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Baroness O'Cathain: As the amendments are also tabled in my name, I should say that I support them strongly. They were spoken to most ably by my noble friend.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: I shall be equally brief, and shall merely signal that my noble friend Lady Blatch has performed a valuable service by tabling the amendments, which I hope will find favour with the Government.

Baroness Walmsley: I have some brief remarks. We on these Benches would like to support the amendments. There is very considerable merit in them. A 12-month custodial sentence cut-off seems very arbitrary. As sentencing patterns change and we perhaps move to more community sentences, people might be qualified to work with children who should certainly not be according to the intentions of Parliament at the moment. Therefore we need to look not only at an arbitrary sentence limit, but at the propensity of the people concerned. That is what should worry us most. In terms of child protection, it is the most important factor that we should take into consideration.

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If one accepts Amendments Nos. 212K and 212M, there is considerable logic in also accepting Amendment No. 212L, which we also support.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I should say straightaway that I am concerned by what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said on the comments made by Lord Justice Kay. I will certainly look into that issue and write to her to get clarity about it. I will immediately raise the matter with my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General, who was in the Chamber but a moment ago. Indeed, he may be listening to the debate in a slightly different place. I shall certainly bring the matter to his attention, because it is very important.

Before dealing with the amendments—I shall go through them to explain how we see the matter—I should say that I do not have a precise answer in relation to the case of Sadowski. We have a BBC indication that the requisite restriction may not have been put on him. I do not know whether that is right. We will certainly have to clarify it through the system and get verification. Members of the Committee will know that, regrettably, sometimes assertions are made that do not always prove true.

Perhaps I may speak briefly about the scheme, by way of explaining where we are now. The scheme, as the noble Baroness rightly observed, was implemented in January 2001, but it is still too early to review its operation properly since it has affected mainly cases where the offence was committed after that date. We now have a ruling that allows its retrospective application, but that is very recent and the number of cases remains limited. If I may, I will write to the noble Baroness about that issue to set out what we know now and how we think it may operate.

I clearly understand that the purpose of the noble Baroness's amendment is to widen the provisions in the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 to allow the disqualification of certain individuals from working with children and I fully support the sentiment behind the amendment; namely, that children should be protected from those who seek to cause them harm. However, the amendment is not quite right and I shall explain why that is so.

As the noble Baroness has said, Sections 28 and 29 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 provide for individuals convicted of a relevant offence with a qualifying sentence to be disqualified from working with children. A qualifying sentence is defined in Section 30 of the Act and includes 12 months' or more imprisonment or detention, a 12-month or more detention and training order and a hospital order. I acknowledge the remarks of the noble Baroness about the distinction that can be drawn between those who receive 12 months and those who receive marginally less.

However, the scheme is very carefully balanced. As the noble Baroness knows, it is quasi-automatic for adult offenders, thereby increasing the certainty of its application. It is also a life-long ban and imposes potentially significant restrictions on the offender.

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That is fully justified on the grounds of child protection, which is our paramount concern. However, the severity of the scheme means that we must tread carefully in extending its remit beyond cases where it can clearly be justified. If I may address the amendments of the noble Baroness in turn, I shall seek to amplify why that is so, since each of the amendments is slightly different in its effect, although they could be combined.

The first amendment in the group, Amendment No. 212K, would ensure that anybody who commits any sexual offence against a child and is placed on the sex offenders' register as a result of that conviction, irrespective of the disposal of their conviction, should be disqualified from working with children.

I should stress again that disqualification from working with children is an extremely serious measure which can be justified only on grounds of significant risk. I listened carefully to the noble Baroness, who clearly set out how she thought that risk presented itself. Although a review process exists, the ban is for life and covers all forms of working with children, including voluntary activity such as helping out at one's own child's football club. The degree of restriction placed on the offender is therefore of a different order of magnitude to registration, which is a monitoring and tracking device, and its effect could last long after the registration requirement had disappeared. That renders simple equation with the imposition of registration extremely problematic.

At present, there are situations where a person convicted of a sexual offence against a child would not receive a sentence of 12 months or more and hence would not be already covered by the disqualification scheme. However, I should point out that where a court considers that an offender poses a significant risk of the kind that would justify a disqualification order, a prison sentence of 12 months or more should be awarded.

The amendment before us would make two significant changes. First, it would—

11.45 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: I bow to the noble Baroness's expertise in these matters because she knows much more about the court and judicial system than I do. But I have to say that I personally know of the case of a head teacher who systematically and almost daily over a period of about a year sexually abused a young girl. When he went to court it was deemed that he had probably suffered enough during the time it had taken for the case to come to court and the trial. Eventually, he was given no prison sentence but a rather large fine. Is the noble Baroness really saying that someone like that should be allowed to continue to work with children?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: No, I am not suggesting that about someone who has habitually sexually abused a child over a significant period. I do not know the particular facts of the case to which the noble Baroness referred, nor whether it was referred to

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my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General. The noble Baroness says it was before the Attorney-General's reference.

One of the dangers and difficulties—

Baroness Blatch: I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. She will know that according to an amendment we discussed earlier with my noble friend it is not possible to refer such a case as being unduly lenient.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I believe that the noble Baroness is wrong. We are talking about an indecent assault on a child, if that is what it was. That is why I say it is difficult to comment because I do not know the offence with which the teacher was charged. However, if as she says it was a sexual assault on a child, that falls within the category of offences which could be referred by the Attorney-General. I have taken the noble Baroness at her word that she understands that the person was charged with a sexual offence.

It may be that there was some inappropriate touching. I really do not know the nature of the offence and therefore it is probably not right for me to comment in detail. However, if it were a sexual abuse and a sexual offence, my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General would be able to look at it. My noble and learned friend indicates to me that he would be happy for the noble Baroness to refer the details of the case to him so that he can write to her about the specific nature of the offence and what may have happened. If that will assist, he will be happy to do so.

Earl Russell: Will both noble Baronesses agree that it is difficult to have a clear opinion on any individual case of which one has not read the transcript? Can anything be done to make transcripts more widely and cheaply available than they are at present?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: That is a debate for another day. However, the issue of transcripts and what we are trying to do in relation to them has been raised in the victims and witnesses ministerial group that I chair. The matter is under discussion. Technology is moving on and that may help us.

The noble Baroness has given an indication of a case, but that does not take away from what I say. If on the face of these matters the terms are satisfied, there is an expectation that a person who poses a significant risk of the kind which would justify a disqualification order would be sentenced to 12 months or more in prison.

The amendment before us would make two significant changes. First, it would render the scheme automatic for all those required to register. That would catch adults and juveniles alike. It would leave no room for discretion. That would be particularly serious in the case of juveniles, for whom at present there is a presumption against qualification in the Act. I strongly believe that this would be wrong. But even for adults, it could have an unfortunate and undesirable consequence.

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Let us take one example. Under the provisions in the current Sexual Offences Bill, an 18 year-old who is convicted of facilitating his 15 year-old sister and her 15 year-old boyfriend having sex would be automatically banned for life from work with children.

Secondly, by including all those required to register, the sentence threshold would be lost. That would affect primarily adults. The aim is that proposals for registration in the Sexual Offences Bill will not provide for registration of juveniles for any offence other than rape or assault by penetration or a couple of other very serious offences unless a sentence of 12 months or more is given. But, even for adults, it could be unjustified, particularly for those like the 18 year-old in my previous example who is only just over the age of majority. To take another example, a 20 year-old indecently exposing himself to a 15 year-old would properly have to register but, once the facts were considered, a lifelong ban on working with children might not be justified. We are talking about making the ban automatic.

It is also important to remember that any person made subject to sex offender registration may also, by way of application to the court, be made subject to a sex offender order or restraining order given at the time of sentence. That, in itself, can impose prohibitions on an offender, such as barring him from working with children. Therefore, any offender who was required to register but did not receive a long enough sentence to be automatically disqualified by virtue of Sections 28 or 29 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 could still be barred from such work by virtue of a sex offender order or a restraining order. That provides a useful failsafe mechanism which allows such cases to be considered in full on their merits, and that is the right way to deal with cases of this kind.

I should perhaps mention a technical defect in the amendment as drafted. The noble Baroness uses Part 1 of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 as the trigger for disqualification. By virtue of Part 2 of the Sexual Offences Bill, which finished its Commons Committee stage on Tuesday, 14th October, the Sex Offenders Act 1997 will be repealed and replaced by provisions in that Bill. If an amendment of this nature were accepted, it would need to be redrafted to make reference to the appropriate sections of Part 2 of the Sexual Offences Bill. However, in view of the more fundamental objections that I have outlined, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw Amendment No. 212K.

I move on to consider the noble Baroness's second amendment—Amendment No. 212L—which seeks to include magistrates' courts in the definition of "senior court". We do not consider that to be appropriate as the magistrates' court is the most junior of all courts at present. It is therefore not entirely logical to include it in a definition of "senior court". More fundamentally, however, we believe that it would be proper to leave the balance where it is. Given the very serious nature of the disqualification order and its lifelong consequences, we consider it more appropriate to continue to restrict its use to the Crown Court.

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Finally, Amendment No. 212M removes the duration of 12 months from the qualifying sentences in Section 30 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. As a result, any sentence of imprisonment, irrespective of length, would result in disqualification from working with children. But it is the length of the sentence which, in many cases, reflects the threat which the court considers the offender poses to children. In the view of the court, those given shorter custodial sentences pose a smaller threat, and quasi-automatic disqualification may be inappropriate.

That is particularly the case in relation to offences of violence. Here, the list includes offences such as wounding, causing grievous bodily harm and assault occasioning actual bodily harm. Those are high-volume offences which could cover numerous different kinds of assault, the majority of which, particularly if committed against teenagers, may signify no long-term or, indeed, short-term risk at all on the part of the offender. To remove the 12-month custody threshold in respect of those offences would add to the number of people who simply do not pose a risk to children but who would fall within the disqualification scheme.

Similarly, with regard to the offence of supplying drugs to children—regrettably, we know that most children obtain drugs from their peers—lowering the threshold could greatly widen the net in a way that cannot be justified.

Many noble Lords who have spoken in earlier debates on child issues are very concerned about the "child on child" aspect of these matters and do not want unnecessarily to criminalise children who are in the formative years who may change significantly over a period and who, it is to be hoped, with good help are able to rehabilitate themselves so that they start again.

For example, for non-commercial supply of drugs at a party, custody is possible. While reprehensible, such conduct is unlikely to signify long-term risk to children such as to justify a lifelong ban on working with children. I said at the outset that I understand absolutely why the noble Baroness has tabled the amendments. I believe the whole Committee shares her concern to protect children, but the amendments would significantly distort the scheme and render it less effective by spreading its net too wide. We want the courts to be consistent. We definitely want them to be robust in awarding disqualification orders in almost every qualifying case concerning an adult, not to view the scheme as an optional add-on for use in the minority of cases. I, too, have been concerned by what the noble Baroness said. Certainly, I shall anxiously pursue this matter with my noble and learned friends the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General to try to get to the bottom of what is happening in this area.

The fact that the scheme is automatic is its strength. It should work well and I should be very unhappy to see it diluted in such a way as to make it less efficacious. Once it has had time to settle down and bed into the culture of the courts we shall be able to assess its effectiveness. We made clear when the scheme was before the House that we intended to

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review its effectiveness once sufficient cases have had time to work their way through the system, in terms of its use by the courts and its use as a protection measure. It is perhaps too early to make major changes now. However, I understand why the noble Baroness brings it back. We shall consider these issues because I agree they are very important.


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