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Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I obviously support my noble friend on these amendments. I am convinced that the amount of research that she has done, the feeling and the sheer care that she has put into a really appalling situation which has been allowed to develop justifies anybody's support.
We believe and hope that the Minister is sympathetic towards these amendmentsto the principle contained in them and the content, if not the actual wording. If they are not perfectly worded, perhaps she will give an indication that she will take them away and the Government will give us a steer on how to continue.
Lord Renton: My Lords, Parliament has a major duty to protect children from the activities of paedophiles. My noble friend Lady Blatch, with her usual persuasive ability, has put forward what I suggest is an unanswerable case in her amendments. She has made it clear that her amendment would allow no discretion on the part of the court. It says that a senior court must order the individual to be disqualified from working with children. Those are very strong and, in my opinion, unanswerable terms. Moreover, proposed subsection (3) states,
I hope that the Minister will agree that there is no answer to the case which my noble friend Lady Blatch has put forward. If it is a matter of drafting, by all means let the Government put forward better drafting at Third Reading. But we really cannot ignore the case that my noble friend has made.
Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has reminded us, when we debated this matter in Committee, I was supportive of what she was trying to do. There clearly is a gap in the provision for protecting children in this respect.
At that time, as the noble Baroness reminded us again, I hoped that something could be brought forward which focused on the propensity to reoffend against children and that children would be protected by a new provision. The amendment is a very good attempt to solve the problems identified on that occasion. Even if it is not exactly perfect, I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that she will address the matter at Third Reading.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and join the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, in congratulating her on her ongoing commitment in this very important area. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, for initiating a further debate in this House on disqualification of unsuitable people from working
Amendment No. 228 would widen the scope of Part 2 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, to give courts the power to disqualify from working with children those offenders whose sentence did not meet the qualifying sentence threshold set out in Section 30 of that Act. Broadly speaking, the current sentence threshold in the provisions is 12 months or more of imprisonment or detention, or a guardianship or hospital order within the meaning of the Mental Health Act 1983.
The proposed new clause in the amendment provides for the courts, if satisfied that the individual will commit a further offence against a child, to make an order disqualifying him from working with children. They must state their reasons for making such an order and cause those reasons to be recorded in the record of proceedings. I am not absolutely clear whether the noble Baroness intends that the effect of the amendment will be that a court must consider a discretionary disqualification order every time that it sentences for a relevant offence. If so, that would be a little burdensome for the courts. However, I share her concern that underlies the amendment; namely, that the courts should be able to disqualify from work with children all those who have offended sexually or violently against children and pose a continuing risk to them. That is what she is getting at.
I wrote to noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, last week outlining our initial thinking. I am sorry if she did not get that response. I have a copy in my briefing, and the letter was written to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and copied to the noble Baronesses, Lady Blatch, Lady Walmsley and Lady O'Cathain, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I hope that the others got their copies. I apologise to the noble Baroness if, for some reason, the letter has not got to her, although I think that the noble Baronesses, Lady Anelay and Lady Walmsley, have theirs. We set out in that letter what we found. A copy has been put in the Library, but I am quite happy to deal with the issue.
The Government will seek to table a relevant government amendment at Third Reading that will address the issue raised by Amendment No. 228. The draft is not to hand now, or I would obviously have been more than happy to share it with the noble Baroness. We would like to leave the existing quasi-automatic scheme for disqualification orders untouched but to consider adding a discretionary extra tier to the scheme, which courts might use in cases where the qualifying sentence threshold was not met. I think that that goes to the mischief that the noble Baroness has identified. I hope that she can be content to wait to see that provision before making a decision.
I listened with care to what the noble Baroness said about finding an alternative administrative route to make sure that a safety net was there, and that may be the sort of safety net that she would wish to see and we would be happy to try to supply. The Sentencing Guidelines Council is independent, of course, but we will certainly raise the issues, as I am sure will others, to invite better consideration of them.
I also listened with concern to what the noble Baroness said about whether the issues were being raised by prosecutors when dealing with such cases, so that we could apprise the court. The court is sure that that should be done. I am most grateful to my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General, who sits beside me on the Front Bench today, for his affirmation for what is contained in my brief, which is that Crown Prosecution Service prosecutors have been reminded to remind the court of that power. He has reinforced that message himself, because he sees the matter as important, as does the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch.
Amendment No. 229 introduces a provision whereby an offender who meets the qualifying sentence threshold by virtue only of two or more consecutive sentences for relevant offences can be disqualified, in the same way as an offender who gets a qualifying sentence following a single conviction. The noble Baroness told us how she thinks that that would operate. The effect of the amendment might conversely be that, for example, an 18 year-old convicted of three minor charges of assault, including a brawl with a 15 year-old of similar stature, and sentenced to four months' imprisonment for each assault to run consecutively, would be brought within the quasi-automatic provisions for disqualification for life from working with children.
From our previous debate, I know that that is not what the noble Baroness intends; nor is it what the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, or any of us would want. I remain unconvinced that, by itself, the amendment is a proportionate response, but add that the amendment that we hope to introduce at Third Reading would remove the need for Amendment No. 229 in cases where the court believed that there was a continuing risk to children. In those circumstances, the court would be able to take effect of the second limb that we seek to introduce in the new amendment, which would enable it to give that safety provision to children in such circumstances. With that reassurance, I hope that the noble Baroness will also feel content.
I appreciate the concerns that were raised by the noble Baronessthey were also raised in another placeabout the apparent failure of the courts in certain cases to issue disqualification orders in cases where the qualifying criteria appeared to be met. It would be inappropriate to comment on specific cases without the full facts in front of me, but I share the concerns of the House, as expressed by the noble Baroness, that those orders must be made in cases that meet the qualifying criteria. I am urgently considering what further action can be taken to deal with any cases in which it appears that a court may have omitted to consider the making of a disqualification order. There may be considerable difficulties, but we are giving urgent thought to how we can respond to that problem.
In the mean time, to ensure that orders are made in appropriate cases, we have raised the issue with the Crown Prosecution Service and the Judicial Studies Board. They have undertaken to remind prosecutors and sentencers of the disqualification provisions. We will also be considering how best to undertake a review of the operation of the disqualification provisions. I hope that those undertakings will go some way to reassure the House that we take the issue very seriously and that we are trying to ensure that disqualification orders will be made in every relevant case.
The noble Baroness asked specifically about the case of Luke Sadowski. Since she raised the matter, we have made enquiries and are still looking into the case, but the points that I have made address the general issue of the possibility that a court may not make an order in a relevant case.
I have not been able to obtain the kind of detail that would enable me to make a proper response to the noble Baroness, but we will continue to seek it. If and when I find such an explanation, I shall certainly share it with noble Baronesses opposite and with the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, will forgive me if I write directly to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on this occasion and copy the letter to other noble Lords who have participated in the debate. I hope the noble Baroness will not consider me discourteous for not doing it the other way round, but it may ensure that the noble Baroness receives the letter that she deserves.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that full answer. I do not hold her personally responsible for my not having received a copy of the letter. I am certain that my noble friend, Lady Anelay, would have discussed the letter with me if she had not taken it for granted that I had received my copy. It is not the first letter in recent weeks that I knew would arrive two or three weeks late, so there are no hard feelings over that.
I hope that the noble Baroness will understand it if I reserve my position until I have seen the amendment, because the terms of the amendment will be important. I understand the Minister's comments on the sentencing guidelines on allocation of court. Since the Bill is about streamlining the service and making it faster and more flexible, it is a great pity that if, for example, the allocation of court were wrong, and the case went to the magistrates' court rather than to the Crown Court, and a 12-month sentence were given, there is not a facility for that sentence to be awarded in that court rather it having then to be referred up to the Crown Court. Again, I will await to hear the detail of any remarks that the Minister makes at Third Reading.
It is deeply distressing that the automatic system is not working. There is now a complete lack of trust. It is extraordinary that reminders have to go out. The Act of Parliament reached the statute book in 2000 and it is only by my tabling the amendments that we have discoveredas the Government clearly have notthat the system is not working. Serious offenders have been found guilty in court, have been sentenced and have walked away without the disqualification order. They are therefore fully free, during the course of their lives and maybe on reform, to go and work with children. That is simply not acceptable. To say that they have been reminded and that the Attorney-General has reinforced that reminder is simply not good enough.
Whatever else we do at Third Reading, we must remedy a situation where the court has failed to apply a disqualification order from working with children in an appropriate case. If it is a matter merely of the judge forgetting, there must be a remedy that can be retrospectively applied. Otherwise, serious offenders, who in the court's judgment have a propensity to offend again, will be allowed to work with children again. I hope that the noble Baroness will come forward with an amendment that will do that.
I shall comment finally on the Sadowski case. I am deeply disappointed that in spite of all the back-up that the Home Office supplies, and I know well of it, it could not have found out between Committee and Report whether Luke Sadowski received a disqualification order and whether it was appropriate in the case. If he did not, why not? I am sure that I would be able to find out that information in a morning. I accept that the noble Baroness still does not have that information and that she will try to get it for me, but it will nevertheless be deeply distressing if we discover that a man like Sadowski, who deserves a disqualification order, does not have one simply because the court failed to apply it.
As I have said, I reserve my judgment for Third Reading. I will look carefully at the amendments tabled by the Minister, but I hope that she will take on board the extra points to which I have referred and in particular my proposal for some remedy in law for the courts' having failed to apply a disqualification order. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.