Sex Offenders (Hostel Accommodation)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 18th May 2004.

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Photo of Ms Helen Clark Ms Helen Clark Labour, Peterborough 12:00 am, 18th May 2004

I thank my hon. Friend. I am sure that our concerns are shared on both sides of the House. Her debate is about the National Offender Management Service. Like the debate in March in which I spoke and last week's rally at Central hall, which I addressed with many other MPs, her debate will raise concerns about the structure of the proposed new organisation, its timing and its method of introduction. Such issues are relevant to those raised today, but I will not explore the implications in detail, although I can perhaps do so tomorrow.

It is clear that police and probation services are already working well together and doing a good job in supervising sex offenders released into the community under the multi-agency public protection arrangements to which I referred earlier. NAPO believes that that is the best model for enhancing public protection. However, it is expensive and more resources are needed—when was it ever otherwise?

Probation hostels are a crucial element in MAPPA planning. Ten years ago, the 101 probation hostels in England and Wales provided space mainly for people on bail. However, by 2002, the number of such residents had dropped to just 35 per cent. of all places in toto. In contrast, the number of people resident on parole rose from 6 per cent. to 44 per cent. over the same period. In January 2004, it was reported in Napo News, the probation staff journal, that 42 per cent. of residents were now sex offenders. Naturally, such a change raises major concerns for staff as well as residents in the community. How have staff ratios changed over that 10-year period? What security measures have been taken? Has there been additional training for staff? Crucially, what is the level of the provision of the sex offender treatment programme?

I also want the Minister to elaborate on a report—in The Daily Telegraph I believe—that the Home Office was last year actively considering the provision of sex offender-only hostels. It may sound controversial, but it is easy to see the advantages in that. Treatment could be given on site, staff could receive appropriate training and suitable security could be provided. Will the Minister please say what the current thinking is on the provision of such hostels?

I have no doubt that there are difficulties, not least in funding such provision. However, in view of the rise in the number of sex offenders under supervision, such measures appear necessary to maximise public safety, particularly in terms of resident youngsters and neighbouring children. Such children are potentially easy targets for the grooming activities that the Government rightly made a new offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Such hostels would surely be preferable to the extreme measures adopted in the state of Kansas in the USA, where a statute was enacted in 1997 that allowed for the continued imprisonment of sexually violent offenders, even after the completion of their prison terms. The Washington Post described the position then as

"the top of a very slippery slope" and said that

"modern history is replete with evidence of the misuse of mental-health proceedings to put dissidents and other troublemakers away indefinitely."

Locking people up indefinitely because of "personality disorders" on the grounds of the estimated probability that they will commit future offences may not be likely in this country. The issue has been canvassed, as we know. However, I fear that if alternatives are not introduced, the current system will not work. In any case, building more special hostels would free up existing places for those in prison, whose presence surely adds to the well known problem of prison overcrowding.

I would appreciate some reassurances that I can take back to my constituents and to my local authority and police that the Government regard their concerns as legitimate and that active steps are being taken to address them as we speak. Most of all, I would like an assurance that urgent steps will be taken to ensure that no sex offenders are ever housed in hostels that are close to schools or other facilities for children.