Draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) Order 2002

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Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): I am also curious about that. If Scotland is out of line with England, what will happen if a Scottish person applies for a taxi-driving licence in Berwick? Which element of the legislation will apply: the order because the job is in England, or the Scottish exemption because the applicant lived in Scotland?

Mr. Grieve: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's comment. The Minister may enlighten us.

Mr. Bradley: May.

Mr. Grieve: The Minister repeats the word, ''may''. I suspect that he is having serious difficulties over the issue. Compatibility north and south of the border is in everyone's interests. I hope that, whatever happens, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive will see fit to pass a similar amending order. My recollection of the Scotland Act is that, try as we may to bring the ingenuity of law officers to bear on the matter, we have devolved the issue. I fully understand the reasons for the amendment order and we will not vote against it.

10.45 am

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Roe. If I may say so, you are a bit of an old hand on the subject as a year ago you were involved on a similar order, in one of the Government's regular introductions of amendments and exceptions. I was

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just musing that certain hon. Members should declare an interest in the order. I, for example, am the beneficiary of the ROA, having had a speeding fine that is now spent. I hope that the Minister and other hon. Members who contribute to the debate will be honest enough to own up if they too have been the beneficiaries of that legislation.

Like the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), I shall not vote against the order but I have some questions for the Minister. First, why have we amended the legislation twice last year and once this year, or three times within a year? I realise that the amendments in the autumn dealt principally with financial services, but there must be a more logical way to amend the legislation than by this piecemeal method. Secondly, does the order have links with the review mentioned by the Minister that was announced by the Home Secretary on 25 April last year? Has there been or is there about to be an initial consultation report? The review stated that initial consulation comments would be received by 1 August last year and would be included in an initial consultation report—although the review would be on-going. Indeed, the review has set up a core group and an advisory group; have they given their advice?

Thirdly, do we assume that none of the professions or occupations to be added under the order has ever been included in the legislation? If that is the case, I share the view of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that the sooner we get to the review, the better. Around 40 per cent. of men under 40 in Britain have previous convictions, which means that huge numbers of people are increasingly disadvantaged in terms of rehabilitation, the labour market and in other respects. Will the outcome of the review be incorporated into the proposed legislation? Will the legislation take into account the Halliday report on sentencing and the report by Lord Justice Auld on the criminal courts? Logically—as you would know from your experience as a justice of the peace, Mrs Roe—one should examine sentencing, rehabilitation and the court structure together. If we want to legislate coherently, it strikes me that we should do it in one criminal justice Bill in the next session. Is that the intention: will we get one Bill to deal with rehabilitation of offenders, sentencing and the review of the courts? It is encouraging that we will not get a sentencing Bill this year and an Auld review Bill next year, which was the original plan.

Will the Minister tell us where the prompting for this particular order came from? Was there a search, has there been consultation on the order—I am not aware of any, but I may have missed it—and if so, who was consulted? As I asked earlier, has that gone through the review groups that are examining the ROA? What is the latest timetable for the review as a whole, when can we expect the initial and/or final reports, and will the Minister confirm that we will get the final report in good time for it to be debated before the Queen's Speech in the autumn? The Government should ensure that it is part of the same activity and slipstream.

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Harking back to the point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, has there been any estimate of how many people or categories now come within the exemptions? The point of the ROA was that gradually, depending on the seriousness of the offence, offenders could return to mainstream life and forget about their past. We are eating into that more and more, so more people are exempted and a greater percentage is not covered. I have one specific question. There has been considerable concern about the need to ensure that our child protection laws and registers work. What is the link between the requirement to register either having been a sex offender or in relation to child protection for the jobs for which most Members would expect offenders to have to register and be cleared—teaching, youth work and voluntary sector work with children for example—and this exemption order? It is logical that they should be consistent. Every time we exempt someone from rehabilitation and there is a risk that they could work with the young or vulnerable, we would expect them to be in a place in which those with authority could check on them if they were thinking of employing them.

The order itself seems generally acceptable, but I hope that the Minister can clarify the policy context of the order.

10.53 am

Mr. Atkinson: Will the Minister tell us about the exemption of the RSPCA, because I am not clear on why it was necessary? Does it mean that anyone applying for a job at the RSPCA can have his or her criminal record checked out because at some stage they may be asked to take on duties that involve using a firearm or drugs to kill an animal? Although only a few employees of the society are involved in such operations, that would mean that anyone who wanted to join the RSPCA could be checked out—even if they were applying for administrative work. Or is the idea to stop the RSPCA hiring someone as an inspector, who would probably have to kill animals as part of his or her duties, who is then not able to carry out those duties because of a previous conviction? Is that not already covered? Firearms will be used for the normal, humane way of killing animals, and if someone is convicted under the Firearms Act 1968, their conviction is never spent and the ROA does not apply. I would like to hear a little more from the Minister on why the RSPCA should be singled out for such a privilege, if that is the correct way of describing it.

10.54 am

Mr. Bradley: I will try to answer as many of the questions as I can, but I will write to hon. Members if I cannot answer their questions now.

I am pleased that hon. Members welcome the exceptions; it is clear from their comments that the long overdue review of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act is welcome and that we need to make progress as fast as possible. I hope that our deliberations on the measure will be completed by autumn this year, with a view to legislating in due course.

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There is a queue of legislation that we want to introduce as soon as possible, which, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, relates to the Auld and Halliday reports and to sex offences, rehabilitation, corporate killing and a variety of other matters. We must take sensible decisions on the legislative programme and consider how it can be put together coherently to present to the House. I cannot give any decisions on the matter now, as we want to ensure that this huge legislative programme is comprehensible and coherent. I hope that a chunk of it will be available for the next Session of Parliament, but I am not a business manager, so I cannot give any guarantees on how it will be packaged and when it will be introduced.

I want to comment on the issue raised by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, concerning individuals who have what the hon. Gentleman described as minor previous convictions. Clearly, there must be a balance in such matters; the review will try to ensure that we strike the right balance between not unduly hampering someone who should, rightly, get back into employment and the need to protect the public. I shall ensure that the review takes into account the circumstances described by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): In relation to the point about the rehabilitation of offenders, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether the hon. Member for Beaconsfield declared an interest in the matter, especially in respect of his ancestors? As he confessed in his maiden speech, the hon. Gentleman is descended from sheep and cattle thieves in the borders of Scotland. He said that having participated in that thievery, his relatives went on to become wealthy farmers, which does not surprise me, as they had a unique method of stock acquisition.

In such circumstances—

The Chairman: Order. That is rather a long intervention.

Mr. Davidson: But a very good one, if I may say so.

The Chairman: As Chairman, I do not comment on that, but on the length of the intervention. I ask the hon. Gentleman to bring his remarks to a conclusion.

Mr. Davidson: I ask the Minister whether he was aware of that information and whether he believes that the matter should be raised whenever the hon. Member for Beaconsfield speaks.

Mr. Bradley: My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) makes an interesting intervention. I am not sure that I want everyone to have to declare such previous convictions now; I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has nothing to hide in this respect.

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