Clause 87 - Notification requirements: travel outside the United Kingdom

Sexual Offences Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 14th October 2003.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

First, I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who cannot be here today. I should like to comment on an issue relating to clause 87 with which she has been closely connected: the concern that convicted sex offenders have had to notify United Kingdom authorities of plans to travel abroad only if they are travelling overseas for eight days or more.

The arguments have been much rehearsed and the Government have made a statement that the period of time will be reduced. That is welcome, because in relation to the sex tourism industry, the issue is one of trying to regulate demand and supply. It is horrifying to see research that suggests that British men are among the top five nationalities to sexually abuse children in Cambodia. I want the Minister's reassurance that the change in the foreign notification regulations from eight to three days will take place as soon as the Bill is passed. Perhaps he could give us an idea of the time horizon, as the longer we take to change the regulations, the longer that sad activity can go on.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

I, too, would welcome clarification about whom this part of the Bill will affect.

I spent time in Heathrow seeing what was happening there. Home Office staff had cleverly intercepted a man who had been convicted but not yet sentenced for a sexual offence and who was travelling abroad with his partner's 14-year-old daughter. The girl was travelling with the consent of her mother—it was a bizarre case. The staff asked whether conditions could be imposed that would prevent sex offenders using even a small gap like that to travel abroad with children.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble). Although I congratulate the Government on the steps taken to reduce the number of days covered by the legislation, I ask whether there is a case for allowing any number of days for travel without an offender's notification. People can travel a great distance in a short time these days; why on earth can we not have a regulation setting out that any sex offender preparing to leave the country has to give notification, however long they are going away for?

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I will get back to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre on that question.

In response to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, we will implement the part of the Bill mentioned from May next year; in other words, as soon as is practically possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North gives an example in which there is some practical difficulty. The interministerial group established by the Home Secretary will follow through the implementation of

the Bill and see how any difficulties or problems can be ironed out. I hope that hon. Members with experience of such problems will raise them so that we can consider them and ensure that the Bill is properly implemented.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

Will the clause apply to people on remand, between conviction and sentence? That was the gap that the man used to take his partner's 14-year-old daughter abroad, at his partner's suggestion. Fortunately the Home Office staff were very skilful and picked up on the strange body language; they then started asking questions, discovered what was happening and stopped it. I would be happy to have my hon. Friend's response later in writing.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My hon. Friend is generous in giving me time to come back to her with a clear answer. My instinctive inclination is to say that we should close that loophole, but we need to be clear. I will confirm that to her.

I understand the motive behind the remark made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre about whether such people should be allowed to travel anywhere. Most people's gut reaction would probably be to agree with him. However, it is important to have a degree of balance and judgment when framing legislation. We feel that we have struck a better balance; a balance has to be struck and we feel that we have got it right.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am not at all clear why we should be seeking to strike such a balance. If someone could travel abroad to abuse a child, why on earth should we allow three days leeway? People can travel a great distance in that time.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 12:00 pm, 14th October 2003

I agree. If it could be shown that the person intended to travel in order to abuse a child sexually, we would take action. The most serious offenders will be subject to arrangements that monitor their conduct and behaviour. However, let me give my hon. Friend a different scenario, which argues for proportionality. What if somebody who has committed an offence so horrendous that it has led to notification is beginning to rebuild their life in a sensible way and has to travel abroad on business as part of their effort to reconstruct their life and become a positive member of the community? If we allowed no travel at all, they would not be able to do that. There must be some balance and proportionality. It was wrong to have had the period of 14 days: we have reduced that to three days, which is a significant reduction, and we think that the balance is now about right.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I was not aware that we were proposing to stop travel. I thought that this clause was about notification. In the example that he suggests, I do not see why somebody who is trying to rebuild their life should not be prepared to give information to the authorities about the perfectly legitimate purpose for which they want to travel abroad.

I visited Romania with UNICEF several years ago, when the welfare and rights of children in that country were in a deplorable state. Bucharest is about three and a half hours away from Heathrow, and paedophiles from this country were travelling to abuse children in that city. Someone who is as determined to abuse children as we know paedophiles are could easily get around the regulations that we are setting out in the Bill. They could go to a country such as Romania, where thousands of children are vulnerable and wide open to abuse by determined people. With all the creditable efforts that are being made to prevent that, I do not see why there is a case for allowing any sort of loophole.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My hon. Friend might not have drawn the same conclusion as me, but it is important to bear in mind the level of compliance with regard to the notification requirements and the requirements for travelling abroad. In relation to notification and registration, we currently have 97 per cent. compliance. That is an encouraging level, but we need to improve on it. That is another reason for proportionality. If we do not have a sensible balance, people may seek to go abroad anyway, in which case we will not know that they have gone abroad and they may pose a risk that we do not even know about.

I completely understand the picture that my hon. Friend paints of the situation in Romania: all Committee members are moved by the vulnerability of the children there. However, for reasons of proportionality and the need to ensure compliance, I ask him to reflect and perhaps to draw the same conclusion as I have.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar

I cannot understand why someone who has turned over a new leaf and is going abroad for a legitimate purpose should have any reservations about telling the authorities what they are doing.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I agree, but my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre was beginning to hint that we should not allow such a person to travel abroad. That is what I understand his point to have been, but it is clear that he wishes to illuminate me further.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I was speaking to clause 87 stand part. I am not proposing that people be prevented from travelling outside the United Kingdom. They should be required to notify the authorities that they propose to travel abroad if they come into the relevant category of convicted sex offenders, regardless of how long their trip might be for—not if they are just proposing to travel for more than 3 days.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I shall reflect on my hon. Friend's comments, and I ask him to reflect on mine.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 87 ordered to stand part of the Bill.