Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham): I beg to move amendment No. 268, page 141, line 27, at end insert—

    'Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974

    3A In section 7(2)(bb) of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (c.53) (limitations on rehabilitations under Act etc.), for ''a sex offender order under section 2 or, as the case may be, 20'' there shall be substituted ''an order under section 2, 2A or 20(4)(b)''.'

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following: Government new clause 17—Sex offender orders.

Government new clause 18—Interim orders: sex offenders.

Government new clause 19—Sex offender orders made in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Government amendment No. 269.

Mr. Denham: We come now to a substantive and important debate. This is the first time that hon. Members have had an opportunity to discuss these new clauses and amendments. Although I was tempted to dwell on the tragic events surrounding the reign of King Thingy the Wotsit who, as we all know, lost his head in unfortunate circumstances, we should move on.

The new clauses have been introduced since the publication of the Bill primarily to deal with weaknesses in the existing legislation surrounding sex offender orders—they could not be used sufficiently flexibly or widely—and to ensure effective coverage of the United Kingdom. We have taken the opportunity to introduce a new, more flexible element into the system. A couple of additional amendments on Report will also be necessary to complete the picture.

As hon. Members may know, a sex offender order is a civil preventive order made by a magistrates court. If the police consider that a sex offender has acted in a way that gives cause for concern that he may re-offend, they can apply for an order. The order places prohibitions designed to prevent the offender from engaging in behaviour that may lead him to re-

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offending. For example, he may be prevented from entering children's playgrounds or visiting swimming baths. Any breach of the prohibitions carries a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment.

Sex offender orders have proved to be an effective tool in managing the risks that sex offenders pose to the public. Approximately 170 orders have been granted to date, mainly against the most dangerous offenders living in the community. About half of those have been breached, with custodial sentences following in the majority of cases.

Some individual cases have highlighted weaknesses in the existing legislation. Such anecdotal evidence has been backed up by Home Office research on sex offender orders, which we published last week. We are taking the opportunity to legislate to increase the effectiveness of sex offender orders and so enhance the protection of the public.

New clause 17 seeks to give greater flexibility to the police in how they apply for and amend sex offender orders. At present, the police can apply for a sex offender order only if the offender is already in their police area. The new clause will allow police forces that know an offender is coming to their area to apply for a sex offender order in advance of his arrival. Police forces will be able to make an application to any court in their police area, rather than to a court only in the area where some of the risky behaviour took place.

New clause 17 extends the prohibitions that may be imposed in a sex offender order to the United Kingdom as a whole by amplifying the definition of the ''public'' to the

    ''public in the United Kingdom, or any particular members of that public''.

Currently, orders extend only to England and Wales. The clause amends the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to allow police forces to vary or discharge orders at courts in their own police area, without having to go back to the original court that made the order.

New clause 18 introduces interim sex offender orders in the same way as clause 59 introduces interim antisocial behaviour orders. Interim orders would be useful in high-risk situations that require urgent intervention. The police have complained about the length of time that it takes to get a full hearing, and interim orders would address that problem. Anyone made subject to an interim order will be placed on the sex offenders' register for its duration. He will be required to notify the police of his name and address, and of any subsequent changes. That is the same requirement as with full orders, and forms an important part of the sex offender orders because the police are aware of the whereabouts of the offender.

New clause 19 introduces new section 2B to the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. That makes the breach of sex offender orders made in Scotland and Northern Ireland an offence if it occurs in England and Wales. The offence will carry the same penalty as a breach of an English order.

It has not been possible to table amendments to make reciprocal changes to the law in Scotland and Northern Ireland in time for the Committee. I shall

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move amendments on Report that will mirror new clause 19 so that a breach of English orders in Scotland and Northern Ireland will be offences under their law. The Scottish Parliament is debating a Sewel motion today to allow this Parliament to legislate on its behalf.

The amendments, including those that will be moved on Report, will make a breach of an order an offence throughout the United Kingdom irrespective of the jurisdiction in which it was created. Amendments Nos. 268 and 269 are consequential to the three new clauses. I commend the new clauses and amendments to the Committee.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I am grateful to my hon. Friends for ensuring that the earlier item allowed me to return to the Committee in time to speak to the amendments and new clauses.

The Minister rightly said that this is the first opportunity that we have had to discuss this subject during our consideration of the Bill, with the exception of the glimpse of the Government's intentions that he gave during his speech on Second Reading. I am grateful for the letter that he sent to me on 19 June with an explanation of the background to the amendments. I say from the outset that we do not have any serious worries or objections that would cause us to oppose them. Obviously, sex offender orders are extremely important and, as the Minister described, clearly operative. I think that he said that half have been breached, which illustrates their importance and value. We hope that we will reach a stage at which fewer will be breached.

I have one or two specific questions. I understand from the Minister's comments and letter that an order made in the future will apply throughout the UK. If that is the case, I am slightly puzzled why there is a need for some of the other amendments, such as those that relate to the court at which an application is made or to an application for an order by a chief officer from a police area different from that in which the person lives. If a person is eligible—that is not quite the right word—for an order and the chief officer of the area in which the person lives applies for one, the order will extend throughout the UK. I am sure that there is a perfectly logical explanation why the other amendments are necessary, but I should be grateful if the Minister would provide it.

My second point relates to police costs with regard to orders. The Minister is fully aware that there have been several cases—including one in Cambridgeshire—when sex offenders have had to be accommodated in police cells for public protection and for their own safety because the public have made so many threats against them. I am sure that no hon. Member approves of vigilantism. Sex offenders deserve protection, however despicable their original offence. However, such an action can cost substantial sums of money and use much police time. Although the amendments do not directly address the issue, I hope that the Minister will tell us what the Government plan to do about it. I know that the case in Cambridgeshire is not isolated and that a similar case has occurred in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr.

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Letwin), and, I am sure, in other hon. Members' constituencies. The problem is serious; these people become undesirable to society when their presence is known, yet they have to live somewhere. That imposes significant costs.

I am disappointed that this group of amendments does not go further with regard to a couple of other areas where current legislation has been shown to be inadequate. The Minister referred to the registration period. The Government have cut the period for first registration to three days. However, as he said, when the subject of an order moves, that period is much longer. There is concern that that gives them what the police have described as a holiday, before they have to re-register in their new location. I wish the Minister had taken this opportunity to also reduce the period for re-registration to three days.

I am also disappointed that these amendments do not address what is taking place on the internet—particularly the grooming by potential sex offenders of potential victims. That is a concern to many parents who discover that their children are being groomed in this way. I should like the Minister to respond to that point.

I come to the related matter of internet use and paedophilia and other sex crimes. The recent case of the paedophile information exchange involved a group of criminals who were prosecuted for horrendous crimes against children using the internet. Almost everyone in that group was imprisoned, but I understand that its leader escaped prosecution because he refused to give the key to the encryption of some of the software, and the police were unable to break into parts of it. It has been suggested that the failure to provide that key, when required to do so by the police, should be an offence that is equivalent to the crime itself—which would be a bit like the refusal to say who was driving a car opening one to prosecution in the same way as does the offence of driving it.

I am aware that I have strayed beyond discussion of the amendments, but this is a Second Reading debate. I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr. Stevenson. We are all very concerned about sex offences, and their apparent proliferation—although we could argue about whether such crimes really are increasing, or whether that merely seems to be the case because they are more noticeable, or commented on, or reported. However, the fact of the matter is that they take place, and there is a huge amount of public emotion about such crimes. The law needs to be tightened up. I welcome the Government's proposals, but further measures should be taken.

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Prepared 27 June 2002