Clause 90 - Young offenders: parental directions.

Sexual Offences Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 14th October 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield 12:00 pm, 14th October 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 375, in

clause 90, page 45, line 37, leave out paragraph (b).

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 376, in

clause 90, page 45, line 37, after 'must', insert

'take such steps as are reasonably practicable to'.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

The clause places burdens on parents, or those acting in a parental capacity—having parental responsibility—in relation to the notification process. I am aware that our law imposes many burdens on parents and some of those have criminal sanctions attached to them. I am, however, bound to say to the Under-Secretary that I am a little bit concerned about how the clause has been put together.

Under 90(2)(b) a requirement is placed on the parent not only to carry out the notification procedure where there is a young offender—anybody under the age of 18—because they have a parental responsibility, but to ensure that

''the young offender attends at the police station with him, when a notification is being given.''

If there is a failure to do that, we go to clause 92, under which a failure ''without reasonable excuse'' could be met by summary conviction, or indeed conviction on indictment, for a term not exceeding five years. If somebody had the misfortune to have a young sex offender in the family, there may be many instances in which it would be difficult, if not impossible, to secure the attendance of that young offender at the police station at the parent's request. For that to result in potentially draconian criminal sanctions raises a question about whether we have got this section right.

Forgive my being pedantic, but I dislike clauses being written in the manner in which clause 90 is written. The words ''must ensure'' in clause 90 are

qualified in clause 92 with an exoneration of ''without reasonable excuse''. What does that mean in this context?

The first of my two probing amendments would delete 90(2)(b), thereby removing the burden on the parent to ensure that the young offender attends at the police station. It is all very well imposing duties on parents, and I accept that there is a duty on parents to tell the police if a young offender who is their child or a person for whom they have responsibility is moving to another address, but to compel them to bring that young offender to the police station is a step too far.

The second amendment, No. 376, would make it explicit that all that is required of the parent is to take all reasonably practical steps to ensure that the young offender personally attends the police station. It would spell out explicitly in the Bill the degree of parental responsibility. Many questions remain to be asked about such matters. It would help if the Minister would tell us who has parental responsibility and how far that extends. It would also help if he would explain the defence of ''without reasonable excuse'' and what facts would constitute an exoneration. For example, let us imagine that I told my 17-year-old to come with me to the police station to register and he told me to get lost or used stronger language than that. Is that a reasonable excuse for not producing him at the police station?

Moving on from there, is it right to impose a burden on a parent in such circumstances? Is it right that the parent should be included potentially in draconian sanctions amounting to up to five years imprisonment on a trial on an indictment? I have asked many questions, but it would be extremely useful if the Minister would explain the Government's approach.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking 12:15 pm, 14th October 2003

The clause deals with persons with parental responsibility. Will the Minister cover the position of certain people who might have parental responsibility? First, let us consider a young person who has come to this country from abroad. He has no parents here, but is looked after by a grandparent, an older cousin or a brother. What is the exact extent of parental responsibility in such close relationships?

Secondly, what of those young people who do not have parents, but who are under the supervisory care of a local authority? What will be the exact position of a local authority officer who effectively has parental control?

Thirdly—I now come to a frequent occurrence—what is the position of a young man from Hong Kong or Korea who is a border at a school in this country? He or she sees his or her parents once or twice a year and, when in this country, is entirely under the supervision of the headmaster of the boarding school. Is there a requirement on that person?

Fourthly, can the Minister give me one example of an offence under the clause by a person with parental responsibility that could merit five years imprisonment on an indictment?

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

I am, as always, grateful to the hon. Member for Woking for asking such precise questions. As for what parental responsibility means and who will be caught by it, it has the same meaning as that under the Children Act 1989. For example, I could easily understand the role of the natural parent or a guardian, whether the person is a grandparent or other relative. The hon. Gentleman raised some important issues, such as the position of a foster-parent, a social worker or whoever is appointed to be responsible for the child. I want to satisfy myself on some of those questions. They are fair, and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman in response to them.

We need to be clear that the practical implication, were the amendments accepted—although I acknowledge that they are probing—would be that the young offender in question would not be required to go to the police station with their parent when the notification was made on their behalf. There are very important reasons why the young offender should go to the police station with the parent, not least the need to take fingerprints.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

Let me make it clear to the Minister that I fully appreciate the desirability of the young person going to the police station with the parent. My concern is the draconian imposition on the parent of ensuring attendance in circumstances where, in practice, it might prove very difficult to exercise parental authority to bring that about.

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

I have some sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says, and I shall come to that in a minute. Just to return to the practicalities, it is important to get on the record the point that I was making in terms of fingerprints and photographs. During the course of a year a young person's appearance may change as they mature. It is important to have as up to date a record as possible.

I have sympathy with some of the arguments that the hon. Gentleman advanced, particularly on amendment No. 376, but that amendment is not necessary because, as he demonstrated in his argument, a parent who fails to comply with clause 90(2)(b) will commit an offence only if they do not have a reasonable excuse for doing so. Failure to ensure that a young offender attends a notification will not be pursued by the police where the parent has made all efforts to ensure that the offender attended. The key point there is to have made all efforts. Clearly, if an incident is a one-off where the child dismisses the parent and says that they are not prepared to co-operate on that one occasion, that will not be a sufficient excuse because there is clearly a relationship of control and discipline there that would ordinarily mean that the child would accompany their parent to the police station. If, however, there is a complete breakdown in the relationship, the parent has a fair defence. Where the parent has lost control of the young offender, or the offender ceases to be their responsibility, they can, as can the police, apply for the parental direction to be varied or discharged.

We take very seriously the burden, as the hon. Gentleman put it, that we are placing on parents here. It has a practical use. We do not want the message to go out that young people need not bother to turn up

with their parents. It is essential that they do. Where the situation has irretrievably broken down, there is a defence for the parents. I hope that in light of those reassurances the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

I am grateful to the Minister for his assurances and I shall not press the amendments. Perhaps I have a rather old-fashioned view. I am mindful of the fact that parents have responsibilities towards their children, but those do not historically tend towards acting as the agent of the police in ensuring compliance with criminal court sanctions, and having potential criminal penalties visited on them for non-co-operation. That makes me slightly uneasy. I accept the Minister's point that there is a reasonable excuse provision in clause 92, but it still causes me some concern and I hope that the Minister can satisfy me on that.

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

I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman's view of parental responsibility. I should have thought that it was the duty of a parent, as far as possible, to ensure that a young person complies with the requirements of the court. Would it not be an important indicator to the relevant authorities if a parent were not able to exercise sufficient control over a young person who had been convicted of serious offences? Could it not give rise to the thought that problems and further offending might arise in future with that young person?

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He will see that I specifically targeted the issue of the parent ensuring attendance. If a parent has responsibility for a child under the age of 18, and the family moves house with that young person, I see no difficulty in having a requirement on that parent to ring up the police to say, ''I am informing you that my son who has a conviction for a sex offence and is on the register has moved from A to B. I have told him to go down to the police station—indeed, I will take him there—but he says he will not come.'' I have no difficulty with that burden.

However, the wording of clause 90 puts a mandatory duty on a person to ensure their child's attendance at a particular place and at a particular time. That is a curious requirement in the context of the enforcement of the criminal law. I acknowledge, as I did when I moved these probing amendments, that there is the defence of reasonable excuse. I expressed some dislike of the drafting—the clause says one thing, but there is a caveat in another clause. I have raised that point in discussion of previous legislation, but I am told that this is the modern practice with which we must live. Notwithstanding that, clause 90 still makes me uneasy. I appreciate the desirability of young people attending at the police station, and of parents co-operating with the police, but it is the stark wording of clause 90(2)(b)—''the parent must ensure''—that I dislike. Words matter in the drafting of legislation. I have raised my concerns with the Minister, and as I do not disagree with the clause's intention, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 90 ordered to stand part of the Bill.