Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Monday 30 April 2001
[Mr. Humfrey Malins in the Chair]
Draft Sex Offenders (Foreign Travel) Regulations 2001
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Sex Offenders (Notice Requirements) (Foreign Travel) Regulations 2001.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Malins. I have sat under your Chair on previous occasions. [Laughter.]
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Chairmanship, surely.
Mr. Clarke: Perhaps that is what I should have said. I am sorry if I have violated the grammatical standards of the Opposition. It is typical of how they conduct such matters that even the initial pleasantries of the sitting are controversial. However, I shall do my best to proceed in a constructive way, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and I have done in the past.
I am genuinely delighted that we have the opportunity to debate such important regulations, the purpose of which is to improve our ability to know the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders and further to contribute to our ability to protect children and other potential victims from them. I shall first set the regulations in context.
Part I of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 requires those convicted of a specified range of sexual offences to register their name and address and any subsequent change to either of those details with the police. They must also notify the police if they spend 14 days or more at another address within the United Kingdom. The Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 amended the 1997 Act to provide for such offenders to be subject to additional requirements under which they must give notice of when they propose to leave and return to the United Kingdom. The regulations specify those additional requirements.
That the law does not require sex offenders to notify the police that they will be leaving the United Kingdom has limited the ability of the police to monitor them in two ways. First, when found to have been missing from their registered address, some offenders have been able to claim that they were abroad at the time, and thus were not in breach of the registration requirements. Secondly, the police have not known that an offender who might pose a risk overseas was intending to leave the United Kingdom. The regulations will deal with both those issues.
As always in such matters, we have had to strike a balance between making the regulations useful to the police for operational purposes and recognising that the Sex Offenders Act 1997 is an important measure for protecting the public, but not the only one. The Act is essentially about relevant offenders notifying the police of certain information. It could not properly be used to restrict the movement of offenders, and it was not so intended. Other measures are available for such purposes, such as conditions under licences to which offenders are subject if they are sentenced to more than one year's imprisonment.
The regulations apply to every registered sex offender in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who intends to leave the United Kingdom for eight days or more. The Scottish Executive intend that parallel provisions will be introduced in Scotland, so that there will be a common notification regime north and south of the border. The period of absence of eight days was chosen because of the need for the police to be able to manage the volume of information generated by offenders making a notification under the regulations. There were 14,813 offenders registered in England and Wales on 1 March 2001. We decided that it would not be practical to require information from offenders who were going abroad for periods shorter than eight days.
I emphasise that the police are still free to take whatever action they judge necessary to stop crime if they become aware through other means that an offender who poses a high risk of harm to victims abroad is leaving the United Kingdom for a shorter period.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): If an offender intended to leave this country for less than eight days for a European destination, but did not return, there would be no record of his having left the country. Surely it would be almost impossible to trace him, because he could be anywhere within the European Union.
Mr. Clarke: That is the case. It brings me back to the point I made when introducing the regulations. If we intended the regulations to restrict more generally the movements of offenders, other means would be necessary, such as specifying conditions of licences to which offenders are subject in such circumstances. The regulations do not impose an absolute prohibition on an individual travelling, but set about a process of seeking to identify how we may keep track of people who travel. There is a questionwhich I was addressing before I gave way to my hon. Friendof whether eight days is an appropriate period, and one can make the argument for a longer or shorter period. However, that is the reason why we have dealt with the matter in the manner that we have.
The regulations require that every offender intending to leave the UK for such a period or longer must give notice to the police at least 24 hours before he or she leaves the UK. The Act provides that that notice must disclose the date of departure from the UK and the country to which he or she will travel, or, if more than one country is visited, the first country to be visited and the point of arrival in that country. The period of 24 hours is specified to give sufficient prior notice to the police to allow them to determine whether they must take any further action to inform authorities overseas. We do not envisage that that will occur in every case, but the measure provides the police with sufficient information to do so, and inhibits the likelihood of crime being committed overseas.
The regulations provide for offenders to be required to give further information about their trip, if they have such information at least 48 hours before they travel. That information includes the intended point of arrival in each country to which they want to travel, any carriers with which they want to travel from one country to another, details of accommodation arrangements for the first night outside the UK, the date of intended return to the UK and the intended point of arrival on return.
It is important that the information provided by the offender is accurate, and that he or she does not seek to evade requirements by making an early notification in the knowledge that at the time he knows little information about intended travel, and thus can be required to notify little. That is why the regulations provide that if the information notified becomes inaccurate or incomplete at any point up to 48 hours before departure, he must make fresh notification to the police with the updated information no later 24 hours before his intended departure.
If the offender returns to the UK on the date and at the point of arrival that was previously notified, he need do nothing further about advising the police of his return. However, if the return arrangements have changed from those previously notified, or if the offender did not have any fixed return time at the time of departure, he must notify the police of the date of return and the point of entry within eight days of returning. That is for the sake of information about his movement being accurate and, specifically, to know exactly when he is back in the UK.
The regulations specify that offenders must attend a police station to give the required notices. There are several reasons for that. First, offenders may not remember, from one trip to the next, exactly what information is required. The only way of ensuring that they provide what is required is by their attendance in person. Secondly, it is important that required information is conveyed within the time scale specified, and requiring attendance in person is the best way of achieving that because otherwise letters may not arrive in time or there may be disputes about whether faxes had been sent. However, it should be noted that the offender can meet the requirements of the regulations in a single visit to a police station, so they need not be burdensomea further visit will be necessary only if arrangements change. Additionally, an offender may notify several trips abroad on a single visit to a police station, provided that necessary details are available and plans do not change. That would be necessary for offenders whose work unavoidably takes them abroad frequently.
The offender will be required to make the notification of his travel plans to a police station that is on a list of police stations in the local area where his home address is registered. The local area is specified so that the police service that dealt with the registration of his home address will know that he is not absent without justification during the period specified. The police service will also be enabled to consider whether further action is necessary to prevent a crime from being committed overseas.
I must explain that further regulations amending the Sex Offenders Act 1997 that are contained in the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 will shortly be brought before the House with the intention of their being implemented at the same time as these regulations. The further amendments, which are subject to negative resolution, deal with designating certain police stations at which the offender will be required to make the initial registration of his name and address after leaving prison or being sentenced by a court or cautioned by police.
The regulations link the stations at which notification of foreign travel can be made to those at which initial registration is made. In practice, those will be stations that tend to be open for longer periods. The offender will then be required to give notice of his intention to travel at a police station in his local area designated for the purpose of initial registration. He will also be required to notify his name and address as currently registered with the police for the purposes of the Act. If his plans change, however, and he needs to make a fresh notice, the regulations provide for that to be done at any station designated for initial registration purposes.
That flexibility has been introduced so that, if the offender goes to stay with family members elsewhere in the country before going abroad, he does not have to return to his home area solely to give fresh notice of his plans. Because that may not be the police area for his home address, the regulations additionally require him to state the police station at which he gave the original notification of his intention to travel. The link between the two notifications can then be made by the two police forces involved.
We have considered a wider review of the 1997 Act to examine whether other aspects of it could also be strengthened. We expect to announce the start of a period of public consultation on those proposals shortly.
We believe that the regulations requiring sex offenders to notify the police of their intention to travel abroad represent a further important step in knowing the location of those convicted of sex offences. The information gained may be used to help to prevent the commission of sex crimes in the United Kingdom and abroad. The regulations form part of an interlinked raft of provisions designed to strengthen the protection offered to the public. I commend them to the Committee.