Risk Assessment and Management of Sex Offenders

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Paul Goggins: First, I want to take the opportunity to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his new position within the Northern Ireland Executive. I understand that he is already a great hit with the Green movement. [Laughter.] I am sure that he will do very well and we are genuinely all pleased to see him elevated to his new post.
The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is interesting and important, and it requires a real sense of balance. I say that because, where information is known, clearly it needs to be used by the key agencies to protect the public and manage the offender. The problem arises if that information is shared too widely, because the public can get in a very angry mood about sexual offenders, perhaps understandably, and that can turn into a difficult set of circumstances, not least because it may lead to sex offenders going underground and not complying with the registration arrangements. So, that information needs to be handled carefully.
The hon. Gentleman may know that the Home Office is looking to see whether there are circumstances in which such information could be more broadly shared, perhaps, for example, where individuals are seeking to form new relationships with people whom they want to check out to determine whether they might be a risk to the children if they are to share the household with them.
We will wait and see how those pilot projects go to see whether there is some read-across to Northern Ireland, but it is important that agencies have the maximum amount of information—that is why we have the multi-agency arrangements in place—and important that we manage that information to ensure the maximum compliance by sex offenders, rather than seeing them disappear underground.
In practice, the multi-agency work is overseen by the Northern Ireland Sex Offender Strategic Management Committee, which is known as NISOSMC for short. Again, we are all pleased that we can shorten such long-winded titles. NISOSMC is a committee of representatives from all the key agencies involved, which is chaired by an Assistant Chief Constable and exists primarily to make strategic decisions on how the MASRAM arrangements operate. The arrangements are delivered at operational level by a series of local, multi-agency groups, the first task for which is a multi-agency assessment to determine whether the risk to the public is low, medium or high.
Where an offender has been assessed at the lowest risk—category 1—there is no further multi-agency involvement. On 31 March 208, such cases accounted for 494 of the MASRAM assessment work load. Those cases will attract further multi-agency attention only if information is received by any of the agencies that points to the need for reassessment. The remaining cases are all deemed to require additional multi-agency engagement.
The local committee agrees individual risk management plans and the agencies deliver those aspects that fall within their normal statutory responsibilities. There are in Northern Ireland 263 such cases: 257 at category 2 and six in the most serious category 3. Each category 2 or 3 case will have a risk management plan, as part of which an offender might, for example, have a court-ordered licence condition that requires him to live in a hostel under probation supervision or to attend a specific treatment programme. Other constraints might be put in place, such as a curfew preventing him from being outside a hostel at a particular time, for example, when children may be leaving school to go home.
Where there are no licence conditions, the police can ask the courts for a sexual offences prevention order, which can place various controls over an offender. For example, an individual may not be allowed to drive a car, go near parks or schools or drink alcohol and so on. All those things would render them at greater risk of causing harm to others. If an offender does not abide by the conditions of the sexual offences prevention order, they may face a prison sentence.
As well as the multi-agency risk management arrangements that I have just outlined, sex offenders have, since 1997, been subject to additional requirements on release from prison, which are designed to ensure that the police know their whereabouts once they are released. Those notification requirements, which are commonly known as the sex offender register, have been enhanced by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. For example, the registration arrangements now have to be updated annually.
We have a robust system of risk management in place, but we continue to look at ways to strengthen those arrangements further. As members of the Committee will know, two major pieces of criminal justice legislation have recently passed through the House—one of them awaits approval by the House of Lords—which will have important implications for the work carried out in this area by criminal justice agencies.
First, the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 contains major reforms of sentencing arrangements in Northern Ireland, including a new statutory risk assessment and management arrangement as well as new, indeterminate sentences for the most dangerous offenders. That means that offenders can be sent to prison for longer and not allowed out until it is deemed safe to do so. Secondly, the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008, which we have already mentioned, represents a major shake-up in sexual offences legislation for Northern Ireland. Taken together, that important legislative package provides a clear indication of the Government’s continuing focus on public protection.
In practice, the reforms will mean that the maximum sentence available to the courts for an adult convicted of sexual activity with a child will increase from two years to 14. That move has been broadly welcomed throughout Northern Ireland. The introduction of extended and indeterminate sentences sends out a strong message: those who pose the greatest risk will go to prison for longer and we will control their release and make them subject to requirements in the community that, if breached, may result in a further period in prison.
Additional constraints can be placed on the offender when they are back in the community and subject to probation supervision. The Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 will introduce constraints such as curfew conditions, with electronic tags to ensure that offenders keep to them. So, it will be possible to give curfews to sex offenders coming out of prison and to tag them electronically if such measures are judged necessary to control their risk.
We have a comprehensive package of legislative and practical measures that are designed to protect the community from sexual crime, although I do not suggest for a moment that we have eliminated risk. Nothing that we do can completely eliminate risk from the community, as human society will always have risk and risky behaviour. What is important is how we as a Government and the agencies seek to manage that risk to enhance public safety.
Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The Minister has carefully and helpfully outlined how MASRAM works, but does he accept that part of the problem in some high profile cases in Northern Ireland has been the failure of the wider community to understand the rationale behind its operation? There has been misunderstanding and a lack of information, some of which we are getting from the Minister today but much of which has not been in the public domain before.
Paul Goggins: It is an afternoon of welcome and congratulations, Dr. McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, looking after sport. His interest in sport is well known.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Perhaps the selection of this topic for debate by the Grand Committee is a signal that we intend to do far more to raise the profile of how sex offenders are managed. There is an early temptation not to talk about these matters much because it might frighten people and they might fear that they are facing a more substantial risk than is the case, but I take a different view. We need to explain to the public the measures that we are putting in place—in law and through the work of agencies—to show that we are managing the risk effectively and in a way that should give them confidence that risk is being managed.
Since 2001, more than 900 individuals have been assessed and managed through that process, and in only three cases has a serious review been necessary because of further serious sexual offending being carried out by someone who was subject to the management arrangements. I hope that that sends out a strong message that although there is risk, it can be managed effectively. We should not be shy about explaining that to the public.
Sammy Wilson: The Minister says that there has had to be a review of risk in three cases. What percentage of those deemed high risk have had that risk reassessed or have reoffended in any way?
Paul Goggins: During the debate, I will perhaps take the opportunity to obtain more specific information on that, rather than answering off the cuff.
We are getting to the point at which I should sit down and let others contribute. I thought it important to give some factual background to the debate, but we can now have the debate. Before I finish, let me say that there is a huge responsibility on my shoulders, as the Minister, and on those of the people who lead the agencies that deliver the MASRAM arrangements. They are protecting vulnerable people and children, and there is no more urgent or higher responsibility than that for any of us. I am proud to say that the agencies in Northern Ireland are up to that task and are determined and committed. I pay tribute to them, and I look forward to the debate.
4.55 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. My remarks, too, will be general for the same reason that the Minister gave. As he said, the Government have already begun to remodel the MASRAM system, but given that it has only just been introduced, we will not be able to judge its effectiveness for perhaps a couple of years. However, as he said, there are one or two issues that we can discuss.
It is useful to refer back to the 2005 report by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland, which made a number of recommendations for ways in which MASRAM could be improved. The Government implemented changes on the basis of those recommendations, which we broadly welcome: the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 placed MASRAM on a statutory footing, and the Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 further strengthened and tightened up legislation on sexual offences.
As the Minister said, many of the changes made to MASRAM were modelled on the multi-agency public protection arrangements—its English equivalent—which have experienced some functional problems. As with so much legislation, therefore, Northern Ireland has the benefit of being able to learn from such mistakes, which is why I would like to draw attention to court orders—in particular, sex offender orders, sexual offences prevention orders and risk of sexual harm orders. It is reported that such court orders have not been used nearly enough, and in one case, mentioned in the CJI report, a court order took 15 months to obtain. Under MAPPA such orders have not been used effectively either, and I submit that court orders must be used to full effect under MASRAM, because they can provide a powerful tool against offenders. It has also been mentioned that the earlier they are used, the more likely they are to be used in future and to become an entrenched part of the system.
MAPPA has been overburdened with cases, and will probably be more so now that violent offenders are to be included in its remit. Having said that, the case for including violent offenders was strong, and in some cases violent offenders perhaps pose a threat equal to, or greater than, that posed by sexual offenders. However, such an expansion in work load will present problems, given the numbers to be dealt with, and place a strain on very limited resources. The agencies must focus on high-risk, category 3 cases in order to maximise public protection, because such people pose the biggest threat to society. MASRAM must, therefore, be discerning in expanding the number of offenders on the system. Recent definitions of sexual and violent offenders provided under legislation will help in that process and give legitimacy to decisions made by those in MASRAM, and the newly established parole board will play a key role in supervising and overseeing violent offenders.
I accept, of course, that Northern Ireland has its own unique circumstances, but the inclusion of violent offenders will exclude paramilitary-related offences, which, the CJI report stated, were “not amenable to supervision”. However, as we have seen, paramilitary criminal activity has stubbornly remained with us for a long time, and might even be on the increase—offences such as drug trafficking, fuel smuggling and other violent offences. We might have missed an opportunity here in not including such offences in the new system. I understand that specialists and practitioners at MASRAM might feel at risk, or unqualified, in dealing with such offenders, but it would be useful to harness the new system to help tackle the rise of paramilitary crime in that respect.
The comparison between MASRAM and MAPPA has been useful, but we still need to ensure that MASRAM can improve on areas and learn from the experiences of MAPPA. It is good to see that that appears to be working well in my own county of Gloucester. An annual report from MAPPA shows that between 2005 and 2006, 98.4 per cent. of those on the register in the county did not go on to commit further offences, which has to be the main objective of a system such as this. Once the consultation period is finished and MASRAM is newly formed, I hope that it will go on to perform just as well.
An area where MASRAM has been said to fall short, and where I hope the new system will succeed, relates to what might be called administration. While in other agencies form-filling and document-keeping might be seen to be a necessary but burdensome bureaucratic task, it is key when managing the risk posed by sex offenders and violent offenders, and it should become an integral part of the system. To that extent, information sharing between the agencies is crucial. Indeed, the Minister referred to that aspect of it.
The 2005 CJI report identified the need for a case management system, and that related specifically to category 3 cases, which are the highest risk cases. I see that the Government’s consultation provides for that, but the wording seems cautious, so I hope that they will not fall short in that area. The summary of that section of the consultation states that that must be decided on a case-by-case basis. That is exactly the point—an agency must not be afraid to share or release information when it sees fit.
There are many aspects to information sharing. One aspect that the Minister touched on, and that often receives much media attention, related to the release of convicted paedophiles into the community at the end of their sentences. Of course, that is a controversial point, but it could be said that in the majority of cases the uncontrolled release of information about the offender might not be the best way to offer the greatest public protection. Perhaps that information should only be released to a third party in special and extenuating circumstances. We have seen the importance of MASRAM in such cases, although I accept that there are different views on that extremely controversial point.
Continuing on the point about information, the 2007 CJI inspection report, “The Management of Sex Offenders - Follow-up Inspection”, recommended that wider access be given to the violent offender and sex offender register. For those who work within the MASRAM process there will be clear benefits from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Probation Board of Northern Ireland having access to each others’ information systems.
The 2007 CJI inspection report has highlighted some important issues. The report following the brutal murder of Attracta Harron showed that this was an instance where MASRAM had perhaps not worked as efficiently as it might have done and where a sexual offender who was released into the community went on to commit murder, causing a great deal of trouble and heartache for the family left behind. That case and the media attention led to greater scrutiny of MASRAM, and the 2007 CJI report states that the process has been improved as a result.
One of that report’s recommendations was that the PSNI should set targets in local policing plans for managing the risks posed by sex offenders. While in some circles the PSNI was identified as being at fault in that case, and it was said that it failed to attend MASRAM meetings that discussed the sex offender, Trevor Hamilton, that seems to be a fairly straightforward issue to deal with and improve on. However, it is hoped that such cases are the exception. Of course, they should not have happened and they demonstrate why we need to keep working on improving the management of sex offenders.
The multi-agency model that we see for MAPPA and MASRAM, and that I hope we will continue to see for Public Protection Arrangements Northern Ireland—I am not sure how one pronounces “PPANI”; on this occasion, it is easier to give the long title—appears to work well. With the correct framework and given sufficient resources, which, of course, are frequently the key, the system has the potential to succeed in reducing the number of offences by identifying, assessing and managing areas of risk. Again, and as the Minister said, unfortunately risk cannot be entirely eliminated, so even with the best efforts and correct procedures followed by all the agencies involved, some reoffending certainly will take place, but the target has to be to reduce it as much as possible.
The CJI 2005 report referred to hard-working individuals in the core agencies. They work extremely hard, and have done for a long while, in various positions to keep the Northern Ireland community safe. I conclude by paying to tribute to them. Their work is extremely commendable, and they should be given as much support as possible.
5.6 pm
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Welcome to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. Today, we are discussing two areas of ongoing major concern to the people of Northern Ireland: the risk assessment and management of sex offenders in the Province. Those two vital issues raise serious questions to which the statutory agencies must give proper and full answers. I would like to put several questions to the Minister. I hope he can deal with them and give the Committee full and detailed answers.
I begin by giving as an example of why this is such an important subject the case of Patrick Joseph Coleman from the town of Lurgan in my constituency. This must be one of the worst of such cases on record in the Province. He raped and murdered a nine-year-old child and shoved her body down a drain. She was found by her father and grandfather. When Coleman was released after his life sentence, he was allowed back in the community without warning to the people of north Belfast. Against the conditions of his release, he was accompanied by a prison psychologist to Lurgan, where he committed a further sexual assault for which he was never charged. He cohabited with the prison psychologist and her 11-year-old son.
Coleman later moved to Thompson house, a hostel on the Antrim road in Belfast. With the knowledge of the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, he went in and out of houses where vulnerable children lived. No one told the community about the nature of his crimes. He then raped an adult woman, was prosecuted and charged, and has now been returned to prison.
Bearing all that in mind, I turn first to risk assessment. People are under continuous observation for some offences. Think of motoring offences: under a penalty points system, people are continuously monitored so that negative consequences immediately ensue if they cross a threshold. In the House of Commons just last week, my colleagues and I, together with the sole Ulster Unionist MP, the hon. Member for North Down, came under criticism for going through the Lobby in support of the Government’s proposed 42-day detention. The detention involved in those proposals would occur before any criminal activity on the part of the individual had been proved. Indeed, under the Government’s proposals the House would consider and debate the person’s case before the court could pass a verdict on their innocence or guilt.
Last week, the Government were of the view that there was sufficient concern regarding that type of offence that it merited such action, based, one might say, on a form of “risk assessment” from security agencies and senior police chiefs. That was the Government’s view last week; it was also the Minister’s view last week. Last week, my colleagues and I, under severe criticism, decided that, on balance, we would support that position.
We are now just one week on from that debate. One week on, we would be well within our rights to conclude that it must also be the Government’s position that rigorous, detailed and overarching processes should be in place to ensure that any sex offender is properly assessed against their potential risk of reoffending against a particular type of victim—just as is the case under anti-terrorist legislation—before they do so again. If the Government are to be consistent, it must follow that that is the case and that the attitude that they displayed last week towards one type of offender is the same attitude that they have this week with regard to this type of offender.
I want to ask the Minister about how people are classified as a category 1, 2 or 3 offender. Is there a standardised system of categorisation? What mitigating circumstances might have a person classified in one of the lesser categories, as opposed to being categorised as the most serious type of offender?
On assessing the potential risk that a previously convicted person might subsequently pose to others, I would like the Minister to respond to the following scenario. We have, for example, a man convicted of sexual offences against two young boys who subsequently commences a relationship with a woman. It could be a romantic relationship or a commercial relationship in which he is, say, a lodger. The woman involved has two children—not boys, but girls.
Can the Minister give me an assurance that in such a situation there is no possibility whatever, under any circumstances, that the authorities would or could ever conclude that, as the individual concerned had convictions relating to children, he posed little or no risk to an adult? Can he also give me an assurance that the authorities would and could never conclude that, as the individual’s convictions related to young boys, he posed little or no risk to young girls?
I want to ask the Minister another question. We know that sex offenders have one of the highest reoffending rates of any type of offender; that is a worldwide phenomenon. What consideration is given to that fact when putting together the risk assessment of any single individual?
The second strand of today’s debate is the management of sex offenders in the Province. There are a number of points that I feel I should raise. On day release, what supervision is in place when an offender goes into a home where there is a vulnerable partner or children? Is there any direct supervision, and is that in all cases or only some? If so, what criteria are used to determine that? Who makes the decision, what review mechanisms are in place and to whom is the person making the decision accountable?
On paedophiles, I am sure that the Minister knows that in many cases counselling does not work. I also have no doubt that he will agree that in many cases even an approach such as chemical castration will not work on its own, because the control of sexual drive is often only part of the problem. Many paedophiles are convinced that they really love children and that what they are doing is right. No chemical will alter those feelings.
There is the well documented case of a former Yorkshire miner who abused more than 30 children over 40 years. In 1993, he went on television to plead for the right to be surgically castrated, and he paid £1,200 for the pleasure. Soon after, however, he was discovered with a boy of 10. Although he might not have been able to have a sexual relationship, he still claimed to have found pure love with the child.
We have to face facts, and the facts of sexual offending make for disturbing reading when we examine reoffending rates and the danger of a poorly overseen and ineffective management system. In preparing for the debate in recent days, I have been in touch with organisations such as the Nexus Institute and the Belfast rape crisis centre. Eileen Calder of that centre has told me that there is a clear need for two initiatives to be taken immediately, both of which have been introduced in the United States and both of which the Government have turned their face against.
The first initiative is a definite policy of “three strikes and you’re out”. If a class of offender has particularly high reoffending rates, is particularly immune to any form of treatment and is particularly liable to use deceit to place themselves in a situation where reoffending is made more possible, such an approach not only makes sense but seems essential.
The second measure that we ought to have—again, I repeat what I have been told by the Belfast rape crisis centre, so this is not just a DUP or a politician’s opinion—is a Megan’s law, or what has become known in the United Kingdom as Sarah’s law. The Minister will know that I have asked him a number of questions on that matter and have expressed to him the fact that I fully support such a call.
The Minister will also know that the main point of objection to such an initiative is the express fear of vigilantes. I have never, in all my life, heard any parent in Northern Ireland or any victim of such an offence express such a fear. The only people whom I have ever heard say such things are those such as the Probation Board and Ministers.
There is little evidence of such activity in the US, where there is such a law, so why would it be more risky and pose a greater danger in the United Kingdom, particularly in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom? Are we to believe that the authorities or parents in the US care less for their children than authorities and Government spokespersons here? Alternatively, are we to believe that communities here are more violent than those in the United States, despite crime figures to the contrary and America’s gun laws? I hardly think so. Surely, it is an entirely legitimate approach to give all parents in the community the right to know where such offenders reside in their area.
That leads to my final point on another key issue—how to police areas where offenders reside. On 12 March, I obtained a written answer from the Minister on how many category 1, 2 and 3 sex offenders live in each police command unit in Northern Ireland. It made disturbing reading: 116 sex offenders live in south Belfast, with the next highest figures being for north Belfast, which has 56, and for Foyle, which has 51.
South Belfast has nearly twice as many sex offenders as any other area, but do police manpower numbers reflect the number of sex offenders living in an area? Given that reoffending rates are so high in relation to such offences, how is that issue tackled in manpower terms? How many police personnel in each area have specialist training in respect of such offences?
I have a lot more to say, but I know that other hon. Members want to speak. The Minister has shown commendable commitment to improving Northern Ireland’s position in relation to crime and punishment, and I hope and trust that he will answer as many of my questions as possible.
5.22 pm
Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): It was remiss of me, Dr. McCrea, not to congratulate you on your chairmanship earlier and to thank you for your courtesies.
I shall be brief, although I could take issue regarding risk assessment. We have done well on some aspects of risk assessment. It might be good or reasonable overall, or in most cases, but we could do a lot better. I could give some of the examples that have come across my bows in the past few years, but I prefer not to try to duplicate or compete with the excellent speech of my friend and colleague, the hon. Member for Upper Bann. I should like to concentrate on management and follow-up, because although risk assessment can be good—if too benign, occasionally—there will be major problems, regardless of how good or bad the risk assessment is, if management and follow-up are not carried out diligently.
My learned friend, the hon. Member for Upper Bann, has mentioned the situation in south Belfast, where a preponderance of offenders are situated—certainly more than twice what a proportionate share would be. In many cases, I have found that management can be arm’s-length and rather casual, without direct supervision. There is a degree of supervision and overall management and viewing but, at times, from day to day or from hour to hour, some offenders can be on the loose and open to re-offending. Management is not tight enough. In many cases, it is not clear who is in charge of management, because some of the people coming out of prison are housed in hostels managed by a housing association and often those charged with the management and oversight, in the probation sense, of their exit from prison or post-prison care can be at a distance. Often, the direct management is left to housing staff, who are not qualified and should not be expected to be given that responsibility. There is a need for much greater involvement and engagement on more than a day-to-day basis—perhaps with contact twice or three times a day—from the professional staff involved.
I want to emphasise that, in the case of south Belfast, there is a preponderance of instances and an extra dependence on the probation service and those who are supervising sex offenders do not have a lot of respect or consideration for the neighbourhood and the neighbours. Time and again we have run into crisis, because it is easy to pretend that nothing is happening, to cover up and hope that problems will get away in the dust. However, the reality is that people are scared. Sex offending, more than any other crime, is the scariest thing for parents of young children out there and for young women on winter evenings who are vulnerable as they try to make their way home alone.
There is a need to get the right balance, and a better balance, between the rights of people living in the community, who want to protect themselves and their children, and the rights of people who have served a prison sentence, paid their debt to society but who may, equally, be at risk of offending again. That is a difficult balance to strike, but sometimes we could strike it better. More concentration needs to go into that and more attention needs to be paid to it. I am worried about that.
My ultimate point is that there is a lot of fear in my constituency and in the neighbourhood I live in, which is adjacent to Queen’s university and student-land. There is not the same collective, close-knit neighbourhood that might exist in other parts of the city, where people are known to each other. There are a quite a few anonymous people and a lot of flat-dwellers and most offences take place in that area. People, rightly or wrongly, join up the fact that it is regarded as a safe place into which the prisons and the probation service discharge people who have previously committed offences with the fact that other offences occur, many of which are never brought to justice or traced. All of this creates anxiety and fear.
I urge the Minister, as we move forward with new legislation, to try to find a balance. I know that he will. I congratulate him and thank him for the hard work that he has done and for the good, helpful advice and guidance on this issue that he has given many hon. Members, including me. However, people are frightened. I talk to people every week who tell me that they are frightened. Sometimes they are only afraid of the fear, but the fear factor is out there. Many young women are afraid to walk about the city alone at night. The reason for that is that attacks happen occasionally. I read on the plane only this afternoon about somebody with a previous record who has been convicted.
I thank you for your tolerance, Dr. McCrea, and I urge the Minister to do what he can to strengthen the follow-up management and get the balance right between allowing people who genuinely want to reform, recover and move on, having paid their debt to society, the space to do so and, equally, to protect neighbourhoods from those who do not intend to do that.
5.29 pm
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. I welcome also the opportunity to debate this important subject, which is obviously of great concern to people in Northern Ireland. The high profile given in the early 1990s to cases of serial sex offenders who had committed sexual offences against children over a period of many years led to a multi-agency conference being organised in 1997 by the Northern Ireland Office and the National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers. That conference resulted in the establishment of a working group with representation from the agencies and organisations with responsibilities for, and an interest in, protecting the public, especially children, from the risks posed by sex offenders. The working group produced a manual of guidance in 2001.
Notification requirements for sex offenders have been in place in Northern Ireland since 1997, and the formal MASRAM arrangements were launched in 2002. Where an offender subject to the requirements of the sex offenders register is released from prison, or otherwise comes into the community, they will be subject to a management system, involving members of the police, probation and social services along with other agencies, such as the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The MASRAM arrangements include the Northern Ireland sex offender strategic management committee—pronounced “nysosmick”, if I understood the Minister’s pronunciation correctly. It is a high-level strategic management committee, and is supported by six area management committees.
The Northern Ireland Sex Offender Strategic Management Committee is chaired by an assistant chief constable and has membership from a variety of statutory and voluntary bodies. It takes high-level strategic decisions on policy and structure, and provides a quality assurance oversight to the work of the area committees. Over the years a number of sub-groups of the committee have developed to support its work, such as in media and publicity, accommodation, research, forensics, training and high risk review. Each sex offender is allocated to a designated risk manager who leads within the multi-agency framework on the management of the offender and reports to the chair of the area sex offender risk management committee. The DRM could be from any of the agencies involved and will be appointed by the ASORMC, which will develop an action plan to monitor and manage the offender during his time in the MASRAM scheme.
It is important to note that the inspector found that,
“trusting and collaborative working relationships have been developed”,
which no doubt has enabled the various agencies to work well together for the protection of the public and contributed to the greater consistency in practice that the chief inspector found has been achieved.
The chief inspector made a number of recommendations that he felt could be used to build on the positive foundations that have already been established. A key recommendation was that MASRAM should be placed on a statutory footing, with supporting guidance to underpin its activity. It was also suggested that the remit of MASRAM be extended to include violent offenders. In total, 36 recommendations were made to further improve the work being carried out by the MASRAM arrangements. The latest annual report from NISOSMC showed that the Committee was willing to listen and learn from those recommendations, and indicated that, following the recommendations, a major review was carried out in 2006, and a new set of practice guidelines launched in October of that year.
Current arrangements are undergoing further development following the passing of the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008, which allows the Secretary of State to issue statutory guidance to a range of named agencies in relation to the establishment of arrangements to protect the public, including measures on information sharing and the appointment of lay advisors to the committee. Those arrangements will facilitate NISOSMC to continue to risk assess and manage as appropriate non-adjudicated but potentially dangerous persons. I understand that these new public protection arrangements will be launched in October.
I have a few questions for the Minister. The first relates to cross-border arrangements. There are obviously interfaces with arrangements in the Irish Republic, and there is some evidence of cross-border elements to a number of high profile cases. I understand that there have been a number of cases of people trying to use the border to frustrate registration requirements. Although progress has been made, not least with the Garda attending area committees considering individuals when there is a cross-border element and the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Irish and UK Governments on information exchange for the purposes of sex offender management, much remains to be done, particularly with the development in the Republic of Ireland of common systems, languages and processes for sex offender management. What steps are the Government taking with the Republic’s Government to develop common processes north and south of the border to manage those who pose a risk?
That brings me to funding arrangements in general. Agencies in Northern Ireland have invested significant amounts of time in MASRAM and will continue to do so under the new public protection arrangements. Those are in addition to all the other functions, and at times funding has been an issue, particularly because of the small amounts of funding to support the infrastructure of the arrangements, such as co-ordinator and support staff.
The new arrangements will put particular demands on social services, the probation service and the police. Will the Minister give the Committee more details about the investment that the Government intend to make both in the infrastructure of the arrangements and in funding additional requirements in agencies? Will he assure us that enough funding will be put in place to ensure that all the agencies can operate successfully? I look forward to the Minister’s response.
5.38 pm
Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Dr. McCrea. We all agree that few issues arouse as much interest or concern in the community as that of sex offenders. The sentences served and their subsequent placement back in the community cause considerable disquiet among the public.
There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children. There must be sufficient confidence that the community has the best possible protection against such perverts, and it is important that there be a mature public debate on the issues, but the security of our citizens must be our overriding priority.
There have been several recent high-profile cases, such as the murder of Attracta Harron. Young people such as Victoria ClimbiĆ(c) were let down because of poor communication between agencies and staff. Similarly, Ian Huntley, who was convicted of the Soham murders, was able to gain employment in a school because record-keeping was not sufficiently rigorous.
We talk about encouraging people to come forward and to report sexual abuse, but I have a constituent who, along with her sisters, was abused by an older brother. All gave statements willingly to the authorities, but to add insult to the horror of the trauma, they were told that their brother’s activities were time-barred. I wrote to many people, including the Chief Constable and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and had a general issues meeting with the Lord Chief Justice. I was told that there was no such thing as a time bar, yet to date the case has not been addressed. In the meantime, according to the lady who came to me, it is apparent that the brother is interfering with his own granddaughter, so it is likely that he must have been doing the same to his daughter. Where is justice and, more importantly, closure for the unimaginable suffering that those ladies endured for years during the most vulnerable and innocent stage of childhood?
The updating of legislation through the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 seeks to place arrangements for managing the risk from offenders on a statutory footing. That is a positive and welcome objective. It is essential that all relevant agencies work together and share information fully. Effective multi-agency working is crucial in order to maximise public protection.
Recently the Government sought to reform our sexual offences legislation in Northern Ireland, but they appear determined to ignore the Northern Ireland Assembly, whose Ad Hoc Committee report stated that
“the Committee strongly recommends that there be no change to the current age of consent at 17.”
The report was endorsed by the full Assembly, and I take this opportunity to reiterate the firm view on this matter of the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives.
A young person should have the emotional and psychological maturity to cope with the consequences of sexual activity. The 1994 national survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles in Britain found that 58.5 per cent. of girls whose first act of intercourse was before the age of consent later regretted it. Research a couple of years ago showed that almost 80 per cent. of young people in Northern Ireland were delaying their first sex experience until beyond the age of consent. The legal age sends a signal, and it is mistaken to imagine that it is irrelevant and does not impact on young people or alter their mindset.
Reducing the age of consent will decrease the number of convictions for sexual offences against young teenagers. Convictions tend to be less likely if the victim is only slightly below the age of consent. If the legal age is reduced by one year, many cases that are currently pursued would not be. For an age of consent offence, it has to be proven only that a sexual act took place, while beyond the legal age the issue of whether consent was given must be established. That would mean more young girls being faced with the trauma of having to give evidence in court.
There is an onus on the judiciary to impose sufficiently strong sentences. The removal of automatic 50 per cent. remission represents a step in the right direction. Victims are understandably reticent about coming forward and giving evidence. If sentences are not sufficiently severe, fewer people will come forward. All non-consensual sexual activity should be criminalised, and there must be greater protection for children and vulnerable individuals. For instance, it is important that those with mental health problems and learning disabilities be fully protected.
Preparatory offences such as administering drugs or alcohol with the intention to commit a sexual offence are also important. If someone has sexual intercourse with a child under 13, the offence will automatically be rape. The logic behind that is that a child under the age of 13 does not under any circumstances have any capacity to consent to any form of sexual activity. Acknowledgement of that principle is welcome, but I question whether the age required for capacity to give consent should not be higher. The convention on the rights of the child recognises a child as a person under the age of 18 years, due to their evolving capacity. Society has a role to protect immature children from decisions that they lack the competence and experience to make themselves.
Regional child protection policy and procedures pertaining to under-age sexual activity already exist in Northern Ireland. However, they are not always followed. Section 9.47 of the area child protection committees’ regional policy and procedures states:
“In all cases where the sexually active young person is under the age of 14, there must be a discussion with Social Services who will make the necessary enquiries and will consult with partner agencies, including the Police, as appropriate.”
Some argue that confidentiality should be paramount and that if a young person felt that others may be informed, it would discourage them from seeking advice. Health professionals are certainly entitled to argue that case if they wish and to seek to have the rules changed, but existing procedures should not be ignored; otherwise, we would be better off without them, rather than pretending that they were being enforced. We should not make an idol of confidentiality, and the child’s best interests should supersede their desire for confidentiality.
Those of us who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland will welcome measures that serve to promote collaborative working and hence reduce the risk to the public from individuals who are often devious. I reiterate my dissatisfaction with the fact that legislation to manage such risk is being brought forward in an Order in Council, without the opportunity to amend or alter it in any way.
5.46 pm
Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): This is an important debate for all of us, particularly on the issues that face our colleagues in Northern Ireland. We have heard from colleagues who have eloquently articulated the hideous consequences and graphic reality that face all of us when we consider the reoffending of sex offenders. I shall not detain the Committee too long, but I wish to make some points to the Minister. Some of them have been raised by other hon. Members, and we need answers to our questions either today or in written responses if the Minister is unable to answer them now. I know that he is a man of great integrity in his job. The questions are coming thick and fast, and there might not be time for him to tackle all of them, but we require answers to them so that we can move forward positively.
The CJI’s March 2005 report recommended the establishment of co-located inter-agency teams to enhance collaborative working. The December 2006 interim report reiterated that recommendation, and the November 2007 follow-up inspection report further stressed the need for co-located teams. Will the Minister give us more detail about the progress that has been made on that seemingly crucial issue, which was mentioned earlier?
The 2008 draft guidance follows recommendations in the 2005 CJI report to include violent offenders in MASRAM’s remit. What steps are being taken to ensure that MASRAM and the public protection arrangements Northern Ireland will receive the extra funding and resources that they will inevitably need to operate effectively with such an increased workload? In 2005, MASRAM personnel were identified as overloaded because too much time and resources were being spent on low and medium risk cases. Guidance is now in place to include violent offenders in MASRAM. What steps are being taken to ensure that that extension of the remit will not affect MASRAM’s efficiency to an even greater extent? That point has been well articulated today.
According to the latest Police Service of Northern Ireland annual statistical report, for April 2007 to March 2008, the police recorded a rise, albeit small, in the number of sexual offences. What is the Minister’s assessment of that rise? In 2005, in feedback on the 2005 CJI report, MASRAM was described as “chronically under-resourced” by senior representatives of the inspected organisations—the police, the probation service, the Prison Service and social services. Those organisations called for more resources as a matter of priority. Has that issue been given priority? Will the Minister give us full details of what will happen as a result of that request?
In the interim report of December 2006, the Prison Service told inspectors that it was concerned about the future direction of MASRAM in light of anticipated further pressures on the prison population. Has that concern been taken fully into account in light of the fact that MASRAM includes violent offenders?
In 2005, it was recommended that inter-agency case management should be employed only in high-risk cases due to the MASRAM model becoming overloaded. The 2006 interim report found that the Northern Ireland Prison Service was concerned that it might lead to an underestimation of the risk posed by category 2 offenders. How have the agencies within MASRAM reconciled those approaches?
The 2005 report identified a feeling among non-core agencies that they were not fully included in the process. They were used when needed but were not kept fully informed of relevant developments. To what extent has the role of lay and voluntary agencies in MASRAM been made more concrete? I would be grateful if the Minister would answer those specific points either today or in the future.
5.51 pm
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea. This issue concerns people not only in Northern Ireland but in all communities, and that concern is heightened now and again by high-profile cases in which children are attacked by people who have offended, been released into the community and re-offended. Two of the most high-profile cases in Northern Ireland have been highlighted today: those of Patrick Coleman and Attracta Harron. They resulted in legislation to close loopholes, which we discussed not long ago.
There has been a significant rise in the number of people on the sexual offences register in Northern Ireland in the past four years. Between 2005 and June 2008, the number rose by nearly 50 per cent. from 544 to 796. There is also a much higher rate of people complying with notification requirements in Northern Ireland, with nearly 99 per cent. of those on the register complying with all their requirements. Nevertheless, there is still concern.
There have been cases in East Antrim in which rumours have got around of people being released into the community and living there, but the community had no knowledge of what their offences were, whether they were high, medium or low-risk or whether they lived close to schools or had associations with children. Such cases cause great disquiet. In parts of Northern Ireland, there is the added dimension of people feeling that the authorities have not given them the information that they require and then bringing suspected individuals to the attention of paramilitaries. We must consider the amount of information that is given; I have some suggestions to make on that later.
According to the statistics that my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann obtained from the police, 37 people on the sexual offences register live in my constituency. I know that that figure is not as high, for example, as the one for the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast, South. Nevertheless, those individuals cause concern in the towns where they have been placed.
Of course, the argument is that those individuals have to live somewhere and I accept that, if people have served their sentence and done their time, they have the right to freedom. Equally, as has been pointed out in this debate, given the higher risk of reoffending for this kind of offence, considerable safeguards need to be put in place. Indeed, the evidence of and the testimony of many of those who have been involved in sexual offences is that they themselves recognise the danger that they present to the community. Many of them admit that and many of them accept that they need careful management, because of the high risk of reoffending that exists.
There are just a couple of points that I want to make about the practical issues. The Minister has given reassurances here today and he has very succinctly outlined the work of MASRAM and the checks that exist, and so on. However, the first thing that we must remember is that many of the people that we are dealing with lead chaotic and unpredictable lives. Because of the kind of attitudes that they have, very often they try to duck below the radar screen of the supervision that is undertaken; they do so because once that urge grabs them, they want to act on it. That is their own testimony; they want to find ways of being able to satisfy that urge.
Despite all the best attentions that are paid to those who are high-risk offenders, they may only be visited and interviewed once every three months; maybe the Minister could confirm that. I understand the resource implications, and so on. However, if people were aware of that level of supervision and the time gap that there may be between visits, even with high-risk offenders, I think that there would be a great deal of concern about just how effective the risk assessment is.
I was reading an article a couple of weeks ago; I think that it was in one of the Sunday papers. One person who was being interviewed said, “Look, if I stop with the medication and everything else, in a day I could have reoffended”. He talked about walking past a park and watching wee lads playing football; how he had kind of stalked out the place; how there was a river and a bridge, and how he had worked out where he could take them, and everything else. He himself was effectively admitting, “Look, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a long process from where I am now, not reoffending and not wanting to reoffend at present, to eventually reoffending again”. Just in an instant, he was saying, there could be a change. The level of supervision, especially for the highest-risk offenders, perhaps leaves a lot to be desired. Of course, we must balance that level of supervision with the resource implications that may exist.
Maybe the Minister could just give us some reassurance about what kind of level of supervision will exist. When we are talking about continual reassessing of the risk, how often is that done and what type of visitation will there be?
The second point to be made is this. Where there is a change in the pattern of behaviour, or where it is noticed that people’s behaviour changes so that they may be deemed to be moving into higher risk again, what action can be taken? Obviously, there is action that can be taken as far as the individual is concerned. However, there is also a need for other action. This is where the disclosure of information is important. I know that there is a reluctance to disclose information and I can understand one of the reasons for such reluctance. A balance needs to be struck between protecting people and not causing undue panic or encouraging vigilantism.
What happens, however, when there is an apparent change in behaviour? For example, if someone who is not an offender is seen to be frequenting a particular school or playground, what information should be given to the school principal or community leaders? Should they be informed that someone in their community, who has been living in their community without worrying those monitoring them, is now a cause for worry? One of two things can be done: either more information could be given to those whose children might be vulnerable, or an intervention could be made to immediately relocate that person, so that the behaviour pattern is broken. I would be interested to hear, from the practical point of view, how MASRAM is working. Is consideration given to such matters? At what stage might it be decided to give more information or to remove the individual?
My third concern is about the level of monitoring, which the Minister tells us is very close. What would happen if someone appears to have attached themselves to another person in a way that gives them access to children, at which point the grooming process might begin? We heard the example of Patrick Coleman, and there are many other examples from Great Britain. Someone might link themselves with a woman with a couple of children and then use that relationship to get to those children. Despite the right of the individual concerned to lead a normal life—some might call it that—and to build up a normal relationship, I believe, on balance, that society would expect the woman or family to be informed. Similarly, if he has moved into employment or some other relationship likely to be exploited, there ought to be a requirement to inform the relevant individuals. Again, I would be interested to know what Northern Ireland policy is for supplying specific information to an individual, employer or community group that it is felt is being used by someone with a record and who is seen to be a risk to children.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute touched on another matter of great concern: people moving to Northern Ireland, not just from the Irish Republic, who might have a history of sex offending. Owing to the security difficulties and troubles in Northern Ireland, not many people used to come to live their—in fact, more left to live outside—but increasingly large numbers of people from other parts of the United Kingdom and Europe are taking up permanent residence and working in Northern Ireland. That is a good thing, but some of those people might of course be sex offenders. What arrangements have been made for the transfer of information from other jurisdictions to Northern Ireland—not just from the Irish Republic, although that is an important focus—to inform the authorities that someone who might be a risk is coming to live in Northern Ireland?
There is a need to explain to people in Northern Ireland what safeguards are in place, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry indicated in his intervention, and it is important that those safeguards are secure enough to give reassurance that not only do we have a system in place, but it is working. I ask the Minister for some information about reoffending rates, particularly among high-risk offenders. Perhaps he could supply that information at the end of the debate.
Lastly, we need to look at how we share the knowledge that all of the experts have in this regard with the wider community. I am not convinced that simply publishing the address of every sexual offender who comes into an area is the best way to tackle the problem, but I believe that it is possible to target that information for landlords, families who might have identified an individual as paying an undue interest, schools when it is seen that an offender is close to a school and community leaders when it is seen that an individual might be trying to use community opportunities to groom people. All of those things are important.
The one thing that I am fairly sure of, although it might be based on a wrong perception, is that every high-profile case that occurs and every instance of reoffending only reinforces the view among ordinary people that the balance is too far in favour of the offender and that despite all of the resources put into it and all of the systems that have been devised, the justice system is not capable of affording the public the level of protection that they and I believe they should have from the dangerous offenders who, as has been pointed out in the debate, are guilty of some of the most heinous crimes.
Even in the reporting of those crimes there is probably a certain amount of filtering out of the worst information. The article in one of the Sunday papers that I referred to mentioned one of the people involved in the management of those offenders. He said that every time he looked at some of the people he was managing he was sick to his stomach when he thought about the offences they had committed. He felt that sometimes the system was not robust enough. I hope that the Minister can give us some reassurances and that the plea that has been made by Members today that we find ways of sharing information to avoid and reduce the risk to the community will be looked at closely.
6.9 pm
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