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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, let me say at the outset that I was a staunch supporter of electronic monitoring long before the noble and learned Lord joined us in that support. I believe we have nowhere nearly sufficiently exploited its use. There is still great scope for it. So the idea that somehow I am against it

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is entirely wrong. But I am against this early release scheme. It takes early release a step too far. To release people early affects the protection of the public.

The Minister did not give a satisfactory answer to the notion of giving an automatic sentence to persistent burglars; not those who have burgled twice or three times, but in many cases hundreds of times, and who will now be eligible for the scheme. That seems to me to be a nonsense. It flies in the face of automatic sentencing.

There have been breaches. People have disappeared and remain at large in the community. Over 750 further offences have been committed. One hundred and fifty people have resisted arrest and/or assaulted police officers. I regard those as very serious offences, certainly for the police officers in question. I argue therefore that the public are at risk and that people are released indiscriminately too early.

Many of those people have relatively short sentences. For example, many people receive sentences of around six months and the idea that they should serve only six weeks of that sentence is an insult to those in the community who look to the sentencing process to give effective and proper punishment.

But the noble and learned Lord is absolutely right. We will agree to differ on this and I shall return to it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 75 to 79 not moved.]

Schedule 5 [Amendments of the Sex Offenders Act 1997]:

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 80:

    Page 62, line 10, leave out from ("requirements),") to end of line 18 and insert ("in subsection (1), for "14 days" there is substituted "three days".

( ) For subsection (5) of that section there is substituted--
"(5) A person may give a notification under this section by--
(a) attending at any police station in his local police area, and
(b) giving an oral notification to any police officer, or to any person authorised for the purpose by the officer in charge of the station,
and a notification under subsection (2) above may also be given by sending a written notification to any such police station".").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, these amendments extend to Scotland provisions in the Bill to increase the penalties for failure to register under the Sex Offenders Act 1997; to require initial registration within 72 hours and to allow for fingerprints and a photograph to be taken by the police at that stage; to provide for notification for foreign travel; and to provide for disclosure between agencies in respect of the requirement to register.

I explained at Committee stage that the Scottish Parliament would be considering whether Westminster should legislate to extend some of the amendments to the Sex Offenders Act 1997 to Scotland. All these amendments, I am delighted to say, are consequential on the decision by the Scottish Parliament to adopt the measures to strengthen the

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regime for the registration of sex offenders which we introduced in Committee and which are part of the package often referred to as "Sarah's Law".

The Scottish Parliament has agreed under the Sewel convention that the provisions of the Bill should be extended to Scotland to introduce these measures north of the Border. They will have the same effect and provide the same public protection, especially to children, in Scotland. I view this as a positive decision which will help to ensure that these crucial protections remain strong and coherent throughout the United Kingdom. I beg to move.

11 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Lord made no reference to the Law Society of Scotland, which has commented on these proposals. It is concerned and I want to be a vehicle for explaining its concerns.

It has been suggested that there should be an increase in the maximum penalty from six months to five years if a sex offender fails to register within a specified time. The society appreciates the policy intention behind the proposal and agrees that if the seriousness of the offence is to be marked in some cases the six-month period may not be sufficient.

The society would also welcome confirmation that in Scotland the procurator fiscal will have regard to the forum in which the original offence was prosecuted in deciding on the appropriate forum in which to process the failure to register. In the society's view, if the original offence was prosecuted on indictment, the failure to register should be treated in a similar fashion.

As regards disclosure of information contained on the register, the society is concerned to note that no reference is made in the proposed amendments to a possible sanction for the unauthorised disclosure of information contained on the register. Such disclosure may have potentially serious consequences and consideration should be given to extending criminal liability if such disclosure is made.

I put those points on behalf of the Law Society of Scotland.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, having read Hansard, I shall consider carefully the points made by the noble Baroness and shall reflect further on them.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 81 to 84:

    Page 62, line 25, leave out from ("above") to ("shall") in line 26.

    Page 62, line 28, leave out ("(5)(a)") and insert ("(5)(b)").

    Page 62, line 34, leave out from ("persons") to ("or") in line 35 and insert ("subject to the notification requirements of this Part").

    Page 62, line 46, leave out from ("Part") to second ("or") and insert ("who leave the United Kingdom").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

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Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 85:

    Page 63, line 1, leave out from ("regulations") to ("is") in line 7 and insert ("make provision for requiring them--

(a) to give in accordance with the regulations, before they leave, a notice under subsection (6E) below, and
(b) if they subsequently return to the United Kingdom, to give in accordance with the regulations a notice under subsection (6F) below.
(6E) A notice under this subsection must disclose--
(a) the date on which he will leave the United Kingdom, the country to which he will travel (or, if there is more than one, the first country) and his point of arrival, determined in accordance with the regulations, in that country,
(b) any other information prescribed by the regulations which the person holds about his departure from or return to the United Kingdom or his movements while outside the United Kingdom.
In this subsection "country" includes territory.
(6F) A notice under this subsection must disclose any information prescribed by the regulations about the person's return to the United Kingdom.
(6G) The power to make regulations under subsections (6D) to (6F) above").

The noble Lord said: My Lords--

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the Whips' office grouped this amendment with the others. The grouping was Amendments Nos. 80 to 85, 87 to 93, 121 and 122.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, if it expedites matters, I am happy to accept a regrouping on the Floor of the House. I beg to move Amendment No. 85 formally.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Earl of Courtown moved Amendment No. 86:

    Page 63, line 10, at end insert--

(" . After subsection (8) of that section there is inserted--
"(9) The information in (2)(a) and (2)(b) above, may be made available by the police to any person on application where it is considered that such availability would be in the interests of the residents of the local police area, as defined in section 2(7) above."").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, first, I should like to declare an interest. I have a 14 year-old daughter, a 12 year-old son and a daughter who is not yet two weeks old. I must therefore catch a train very soon and I hope that everyone will take that into account!

Having said that, this is an important issue. My amendment seeks to grant the police the power to allow a degree of controlled access to the information held on the sex offenders' register; that is, the names and addresses of known sex offenders in their local community. I do not expect the Minister to accept the amendment today and I move it simply to ask the Government about their current thoughts on the issue. It is obviously something of a vexed subject at the moment and I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response.

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In tabling the amendment, I am not suggesting that registers should be made generally available to the public, nor that the police should be forced to reveal information when they are asked.

The amendment changes the method of disseminating information and grants a right of access rather than relying on the police to disclose it. The wording of the amendment is precise. First, it ensures that the police are under no obligation to accept the application for information, but they may do so when it would be in the interests of residents of a local police area. It also specifies that the information should not be given out until the police receive an application for it. The amendment intends that the onus should be very much on the applicant to prove his suitability to receive the information and to justify the reason for needing it.

Secondly, the amendment allows for only the names and addresses of those registered to be given out, not photographs or any other information. To reveal the names and addresses of specific persons will give parents greater power and ensure that they are able to do all that they can to protect their children.

It is now some four months since we were all shocked by the tragic death of the young schoolgirl Sarah Payne. I am sure that the whole House, even at this late hour, will join me in paying tribute to her family who have coped remarkably well in such terrible circumstances. They have also campaigned ceaselessly for a "Sarah's Law" to be introduced in this country. I acknowledge that proposals have been made by the Government, with the support of the Opposition, to tighten the laws on child sex offenders. However, I am also aware that those who have campaigned for a "Sarah's Law" are concerned that its central tenet--the control of public access to the register--has not been granted.

The introduction of the register in 1997 was a massive step forward in the protection of children in this country. The register commands a compliance rate of at least 97 per cent, and we should not do anything that alters that situation. However, as it stands, the information on the register is disclosed only to specific groups, such as social services organisations, at the discretion of the police: there is no right of access to it. The amendment seeks to reverse the position. The notion of controlled public access to information on the register has attracted a large amount of support from the public which cannot be ignored. The response to this issue raised by the News of the World was a measure of the level of anxiety felt by parents.

I do not expect the Minister to accept any such amendment today. However, I shall be interested to hear the Government's current thinking on this contentious and important issue. I hope that the noble Lord will reassure me that the Government will continue to monitor the working of the system. I am aware that the Minister has great sympathy with this matter, but I realise that there are difficulties.

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I welcome the opportunity to open the debate, and hope that the House will give the arguments that I have raised serious consideration. I beg to move.

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