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

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Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend rightly highlights and returns me to the key point. Does the Minister believe that, in making these changes to the order, we are fully compliant with the European convention on human rights? The Minister is busy scribbling away, but he had better make sure that he is busy listening at the same time.

Has he made any assessment of the position of other countries that have signed up to the European convention on human rights in relation to the rehabilitation of offenders? Is the Minister aware of any attempted co-ordination or harmonisation of public policy on this matter? Is he aware of existing European law on this subject and has he satisfied himself that we are compliant with it? Does he anticipate that further European law will be made on any or all of the matters that we are discussing today? If he has ensured that we shall comply with the European convention, how has he done so?

My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold has raised matters of great importance. The Minister's responsibility, as a Minister of the Crown, is to respond to his concerns and not to pursue his sub-standard, down-market, low-grade and inferior political agenda. I want to know what he has to say in response to those important questions.

I do not want to spoil what has been a generally convivial atmosphere, and I know that the Minister has many important responsibilities with which he wants to proceed, so my final question is a kindly one. Are trainee teachers covered by article 6(6)?

11.23 am

Jackie Ballard (Taunton): I shall be brief. I preface my remarks by saying that when I was at boarding school and we were bored late at night, we used to play a game in which one had to speak for as long as possible on a given subject.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: ``Just a Minute''.

Jackie Ballard: No, it was not ``Just a Minute'' because it might be two hours. I happen to know that the hon. Member for Buckingham was not at that school because it was a girls' boarding school. Had he been there, however, I suspect that he would have won every time.

Mr. Bercow: I had a lot of important questions to ask.

Jackie Ballard: That may have been the case, but the hon. Gentleman could have missed out many adjectives on the way.

The principle of rehabilitation following spent convictions and of giving offenders a second chance is, as the Minister said, very important. He is as aware as the rest of us that the more employment opportunities that are closed off to ex-offenders, the more likely it is that they will return to crime. It is also important to prevent people in positions of trust from being able to abuse children. A track record could indicate whether that was likely. I fully accept that it is not easy to balance those two rights.

I have only two questions and one comment for the Minister.

Mr. Clarke: Shame.

Jackie Ballard: I have read the order thoroughly, but I suspect that any questions that one might have dreamt up have been answered already.

The amendments are sensible and appropriate. In particular, it is important that prospective adoptive parents should be included. The amendment to article 3, refers in article 4(2)(iv) of this order:

    ``the work for which the person's suitability is being assessed is child minding which would normally take place on premises other than premises where that person lives''

I am not clear whether the definition of child minding includes nannies who work in the child's home.

The Minister may know that for the last four years I have been involved in a campaign for the registration of nannies. Those of us involved in the cross-party campaign fear that people who wish to abuse children, and who have rightly been driven out of other professions that are tightly regulated and controlled, may end up in the nanny sector which is unregistered and largely uncontrolled, and which is the second largest group looking after children. Child minders form the largest group. Nannies are no longer the providence only of the wealthy. Often, shift workers such as nurses will use nannies as a convenient form of child care. I would be grateful if the Minister would clarify the definition.

My second question concerns the inclusion of further education teachers. I may not have understood what the Minister said in his opening remarks, but I am unclear about what the wording of proposed new paragraph 14 (b) 1 means. It states:

    ``work in a further education institution where the normal duties of that work involve regular contact with persons aged under 18.''

Further education lecturers may expect to deal only with people over 18. Should the institution decide when the post is advertised whether the post would apply according to whether the applicant would be in contact with people under 18? I hope that the Minister can follow that point. Some further education lecturers deal only with adult evening classes.

My final comment is that I assume that the amendments will have no impact on schools or colleges that allow adults to take part in children's classes. There are certainly secondary schools in my constituency that encourage adults to work alongside children—in computing classes for example. Adults and children study together. Those adults are not applying for a job, so there is no need to check their records or for them to reveal any previous offending. However, it illustrates the impossibility of always being sure that unsuitable people do not have access to children other than their own and cannot secure a position in which they might be able to build up a child's trust. I do not suggest that schools should have to check whether to give someone an application form to apply to join a class in which children are taught.

11.28 am

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I shall not detain the Committee long. I have had some inspiration, and I should like to probe the Minister on the professions and employment that are not covered by the Act. I do not want any approbation to be placed on the excellent job that our armed forces do, but they raise an important issue, and perhaps the Minister will explain.

In the exempted professions covered by the order, no mention is made of members of Her Majesty's armed forces. I am sure that the Minister will say that Her Majesty's armed forces have their own disciplinary code and that there is therefore no need to mention them. However, some members of Her Majesty's armed forces work with young people in the cadet forces, for example. Although a few years ago no one would have ever dreamt that there was any cause to believe that an offence could be committed by such people in charge of children, the world has changed. The same thing might have been said 10 years ago about several professions, but some horrific offences against children are being committed by members of the professions.

Mr. Bercow: Does my hon. Friend agree that his question has an added piquancy in light of the fact that in the list contained in the 1975 exceptions order—in the sixth category of the section entitled ``Offices and employments''—reference is made to police cadets and naval, military and air force police? Although his comments about separate disciplinary arrangements and employment practices might apply, the armed forces might conceivably gain, at least by example.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am aware that the Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000 is currently subject to scrutiny by a special Committee. I do not know whether the Committee is considering such matters; perhaps the Minister will put my mind at rest. My hon. Friend makes an important point.

I make no apology for returning to jurors. The order seems to contain some lacunae, and I hope that the Minister will provide further reassurance.

I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. I believe wholeheartedly in the jury system, and any attempts made by this or any other Government to curtail it are wrong. That system of summary justice has served the country well for many centuries, and I want it to continue for many centuries into the future.

Like my hon. Friend, I deplore spurious grounds on which aspersions are cast on the suitability of a jury, and I would not unwisely or unguardedly want to widen the grounds on which an offender or his advisers may object to a juror. However, in cases that involve jurors in initial custody proceedings, relating to, for example, paedophiles, if a juror has himself been involved in offences involving paedophilia, a case might be made for eliminating that juror from that case. Will the Minister comment on that serious matter? It relates to a lacuna in the order and deserves serious attention. My hon. Friend asked many questions, and, normally, I also like to ask plenty of questions. However, my hon. Friend has dealt with the matter especially thoroughly.

I want to finish on the matter of the European Court of Human Rights. Prompted by my intervention, my hon. Friend raised some important points, especially in the light of the increasingly European nature of the law. Offences committed in one country may be tried in a different country, sentence may be given, or the offender may be extradited to a third country. Law seems to be becoming much more international. If the European Court of Human Rights, the convention and the Act are to work properly, we should give careful consideration to whether the categories are similar in extent and intent to those pertaining in other European countries. That needs to be done in relation to a range of laws. It would be peculiar, however, if on this particular matter English law were inconsistent with that of all the other countries involved in the convention. A completely exempt category under English law might not be exempt in another country. That could give rise to inconsistencies of judgment in cases in the European Court of Human Rights.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend has raised an important point. Does agree that, in practical terms, the issue becomes salient if someone who is working temporarily in another part of the European Union commits an offence and returns to this country? Because of the different law that applies in that jurisdiction, the person might not be obliged to disclose his past record, whereas he would be so obliged under the terms of the proposed amended order.

 
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