Draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) Order 2001

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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I echo the Minister's opening comments. It is a great pleasure to serve under your august chairmanship, Mrs. Roe. We can expect to be treated firmly but fairly, and that balance of tough and tender is of the essence of good chairmanship of these Committees.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold, I am grateful for the way in which the Minister has approached the subject. As I have said previously, the Minister is important, senior, respected and influential. He is a busy man, with many commitments and a full diary, but that has not prevented him from attending to us properly this morning, and we appreciate that.

I thoroughly agree with the Minister about the principle and practice of rehabilitation. He was right not only to justify it, but to say that the matter is subject to broad consensus across democratic political parties, and that consensus has subsisted for some time.

On the continuing topical issue of the treatment of sex offenders and their rehabilitation, reabsorption and integration into the community, the Minister will know that, at least broadly, Her Majesty's official Opposition support the Government's proposals. For example, on Sarah's law, we have considerable sympathy for recent victims, but we broadly agree with the Government that some measures that have been proposed carry considerable risks. It is prudent for a democratic Government not merely to be led by an orchestrated press campaign. They have a responsibility to take wider factors into account.

The Minister dealt fairly with us, but I did not notice great enthusiasm on the part of other Members for speaking at this stage. If other Members wish to speak, we look forward to their comments. I have several questions, which will be prefaced by some observations about the original Act and the 1975 order that we are invited to amend. The Minister commented on the philosophy of the Act at the end of his speech, but I will say something about that at the beginning of mine.

With certain exceptions, under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, an offender's conviction becomes spent after a specified period, which varies according to the sentence. The period of time after which many such convictions are spent is listed in the order. When that period has elapsed, the offender becomes a rehabilitated person who, in law, has not committed, been charged with, prosecuted for, convicted of or sentenced for the offence. That even applies to judicial proceedings, with a number of exceptions, the most important of which are criminal. Other than in those proceedings, if anyone is asked for information about the offender's previous convictions, conduct or circumstances, the question is likely to be treated as not relating to spent convictions. Therefore, the offender is not subject to any liability, or otherwise prejudiced in law, because of any failure to acknowledge or disclose such convictions. That is my exegesis of the Act, and I am sure that I will be corrected if it is mistaken in any material particular.

Any obligation that a person may have to disclose such matters to anyone else does not extend to a spent conviction, and it is not proper ground for dismissing or excluding someone from any office, profession, occupation or employment—or, in the terms of the proposed order, from any work. That is important in the context of rehabilitation.

A conviction that results in the imposition of a custodial sentence of a nominal length exceeding 30 months can never be spent. In addition to that exception, there is a long list of professions, offices and employments that are exempted from the provisions under which questions asked can be treated as not relating to spent convictions: so far as such professions, offices and employments are concerned, a person may have to acknowledge or disclose what would otherwise be spent convictions. That list is contained in the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975 and has been amended on several occasions by Governments of both political persuasions. There are 12 broad professional categories and 17 broad categories of other offices and employments.

I will ask the Minister several questions to get a feel for the context and practical significance of what we are being invited to approve. First, since 1975, how often has the exceptions order been amended and, in broad terms, what kinds of amendments have been made to it on each occasion? I ask that question because, although I have looked at the Act and at the exceptions order, I have only looked at the most recent version of the exceptions order, a copy of which was provided to me by the House of Commons Library. I have not had a chance to examine the various stages of the order because that would be a considerable task for an Opposition Member who does not have access to a galaxy of bluestockings who volunteer such useful nuggets of information.

Mr. Charles Clarke: On what basis does the hon. Gentleman make that judgment about the outstanding Home Office officials who have helped me in these matters?

Mr. Bercow: It was only supposition. It was not intended to detract from the Minister's formidable intellectual prowess. He is a distinguished mathematician. I am not a mathematician, and nor do I claim to be distinguished. However, I thought it not unreasonable to suppose that, although the Minister is a clever fellow, he receives advice from officials.

The Treasury and Foreign Office tend to be regarded as the intellectual elites of the civil service, but the Home Office would dispute that point. There are many intelligent, dedicated and industrious officials in that Department, and I assumed that some of them, including a number of females—and hence the term ``bluestockings''—had advised the Minister. I will not dilate on that point, Mrs. Roe. If I did, you would be unhappy, and I do not want your brow to become furrowed. The furrowing of Mrs. Roe's brow would be a signal to me that I had incurred her displeasure.

Secondly, how many times has the legislation been amended? How many additional professions, offices and employments have been added to the list, and have there been any deletions?

Thirdly, Is there a broad rule of thumb within the Home Office as to the frequency with which or the intervals at which amendments are proposed to the House, or is it a case of making amendments when a single idea is proposed and endorsed by the Government? I want to get a feel for the procedure because this matter is likely to arise again, and it may limit the debate and inform our exchanges on future occasions if I am given an idea now of normal practice in government. The Minister must be much more aware of that normal practice than I am—that is why I am asking him the question.

Fourthly, given the importance of transparency and accountability in our proceedings, will the Minister say something about the process through which amendments come to be proposed? I was slightly vexed by that issue when I looked through the document. A request for an amendment may often come from within Government. However, is it normal practice, when such a request comes from an organisation outside Government, for that request to be made public and for any correspondence on the subject to be deposited in the House of Commons Library? Is the process public, or does it take place within the confines of the Home Office? The latter course may be no less effective, but I would like to know what the system is.

Fifthly, how many requests for an amendment had been received in this Parliament, and from whom?

Sixthly, are orthodontists covered? That may seem a narrow question, but the list refers to dentists, dental hygienists and one other in the same line—I do not have the list before me.

Seventhly, reference is made to pharmaceutical chemists in the list of exempted professions. We all see the rationale behind that, but are industrial chemists included? If not, is that explained by the fact that pharmaceutical chemists have a direct relationship with patients and industrial chemists do not? I suspect that that may be the explanation. Does the Minister envisage circumstances in which an extension to the sphere of industrial chemistry—which is, after all, part of the chain—could be applied?

My eighth question relates to teachers. The professions list refers to registered teachers in Scotland. I may have missed something here, but will the Minister explain whether teachers in England and Wales are also covered and, if not, why not?

My ninth question concerns the reference to the Professions Supplementary to Medicine Act 1960. My understanding is that any profession to which the Act applies and which is undertaken following registration under that Act is exempted. Will the Minister assist the Committee by detailing those professions so that we have a full picture of what it is we are being invited to amend? The reference is to a prior piece of legislation, the explanation of which will enable us better to judge the appropriateness of the amendment before us.

I come now to my tenth question, which relates to offices and employments. Is it a principle of the 1975 order and of the amendments proposed to it this morning that anyone working within the criminal justice system in any capacity shall be excepted from the provisions of the 1974 Act? If not, is the judgment made exclusively according to seniority of rank or by reference to some other criteria? If the latter is the case, will the Minister explain what those criteria are?

My eleventh question relates to the exception that applies to traffic wardens appointed under section 81 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1967 or section 9 of the Police (Scotland) Act 1967. What is the rationale behind that exception?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: With reference to the traffic Act, one of the categories for which a person must disclose their offences is disqualification from driving. The period allowed for that is only the period of disqualification. Society is moving towards the idea that serious motoring offences such as reckless or dangerous driving have, in the past, been under-recognised—by imposing a substantial fine but a relatively low period of disqualification for example. Does my hon. Friend feel that the period of disqualification allowed is sufficient?

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