is normal courtesy to allow the Minister some time to respond. An Adjournment Debate is an occasion when Back-Bench Members can seek explanations from Ministers. However, the matter must be left entirely to the judgment of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd).
I have three minutes in which to respond to the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). He well knows that all Members of the House are concerned about dangerous offenders and sex offenders being accommodated in their constituencies. As he has acknowledged, he is also aware of the complex considerations that have to be made, and the difficult and delicate balance that has to be achieved, by the police and probation services in coming to decisions on the placement of such offenders.
The hon. Gentleman is aware that we, at the Home Office, take extremely seriously our role of ensuring that the risk to, and the protection of, the public are at the forefront of the minds of all those in agencies who make decisions on the placement of individuals in probation hostels. No one has taken more seriously than my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary his role of ensuring that public protection comes first on all occasions, in relation to dangerous offenders—especially sex offenders. My right hon. Friend initiated the special arrangements that now exist to advise and inform Members of decisions made about dangerous individuals who may be placed in their constituencies. None of my right hon. Friend's predecessors has taken as much care, and given as much attention to the problem as he has done. I hope that the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills will give the Home Secretary credit for that. The hon. Gentleman nods his head. He will also appreciate that the Labour Government introduced the Sex Offenders Act 1997 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. We have set up systems to ensure that the police and probation services work more closely together than was previously the case on risk assessment for offenders inside and outside prisons. All that was designed to protect the public.
However, none of those measures will effectively secure the public interest if we cannot be satisfied that dangerous offenders are placed in hostel accommodation only when the necessary arrangements to protect the public are in place with the local police and probation services—occasionally with the local health service. In the full glare of publicity, that is seldom—if ever—the case. Through the hon. Gentleman's conduct of this particular case, he—