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Criminal Justice Bill

11.25 p.m.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 212K:

(1) The following is inserted after section 29 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 (c. 43) (disqualification from working with children: juveniles)—

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(1) This section applies where an individual—
(a) is convicted of an offence against a child, and
(b) in consequence of the conviction for that offence he is ordered by any court to be subject to the notification requirements of Part 1 of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 (c. 51).
(2) Where this section applies, the court must order the individual to be disqualified from working with children."
(2) In section 30 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 (c. 43) (sections 28 and 29: supplemental) after the words "section 28 and 29" there is inserted "29A".
(3) In section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 (c. 43) (conditions for application under section 32) after subsection (2) there is inserted—
"(3) In relation to a disqualification order made under section 29A, as if the order were a sentence passed on him for the offence of which he has been convicted.""

The noble Baroness said: In speaking to the amendment, I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 212L and 212M. All three amendments stand in my name and in the name of my noble friend Lady O'Cathain.

The amendments relate to the system of disqualification orders put in place by the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. These orders disqualify offenders from working with children for life if they have committed certain sexual or violent offences against children and have been sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment, or more. The imposition of a disqualification order is mandatory in such cases unless the court states that it is of the opinion that it is unlikely that the offender will commit further offences against children. Breach of the disqualification order by working, or attempting to work with children, is a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment.

When that legislation was scrutinised by this Chamber, I made it clear from the Opposition Front Bench that we believed that the scheme set out in the Act could be improved. I am sure that the Minister and those who advise her will have read the debates in this Chamber on 4th and 8th October 2000, on amendments very similar to those before the Committee today. I shall therefore merely outline the effect of the amendments rather than repeat at length the arguments that I put forward three years ago, which are already on the official Hansard record.

Amendment No. 212K would provide that all those convicted of sexual offences against children should be disqualified from working with children, regardless of the penalty received. At present, such offenders are disqualified only if they are sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment, or more. However, I am concerned about those who commit sexual offences against children but do not receive a sentence of 12 months.

In the debate on the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill on 4th October 2000, I said:

    "One has to think only of the awful crimes committed by Gary Glitter, who traded in child pornography. He received a sentence of less than 12 months and, because of that, he did not fall into the category of qualifying for a disqualification order".—[Official Report, 4/10/2000; col. 1530.]

That concern remains. As my noble friend Lady Anelay highlighted in the previous debate, one still hears almost daily of offenders receiving non-custodial

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sentences or very short prison terms of less than 12 months for child pornography offences and other sexual offences against children. Such people are clearly unsuitable ever to work with children, but they cannot be sentenced to disqualification orders.

Three years ago, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, responding for the Government, said:

    "I appreciate the arguments she is putting forward . . . this is an issue which we may wish to revisit at a later stage, perhaps when we see the scheme and system properly kick in . . . There will be scope for further review".—[Official Report, 4/10/2000; col. 1531.]

The amendment gives noble Lords the opportunity to revisit the issue referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, three years ago.

Amendment No. 212M is closely related to Amendment No. 212K. It would provide for the automatic disqualification of any offender convicted of an offence against a child and sentenced to imprisonment. In other words, it would remove the 12-month threshold currently in legislation. I moved a similar amendment in this Chamber on 31st October 2000, and I adopt the same arguments that I advanced on that occasion. The late Lord Williams of Mostyn responded for the Government. In resisting my amendment, he deployed the same arguments as had the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, four days earlier. In a characteristically generous response, he said:

    "I give the undertaking . . . that we should want to keep the operation of the scheme under close review. For my own part, I should have thought that after 18 months or two years . . . we ought to revisit this matter. I hope that the undertaking that I have given is helpful to the noble Baroness. It is certainly intended to be. On that basis, I invite her to not to press her amendment".—[Official Report, 31/10/2000; col. 876.]

On that basis I withdrew my amendment. On the same basis I now invite the Minister to say what has become of the Government's reconsideration of this matter.

It really is nonsensical to say that a person convicted of a sexual or violent offence against a child and sentenced to 12 months in prison should be disqualified from working with children for life but that someone convicted of the same offence against a child which is serious enough for them to be sentenced to three, six, nine or 11 months should be free to become a primary school teacher, a social worker or a youth group leader. That is what the statute says at present. The Government indicated in 2000 that they would review its operation in the future. I very much hope that they will start by accepting my Amendments Nos. 212K and 212M.

My Amendment No. 212L is designed to ensure that the Government have considered the possibility of magistrates' courts imposing disqualification orders. The Bill increases magistrates' sentencing powers to a maximum of 12 months, which means they could pass a sentence on an offender which should under the current law mean that the offender should be disqualified from working with children. However, the definition of "senior court" in the 2000 Act—the type of court empowered to impose a disqualification order—does not include a magistrates' court. Do the Government intend to give magistrates' courts the power to impose disqualification orders on offenders

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who commit offences against children and who are sentenced to 12 months by the magistrates? If not, how will such offenders be disqualified from working with children?

Finally, I should like to draw the attention of the Committee and the Government to a matter directly related to these amendments. It has only just come to my attention but it is of the utmost concern and gravity. I am informed that during the course of argument in the Court of Appeal last Friday in a high-profile case involving a sentence on a child sex offender referred to the court by the Attorney-General as being unduly lenient, Lord Justice Kay made it clear in open court that he was greatly concerned at the fact that some sentencing judges in the Crown Court were not complying with the provisions of the 2000 Act by making disqualification orders on offenders on whom they ought to be made. The learned Lord Justice referred to the fact that some trial judges may believe wrongly that they are able to make those orders only against those who have been convicted of an offence against a child committed when they were actually involved in working with children.

Lord Justice Kay has done the Committee and the public a great service in raising this matter and in making the remarks that he did from the Bench. If what he said is correct—and I have no reason to doubt it—it is truly an astonishing revelation. Something has clearly gone very seriously wrong indeed in the court system if, three years after they came into force, trial judges are under such an astonishing misapprehension about the nature of the disqualification provisions which impose an absolute duty on the court to disqualify from working with children all those convicted of the relevant offences set out in the Act and sentenced to 12 months or more in whatever circumstances. Something has also gone seriously wrong if the Crown Prosecution Service and the advocates who appear in the criminal courts are not reminding sentencers of their duty under the 2000 Act.

I do not know whether the Minister is aware of what was said by Lord Justice Kay last Friday. If she is not, will she undertake to obtain a transcript of what was said and to bring the matter to the attention of the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General? It is most important that those who work in the Crown Prosecution Service are fully aware of these provisions so that if the sentencer at trial makes a mistake in failing to sentence an offender to disqualification from working with children, it can be corrected.

One occasionally reads in the newspapers that a person has been sentenced to a long prison term for offences against children but the issue of disqualification from working with children is not even mentioned. One naturally assumes, because disqualification is mandatory under the statute, that that could be because of reasons of space in the newspaper. But hearing what Lord Justice Kay said last week I begin to wonder whether that really is the case. To take just one example, I am sure the Committee will recall the terrible case of the

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paedophile, Luke Sadowski, who in August was sentenced to three years in prison for attempting to procure a nine year-old girl for sex over the Internet. That is an offence that qualifies for the imposition of a disqualification order under the 2000 Act. At the time he was arrested, Sadowski was about to start training as a primary school teacher. Was he disqualified from working with children, as he was required to be by law? That is an important fact that we need to know.

I have checked the newspaper reports, and there is no mention of a disqualification order being made. If ever there were a case in which disqualification from working with children was needed, it was that case. Of course, I do not ask the Minister to provide an instant answer on that, but if she could investigate it and respond in writing I would be most grateful. I would also be grateful if she could investigate the general point of whether it is now possible to impose disqualification orders retrospectively on offenders who ought to have received them at the time of sentence, but did not because the sentencing judge simply failed or forgot to impose the order.

I know that many noble Lords feel strongly about the matter. I tabled the amendments some time ago to try to convince the Government to increase the protection afforded to children by law. What was said by Lord Justice Kay in the Court of Appeal last Friday makes me afraid that even the existing protection is not properly applied. I hope that the debate will ensure that some action is now taken on the issues.

My amendments go with the grain of what the Government say that they wish to see. They strengthen the protection of children who are subjected to or are the object of sexual abuse. One of the amendments exposes a worrying record of applying the law as passed by Parliament. I beg to move.

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