Sex Offenders

– in the Scottish Parliament at 3:00 pm on 7th June 2007.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 3:00 pm, 7th June 2007

The next item of business is a debate on sex offenders.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 3:01 pm, 7th June 2007

It is appropriate that we should debate the subject of sex offending at such an early point in the life of the new parliamentary session. It will send a clear message that protection of the public is of the highest importance to Scotland's Government.

I hope that today's debate will also signal that this is an area on which Parliament can come together, and I hope that we can secure broad support for the way forward. We have an early opportunity to do that by building on the strong foundations that were laid by the previous Administration, by building on the cross-party agreement that was reached by the Justice 2 Sub-Committee on which I served, and by building on the common ground that was agreed at my meeting last week with the First Minister and the Conservatives.

Tackling the dangerous offender in our midst is not the prerogative of one party, but the duty of everyone in Parliament. Solutions do not lie just with Government—they must emanate from society. That said, we wish to travel in a certain direction and our policies and proposals will be subject to full and rigorous scrutiny in the days and months to come.

We acknowledge the work that was done by the Justice 2 Sub-Committee and Professor George Irving. It laid the groundwork and there is no need to replace the strong foundations that are already firmly in place. The context for today's debate is, therefore, that I want to build on those past achievements and drive matters further forward.

I also want us to acknowledge that the problem lies with a small group of highly dangerous offenders. They are few, but they are predatory and devious. More often than not, they operate within a trusting relationship, as a family member or masquerading as a friend, and turning what should be a place of safety into a place of abuse and harm. That is still a greater danger than a random attack by a stranger. Those hard facts emerged from the four major reviews of sex offending that were held in Scotland during the past six years, each of which have led to much the same conclusions, which have fashioned what we have done, what we are doing now and what we will do in the future to protect the public.

As a Parliament, we have legislated to tighten the granting of bail for sex offenders. We have given our courts new powers—through the order for lifelong restriction—to impose a strict lifetime regime of supervision and monitoring on those who pose the highest level of risk to our communities. I will not hesitate to ask Parliament to enhance those powers if needs be.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

Mr MacAskill will remember the tragic murder of Karen Dewar by Colyn Evans. Colyn Evans had committed many crimes while he was under the age of 16 and was under the supervision of a children's panel. Will the minister consider the case to see whether we should be targeting people who have committed sexual offences even though they are under the age of 16?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I am aware of Ms Marwick's long-standing interest in that tragedy. We now have multiagency public protection arrangements—MAPPAs—and risk management authorities. I will be more than happy to raise with them the matter that Ms Marwick raises, to ensure that there are adequate powers, and that gaps that may have opened over the years can be closed.

As I said, we have given our courts new powers through the order for lifelong restriction, but we have to move on from that. We have also strengthened the operation of the sex offenders notification scheme, in line with Professor Irving's report. As from 20 April this year, Scotland's eight police forces have incorporated into their standing procedures a new warning system about sex offenders. The system sets decisions about the disclosure of identities into an overall plan for managing the risks that are posed by individual offenders and for protecting children and communities. We will closely monitor how the new system beds in and operates—although notifications there can be, and notifications there must be, in some circumstances. For the future, we will also explore how the warning scheme can be enhanced; for example, there is the traffic-light model, as set out in the SNP manifesto.

From April, the new MAPPAs came into operation. They provide the framework for police, local authorities and the Scottish Prison Service to assess and manage the risks that are posed by sex offenders, and they ensure proper structures and a consistent approach to managing offenders across agencies throughout the country.

Ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom, our national accommodation strategy for sex offenders sets the framework for housing providers and criminal justice agencies collectively to address the very difficult problems that are posed in finding safe accommodation in the community. Already, new technologies such as VISOR—the violent and sex offenders register—allow our police, and now our criminal justice social workers, to access comprehensive and up-to-date information on sex offenders across the whole UK, which puts the sharing of appropriate information at the very heart of our strategy. The Parole Board for Scotland is using electronic tagging to tighten the licence conditions for some of the highest-risk offenders when they are released from prison.

Detection methods have improved and conviction rates have risen, and we should not forget that most sex offenders comply with registration. However, compliance alone is not a guarantee of non-offending. I will not forget, despite the progress that has been made, that there have been recent and past tragedies—one of which Ms Marwick mentioned. There have been cases that show why we must remain ever-vigilant to protect our communities. We must send a clear message to every sex offender in the land: if they are given the right to be released, they must take responsibility for their own actions. On the few who fail to comply, we will crack down with the full force of the law. Those who are given rights have consequent responsibilities.

The previous Administration and the Justice 2 Sub-Committee had already agreed that it was appropriate to publish photographs of missing sex offenders on the internet and elsewhere. Today I reaffirm that, if a sex offender goes missing and fails to comply, the response will be tough. We will give the police and local procurators fiscal all the support and powers that they need to track those offenders down.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

Will the cabinet secretary outline what powers that do not exist at the moment will allow the police and fiscals to do that? They already have those powers.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Sometimes the issue is not simply about powers but about working smarter and working together, and about the MAPPAs. Mr Purvis was on the Justice 2 Sub-Committee and is aware of the issues. As in the tragic case of Margaret Ann Cummings, sometimes the issue is not about powers but about ensuring that we have joined-up thinking between the agencies.

However, I say on behalf of the SNP Government that if there is a need for powers, we will ensure that those powers are provided. At the end of the day, we are dealing with a devious and dangerous minority who are highly manipulative—we will not stand on ceremony about whether their rights might be impinged upon. If our police and authorities require powers, they will get them. Where appropriate, and subject to guidance from the police and the Crown, that includes publication of photographs on the internet or elsewhere.

We will review systems and guidelines to ensure that suspects who are alleged to have committed sexual offences are identified effectively and are apprehended as quickly as possible. With our enforcement agencies, we will look at opportunities that are offered by new technology, such as satellite tracking and polygraph testing. Developments to enhance public safety are being trialled and tested elsewhere and although they might offer opportunities, we need to remember that they cannot guarantee absolute security. Only through perpetual vigilance by all individuals, Government and relevant agencies can we seek to offer protection.

I recognise the distress caused by these most dreadful of crimes and I pay tribute to the victims who have borne their burdens with dignity. We owe it to them to work together for the common weal.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

Will the minister clarify his view on the use of DNA samples, as proposed by Paul Martin and Labour? I am not sure whether the minister plans to address that in his speech.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I will be happy to listen to any proposals from Margaret Curran's party. I am aware that the previous Minister for Justice put on record that she felt that the balance on that matter was accommodated in current legislation that was passed by Parliament. If the member wishes to make proposals, I will look at them with interest.

The Government understands that the DNA of those who are charged with serious sexual and violent offences but not convicted is retained for up to three years, which may be extended by application to the sheriff by the police. Our position is that three years seems rather arbitrary. If Margaret Curran wishes to vary that, we are open-minded about considering it. If she suggests that we should look at how to make it simpler for the police to deal with DNA samples without going through the sheriff, we will consider it. However, if Margaret Curran is saying that the DNA of someone who is charged with a minor offence and who has a routine sample taken should be retained, that would overturn the balance.

As we said to other Opposition members, we are happy to meet Labour members to discuss their ideas. I invite them to formulate their proposals.

We reaffirm our absolute determination to do everything that we can in Parliament and elsewhere to make Scotland safer and more secure.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour 3:13 pm, 7th June 2007

I welcome the debate. It is appropriate on this occasion that there is no motion because that gives us the opportunity to work together. However, there will be healthy differences of opinion on some matters, which we can interrogate carefully.

The Labour Party's position on sex offenders has been consistent: precedent should take over when it comes to the safety of our communities and we are absolutely unequivocal about that. We will leave no stone unturned to make sure that that policy is delivered. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Justice 2 Sub-Committee, which was convened by Jackie Baillie. The minister and other members who are in the chamber today played a crucial role in making 33 comprehensive recommendations on managing sex offenders. We ensured that the petition that my constituent Margaret Ann Cummings brought to Parliament under very difficult circumstances was given serious consideration during the sub-committee's proceedings.

As I have said, it is important that we ensure that the recommendations that have been made are implemented and that the previous Government's press releases are not simply recycled. It is more important for the current Government to ensure that those recommendations are advanced. We will hold it to account on that. As we have said consistently—I made this point to Cathy Jamieson, so it is not an issue of political affiliation—we must also ensure that the recommendations are resourced. Looking for offenders who are missing requires resources, so we must ensure that appropriate resources are made available.

Labour members feel that it is extremely important that we work with our United Kingdom colleagues on sex offenders—that is a vital aspect of the work that we must do. When it comes to the management of registered sex offenders, there can be no opportunity for those whom I have described as the most dangerous individuals on the planet to take advantage of the constitutional and legal differences that exist north and south of the border. Given that we must ensure that a consistent system is in place throughout the UK, I ask the minister to advise us when he will next meet his UK counterparts to ensure that we work with our colleagues in dealing with—

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

As the member was not privy to the phone call that I took from the Lord Chancellor this morning, I am happy to say that although I and other members of the Government accept that there is a difference in constitutional views on how matters should be progressed in the UK, we acknowledge our shared geography and the requirement to work together to ensure that the islands on which we live are safer and more secure. I have had discussions with the Lord Chancellor and I look forward to meeting him and other UK Government ministers.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

I genuinely welcome that co-operation; the minister did not have to be defensive. We look forward to hearing the outcome of those discussions. Anecdotal evidence from previous cases shows that offenders such as Peter Tobin have taken advantage of the existence of different systems in different parts of the UK, so it is important to ensure consistency. We look forward to finding out about proposals on how we can work together in the UK.

I turn to some of the Tories' proposals and their recent announcements on three issues in particular—the first of which is satellite tracking of registered sex offenders. We welcome that measure, which was announced by David Blunkett in 2004. Three pilots took place in 2004 and we hope that during the discussions that take place efforts will be made to ensure that pilots are rolled out in other parts of the UK. Of course we welcome the use of satellite tracking systems, although it is important that we ensure that they will be effective.

As regards what has been described in the media as the naming-and-shaming websites, we welcome the introduction of a system to ensure that communities are made aware of the identity of the people whom I have described as the most dangerous individuals on the planet. However, such a system is already in place: Crimestoppers already provides an opportunity for us to expose such individuals. A representative of Crimestoppers to whom I spoke this morning informed me that that organisation would be happy to develop the existing portal and that such a system could be introduced in Scotland very quickly. I understand that discussions took place with the previous Scottish Executive and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland to ensure that that is possible. A system that will ensure that we can expose the relevant individuals when they are at their most dangerous is already being delivered.

Lie detectors are another measure that David Blunkett introduced in 2004. He made it clear that although they would serve a purpose in acting as a deterrent, they could not—understandably—be used during court proceedings. On that basis, Labour members welcome the Tories' proposal.

Another important piece of work by the Justice 2 Sub-Committee was consideration of how best to manage a housing strategy for registered sex offenders. People were concerned that there was no coherent strategy. I know from discussions with the previous Minister for Justice that it was intended that an action plan would deliver a strategy to ensure that we managed sex offenders rather than their managing us, which was the previous protocol.

Retention of DNA samples was discussed earlier. I appreciate that there is no consensus among members on that issue, but the Labour Party is determined to give our communities added protection—we are motivated by that determination.

We talk often about how best we can minimise the risk from sex offenders. In line with our manifesto commitment, we said that we would revisit the issue of DNA retention. I raised the issue, in fact, during the course of the Police, Public Order and Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill last year. DNA retention can undoubtedly be a useful tool in detecting sex offenders and in preventing sex offences.

We are willing to develop the use of satellite tracking, lie detectors and naming-and-shaming websites for sex offenders, so I do not believe that DNA retention, which has been carefully tested, is a civil liberties issue. The law lords considered the issue in detail and made it clear that DNA retention does not contravene human rights. We therefore welcome the cabinet secretary's statement that he will revisit the issue of DNA retention.

When I consider civil liberties—I make no apologies for saying this—I also consider the civil liberties of Mark Cummings and Angelika Kluk. We should bear that in mind when we consider whom we represent. The debate has been effective and we hope that it will help to progress the issue.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Before I call Bill Aitken, I remind members, particularly new members, that all mobile phones must be switched off—that includes BlueBerrys.



Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Whatever. You know what I mean.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 3:22 pm, 7th June 2007

It is apparent that this is a consensual debate and it is appropriate to acknowledge and pay tribute to the considerable amount of work that has been done on the issue by previous parliamentary committees and, indeed, by the previous Justice Department.

It is important to stress that the incidence of sexual offending in Scotland is no greater than it is in other countries, so we should not be alarmist, although we must never be complacent. As Paul Martin said, we owe it to the victims to do everything possible to minimise the occurrence of sexual offences. Such offences can ruin lives and traumatise families. The offence does not affect only the victim; the effects are more widespread, which is why we must apply our minds to dealing with this exceptionally dangerous problem. There may be few incidences of it, but their impact is enormous.

Where do the main dangers lie? Sadly, the cabinet secretary was correct to point out that the majority of incidences of sexual assault on young people arise in the home—sometimes by parents and frequently by a favourite uncle or family friend. That is a depressing prospect and it is difficult to deal with that type of case.

However, we can certainly deal with cases in which people who were previously convicted and jailed for serious sexual assaults are back out on the streets and seeking to reoffend. The incidence of reoffending by that type of criminal is high indeed. As the cabinet secretary said, they are devious and cunning and will stop at nothing in trying to satisfy what they see as their right to interfere with young children. The proposals that I made to the cabinet secretary last week are common sense, so it is pleasing that there appears to be almost unanimous support for them, subject of course to the necessary inquiries being carried out into the effectiveness of the technology. We await with interest the results from the initial pilot scheme down south.

Let us be clear what we are talking about: members, particularly Labour members, will have heard me waxing eloquent about the rights of the individual—I am absolutely a due-process man. However, we are talking not about a presumption of innocence but about dealing with people who have already been convicted and sent to prison for such offences. If they fail to register or to comply with registration requirements, under the law they are guilty of an absolute offence, just as someone who breaches bail is guilty of an absolute offence. There are very few defences for such failures to comply. Obviously, if a person who is released from prison has an accident or suffers from an illness in the three-day period within which they must register, that would be accepted as an explanation, but no other circumstance could reasonably be construed as justification for failure to comply with registration requirements.

Under existing legislation, we allow such people a degree of anonymity, which is perhaps essential if they are to be allowed to rehabilitate. However, once they stray from the terms of the licence under which they have been released, frankly, all deals should be off and their anonymity should be removed. I accept Paul Martin's point that there are certain existing ways in which the naming and shaming, as the press call it, could be achieved—Crimestoppers, which he mentioned, is the obvious example. However, the existing measures are not strong enough. An idea that came originally from the then Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency is the use of a list of most wanted people. I hate using Americanisms, but I would like to see the use of such a list. The people whom we are talking about are dangerous, so information about them needs to be publicised. Their pictures should be on a website and on television and we should seek the co-operation of the print media in furthering that process.

Photo of Paul Martin Paul Martin Labour

For clarification, the Crimestoppers website already has a portal that is headed "Most Wanted", which provides the sort of details that have been mentioned. Would not it be more helpful to embrace that website, rather than form a new one?

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

The member will be aware that I am a complete technophobe and that such matters are not familiar to me. The member is correct that there is an existing system, but it does not provide the proper degree of widespread publicity that a dedicated and perhaps more dramatic website would provide. I accept that inquiries must be carried out, particularly with regard to lie-detector tests. An operation was carried out in Florida in the United States of America, but the outcome there is, at the moment, indeterminate. However, a system to publicise such people can be put in place in time.

I am encouraged by the tenor of today's debate and I congratulate the cabinet secretary for his willingness to listen. I am sure that by working together and building on what has been done, we can genuinely make Scotland a safer place, particularly for our young people.

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat 3:29 pm, 7th June 2007

I will talk about circles of support. A circle of support, sometimes called a circle of friends, is a group of people who meet regularly to help somebody accomplish their personal goals in life. The members of the circle, who are not usually paid, may include family members, friends and other community members. Circles are about seeing as individuals people who feel that they need support to take more control of their lives. A circle, properly facilitated, is empowering to all the individuals involved and, unlike many service systems, does not reinforce dependency.

By working with sex offenders, circles of support and accountability attempt to help sex offenders avoid further offending. The idea, which started in Canada in 1994 and was developed by the Mennonite community, has been extremely successful. In the United Kingdom, the idea has been championed by the Quaker crime and community justice committee; indeed, a group of Quakers whom I meet regularly raised the question of circles of support about two years ago. Since then, I have continued to pursue the Scottish Executive on the issue and I am delighted that a sub-committee of the Justice 2 Committee highlighted it last year. The sub-committee was set up to investigate and report on the issues surrounding circles of support and sex offending. It reported, and recommended to the Executive that there is considerable potential for circles of support in Scotland.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

While I have no doubt that there is a role for the voluntary sector and more informal forms of support for all offenders, including sex offenders, there are serious concerns about untrained individuals becoming over-involved with a group of offenders who, as we know, are devious. I am concerned that too much reliance on informal measures of support could provide offenders with countless opportunities to manipulate matters and cause more danger to society.

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat

If the member will allow me to continue my speech, she will find that I shall respond to most of her points.

The idea in Canada is that, while they are in custody, offenders who are identified as being at high risk of reoffending and with low levels of support and high levels of need, are matched up with a circle. They become the circle's core member. The initial meeting of the circle is used to draw up a contract of commitment to openness within the circle and confidentiality beyond. All decision making is by consensus. The core member promises that there will be no more victims by his hand and that he will follow the laid-down release plan. A group of people who meet as a circle are trained to deal with such issues. They agree to befriend a released sex offender and offer support and advice, and are encouraged to report signs of inappropriate behaviour.

Circles of support and accountability involving sex offenders were started in Canada about 10 years ago. As it is evident that they have been successful, the Home Office agreed that a pilot project should be carried out by the Hampton Trust in the Thames Valley and by the Lucy Faithful Foundation, which is hosted by the Quakers. The Home Office has now agreed to give a further, and final, fifth, year of funding to the Quaker project, which is based in Didcot. The staff there continue to develop small circles of volunteers, each working with a sex offender after release from prison and supporting them in getting back into life, trying get a job, and the challenges they face. The risk of offenders slipping back towards any risky behaviour or re-offending is monitored closely. That is a positive aspect of becoming involved in a circle: offenders' behaviour after leaving prison is closely monitored, unlike what has happened in some recent tragic cases, when sex offenders have disappeared into the ether.

The first conference on the subject, in November 2006, was jointly hosted by Children 1st and Safeguarding Communities-Reducing Offending, or SACRO. The conference's aim was to explore ways of increasing community involvement in the monitoring of released offenders, with the aim of increasing child safety in Scotland. At the conference was Chris Wilson, who had been involved in the Thames Valley pilot study. The conference was a start; it was very successful and there was a great deal of discussion on the way forward. As Maggie Mellon, the director of children and family services at Children 1st, said:

"As a charity committed to children, we believe that we have a duty to investigate any new approaches which promise greater protection, particularly those that ... involve the wider community in keeping children safe. The statutory agencies, with 9-5 services working out of offices, just can't do that."

There can be no doubt that circles of support have worked well in Canada. Conviction rates have been halved and reoffenders committed less serious offences. On 26 May, The Herald said:

"An evaluation of the English Circles projects shows that, during a three-year period, out of 28 high-risk offenders" being monitored,

"only three had been recalled to prison. None of these recalls was for a sexual offence."

Current research indicates that, in Scotland, many more people than that return to prison as a result of reoffending. The Executive should definitely consider the proposal and I hope that the minister will comment on it in his summing up.

Now that the pilots have proven successful, the Executive should consider funding the scheme in Scotland. I am sure that a considerable number of volunteers from the faith communities—the Quakers in particular—would quickly put themselves forward. In fact, some people in the group of Quakers that I know would offer their services immediately.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Because the Presiding Officer has agreed to take a ministerial statement later this afternoon, I propose to reduce back benchers' speeches to five minutes to ensure that everyone gets in.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party 3:36 pm, 7th June 2007

First, I want to welcome in advance my colleague Gil Paterson back to the Parliament. He is due to speak later in the debate, but those of us who were here in the Parliament's first years will recall his long-standing interest in tackling sexual violence. When he speaks on this matter, he speaks from the heart, and I am sure that we all welcome the fact that his voice is back in the chamber.

For obvious reasons, media interest in sex offenders tends to focus on paedophiles. That is understandable—after all, Sarah's law, Mark's law and Megan's law arose out of child abductions and murders—and the point has been emphasised with the high profile given to the current case of Maddy McCann. We all hope that, even now, she will be found safe and well.

Our desire to protect our children at all costs is totally understandable and no one should apologise for having such a reaction. Much of our concern in that respect focuses on so-called stranger danger, and the proposals for naming and shaming have been triggered by that fear. However, as Kenny MacAskill has reminded us, we still underestimate the extent to which child sex abuse takes place in families. Such a response is very human, because it can be impossible to accept that brothers, fathers, uncles and nephews can be offenders.

Paradoxically, our children can be most at risk when we believe them to be at their safest. That is nothing new. If we speak to older people, we find that child sex abuse was well known—if unacknowledged—decades ago. People who were born in the early years of the 20th century were just as likely to be perpetrators or victims as those who are being born now, but because of under-reporting—or, indeed, because of a failure to take the matter seriously or to acknowledge its occurrence openly—we cannot know for sure the true incidence of such offences at that time. Nevertheless, as I understand it, the current prevalence of sexual violence towards children is no greater than it was decades ago. Echoing some of what Bill Aitken said, I think that we need to remember that.

As with domestic violence towards women, society—and, perhaps more telling, the mass media—has come rather late to the view that such abuse happens; that it can happen even in the so-called best of families; that it is wrong; and that, if it cannot be prevented, perpetrators should be dealt with severely. Our response to the issue has changed and must continue to change; indeed, the cabinet secretary's remarks this afternoon reflect the need for such change to continue to be part and parcel of what we do as legislators.

As Tricia Marwick reminded us, not all sex offenders offend against children. Some are seriously dangerous men who pose a threat to adult women and, sometimes, adult men. They are not paedophiles, but they can be every bit as dangerous. I am pleased by the cabinet secretary's comment that such offenders will be included in the new approach that has been proposed today.

There is, however, one group of offenders that might be more difficult to deal with. I will cite an example from my constituency—and I will do so carefully. As the case is still kind of on-going, I will stick only to what is already in the public domain. Yesterday's Courier carried a report about a man called Robert Basterfield, who has been convicted of two stalking offences against women. He was put on probation on 21 December last year, with monthly reviews. He is seriously dangerous because he simply does not accept that he is not entitled to behave as he does towards women. Such is the concern about his behaviour that the chief constable of Tayside Police, John Vine, has applied for a sexual offences protection order that would ban him for 10 years from being alone with any woman without her consent. That application has yet to be decided.

Leaving aside my personal feeling that if someone is so dangerous that women need that level of protection from him he is perhaps dangerous enough to be taken out of society for the same period of 10 years, there are still questions to be answered. If a protection order is granted that effectively interdicts an individual in the manner suggested, unless there is widespread publicity—including pictures—how will any woman know that the individual is so constrained, even if he is not underground? Short of cutting pictures out of the newspaper and sticking them up everywhere, it seems that the majority of women will never be any the wiser.

I accept that this is not easy. None of us will be able to ensure that images of individuals—whether they offend against children or adults—are in everyone's minds all the time. I echo the tone of comments made by other members. Personally, I would rather not have to think about the matter all the time. Although I recognise that no early-warning justice system can be perfect, will the minister comment in his closing speech on how those who are subject to protection orders will be dealt with under the new regime?

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour 3:41 pm, 7th June 2007

Consistency is indeed an admirable quality, particularly in politicians. I may have had my doubts about Rob Gibson this morning, given his complete amnesia in relation to his time on the Edinburgh Tram (Line One) Bill Committee, but I have no such doubts about Kenny MacAskill. As members are aware, the cabinet secretary was the deputy convener of the Justice 2 Sub-Committee. I am sure that his views in government will be consistent with his thinking when he was a member of the committee.

I remind members of the instructive and rigorous piece of work that the Justice 2 Sub-Committee undertook. It was the first time a sub-committee was used in Parliament. A sub-committee offers a focused way of Parliament dealing quickly but substantively with serious issues. We achieved cross-party consensus on all but one recommendation—I will perhaps say more about that later.

We took evidence from a wide variety of people and agencies, including law enforcement departments in Massachusetts and Florida and, of course, Margaret Ann Cummings, whose son was the tragic victim of a sex offender. I join other members in paying tribute to her for her courage and bravery in pursuing the matter.

The recommendations that we arrived at were, in my view, comprehensive. They covered the monitoring and supervision of sex offenders, the extent to which local communities should receive information on child sex offenders in their locality, how housing should be allocated and the nature of sentences.

The cabinet secretary is right to build on the achievements so far. We have had the Cosgrove, MacLean and Irving reports, which underpin the framework that is now in place to ensure that there is much more robust monitoring of sex offenders. It encourages a more co-ordinated approach to managing the level of risk posed and it will strengthen the existing arrangements for multi-agency working. All of that is to be welcomed.

Members will be pleased to hear that I will not rehearse all 33 of the sub-committee's recommendations, but I ask the cabinet secretary to confirm that he will accept and implement them all because, after all, as deputy convener of the sub-committee he agreed to them all.

First, on community notification, we recommended that when a sex offender absconds or behaves in a manner that might cause alarm, their information and photographs should be published. I believed that that was proportionate and the right thing to do in the interests of community safety. I welcome the cabinet secretary's commitment today to take the recommendation forward, but will he confirm that it also applies to a sex offender who might behave in a manner that, although it is just short of absconding, is nevertheless sufficient to cause alarm or distress?

Secondly, if a sex offender breaches conditions set as part of their inclusion in the sex offenders register, we believed that such a breach should be an offence that is arrestable without a warrant and leads to prison or further prosecution. In other words, if someone breaches conditions they will end up back in jail. Does the cabinet secretary still agree with that recommendation and will he take it forward?

Thirdly, on the power of entry and examination, the sub-committee was clear in its recommendation—albeit by majority—that in cases involving the safety of children, the police should have the absolute power to enter and search without warrant the premises of sex offenders who might be considered to pose a risk. We considered that the safety of the child must be the paramount consideration. Does the cabinet secretary still agree with that and will he take it forward?

If we are to monitor sex offenders properly, we need to ensure that the police, social workers, housing professionals and voluntary agencies have what it takes to enable them to do that. Will the cabinet secretary bring to Parliament the results of the exercise—which the sub-committee asked for—that will be undertaken between the Executive and ACPOS to determine exactly what those additional resources should be? Will he ensure that that determination is reflected in the spending review? We know, from talking to the professionals, that what matters to them is not the extra measures that might be taken but having the resources that will enable the police and social workers to do their jobs properly.

On the retention of DNA samples, I suggest to the cabinet secretary that we simply cannot ignore the compelling statistics that are coming from England and Wales—88 murders solved and 116 rapists brought to justice as a direct result of DNA retention. For the sake of potential victims of murder and rape in Scotland, I hope that the cabinet secretary will consider the matter again.

We have a good base on which to build, but we must remain vigilant. This cannot be the end of the story. We need to consider all ideas, from whatever quarter. If the result is just one less victim of a child sex offender, the Parliament will have done a good job.

Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party 3:46 pm, 7th June 2007

I must declare an interest, as I am a board member of Central Scotland Rape Crisis & Sexual Abuse Centre.

This Parliament has a fine reputation for discussing and working in this area. Both previous Executives were generous with the time they allocated to it, and the parliamentary committees and Opposition parties have been at one in relation to their approach to it, but I have discovered that the effect of that way of working cannot be felt until we go outside the Parliament. I am not suggesting that everyone should lose their seats in order to bear witness to that fact; I am saying that the non-political attitude that has been adopted on these matters is appreciated by people outside Parliament. I am particularly pleased that, today, I am speaking in a debate that is sponsored by a new Executive. That suggests that the tradition will continue, which is most welcome. It needs to continue because, just last week, Jim Gamble, the chief executive of an organisation that was set up to make the web safer for children, said that he does not think that people who are convicted of downloading images of children from the web should be imprisoned. I really appreciate the work that his organisation is doing, but I disagree with that argument.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

I hope that the member does not mind my interrupting his sort of maiden speech. He is right to say that the Parliament has done a huge amount of work in the past two sessions—it certainly did a lot in the session when he and I were not here—but does he agree that, now that we have, absolutely correctly, concentrated on the most serious end of the issue, we need to act in relation to those who are in the very earliest stages of this deviant behaviour and find a way of encouraging them to come in for treatment even before they have offended?

Does the member agree that the appropriate committee should consider that issue and the possibility of establishing some sort of helpline and counselling support so that we can do some preventive work as well?

Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party

I agree with everything Dr Simpson said.

When I read Jim Gamble's statement, I had to remind myself exactly what sort of images we are talking about, so I did a bit of work—without actually looking on the web. Children of all ages—including toddlers and, in some cases, babies—are systematically being abused, raped and humiliated in front of the cameras. They lose everything. Some of the babies effectively lose their lives. Anyone who downloads is as guilty as the person who commits the crime because, to satisfy the people who are downloading, new children must be found and new victims created. That means new abductions and the selling-on of pictures that are used on the web to satisfy those people. To be frank, prison is the best place for them. Peterhead prison, here in Scotland, has a world-renowned facility and a tremendous record on the treatment of serious sex offenders. What we should really be doing is resourcing a new unit away from Peterhead so that we have two centres of excellence for the treatment of serious sex offenders.

I am totally against any form of naming and shaming. All the experts tell us that it drives these people underground, because they have some humanity in them and they feel threatened. They go underground and begin to feel safe; and, when they feel safe, they start the process over again. However, I agree with Bill Aitken that, should they voluntarily give up the right to be protected by the systems that we put in place and not be named and shamed—should they go underground to commit more crimes—all bets are off and any method that we can find to stop them should be used. I sound one note of caution: it must be the experts who handle these individuals—the experts who know them and their circumstances—and make the call for the chain to be pulled.

Photo of Margaret Mitchell Margaret Mitchell Conservative 3:52 pm, 7th June 2007

The management of those who are convicted of sex offences is a complex issue that requires the correct balance to be struck between, on one hand, the protection of children and the public and, on the other hand, the adoption of measures that are sufficiently robust to act as an effective deterrent to the offender without being so draconian that they prove counterproductive and serve merely to drive paedophiles and other offenders underground.

In response to public concern, and in an effort to stop sex offenders simply disappearing into the community once they are released from prison or hospital, notification requirements were introduced UK-wide under the Sex Offenders Act 1997 and were updated in the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Under section 83 of the 2003 act, someone who is subject to the notification requirements—commonly referred to as the sexual offenders register—must register certain details with the police. Those details are then added to their record on the criminal history system—a computerised database that is maintained by the Scottish Criminal Record Office on behalf of the Scottish police forces. Failure to register such information—including date of birth, national insurance number, name, address, passports held and travel details—and any changes to the information within three days is a criminal offence.

Despite the stringent registration requirements, offenders slip through the net, as has sadly been evidenced by recent high-profile cases. So, the question how can the monitoring and supervision of adult sex offenders be improved remains.

It is clear that there is no single, failsafe measure that will magically address the problem. Rather, there are a number of measures that, together, should help to prevent sex offenders disappearing and going on to reoffend. One such measure, which I will focus on, is the proposal that, if a sex offender breaches the notification requirements or any other conditions of their release, they will be deemed to forfeit the right to anonymity. That carrot-and-stick approach and the threat of their identity being revealed will be powerful deterrents to sex offenders who might otherwise contemplate reoffending, especially when they are coupled with other measures such as global positioning systems tracking and the introduction of polygraph testing. Evidence from pilot studies has been encouraging.

In the first four months of this year alone, 100 paedophiles listed on the UK sex offenders register travelled to Portugal. I would therefore be interested to hear the cabinet secretary's view on how European Union member states can ensure that the information that they hold on sex offenders is effectively shared with other member states so that we have sufficient information to prevent offenders going underground abroad.

I will comment briefly on the spirit in which the debate has been conducted and the minority Government's willingness to take commonsense policy suggestions on board. They have not only been good for democracy and devolution, they have transformed debates in the Parliament. The outcome of debates is no longer a foregone conclusion, whereas over the past eight years every suggestion made by the Opposition was systematically voted down by the Lib-Lab pact. The style of government that we have had to date this session is most certainly welcome and good for Scottish politics.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party 3:57 pm, 7th June 2007

The subject of sex offenders, particularly those who abuse children, is emotive. Naturally, the public are enraged when they hear of people such as Peter Tobin being able to evade the law and commit more heinous crimes. I thank the police for all the work that they did to capture Peter Tobin, who had been looked for a number of years ago in Paisley. I was not involved in that instance, but I knew of the incidents there when I lived in the area.

Like Gil Paterson, I was a bit sceptical when I first saw the proposals about tagging and releasing pictures of sex offenders. However, when I looked into the matter, I realised that these people are devious and that we must do something to prevent them from reoffending and evading the law. Therefore, I whole-heartedly welcome the proposals that the minister has outlined.

In particular, I welcome the traffic-light system, which will enable the police and procurators fiscal to act much more quickly than they have done before to inform and protect communities. We are here to protect communities and to ensure that sex offenders do not commit further evil deeds, so I hope that the traffic-light system will be rolled out across Scotland. For too long, the approach of not just the police but procurators fiscal towards sex offenders has been seen by the public as piecemeal. People have seen that the legislation is not particularly coherent and joined up, so I hope that the legislation that the minister proposes will have a much more coherent and joined-up effect.

We need to ensure that the proposed legislation is adequately funded, and I ask the minister to make a commitment in his closing speech to give adequate funding to the agencies that are involved in dealing with sex offenders. Too often, we introduce specific proposals but, when we speak to the agencies that are involved in implementing them, they say that they do not have the funding to do so. I would like a commitment that funding will be put in place.

The minister mentioned housing in the community. Will he consider seriously the allocation of housing to sex offenders to ensure that the housing provided is not near schools or nurseries and that we do not end up with groups of sex offenders in particular areas of the city? Groups of offenders are often housed in the most deprived areas, although I will not name them.

As Gil Paterson said, we are talking about heinous crimes that are committed by people who often groom their victims; I read about an offender who groomed single mothers to get to the children. Most adults would not condone that. Given how serious the issue is, legislation by this Parliament must be considered carefully. Will the minister consider creating a specific sex offender sentence and providing for supervision for life in certain circumstances? As I said, sex offenders try to evade the law and, in certain circumstances, they should be supervised for life if they are not jailed for life, because they are a danger to communities.

Will the minister consider providing for sex offenders to serve at least three years—depending on the severity of their crimes—before they are given a parole hearing, rather than being released automatically? I know that that is a touchy subject among various agencies and politicians alike, but, if we are going to consider the issue seriously, we cannot say that such offenders could be sentenced to four years but be released automatically after two years. That is not acceptable in this day and age, given what is happening in communities.

I ask the minister to take on board my suggestions. If he cannot respond when he sums up, I ask him to send me a letter or to arrange a meeting with me to discuss them.

Photo of Marilyn Livingstone Marilyn Livingstone Labour 4:02 pm, 7th June 2007

I am pleased to contribute to this important debate. As convener of the cross-party group in the Scottish Parliament on survivors of childhood sexual abuse for the past six years, I will take the opportunity to press for continued and increased resources for the victims of sexual abuse—an issue that I raised in two members' business debates in the previous session.

I will concentrate my remarks first on the perpetrators of these crimes. Sex offenders must be regarded as a separate category of high-risk offender. We must ensure that there is consistent sentencing of sex offenders and monitoring of them when they are released into our community if there is to be public confidence.

We must consider urgently the bailing of offenders, on which I would welcome the Cabinet Secretary for Justice's views, because it is of major concern to the public.

Treatment orders will play an important role and electronic tagging will be helpful. What are the cabinet secretary's views on the retention of DNA and what will happen when a community order is breached?

There needs to be continual evaluation of what is working. We need to continue to support the dissemination of best practice, such as the stop it now initiative. What are the Executive's plans for that project?

Can we establish the new Executive's future approach to partnership working? Will its commitment be backed by sustainable funding? I highlight the role of the community justice authorities, which involve social workers, police, the Scottish Prison Service, alcohol and drug action teams, sheriff courts, the national health service and elected members. Fife and Forth Valley community justice authority has launched its plan for 2007-08, which considers in-depth sex offender management in the community that I represent. If its work is to be successful, it will require on-going, sustainable support and funding.

Reoffending rates for sex offenders are high and there is evidence that offenders often become even more dangerous. We must ensure that we protect the most vulnerable in our communities. Lessons need to be learned, but the management of sex offenders must be a priority and we must get it right.

I turn to the work of the cross-party group on survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I welcome the creation of the reference group and the establishment of the survivors fund, with £2 million to pump prime activity. I also welcome the call for bids for demonstration projects. I sincerely thank Malcolm Chisholm, Andy Kerr, Cathy Jamieson and Rhona Brankin for their support during the period of the work that has been undertaken and I thank Margaret Mitchell for her work in the role of vice-convener.

The project culminated in a major conference earlier this year. The SurvivorScotland conference in Airth saw more than 300 delegates from both the statutory and voluntary sectors throughout Scotland discuss the issue. I thank everyone who has supported us, particularly Anne Macdonald, who has also been vice-convener, and all the survivors who have helped us to take the group forward. They are brave people to come forward and tell us their experiences.

We must remember that, as many members have pointed out, the most dangerous place for women and children in our society is in their own home. We need to unpack the complex issues that surround the crimes—prevention, education, help and support—and make people feel that it is not their fault. We need partnerships between the voluntary and statutory sectors. We need to support the Kingdom Abuse Survivors Project in my constituency and the many other projects throughout Scotland that support survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

Too often, people are forgotten when they reach adulthood. That is not well documented and not often mentioned in the public arena. Unfortunately for the victim, the abuse cannot be forgotten. We need to work with individuals who have suffered years of debilitating effects. When a paedophile or a sex offender is apprehended, everyone thinks that they can breathe a sight of relief because the abuse has stopped, but the cross-party group has seen that it does not stop. The effects of abuse last a lifetime for the victim and their family.

We must work together in a spirit of collaboration to support today's children and tomorrow's children. I ask the cabinet secretary to look into the matter seriously and answer the questions that have been raised.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat 4:07 pm, 7th June 2007

Mike Pringle and others eloquently commented on many aspects of the issues that relate to sex offenders. However, I want to concentrate members' minds on the housing and monitoring of convicted sex offenders.

Before I was elected to the Scottish Parliament, I spent 15 years as a local authority councillor in Dunfermline. In my last four years as a councillor I held the portfolio of opposition spokesperson for adult services, which gave me great insight into housing and social work issues, not least the housing of convicted sex offenders. The portfolio that I have now been given and the parliamentary committee on which I will sit both cover communities, a key element of which is housing. I have always believed in constructive opposition in politics. I will back the Administration—as I did on the issue of tolls last week—when I believe that it is right. However, when Scottish National Party members are wrong, I will not hesitate to tell them constructively why they are wrong The current multi-agency approach to housing and monitoring sex offenders is largely successful. The amount of publicity that is generated by one or two failures is out of proportion with the good work of housing officers, the police, social workers and other agencies that carry out monitoring 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to try to keep our children and adults—mostly women—safe on our streets.

Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, said that it was perfectly appropriate for pictures of sex offenders who have absconded to be published on the internet. With all due respect to Mr MacAskill, he needs to catch up with the rest of Scotland. As Mr Pringle mentioned, details of sex offenders who have not reported or who have otherwise absconded are available on the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre's website. There are not thousands or even hundreds of such offenders on the website. I checked today and there are just five. I agree that that is five too many but, all the same, there are just five out of thousands.

I fully understand the concerns of many members of the public about the dangers that are posed by convicted sex offenders who are housed in our communities. However, as I have stated previously, the checks and balances of the multi-agency approach work well, on the whole, to protect the public. Anyone with any doubt about that can view the statistics for themselves. With more than 3,000 registered sex offenders in Scotland, and many more who have not yet been detected despite often many years of abusive behaviour, very few reoffend. That point is seldom well reported by the media as it is not controversial enough.

Many people want to see the publication on the internet of the details of all sex offenders, but I agree with the professionals who house, monitor and rehabilitate sex offenders in Fife that to do so would drive many offenders underground and increase the number of sex offences committed in Scotland. The dangers of mistaken identity and vigilantism are also a major concern.

I know that it is not popular to house sex offenders in our communities and that in the past it has sometimes been done without due regard to geographical circumstances, such as proximity to schools. However, the national accommodation strategy for sex offenders, which came into effect in April 2007, is beginning to address such circumstances. NASSO helps to ensure closer working among local authority housing services, registered social landlords and the private rented sector in housing sex offenders. It introduces a sex offender liaison officer for local authorities and a link officer with registered social landlords to ensure consistent practice throughout the country. It also tightens the practice relating to early planning for the accommodation of offenders before they are released from jail.

Although the current system is not perfect—given the devious nature of many sex offenders, it probably never will be—the Liberal Democrats will back all reasonable means to minimise risks to the public. That stance is backed by the relevant professionals in Fife whom I know and no doubt by those elsewhere in Scotland. However, if the SNP Government and Mr MacAskill in particular aim to make the publication of the details of all categories of offender available to the wider public, there is a real and present danger that the instances of sexual offending in Scotland will actually rise.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party 4:12 pm, 7th June 2007

This is an extremely emotive topic, and as the father of three children I share the repugnance and horror experienced by most normal people whenever details of a vile sexual offence come to light, especially if children are involved. However, a strong emotional revulsion is not necessarily the precursor to good legislation, and it is important to introduce rational proposals in a clear-headed manner if we are to serve society in the purpose for which we were elected. We have moved on from the days of lynch law, for example.

I will consider some of the ancillary issues. Let us take risk, for example. I am convinced that risk is something that none of us completely understands or that, if we do, we often do not put our understanding into practice. I mention that because the emotive concept of risk, as it relates to sexual offences, is beginning to have an adverse effect on the lives of our children.

I remember being told as a child that whenever I was lost or in trouble, I was to ask an adult for help. Today, our children are taught never to talk to strangers. Most are never allowed to play outside unsupervised or to walk home from school unaccompanied by an adult. As a result, they are losing out on the experience of relating with their peers and having the innocent adventures that enhanced childhood in the past. Time on the computer is hardly fair compensation.

Although schoolchildren are invariably taught about the dangers of talking to strangers, many lessons on safe cycling have been abandoned on grounds on cost, yet very many more children die or are injured when riding bicycles than as a result of assaults by strangers. Moreover, the chances of a child being assaulted or abducted by a stranger have not increased over the decades. As we prepare new legislation, let us do our best not to fan the flames of ignorance and prejudice, lest we harm our children still further.

When does a victim become a villain? We all despise a sexual pervert who harms children, and we all feel nothing but sympathy for the child whose life has been ruined as a result of the abuse. However, general practitioners who may work in the same area for decades see those children grow up and become adults, perhaps parents. Most, although scarred by their childhood experiences, form relationships and warm to the challenge of parenthood, but sadly a few, badly affected by their trauma and lacking the emotional development that only a loving relationship can develop within them, become abusers themselves.

I ask again: when does one stop sympathising with a victim and start to insist that they are locked up for life or subjected to an even more radical solution? That is not simply an abstract question. It is fair to say that society must be protected from such folk and that it is enthusiastic about supervisory measures that we have heard about, such as warning the community that such a person is in its midst and other robust measures. However, it is also true that in almost every case, there is a background in which the subject of that attention was a victim at one stage.

Many measures that have been mentioned might be effective in the short term, but a longer-term solution can be found only by attempting to tackle the root cause of people's dysfunctional behaviour. I refer to measures such as those that Mike Pringle and Richard Simpson have advocated.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

We move to winding-up speeches. Mike Pringle has six minutes.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

I am sorry. I was not informed that there would be a change of speaker.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I say to Mike Pringle that I am not sure whether there was disappointment or joy as a result of the change.

I thank members who have participated in the debate—they have brought passion and professional experience to it. Often, we cannot separate passion and professional experience when we debate sex offenders. Indeed, the Justice 2 Sub-Committee, of which I was a member, found it difficult to avoid spin and language that was too emotive when it considered such a complex and difficult issue and workable legislation. I hope that the new Executive will not choose spin over substance when it comes to sex offenders, and that it will heed many of the Justice 2 Sub-Committee's recommendations. As the convener of that sub-committee, Jackie Baillie, said, the cabinet secretary sat on that sub-committee.

The difficulties do not mean that we should not debate sex offenders or that we as Liberals should shrink from making decisions about what is effective in apprehending offenders, ensuring that they do not reoffend and preventing offences from happening in the first place. Such serious crimes are—thankfully—extremely rare, but it is not soft or weak to consider education or support, which members have said are required, nor is it necessarily effective always to talk tough. The Parliament's responsibility is to strike a balance. That is also the responsibility of the police, communities, education authorities, social work departments, housing associations and the voluntary sector.

When the Justice 2 Sub-Committee heard evidence, I was struck and extremely impressed by the joint working that has been done. We saw that there were excellent standards across Scotland, but also areas in which work is needed. All parties bring their views and proposals to the chamber, and all parties presented their views and proposals in the election campaign. The Liberal Democrats proposed to give the police powers to ask for an extension of the period of registration of a sex offender on the sex offenders register, so that there would be no arbitrary cut-off point. Cathy Jamieson did not support that proposal when I made it in the Justice 2 Committee in the previous session. Labour has made proposals that we do not agree with. That takes us to the role of the Parliament. I hope that the tone of the debate will carry through to the remainder of the session.

I stress the Liberal Democrats' support for the powers that the police currently have, which the sub-committee rightly supported. It is a fact that the police have a common-law power to enter any property with or without a warrant if they believe that a child is in danger, a crime is in commission or a crime is about to be committed. The SNP's manifesto developed a majority recommendation of the sub-committee to give the police new powers only for child sex offences. Labour rejected that recommendation in office for genuine reasons, and I question why it is back on the agenda.

The SNP has proposed a power to notify the community if a sex offender absconds, but the police have such a power, which they have used, are using and will continue to use. For a minister to say simply that support will be offered and that the police will be encouraged to take that more seriously is questionable. I have not met a single police officer who does not take that power extremely seriously.

Communities do not feel safer if we constantly tell them that the police have insufficient powers and that the powers that we are going to give them are in some way different from what they already have. The SNP proposes a traffic-light system that, in effect, already exists. The proposal is for red, orange and green for high, medium and low-risk offenders. Under those circumstances, the information on a sex offender could be triggered for release. That happens already. If the police believe that an individual poses a risk, and that the best interests of a child's safety can be served by their doing so, they can inform anyone, from a partner in a relationship to a community group. Indeed, the information can be placed on the CEOP website, as Jim Tolson said.

The cabinet secretary has to be very clear what new and different powers are being proposed; spin over substance is not acceptable and we can look to the United States to see why. The sub-committee heard evidence on the numbers of offenders who had absconded and gone underground. We also heard the political message from US state authorities in which Megan's laws already exist, but closer examination was chilling. Our former Minister for Justice gave evidence to the sub-committee that the whereabouts of approximately 30 sex offenders in Scotland were unknown to the police, out of an overall list of approximately 3,000 people who presented a varying risk to the public. Of course, that was a snapshot, but without 24-hour surveillance of offenders we will always have to use such a snapshot.

The sub-committee heard from Massachusetts about its website, which has a system of publishing the list of names of those who have absconded. Last night, that website showed that the total number of the highest-risk category of offenders who had absconded in a state with a population equivalent to that of Scotland was 186, compared with 30 in Scotland. To illustrate the bizarre openness that Massachusetts operates, it does not say how many in the medium-risk category are currently absconding; that information cannot be found on the website.

Today, the SNP has performed a considerable U-turn on DNA, in relation to which it previously not only attacked Liberal Democrats, but opposed any extension of the DNA database. That is another area of spin over substance in which clarity is urgently required.

Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative 4:22 pm, 7th June 2007

I echo Roseanna Cunningham's remarks. The first duty of society must be to protect the public, especially children.

Sex offenders are a danger to children and recent high-profile examples have served to fuel the fear of that danger. If sex offenders are freed from prison and, quite rightly, subjected to monitoring and supervision, it must be as effective as possible. We must not be afraid to embrace any technology that will help us to protect the most vulnerable group of people in our communities.

The Scottish Conservatives have taken a strong lead in this debate over many months and I look forward to our contributing fully to future policy direction in this area with the new Administration.

The Angelika Kluk murder case highlighted flaws in the existing system. Peter Tobin, the convicted, had previously disappeared and could not be traced for 11 months. He failed to meet his statutory obligation to register with the police following his conviction on two charges of rape. When police called to interview him after an incident in Paisley involving another young woman, he effectively went underground. He broke his registration requirements and reoffended in Glasgow, only a few miles away. I therefore fully understand why the fear of predatory sex offenders is growing in Scotland. We just have to look at the recent events in Portugal to see the strength of public feeling.

For every step that we consider, it is essential that we ask whether it will increase the level of protection for society. Some have called for a Sarah's law to be introduced in Scotland. Giving parents the right to know details of the sex offenders living in their areas might provide some comfort, but I echo Jeremy Purvis's concern that that comfort might be false. In America, where there is such a law, the level of registration among sex offenders is 17 per cent lower than it is in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, such a scheme only has the effect of allowing individuals to drop out of the monitoring system altogether. I want to ensure that the greatest number of sex offenders remains under scrutiny, and a Sarah's law would not achieve that.

As Margaret Mitchell said, we will clearly have to ensure that a strong tracking and monitoring scheme is put in place; that has been a key theme of Scottish Conservative policy over recent years. First, we agree with the minister that we will have to make use of polygraph tests to monitor sex offenders. That idea has been supported by the leading children's charity, Barnardo's. Secondly, if released offenders abscond from the system, it is important that we take immediate action. Alarm bells should ring at that point, but that does not seem to happen at present. Lastly—and here I disagree with Gil Paterson—names and photos should be published when sex offenders have broken their registration requirements. There needs to be greater communication between different authorities, and global positioning satellite tracking should be put in place to track those people down.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the monitoring of sex offenders. Some individuals will not pose a continued threat and can be monitored perfectly effectively under the current system. Others pose a greater risk to the community and should be treated differently. Too many people are slipping through the net, and the safety and security of society must not be allowed to be threatened continually.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour 4:26 pm, 7th June 2007

This has been a good debate and we would all agree that it has been important for the Parliament to hold it. All speakers have acknowledged that the issue is vital and we appreciate that it strikes a chord with the people of Scotland. We need to show the people that the Parliament appreciates the depth of public concern about sex offending, its impact on victims, and its dreadful consequences. Perhaps the issue is too terrible for us to grasp, especially when children are the victims. Of course we should be rational in our approach, but a sense of humanity demands that we rise to the challenge that we face. It is fair to say that all of us in the chamber share a drive to save our own children, and all Scotland's children, from the vile and appalling crimes of paedophiles.

Roseanna Cunningham, who has left the chamber, made a very important contribution. She talked about the more violent crimes against women, as did Marilyn Livingstone, who has a considerable track record on this issue. Given the mood and appetite of the Parliament, I hope that the new Executive will pursue the issues that they raised.

Gil Paterson, who is not here either, should be recognised for his work in the first session of the Parliament. I hope that he will contribute further work during this session. It might be stretching it a bit to say that I am pleased that Gil is back, given that he is an SNP MSP, but if they are all like Gil, perhaps there is some hope for the future. He has a considerable track record, for which I have respect.

Common ground has been evident throughout the debate, and I appreciate that the minister has acknowledged the work of the previous Executive and the progress that took place under the stewardship of Cathy Jamieson. As the minister said, part of the work was taken up by George Irving, the professor who undertook to do the report that Cathy commissioned. He flagged up a number of important issues such as joint agency working, an issue to which I will return. He also recommended third-party disclosure, the significance of which Sandra White spoke about. The minister has acknowledged the commitment and expertise within Labour's ranks on the issues surrounding sex offending. I put on record our appreciation of the minister's agreement to meet Paul Martin and me to pursue the issues. Following what has been said today, there are a number of issues that we will pursue with the minister.

I pay particular tribute to Paul Martin for his dogged determination in pursuing this issue and ensuring that it is top of Parliament's agenda. He is Margaret Ann Cummings's MSP and he supported her in taking her petition through the previous session of Parliament. It was because of that petition that we had the report of the Justice 2 Sub-Committee—it is important that we acknowledge that. Paul was not satisfied that time could not be found in Parliament to hear Mrs Cummings and to respond to her telling evidence and proposals. I was the Minister for Parliamentary Business at the time and I was on the receiving end of Paul's representations. It seemed to me that Parliament would be letting Mrs Cummings down if we did not find the time to hear her and conduct our work.

I appreciated the agreement of my colleagues on the Parliamentary Bureau—the Deputy Presiding Officer was one and Bill Aitken was another—to do that work. The sub-committee's members included Jackie Baillie, the new Cabinet Secretary for Justice and the new Presiding Officer, so it is obvious that the sub-committee was a springboard to promotion. They were all hard pressed, but they all agreed to do the work. [Interruption.] I apologise to Margaret Mitchell if I missed someone out. All the members discharged their work effectively.

The Justice 2 Sub-Committee's report made substantial recommendations and implementing them is important. One matter that it dealt with was joint agency working, which I flag up to the minister. One issue that has emerged in the debate is that although several powers exist and much work has been done, the application of that work is inconsistent.

If, as a former minister, I can pass a note of advice to the current minister, it is that active management of an issue is vital. It is vital that the minister instructs his department to keep an active interest in an issue and to monitor it effectively and properly. For example, the fact that not all families have access to the internet has been flagged up. As Paul Martin said, we know that some families that have no computers are worried about the issues. How will they gain access to vital information?

Given what the ministers have said, I am confident and I hope that they will pursue such issues with an active interest. I give the ministers fair notice that we will pursue them on resources. As Sandra White and Paul Martin said, resources are vital to make the issues happen and make them live in communities.

We covered considerable ground in the debate. I assure Kenny MacAskill and Fergus Ewing that Labour members will co-operate fully as they take the agenda forward. However, the minister is aware that we are emphasising DNA sampling in the debate. Others have some difficulty with that, but the minister's approach encouraged me, particularly as his comments on "Good Morning Scotland" today disappointed me. He said that the law as it stands is appropriate, that we must work in the interests of the good citizen, that we need not develop our approach and that to do so would go against the grain. I strongly disagree.

If giving a DNA sample helped to find sexual predators, people would co-operate. If people thought that giving a DNA sample would help to find Maddie McCann, not too many people would disagree. Jackie Baillie said that some people might regard that as a small intrusion. I do not know whether I agree but, even if that were the case, if giving a sample helped to detect, prosecute or convict sexual predators, that would be a price worth paying. If it saved one life, it would be a price worth paying.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

The member will know that the law in Scotland is different from that in England. Another difference is that the clear-up rates for sexual and serious crimes in Scotland have remained better than those south of the border after England's introduction of a DNA database, the number of samples on which is now 4 million strong. If the trend continues, half of all black men in England will be on the Government's DNA database. That is not the right way forward.

Photo of Margaret Curran Margaret Curran Labour

I am sorry—I disagree. As the First Minister and Jackie Baillie said at First Minister's question time, DNA evidence led directly to the clear-up of 88 murders, 45 attempted murders, 116 rapes and 62 other sex offences. If people have committed such crimes, they deserve to be brought to justice and we should use all modern technology to do that. As Paul Martin said, the law lords have made it clear that the system complies with the European convention on human rights, so we should not be frightened of it.

I am pleased that I interpreted Kenny MacAskill as saying that he is open minded about the matter and happy to work with Labour as we produce proposals. We are willing to work with him. In the debate, we should keep at the forefront of our minds what is effective. It is clear that if we are serious about tackling sex offences, the retention of DNA samples that Labour proposes will be effective and will allow us to bring sex offenders to book, which is what we should do.

The debate has been consensual and I emphasise that Labour members are happy to work with the new Executive to produce effective and practical legislation.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party 4:34 pm, 7th June 2007

The SNP Government was pleased to be able to bring forward a debate on the subject of sex offending very early in the Parliament's new session. Members of all parties in the Parliament have risen to the debate, which has been conducted in temperate terms. We have had an extremely useful discussion, from which the Government can and will learn. As Margaret Curran said, the debate has been consensual. We are here to listen and to learn from the sensible points that have been made.

In that respect, there is a solid foundation of work on which to build, as Jackie Baillie mentioned. She asked me to comment on our approach to the 33 recommendations of the Justice 2 Sub-Committee. Although I did not serve on the sub-committee, I am happy to confirm the previous Administration's commitment to progress its work. I also pay tribute to the work that Paul Martin has done in his community; I know from working with him that he takes the issue very seriously.

In the short time that is available, I will attempt to respond to as many of the points that have been made as possible. It was helpful of Mike Pringle to devote most of his speech to circles of support. This Government believes that communities have a role to play in helping with the resettlement and management of offenders, in the hope that they can be rehabilitated. Evidence suggests that, in some cases, those offenders who have been dealt with by a strong and effective community disposal have offended less frequently than those who have been disposed of by a custodial sentence. We should bear that in mind.

We will take on board Angela Constance's point about the need to be clear about who is involved. We cannot put volunteers at further risk. I give an assurance that we will consider the proposal that has been made, but first we want to ensure that the new MAPPAs—that stands for multi-agency public protection arrangements—are bedded in and are working because their primary function is to ensure the proper monitoring and management of sex offenders.

That brings me rather neatly to Margaret Mitchell's speech, which she began by stating that the key issue was how sex offenders are managed and monitored after they have been released from a custodial sentence. That is the correct focus; it is the issue that we are here to discuss. We would all agree with the sentiments that were expressed by many members—notably, by Gil Paterson—that we regard with repugnance, revulsion and disgust sex offences that are committed against children, especially those that are committed against the very young.

However, words are cheap—they are easy to utter and, by themselves, they do not bring about a solution. We will be judged on the practical arrangements that we deliver. We will best be able to secure the monitoring and management that Margaret Mitchell correctly identified as important as a result of the police, the local authorities and the Scottish Prison Service working together.

Bill Aitken mentioned the meetings that he has had with the cabinet secretary and the First Minister and, as Margaret Curran pointed out, the cabinet secretary has agreed to meet her and Paul Martin. I hope that we can squeeze in a few meetings with our officials between all the consensual joint working, which exemplifies the extent to which the new Executive is trying to set a different tone and modus operandi. I hope that all members welcome that.

I have some information to provide to the Parliament on the GPS satellite tracking system. The evaluation of the pilot recently completed in England and Wales is due to be published this summer and evidence is emerging from it to suggest that tracking has a role to play as a tool in offender management and that it offers certain advantages. Tracking can provide a means of monitoring compliance and of surveillance, and it can be used to provide location information to rule offenders in or out of criminal investigations. However, no satellite tracking has been piloted in England and Wales in which the offender is watched constantly in real time. It is important not to raise expectations that we cannot fulfil. There are limits to satellite tracking. It cannot prevent reoffending or prevent someone from entering an exclusion zone. It cannot provide complete and accurate 24-hour coverage of offenders' movements, nor can it always pinpoint an offender's location or tell agencies what an offender is doing. In addition, satellite tracking is extremely expensive. We will consider all those factors in our discussions with Bill Aitken and other members who wish to be a party to them.

Several members, but notably Sandra White, Marilyn Livingstone and Margaret Curran, expressed concern about resources. I inform members that the funding for post-release supervision, which includes sex offenders, was increased from £2 million to £9.5 million a year between 2002 and 2006. The funding for MAPPA co-ordinators is currently £685,000 a year and, if I remember correctly, there are now 11 MAPPA co-ordinators throughout Scotland.

VISOR funding for local authorities is now £600,000 a year. VISOR is a UK database that provides information on sexual and violent offenders throughout the UK. We are ahead of the game in Scotland because VISOR has been rolled out in all Scotland's local authorities, so its information is available throughout Scotland. The police and all others involved in achieving that should be congratulated.

Photo of Johann Lamont Johann Lamont Labour

The minister referred to a number of important meetings. Can he reassure us that he is working closely with his colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing on the national accommodation strategy for sex offenders? Has he had meetings with her and with local authorities on that issue? There are anxieties about placing sex offenders in local authority areas without appropriate supervision and resources. Can the minister reassure me that, if he and his ministerial colleagues have not begun joint working on the issue, they will start soon?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Johann Lamont's point is a fair one. I have been a minister for, I think, only 14 days, so of necessity we have had only a limited number of meetings. Jim Tolson concentrated earlier in the debate on the national accommodation strategy, which will offer a better deal. Roseanna Cunningham focused on SOPOs and I believe that it may be appropriate to evaluate them in due course. They are certainly available as an additional tool to those involved in dealing with sex offenders.

The cabinet secretary outlined the importance that we place on tackling the problem of sex offenders. He pointed out that there are essentially two types of sex offenders: those who are on radar and those who are off radar. Sex offenders who do not co-operate with the police—by absenting themselves without saying where they are going, not reporting to the police and not abiding by the terms of their licence—will face the full panoply of the legal system. Sex offenders who have gone off radar will be subject to the new arrangements that came in on 20 April. Following Mr Martin's remarks earlier today on "Good Morning Scotland", I made it my business to get a more detailed briefing on the issues that have been discussed in the debate. I assure members that the police, using their new guidelines, will take the most serious attitude to the problem.

I believe that, in relation to the monitoring and management of sex offenders, this Parliament stands together—Scotland united against sex offenders.