Draft Sex Offenders (Notice Requirements) (Foreign Travel) Regulations 2001

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Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Malins. As the Minister knows, the regulations—or, rather, the enabling provisions of statute—were introduced into the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 in Committee in the House of Lords. The debate there was uncontroversial and the enabling measure was supported by the Opposition. I can offer the Minister our support again today.

I have several detailed questions for the Minister, however. My chief concern develops the point made by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) about the practicability of the regulations. Will they provide the checks that we want them to provide? As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, regulation 4(1)(b) applies only to registered sex offenders who

    ``intend to leave the United Kingdom for a period of eight days or longer.''

I would welcome the Minister's comments on both the period of eight days and the idea that intention is part of the requirement imposed through the regulations.

The hon. Member for Islington, North pointed out that a registered sex offender could leave the United Kingdom for a European destination and vanish from the records altogether. I was relieved that the Minister could reassure the Committee apropos the legal position in Scotland, because I had been concerned about the absence of Scotland from the scope of the regulations. However, I remain concerned that, for example, an offender registered in Northern Ireland, England or Wales could take advantage of the common travel area, go for a brief period to the Irish Republic, the Isle of Man or one of the Channel Islands and then travel on to some other destination without any appropriate check, because the regulations mention an eight-day period and require the registered sex offender to register not his detailed itinerary but the first place that he intends to visit. Have they been drafted tightly enough in that respect?

Regulation 4(1)(b) uses the word ``intend''. Does that mean that a defence is available to a sex offender accused of breaching the regulations if he is able to state to the court that, while he intended to leave the United Kingdom for no longer than seven days, for reasons that he could not have known about in advance, his stay overseas was prolonged? Is there a loophole in the regulations created by the word ``intend''?

I want to press the Minister about a couple of points made by Lord Brennan during the debate on the matter in the House of Lords. I have touched on the absence in the regulations of any requirement for a registered offender to describe his detailed itinerary, but nor is there a requirement on him to say after his return to the United Kingdom where he has been. The regulations do not provide everything that might be needed to inform the enforcement authorities overseas of the presence or likely presence of a convicted sex offender, when a serious recidivist paedophile offender might be in one of their towns or cities. In response, Lord Bassam said that the Government would consider those detailed points made by Lord Brennan, so I wonder why the Government, having undertaken that consideration, decided against the more detailed requirements.

To what extent will the United Kingdom authorities be able to share the information on registration and travel intentions with their opposite numbers overseas? We are all familiar with the constraints of the new data protection legislation. Will there be a barrier to information being shared between law enforcement agencies in the way in which all members of the Committee would wish?

Will the Minister explain the Government's plans for strengthening international co-operation to deal with convicted sex offenders? Are reciprocal arrangements in force or planned, perhaps with other European Union or Council of Europe countries, so that they would inform us of the intention to travel to the United Kingdom of a person who had been convicted of a serious sexual offence within their jurisdictions? Have the Government considered registration of British citizens who have been convicted of serious sexual offences overseas? The Minister will know that the Opposition called for that in previous debates. Such registration would, together with the measures presented in the regulations, provide better protection for our citizens—an objective that we all share.

4.48 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I am left wondering whether the measure will have the effect that the Minister wants. I gather that the Government's objective is to reduce the likelihood of—or ideally to prevent, if that is possible—crimes being committed by known and registered sex offenders. That is an admirable aim, but I am puzzled by the eight days requirement. It is possible that known sex offenders might seek to take advantage of the eight-day margin to do precisely what we are trying to prevent in the United Kingdom, in Europe or further afield, as modern international travel allows people to travel vast distances and return within eight days.

The Minister's reason for his decision appears to be that, because there are currently 14,813 registered offenders in the United Kingdom, to reduce the period to less than eight days would place an unacceptable administrative burden on the police. I do not know how many police stations there are in the country, but I suspect that if 14,813 is divided by the number of stations, and the likelihood that sex offenders might queue at the same time outside a police station to register is taken into account, administrative difficulties will not appear to present an insurmountable burden.

We must judge whether that burden would be great enough to allow us to permit what appears to be a loophole in the regulations. It is a serious matter. Known offenders have been taken sufficiently seriously that previous Acts have provided for alterations in the law to inhibit their freedoms and infringe their civil liberties. We are now going a stage further by ensuring that such people will not be allowed to move around in a way that is unknown to us and may present a risk, on the basis of the Minister's argument that all possible reassurances must be provided to our citizenry—and, in the present context, to citizens of foreign countries.

Are we satisfied that the eight-day margin is acceptable? Do we think that known sex offenders will be sufficiently deterred by the eight-day provision that it will reduce, and ideally eliminate, the likelihood of their committing offences abroad?

Moreover, we must judge whether the bureaucracy and paperwork arguments are sufficiently important for us to take the risk that appears to be inherent in the eight-day minimum qualifying period. I do not dispute that those are important arguments—everyone says that they want the police to be as unburdened as possible by bureaucracy and paperwork—but I want the Minister to describe in more detail how he assesses the bureaucratic risk to the police. What is the likelihood that nearly 15,000 people might approach our police stations? Does his Department have knowledge of the distribution of offenders? Might they cause particular problems for certain police stations, or are they distributed fairly evenly across the country?

I want to hear more about the Minister's judgment of the balance that he and his Department have struck between the administrative problem and the dangerous loophole. I hope that he can satisfy the Committee, because until I am more satisfied, I shall feel uneasy about the regulations.

4.54 pm

Mr. Clarke: That was a useful exchange. I express my appreciation to the hon. Member for Aylesbury for indicating his general support for the regulations.

I hope that I satisfied the Committee with what I said about Scotland. The Scottish Executive are dealing directly with the matter. On the point about the detailed itinerary, the police can ask for more information and will do so, which is why we have asked for information in such areas. However, that does not address the concern expressed about the person who intends to be abroad for less than seven days and subsequently stays for longer. I shall return to that, because it touches also on the eight-day point mentioned by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

With regard to sharing data with others overseas, work is being done under the European Union framework to develop more common penalties and offences for those who sexually exploit others. Those involved in the Council of Europe negotiations are also trying to develop a common framework. More international activity is taking place to find a common basis in relation to sex offences against children.

In respect of the concern about eight days, mentioned by the hon. Member for Aylesbury and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, I concede that the regulations do not solve, or even address in great detail, the issue of a person who might be labelled as a really determined sex offender, who has a record and tries to evade the system. Without wishing to make a partisan point to those members of the Committee who have pound signs on their lapels, I suggest that until there is a system of world government, world citizenship and world legislation, it will not be possible to track everyone in every circumstance wherever they travel in the world—I make no comment on the advisability of a system of identity cards, which some of our European partners have. The regulations do not make a difference between other EU countries and the rest of the world but concern the relationship between the UK and the rest of the world. If we do not have such a world system, or a European system, it is difficult to know how far can we go down the line. We are trying to improve the situation, rather than create a perfect one.

Mr. Corbyn: I fully understand the Minister's point. I alluded to Europe because there are no likely passport checks on the British national who travels in the European Union, and no visa requirements. Most countries outside Europe either carry out passport checks on arrival—certainly, airlines do so on departure—or have a visa requirement. Such checks make it very difficult for someone trying to evade the regulations to travel. If such a person went on Eurostar to Paris and stayed on, not much could be done.

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