Clause 21

– in a Public Bill Committee at 5:45 pm on 10th February 2009.

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

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I am sorry, we have been making such good progress that we are going faster than I can read my writing. That is a doctor’s issue rather than anything else. I have a question about clause 21, which is designed to disapply the time limit in relation to orders made under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. An application for such an order is made to a magistrates court. Under section 127 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980, a court is prevented from hearing a complaint unless the complaint was made

“within six months from the time when...the matter of complaint arose.”

The explanatory notes suggest that such orders do interfere with the right to respect for family life, but because the orders are preventive not punitive, and given the existing safeguards, those interferences are justified. However, the change to the current regime has the potential, as I understand it, to weaken the existing safeguards by—this is my reading—permitting applications for orders to be made in respect of events that have taken place more than six months previously. Potentially, that would allow an order to be made at any point after the initial conviction or caution, even if that conviction or caution was from many years ago.

The position is not entirely clear to me. I would be grateful if the Government confirmed whether what I have described is their intention and, if so, whether disapplication of section 127 is necessary. For example, is there any evidence of cases in which, because of section 127, the authorities have been unable to seek orders because of the six-month time limit? I hope that that is clear. I am asking for clarification only.

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

The UK has one of the most robust systems for managing sex offenders in the world and the Government are committed to strengthening that system further by ensuring that anyone who poses a threat to our society or children is dealt with as firmly as possible.

Part 2 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 creates a number of civil orders. The aim of the orders is to protect the public or specific members of the public from sexual harm. The amendment clarifies the law in relation to applications for those civil orders. It confirms that the six-month time limit in section 127 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 does not apply in relation to such applications.

Let me give the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon an example. When the police apply for a foreign travel order restricting an offender’s travel abroad, they must show that the offender’s behaviour since conviction makes it necessary to make the order for the purpose of protecting children generally or any child abroad from serious sexual attack by the offender. If section 127 applied, some of the evidence used to show that the offender posed a risk would have to come from the previous six months. That could pose problems in relation to certain sex offenders who are in custody or coming to the UK after being convicted abroad, as there may be little evidence of any concerning behaviour during the previous six months, although the police may still be concerned that their past behaviour indicates that they pose a high risk. Expressly disapplying the time limit will make it clear that the police can apply for such orders whether or not they have evidence of relevant behaviour in the last six months.

It is important that in appropriate cases we can restrict the activities of offenders who are released from prison or return to the United Kingdom following conviction abroad for sexual offences without having to wait for further evidence of risk to arise. We must take the initiative and be proactive to prevent harm. The change that we are proposing is supported by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, to whose work I pay tribute.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I was not aware that I had a right of reply in a clause stand part debate.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

You are quite right. I was so used to you replying.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 21 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.