House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2008 - 09
Publications on the internet
Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: John Cummings
Burden, Richard (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab)
Cryer, Mrs. Ann (Keighley) (Lab)
Dorrell, Mr. Stephen (Charnwood) (Con)
Eagle, Maria (Minister of State, Ministry of Justice)
Field, Mr. Frank (Birkenhead) (Lab)
Garnier, Mr. Edward (Harborough) (Con)
Hall, Mr. Mike (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
Hemming, John (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD)
Howarth, David (Cambridge) (LD)
Jones, Helen (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)
Kelly, Ruth (Bolton, West) (Lab)
Lilley, Mr. Peter (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
Smith, Geraldine (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab)
Stuart, Ms Gisela (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab)
Taylor, Mr. Ian (Esher and Walton) (Con)
Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 30 June 2009

[John Cummings in the Chair]

Draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2009

10.30 am
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2009.
May I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to be in this stuffy Committee Room on a wonderful day. That might not be a pleasure, Mr. Cummings, but serving under your chairmanship clearly is.
The order is part of the Government’s ongoing commitment to keep safeguarding measures in step with developments elsewhere and to balance the need to rehabilitate offenders into employment with the need to protect the public—particularly vulnerable groups—from those who pose an unacceptable risk. As Members will be aware, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 is intended to give a helping hand to those who have a criminal conviction but have put criminality behind them, enabling them to avoid stigma and discrimination by not having to have reference made to previous convictions in certain circumstances. However, in some circumstances it is appropriate for the employer or licensing body to know about spent convictions. In cases of protecting children, the vulnerable, and purposes critical to national security, the need to protect the public outweighs the need to protect the ex-offender. It is this balance that the order seeks to maintain by specifying when spent convictions can be disclosed and when they need not be.
The order seeks to make five groups of changes. The first, and probably the most important, provision is the creation of an exception to the Act for those working or seeking to work in regulated activity as defined by the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006; that includes those who wish to work in direct, frequent contact with children or vulnerable adults. The 2006 Act is part of the Government's response to the Soham murders and the Bichard report into those murders. It is a piece of legislation that will significantly strengthen safeguarding practice in this country.
For the first time it will be necessary for all those working in regular direct contact with vulnerable groups to be vetted by an independent body—the Independent Safeguarding Authority. There will be an obligation on employers to check that their employees are registered. Those registered will be subject to monitoring, meaning that their employer will be informed if, as a result of any new convictions, the Independent Safeguarding Authority deregisters them as safe to work with vulnerable groups.
The order also relates to the Channel Islands. This is part of the process of extending the 2006 Act to the islands. That was requested by Channel Island Ministers, who are keen to ensure that the islands are protected by the same vetting arrangements as are being introduced in England and Wales. For that to happen, the exceptions order has to be extended to the Channel Islands. That is what the order seeks to achieve. This measure is a sensible means of ensuring that safeguarding does not end at the south coast.
I now turn to the provision relating to master locksmiths. Before giving somebody access to house keys or, even more crucially, the keys to a hospital or an old people’s home, it is not unreasonable to expect that person to have been checked and assessed as trustworthy and honest. The Master Locksmiths Association, the principal trade body representing locksmiths and promoting standards within the industry, runs a licensing scheme that enables the public to be reassured that their locksmith has been vetted; the Home Office and many police forces recommend using a member of the Master Locksmiths Association for crucial security purposes. The association also requires anyone wishing to sign up to its courses, which include learning how to circumvent almost any lock without a key, to sign up to the relevant category of membership. It seems appropriate that the association should be supported in this and given the appropriate information to make an informed vetting decision—hence the inclusion of the Master Locksmiths Association provision in this instrument.
On the provisions relating to licences to handle controlled drugs and precursor chemicals, the need to regulate access to such materials and closely regulate that sector seems clear and increasing. The industry around the legitimate production of controlled substances—for instance for pharmaceutical purposes—is hugely important. We need responsible people to produce controlled drugs for their intended purpose, and to destroy those controlled drugs which should not be in circulation. It is vital that those substances do not get into the wrong hands. For that reason, it is illegal to handle a number of drugs without the appropriate licence from the Home Office.
The Government also have important international obligations, under a number of United Nations conventions, to ensure that narcotics and psychotropic substances are subject to adequate controls. The Home Office is responsible for fulfilling those obligations and believes that is an area where our safeguards need to be strengthened. The order enables the Home Office drug licensing and compliance unit to assess all convictions of relevant persons when deciding whether to grant a licence to handle controlled drugs and precursor chemicals. A full enhanced disclosure will be issued, enabling an informed decision to be made.
Finally, we turn to the provisions relating to employment in the Criminal Records Bureau. That body is responsible for providing disclosures, including criminal record information, for the purposes listed in the exceptions order. A recent review of its staff security has recommended that, in order to meet best practice for such sensitive work, it should enhance its internal staff vetting from a baseline standard to an enhanced standard using full criminal record disclosures. The CRB will also process future applications for Independent Safeguarding Authority registration on behalf of the ISA. Failure to pass on details of a conviction to the ISA could result in a person working with children who would otherwise be barred from doing so. It is vital, then, that those working in the role be checked and cleared as not having any criminal history.
As the CRB’s business develops, those with criminal records that they would rather keep hidden should be kept well away from the police national computer, the criminal record disclosure issuing process, and the decision about whether persons are eligible to work in the most sensitive areas of employment.
I have rattled through the measures rather swiftly. I am happy to take any questions and points that Members may have. However, in summary, that is the purpose of the order before us.
10.38 am
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Committee, Mr. Cummings. May I say how delighted I am to see, ahead of me, a great constellation of Members of the parliamentary Labour party? However, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) and I are not in the least bit put off our stride.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): They are clearly not going to vote.
Mr. Garnier: Nor will we be put off from making the arguments; even if, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead correctly said, we will not be pressing the matter to a Division. If, Mr. Cummings, you would like me to pause for a few minutes while Labour Members clear up their papers and Christmas cards—or whatever it is that they may be concentrating on—so that they can leave the room, I will gladly do so. We do not resist or oppose this measure. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 was a progressive piece of legislation, which has done a good deal to enable offenders with long-passed convictions to reintegrate into society, having paid their dues. It is necessary to have some exceptions to the general rule that offences should be wiped off the record and the further exceptions for which this order provides are reasonable and understandable, particularly those concerning the 2006 Act.
The Bichard report made a number of recommendations, as the Minister alluded to, but why has it taken so long for this recommendation from the Bichard report to come to fruition? It was published a long time ago. The police computer system has not, as far as I know, been improved to meet the report’s concerns, and it should have been. In Scotland, the police computer system is able to talk to police forces right across Scotland, whereas in England and Wales, the system is altogether more haphazard. While this is an acceptable and, indeed, welcome measure, there is so much more from the Bichard report that needs to be done and has not been.
If this statutory instrument extends the exceptions to the Channel Islands, can the Minister tell me why paragraph 5 of the explanatory note, while it says the truth, does not say the whole truth? It says:
“This instrument applies to England and Wales”.
Surely it should say: “This instrument applies to England, Wales and the Channel Islands”.
Two further issues, which the Minister partly touched on, relate to this debate. First, the Criminal Records Bureau is an extremely important, but none the less bureaucratic organisation. In my constituency, I have had people who have tried to get themselves cleared by the CRB but found that that process takes a very long time indeed. We need to make sure, while the systems are safe and the information held by the CRB is accurate and up-to-date, that it is processed at much greater speed. Of course we need processes and procedures, of course we need protocols, but they should not be so slow as to be off-putting and annoying and create inabilities for nursery schools and others, for example, to employ people as quickly as they need.
Secondly and finally, although this is not the opportunity for such a debate, will the Government arrange, at some stage, a more general debate on the rehabilitation of offenders? Far too many ex-prisoners are unable to get a job because of their criminal past and in some cases that is entirely right. It is certainly not right that someone who is guilty of a sex crime should be employed where his activities may restart. It is clearly right that those who have been found guilty of fraud should not be given opportunities to carry out those crimes on a future occasion. There are, however, plenty of people who have been convicted and sentenced and have even served custodial sentences, who are, in my view, being wrongly denied access to employment.
We need, at some stage—the sooner, the better—to adjust the 1974 Act to enable ex-offenders to get into the jobs market, because as we all know, and it cannot be controversial, those who come out of prison and can get a place to live, get a job and restore the family relationships that they enjoyed prior to their sentence, are far less likely to commit further offences. If there is one thing we can agree on across this Chamber, it is that the reoffending rate is far too high and needs to come down, and that and any future Government need to create instruments to bring it down. On that basis, I welcome this measure.
10.44 am
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I am also pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings. The fact that we have a constellation on the Labour Benches, and maybe a binary star system on the Conservative Benches, and perhaps a red giant on the Labour Back Benches, shows that there is not much disagreement about this. The Committee is unlikely to move to a Division, because all parties support the proposals in the order.
We do have some concerns, however. I think—in a sense, along with the hon. and learned Member for Harborough—that the direction of travel is all one way, and we are losing the idea that people should be able to pay their dues to society and then return and become positive contributors to society. There are some difficulties in this area, and they often come down to subtleties. One difficulty that was highlighted by the hon. and learned Gentleman is that of correcting wrong information.
I encountered an interesting constituency case, which was a sex case. Somebody had been employed by the NHS for many years, and a CRB check resulted in his being fired for having been involved in cottaging 20 years before. Under the current legislation, cottaging is not a registrable activity for sex offenders, but the individual concerned lost his job because there were no guidelines to give anyone any security by saying, “Well actually, we shouldn’t worry about that. It was 20 years ago; it wasn’t advisable; it was consensual and not something that we wish to see going on, but it’s a mistake somebody made in their youth, and not something that should cause them never to work again.” The danger is that if the direction of travel is all one way, we end up creating anomalies whereby people are effectively excluded from contributing to society when what they did was not right, but not so wrong as to be something that should result in that outcome.
We have some interesting questions for the Minister. The explanatory memorandum says that the exclusion of the Master Locksmiths Association was at the express request of that organisation. Does that mean that anyone who lobbies to be part of that process would find that they would get an exclusion in the same way? [Interruption.]
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I was simply trying to suggest that we are getting some rather desperate points now.
John Hemming: I do not think that is true, because there are two questions. One is about guidelines, to give people information about the circumstances in which they can say, “Although we found out that you did this thing such a long time ago, we want to ask you some questions.”
Last week we had the saga of the social worker in Bath who had been involved in employing a hit-man 10 years before, and that came up because she was asking people to lie in court to progress their case. The question arose, what was the truth of that matter? Was it revealed in the CRB check, and so on?
We need to take caref that the direction of travel is not all in one direction, and that we do not trap people who have made mistakes in their youth but have paid their dues to society, as in the case from my constituency, where the man was contributing positively to society for many years and then suddenly lost his job. I do not think that anyone has benefited from that. As I mentioned earlier, the nature of the turnout in the Committee Room indicates that all parties are supporting this statutory instrument, and we will be doing so.
10.48 pm
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I simply wanted to ask a fairly specific question of the Minister about why regulated immigration advisers are included on this list. They appear to be different in kind from the other categories, which include people who have contact with particularly vulnerable groups. I can see why people employed by the Criminal Records Bureau would have very sensitive information, and why people who handle drugs and precursor chemicals have crucial materials in their possession. As for the Master Locksmiths Association, one would not want it to be recruiting former burglars.
However, immigration advisers seem different: they are not in charge of people or property, or privy to information provided to the state in secrecy. Will the Minister explain that inclusion?
10.50 am
Maria Eagle: It is a pleasure to try to respond briefly to some of the points that have been made during the debate.
First of all, I am grateful that we have seen support for this measure on both sides of the Committee. Let me deal with some of the specific points that have been made. First, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough made a lawyer’s point, if I may say so, about the explanatory memorandum referring to the instrument applying only to England and Wales when I had made it quite clear that there are provisions concerning its application in the Channel Islands. I wish I could accept that he was right, but I am told that he is technically wrong. The instrument does not technically apply to the Channel Islands because the safeguarding vulnerable groups activity, which will be extended to the Channel Islands at their request, is entirely carried out at the CRB in England and Wales. For that reason, I am told that the explanatory memorandum is technically correct. My first inclination was to agree with him, but I am told that he is not right on that point.
I accept the points that the hon. and learned Gentleman made about the 1974 Act generally and the sensible purpose we have it for; I also accept the points made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley in that respect. It is right and proper that those who have gone wrong in their early life should be able to put it behind them and the 1974 Act is designed to enable them to escape the stigma that still attaches to an offending past. Perhaps the difficulty that we all have is how we fit safeguarding vulnerable groups legislation into that. There is clearly a cross-purpose at the interface between our obligations to protect the vulnerable, which the 2006 Act represents, and to protect the ex-offender. There is clearly a grey area about what information should be disclosed and for how long. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said that he did not want that to be one-way traffic. He used a specific example, which I had a lot of sympathy with.
Let me make the point that the vetting provisions within safeguarding vulnerable groups legislation are not about making judgments; they are about providing information to the employer. The employer is then responsible for making sense of it. In the case that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the judgment call clearly lies with the employer. They chose a certain course—the hon. Gentleman wondered whether that was the correct choice. The legislation itself does not decree that somebody who has a past conviction must be barred; it provides the information so that the employer can exercise their judgment.
John Hemming: I would suggest—as my example was in the public sector—that it would be in the interests of the Ministry of Justice, or whichever Ministry it may be, to look at guidelines for the more complex situations. As in the example that I cited, which the Minister said she had sympathy with, it is difficult for somebody making employment decisions to ignore past convictions in the absence of guidelines that advise them that they can do so in specific circumstances. It comes down to this question of who takes what risk and what back-up they have for their decision. Perhaps the Ministry could produce some guidelines to indicate the circumstances under which it would think it reasonable to ignore past convictions.
Maria Eagle: I can assure the Committee that there will be many guidelines about the various aspects of the safeguarding vulnerable groups legislation. As the barring and vetting scheme is implemented there will be guidance. The employer must apply their judgment based on individual circumstances. The vetting scheme produces information about what somebody has done in the past. It is not, and is not meant to be, a substitute for the good sense and judgment of the employer in their own particular circumstance. I do not think guidance can do what the hon. Gentleman wants, but I understand the point that he is making.
The hon. and learned Member for Harborough made the point that we could, at a later stage, discuss how these two pieces of legislation interact. That is a good idea because there is a grey area in between the operation of the 1974 Act and the safeguarding vulnerable groups legislation. It is not always totally clear precisely where any line ought to be drawn and that is an important point.
In respect of what the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said about immigration advisers, I understand his point. First and foremost, as I tried to say in my opening remarks, the other two groups of people who can do this work—lawyers all, but solicitors and barristers—are already included in the exceptions order. It seems a little anomalous that regulated immigration advisers are not. Regulated immigration advisers are often equivalent to a solicitor or barrister, in that they specialise in a highly sensitive area of the law and regularly deal with vulnerable individuals. There are certain immigration offences for which a conviction should act as a statutory bar from practising as a regulated immigration adviser. As the Government tighten up the immigration system, it is important that those who provide advice from a position of authority are appropriately regulated. It is a matter of trying to get some consistency across to those people who provide this advice. It has been done specifically at the request of the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner, which spotted what it sees as a weakness in the regulation at present; we have responded to that. I hope that deals with the right hon. Gentleman’s point.
The hon. and learned Member for Harborough mentioned delays, and there was some reference to those by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley. I hope things are better with the CRB than they used to be. I also hope that many of the cases that may have come to Members’ minds from advice surgeries in their constituencies are older rather than newer. That is certainly my experience as a constituency MP—I have had cases but there are fewer of them now. There has been a lot of effort at the CRB to speed up the process. Delays are often the result of waiting for responses from other statutory authorities that have to put information in.
The CRB in Merseyside is an impressive operation and if the hon. and learned Gentleman has not visited yet, he might like to pop in and have a look at what they do and how they do it. While I hope that delays are becoming a thing of the past, it is not entirely down to the CRB itself. However, I recognise—as I think we all do—that delays can cause a significant problem for individuals: for example, they may not get a job they were hoping to get. We have all come across examples of that. It is not desirable and we need to put a stop to it. I hope I have dealt with most of the points that have been made.
Question put and agreed to.
10.58 am
Committee rose.

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 1 July 2009