Saturday 1 March 2014

Hansard 27 Jan 1997 : Column 23. Sex Offenders Bill And P.I.E Debate

A latenight trawl of Hansard produced this 1997 discussion about the Sex Offenders Bill and P.I.E
Mr. Mellor: I should like to develop my argument. I shall not take a long time.
As the Minister so eloquently said, the problem with paedophilia is that so deep-seated is the paedophile's predilection that he is likely to think that society is wrong.
How many of us remember trying to outlaw the Paedophile Information Exchange some years ago? In countries such as the Netherlands, these people are still allowed to move about freely, which has caused the problems that have emerged in Belgium. Allowing them to spread and proliferate suddenly brings a dreadful day of reckoning. Anyone who has seen the national outpouring of grief and concern that followed the discovery of the activities of the paedophile ring in Belgium will know that we must not allow our country to deteriorate to that extent.
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Against that background, I should like to make one detailed point. Because of the difficulties of getting children to give evidence on oath and obtaining convictions based on the uncorroborated evidence of a child--even though the Government have been able to make significant changes to prevent the evidential burden from being heavily against the child, some of them during my time at the Home Office--no more than 5 or 10 per cent. of paedophile cases come to the attention of the courts. Few experts would disagree with that--my right hon. Friend the Minister will have access to more experts than I do. When cases come to court, we should not create artificial barriers to prevent the full weight of the Bill from being brought to bear on paedophiles while they are likely to remain active.

I mentioned in an intervention that may have gone on too long the important point--at least, I think that it is an important point, and I hope that I can persuade others to agree with me--that it is profoundly unlikely that a person just dabbles in paedophilia. Once a paedophile, always a paedophile, is a much more certain saying than once a burglar, always a burglar, or even once a rapist, always a rapist.
I appreciate that there is a tendency not to go too far, and to offer a few concessions to those who oppose a measure. I understand why the barriers at 10 years and six or seven years have been introduced, but where is the opposition to the measure? I do not see it.
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is involved in the Home Secretary's discretion on life sentence prisoners, but when he considers dreadful child sex murders and looks at the previous convictions, he will realise that rarely does the tendency come out of the blue--there is normally a sign. It is rarely an equally serious matter, but lurking somewhere in the past is the clear evidence that the person in question has that particular intent.
We are being asked to legislate on the basis that judges--almost as fragile a breed as politicians, as likely to get things wrong as right--pass the right sentence. My experience does not suggest that that is invariably--or even very often--the case.
I know from reading more than 1,000 life sentence prisoner cases when I was at the Home Office, many of which involved the sexual or sadistic murder of children, that the difference between a nasty sexual assault and murder is not great. A child protests at the indignities that it suffers. The clumsiness and crudeness of the attempts to suppress that child's resistance will often make the difference between an offence that can be written off as indecent assault, punishable by a few months' imprisonment, and a murder, punishable by life imprisonment.
Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): I strongly support what the right hon. and learned Member is saying. He has identified the same issue as I picked out. Is it not true that many judges are not trained to deal with sexual cases, and pass too many lenient sentences, even when the children get caught? Only a fortnight ago, a case was brought up in the House. That case has gone back to the Court of Appeal because of the leniency of the sentence. The barrier of seven or 10 years seems artificial.
Mr. Mellor: I am glad that the hon. Member has mentioned that point. She was an indefatigable
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campaigner on these issues back in the 1980s when I was doing the job that my right hon. Friend the Minister is doing now. I welcome her further intervention.
I found myself on television this morning discussing the case of Myra Hindley with someone who took the view that she should be released, and who thought that politicians should not intervene in such cases because they were a matter for the judiciary. However, I well remember how in 1983, when Leon Brittan, with my assistance, decided that the minimum period of imprisonment for those who were convicted of the sadistic or sexual murder of a child should be 20 years, there was an outcry from the judiciary. I regularly saw cases in which the Lord Chief Justice of the day would recommend only 14 years of imprisonment for such a murder.
Against that background, I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to put into practice the conviction he so eloquently expressed about the deep-seated nature of paedophilia. Given that, to use the old cliche--I suppose that cliches become cliches because they are true--we are dealing only with the tip of the iceberg when we deal with the cases that come before the courts, I ask my right hon. Friend please to make the law apply to all these people. In the sexual lifetime of an adult, seven years is the twinkling of an eye, and 10 years is not much more. We would have cause to regret somebody escaping the full force of the recommendations merely because their conviction became time-expired. That is one change to the Bill that it would not be difficult to make.
I now move on to matters that are probably too difficult to deal with at this time, but which relate so directly to the Bill that it is worth at least pointing ahead.
Having decided that it is right that the police should be able to keep tabs on people and that their addresses should be notified, we shall have to confront the problem--I am slightly surprised that the point has not been raised already in this debate--that is already quite commonplace in America. The problem is that, if the police have a right to know, why do the public not have the right to know? If someone with a string of convictions for sexual offences against children moves into a house, why should the nice young family living next door not be told about him? Why should the community not be told?
I understand all the points about vigilantes and about people taking the law into their own hands. We need, however, to consider carefully the right way in which to deal with the problem. If we believe that paedophiles are in a category entirely on their own, we should consider whether it would be appropriate to take the exceptional step of saying that, when a paedophile lives in a neighbourhood, all those living in the neighbourhood should know.
My right hon. Friend the Minister is right. One reason for requiring registration with the police is that it becomes easy for the police to trace someone who may have been responsible for a terrible offence. The other reason is deterrence; someone will feel that he is under pressure. It is a way of putting likely persistent offenders under pressure and telling them that they are unlikely to get away with the crime if they give way to their urges in a way that causes serious harm to young and vulnerable children. I believe that, in the longer run, we shall be hard put to resist the claims, which will undoubtedly come, that something should be done so that the public are let in on the secret about who is living in their street.
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It is important that, although we see the Bill as a significant step forward, we do not make too many large claims for it. I want to draw attention to two recent cases which show how much further we shall have to go if we are serious about tackling the problem of paedophiles.
I refer first to the murder of Sophie Hook. Sophie's father Christopher is someone I know well; I have discussed these matters with him, and I know that he has also discussed them with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. Indeed, he discussed them with him back in November, and he raised with him the question whether the public should be told where convicted sex offenders lived. My right hon. and learned Friend undertook to talk to the Association of Chief Police Officers about the matter. Two months on, it would be interesting to know whether there has been any response. I am sure that not only Christopher Hook but some of the rest of us would like to know what the Home Office's latest thinking on the matter is.
Sophie Hook was a nine-year-old. She was not one of the "streetwise" children we are told about--poor little mites who are left to wander the street by parents who do not care about them, and who are therefore in a vulnerable state. Sophie Hook was a cherished child, who illustrated the fact that good parents are as vulnerable as bad parents to having their children abducted; that is a salutary lesson for all of us.
On a hot night two summers ago while on holiday, Sophie Hook was sleeping in a tent with her two cousins in a garden in north Wales. From there, she was abducted by a creature called Howard Hughes. He was notorious in his neighbourhood for his paedophile and other anti-social tendencies, and was regarded as a ticking time bomb. He was 6 ft 8 in tall, and wandered round the town dragging his rottweiler behind him; everyone was afraid of him. Sophie Hook, aged nine, was taken out of the tent, sexually abused, battered, beaten, tossed into the sea and left to die.
The Bill will do nothing about Howard Hughes. We have to ask ourselves a question which came up, strangely enough, on television; television stations are usually the least likely places to find a real insight rather than a soundbite. I appeared on "Heart of the Matter" with Chris Hook to discuss the issue. One of the foremost forensic psychiatrists dealing with the problems of paedophiles put in a nutshell the dilemma we face as legislators, when he said that the trouble was that we were concerned with punishment and not with dealing with dangerousness.
Howard Hughes could not be punished, because, until he abducted Sophie Hook, he had not done anything for a good many years that the courts could pick up on; but he was manifestly dangerous and known to be dangerous, to the extent that, when Sophie's body was found, everybody in the district said, "Well, it's Howard Hughes. It must be him."
There is an issue that we shall have to leave hanging in the air for the moment, but which we shall have to grasp eventually. If we are indeed of the view that to be a paedophile is to be beyond the pale, if we wish to protect our children, and if we know that paedophilia is a deep-seated instinct--once someone is known to be a paedophile, they are known to be a ticking time bomb--is there not a case, as one of my hon. Friends said earlier,
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for some kind of finding to be permitted to the courts? It would not necessarily rank as a conviction, but might be equivalent to being bound over to keep the peace, which is not a conviction, but which sometimes operates as a deterrent against the bad behaviour of certain ill-disciplined people.
Could we not have a finding of being a paedophile, whereby some form of supervision was carried out on people such as Howard Hughes, to the extent that, if the framework of good behaviour set out by that supervision was disobeyed, it would be possible for some form of preventive detention to be imposed? If not, we shall always find ourselves being wise after the event. It sounds tremendous to say that there will be life imprisonment after the second serious offence, but that second offence is predicated on the fact that two innocent youngsters will have to suffer horribly before society nerves itself to take action. We need to think about that.
That point leads me to the second case that I want to bring forward, without wearying the House--the case of Trevor Holland. He came to the notice of some as recently as last summer, when, having been convicted as a serious paedophile, he was taken to Chessington World of Adventure on a day trip. It was rather like taking an alcoholic to a brewery for a little R and R. Trevor Holland absconded, and there was a great deal of concern about the case.
It might be worth considering the case of Trevor Holland again. He was convicted of a serious assault against a 12-year-old boy, and he went to prison for a number of years. He would therefore be caught by the Bill, and would have to register his address. However, when Trevor Holland was released from prison, he made threatening telephone calls to the home of his victim, blaming the victim for the fact that he had been in prison and saying that he would go round and sort out the victim and his family. He put those people in fear, but they were then told by the police that they could do nothing until something happened.
Interestingly, such was the danger posed by Trevor Holland that it was found possible under the mental health Acts to detain him last summer--I hope that he is still detained--not because he was still serving the prison sentence for the offence of which he had been convicted, but because he was regarded as a danger to the public. Somehow, the authorities found a basis on which to confine him under the mental health Acts, but they had to bring into use Acts that were not intended to be used in that way.
It should not be too long, if we are serious about paedophilia, before a proper court or tribunal is set up to make a finding about paedophile tendencies, and, as a consequence, a form of lifelong supervision is introduced--which could be waived at some point if good behaviour was evident--that would allow society to intervene before rather than after a terrible event. In that way, we could close the stable door before the horse had bolted.
In a sense, my speech has been a mixed message. Yes, the law will be improved by the Bill, and I hope that this afternoon's spirit of co-operation will prevail through the remaining stages and take it on to the statute book before the election. However, we have taken only a small bite out of the problem, and many terrible cases will continue to happen. We will have to screw our courage to the
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sticking place and take further, severe action if we are to curb some of the worst cases that have been reported in the newspapers in recent months and have caused us so much dismay.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I have long supported the calls for the Bill, as have many other right hon. and hon. Members present--the old gang. I was an Opposition spokesman on home affairs for four years. The right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) disagreed with me on many issues, but we agreed on one or two, and one of them was the protection of children.
The Bill is not just about paedophilia. I want to talk about a category of people who will be covered because they are the same kind of wrong-doers as paedophiles. They are evil people who take away childhood and innocence. That is why the House should concentrate carefully on the Bill. I was pleased by both Front Benchers' speeches, because it was made obvious that the Bill can be improved in Committee, even if we have a short Committee stage, perhaps more than any other Bill that I have taken an interest in.
The Bill covers not just paedophiles who take children's innocence away: it also covers those who entice children into prostitution. When I first entered the House, if we talked about paedophiles, people did not want to know. It was an unpopular subject and people thought that there were just one or two crazed individuals who might be interested in that kind of perversion. I pay tribute to the former hon. Member--now, sadly, deceased--Geoffrey Dickens, who represented Huddersfield, West when I represented Huddersfield, East. He introduced the subject to the House and made much headway in bringing the subject to our attention. I remember when he first spoke in the House; people were not interested, or found the subject amusing, but we have learnt more about paedophiles and their ghastly interests over the years and now we have the Bill.
Many people think that they would have to take a trip to Bangkok to find out about child prostitution. We know the figures for child prostitutes--between 200,000 and 800,000--in Asia, but child prostitution is also rife in this country. There are child prostitutes down the road from the Palace of Westminster, and child prostitutes are available in most towns and cities in the country. Investigation and research into the problem shows that there is a cycle of abuse of young people who run away from home or who are enticed from home and are found on the streets. The problems do not start with young people of 15 and a half, but at 11, 12, and 13--a very young age.
There are real problems in dealing with child prostitution, and the national register will not be effective unless we do something more positive about the problem of the exploitation of children. That exploitation goes deep and starts very young. Often, a group of men--it is normally men--find young, innocent children, usually girls, who can be seduced into a way of life. Evidence shows that groups of men specialise in enticing young children into a relationship that leads, inevitably, to prostitution. We know those people as pimps--people who live off the immoral earnings of, usually, women.
I looked at the statistics in preparation for the debate. It is worrying that the number of prosecutions of pimps has declined. Ten years ago, there were 150 successful
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prosecutions for the offence of living off immoral earnings, but that figure declined to about 50 in the last year of record. Even more worrying, 10 years ago there were three recorded successful prosecutions for the offence of enticement of children into prostitution, but in the past 11 years there have been only 16 successful such prosecutions. How does that square with the fact that child prostitution is rife, as any hon. Member will find if he talks to his chief constable?
The figures are not the police's fault for not prosecuting offenders. The problem, under our law, is that if the police see an under-age child working as a prostitute--on the game, as it is called--their prime responsibility is her welfare. They must take her out of that way of life and put her into a safe place or into care. That is the real problem because successful prosecutions for living off immoral earnings depend on surveillance.
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): My hon. Friend is making an important point and the south London area that I represent suffers from the problems that he has mentioned. Does he agree that we also have to deal with television companies that give enormous publicity to that way of life, which undoubtedly has a serious effect on many youngsters? It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us what action he intends to take to stem the glorification of child prostitution.
Mr. Sheerman: While researching this issue, I have watched and listened to all the investigative programmes on television and radio over the past two or three years. I hear what my hon. Friend says, but must disagree with him in one sense. Good television and radio programmes have drawn the subject to the public's attention. Indeed, their attention has been focused on the subject as a result of some very good programmes, especially those on Radio 4, Roger Cook's on Central Television, and others, which have addressed the issue, highlighted it and reminded us all of what is going on. The issue has been addressed not only by television and radio programmes, but by The Children's Society, in its report "The Game's Up", which redefines child prostitution.
The difficulty of which the House should be aware is that, if we do not tackle the police's problems identifying the people who entice others on to our streets as prostitutes, our poor record of targeting evil pimps, prosecuting them and putting them in prison will continue.
There is an anomaly in the law, which I hope the Minister will tackle. Why can the offence of living on immoral earnings receive a penalty of as much as seven years in prison, but the maximum penalty for enticing a child into prostitution is two years? What is the logic behind that? I am sure that many hon. Members would agree that the penalty for enticement should be at least the same as--if not greater than--that for living on immoral earnings.
All of us must focus on some very difficult issues on Second Reading and in Committee. The Bill is not a magic wand. Establishing a register is a very positive step; we must make it as good, comprehensive and sensitive as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) and the right hon. and learned Member for Putney put their fingers on it when they said that we must have a fully co-ordinated approach. From asking questions of a range of Ministers, I have formed
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the overall opinion that they are all saying, "It is not really my business, Guv." Such a response is replicated in local authorities, education authorities, social services and the police. There is no co-ordination, either nationally or locally.
I call on the House to provide the impetus to tackle the issue in a positive and purposeful way over the coming years. We have been ignoring the problem for too long. Now that we are fully aware of the extent of the crime--the young lives of hundreds of children are being ruined; their childhoods are being taken away by evil people--we must address it and its causes. I wish the Bill good speed and hope that it tackles the broader issues as well as the specific issues concerning the register.
5.12 pm
Sir Wyn Roberts (Conwy): The Bill and the debate sharply illustrate the extreme seriousness with which we all view the offences to which the Bill refers. The debate reflects our awareness of the public's strong feelings of justifiable outrage when such offences are committed against innocent children, young people and even very elderly people.
I had personal experience of such public reaction when a little girl, Sophie Hook, to whom my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) has already referred, was snatched from a garden tent at night while on holiday with relatives in Llandudno in my constituency and brutally murdered by a local paedophile, Howard Hughes, who had been known to the police for some years. Although there was a history of complaints about this man's behaviour, the only previous conviction secured against him was for common assault on a boy in the early 1980s. Had the Bill been in force at that time, it is doubtful whether Hughes would have had to give notification under it. That fact--and that case--have rather dominated my view of the Bill. I know that it is very dangerous to draw general principles from particular cases, so I shall put forward suggestions.
I am told that paedophiles tend to amass a great deal of material relating to their obsession. Hughes was no exception. Perhaps we should try to create an offence of possessing such material in certain well-defined circumstances, which would lead to notification under the Bill. I was very glad to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister say that he intends to table an amendment in Committee to deal with the importation of paedophile material, but I doubt whether, with the best will in the world, that would cover the fact of possession if imported, and possibly non-imported, material is found in an individual's possession.
Mr. Maclean: I think that I can help my right hon. Friend. We have already included a provision that requires those who have been convicted of possessing indecent photographs of children, or of taking, showing or possessing such photographs with a view to distributing them, to register. The Bill does not cover only importation. We are now plugging that loophole.
Sir Wyn Roberts: I am very glad to have my right hon. Friend's assurance. I do not want to discourage him in any way, but he will be aware that the sort of material
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that appears to excite the imaginations of paedophiles is very extensive, and even extends to court records. I therefore hope that he will refine his requirements in the amendment.
It concerns me that the Bill deals only with convicted offenders. I think that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney was concerned about that too. We know that, although there is a history of complaints about many paedophiles, the complaints have not been pursued due to the reluctance of parents and children to become involved in court proceedings--all of which is perfectly understandable. Surely there should be some investigative service, possibly under the national health service or social services, which considers complaints about which the police and other organisations are aware but can do little about.

We know that, once established as a personality trait, paedophilia tends to persist and may--obviously--cause concern to the paedophile's relatives and friends. They might be glad to unburden themselves in response to sympathetic inquiries. In the event of a positive outcome to such an inquiry, therefore, at least the authorities and everyone else would be aware of the tendencies inherent in an individual.
Mrs. Golding: Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the full implementation of Judge Pigot's report would be helpful in such cases?
Sir Wyn Roberts: I dare say that it would. I am basing my remarks on my experience of a particular case in my constituency, but I am sure that the matter is covered in the Pigot report. Nevertheless, and as I am sure the hon. Lady will understand, it is a difficult area.
The issue on which we are all being pressed is the use that the police will make of the information resulting from notification. I am bound to say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that I had expected to see that spelt out in the Bill and I am disappointed that it is not. However, there is no doubt that the police will find the information helpful, especially in implementing the various child protection strategies to which schools, the probation service and other organisations contribute.
In respect of the dissemination of the information, we are all aware that antipathetic feelings towards paedophiles run high. It is difficult to believe that the diffusion of knowledge about their location--as practised by the police in Washington state, for example--would not result in unhelpful public houndings of convicted paedophiles from one locality to another, thus discouraging notification to the point where the purpose was defeated. Dissemination of knowledge of convicted paedophiles' whereabouts and physical appearance through distribution of photographs and so on should, therefore, be confined to those with a need to know--for example, head teachers of schools where persons with an unhealthy and obsessive interest in children are pestering pupils, or child care employers who are suspicious of persons whom they are thinking of engaging.
Mr. Brazier: As one who has recently visited Washington state and spoken to the Seattle district attorney--I have even been out on patrol with the Seattle police--may I put it to my right hon. Friend that one merit that Washington state possesses, unlike its near namesake,
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Washington DC, is a rapidly falling crime rate? I believe that Washington state has had the second or third largest fall in crime in America. Perhaps there is something to be said for looking at the methods used there.
Sir Wyn Roberts: I certainly agree that we should look at those methods, which were shown on the television programme to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney referred. My personal opinion, however, is that it would not be wise in this country to disseminate photographs to neighbours of paedophiles as was done in Washington state. I have a feeling that the result would be more crimes, not fewer.
I am aware of the controversial and sensitive nature of the proposals in the Bill. Notification must not become an additional punishment; it must be a preventive measure. The police must be careful when using the information that they gain as a result of the Bill. I agree with the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) that some guidelines for the police might be welcome.
The question has been asked: why pick on sexual offenders, rather than some other group of criminals who might be more likely to reoffend? The answer lies in the particular horror and revulsion felt by the public when the defenceless are attacked and in the extreme terror that sexual offenders can strike in communities.
We all believe that the police are well informed about convicted offenders in our midst, but that is not invariably the case. I am frequently surprised by their lack of knowledge about offenders who find their way back into the community from prison or psychiatric hospitals. That is an area of police information that should be subjected to closer examination and scrutiny. I am especially concerned about the actions of some of our mental health tribunals, which give little warning, and consult very little with the police before releasing individuals into the community.
5.24 pm
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East): I welcome the Government's action in introducing this important Bill. It would have been a mistake to have left it as a private Member's Bill; the public's concern is massive and the Government were right to make it a Government Bill. In some respects, however, they have been timid--not a word that I often associate with the Minister--and I am glad to hear that some amendments are proposed, such as an increase in the penalty for non-notification. I urge the Government to go further: the Bill represents only half a loaf and we should attempt to explore in Committee whether we can make it more effective.
The public need to know that there is an overall register containing all the information that is needed. The danger is that the Bill will lead only to one more list being prepared--one that will not be the comprehensive list that is needed. From the Minister's recent answer to me, I gather that we already have six national lists: the police national computer list, the national identification service list, the National Criminal Intelligence Service list, Scotland Yard's national paedophile index list, list 99 of the Department for Education and Employment, and the Department of Health consultancy index list--not to mention the other lists held by local police stations.
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Local authorities are in a confusing position because of guidance issued by the Government telling them that they should not keep lists, despite the fact that they have a legal obligation to use the information that they have. Finally, lists are also held by voluntary bodies such as the Scout Association and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
What is the register to be? Is it to be only the seventh list, or is to be the overall list that is needed and that the public want? If it fails in that respect, there will be a deep sense of disappointment. I know from my discussions with the Greater Manchester Police Federation that its members were disappointed to learn that the list would not be fully retrospective: to be useful to the police, it must be retrospective. Even if the register established under the Bill cannot be retrospective, as the Minister explained, there must be an overall list containing all the information available, including details of suspects. All the evidence shows that, if the list is to be effective, there must be close co-operation between all those who are concerned with the problem.
The whole question of who should and should not be on the list has already been discussed. The Childrens Charities Consortium made an important point when it said that the list should not include those cases where there had been victimless, adult consensual acts, because that would add unnecessary names to the list.
I hope that the requirements for Scotland will be fully in line with those for the rest of the country. We need global information, but without common information covering Great Britain, it will be difficult to get common information covering the rest of the world. I am appalled to hear that individuals who are known to have been convicted for serious sexual offences abroad will not be on the register here. I agree with the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) that it is absurd that such offenders should be omitted.
People who are known to have been convicted of one of these serious offences and are known to the police should be notified that they must inform the police of changes of address. In that way, we can make the register more useful more quickly than if we leave matters as they are; otherwise, it will be decades before sensible action can be taken.
Suspects must be included on the list where the information on them is sufficiently serious. The National Association for the Development of Work with Sex Offenders says:

    "There is an urgent need to address the issue of known sex offenders who are not convicted. There should be clear guidance about the management of information in such cases."
According to the Childrens Charities Consortium,

    "the majority of children are abused by unconvicted offenders, and in the minority of cases where prosecution follows the disclosure of abuse, the rate of conviction remains disturbingly low."
Research shows that, on average, before a child sex abuser is caught, he or she will have attempted or committed more than 200 offences.
How can we leave strong evidence of abuse off the register? If a local authority requires a man to move out of a house because he has been found to be abusing the children, and if he complies with that requirement, there may not be a conviction but surely his name should be on the register with those of people who have been convicted; we know that in many cases it is difficult to secure a successful conviction.
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In 1994, the latest year for which we have figures, there were 54,000 protection referrals for child sex abuse, which led to fewer than 500 convictions: fewer than one in 100 were convicted. The information that is available to social services must be included on an overall register if the register is to have value.
It is ridiculous that the names of children at risk of sexual abuse are placed on a register but the names of people who have committed the crime are not. It is the only crime where the victim's name is placed on the register but the perpetrator's name is not. I ask the Government to give more thought to creating an overall list that includes such information. I understand that the National Criminal Intelligence Service already maintains a database of about 4,500 suspected paedophiles, so the Government already keep some of this information. We all expect the Government to try to maintain more of it.
I said earlier that the courts established in R. v. Devon County Council ex parte L that social services have a duty to maintain surveillance of suspected child abusers, even if they are unconvicted. There is, therefore, a clear duty on the Government to maintain the best possible information systems and to assemble an overall list that will pull all that information together.
As the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) said, we need clear guidance on who should have access to the information in the register. There is nothing explicit in the Bill about access to the register. Matthew Parris said on Friday that the principle of public notification is unsound. I urge caution in the way in which the information is used. I would be satisfied to leave it to a chief constable to decide how it should be used and to notify people when he thinks it necessary, but the Bill should say clearly how that guidance should be issued.
I am pleased that the Government accept the need for a higher penalty. One month was obviously inadequate and would have led to paedophiles risking discovery rather than coming forward, as they should. I hope that offences abroad will be counted as offences for the purposes of the Bill. If not, there will be a temptation for paedophiles to commit their offences abroad.
The right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) said that he thought it was impossible to treat offenders, but I draw his attention and that of other hon. Members to the very good work done by the Faithfull Foundation at Wolvercote. Its residential treatment centre has achieved high success rates but, sadly, it faces closure because the Department of Health, which owns the property, apparently intends to sell it shortly. In the light of that success, I urge the Government to ensure that there is at least one residential treatment centre in every region. It is appalling that the Government have no plans to secure the future of the Faithfull Foundation treatment centre or to establish treatment centres elsewhere.
I look forward to an active Committee stage, during which amendments may be introduced to strengthen the Bill and ensure that it becomes the type of Bill that the public want. If the names and addresses of previous offenders are known to the police at present, surely it is no problem for the police to notify them that they must inform the police of any future move. That would not impose a great burden on the police, and it would help to assemble the necessary information.
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It is perfectly possible to strengthen the Bill's ability to deal with people with previous convictions and where there is strong evidence of abuse although there may not have been a conviction.
I look forward to the Committee stage and hope that the Government will give full attention to the need to develop treatment centres and assessment centres.
Mr. Maclean: I have heard the main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's plea that we should impose a requirement on people who do not know that they have been convicted, because they have not been convicted, to register with the police and that they should be liable to six months' imprisonment if they do not do so. How would he justify to the House, to the country and to his new party a sentence of six months on people who failed to register when they did not know that they had to do so because they had never been charged with or convicted of any offence?
Mr. Thurnham: If the Minister had been listening, he would have heard me say that, when the person's name and address is already known it will be possible to notify him of the need to inform the police of any move that he might make, and if there is sufficient evidence against him the conviction could be secured on the basis of existing evidence. It is perfectly possible to bring a prosecution if it is thought that that would be in the public interest.
I agree with the thrust of some of the remarks made by the right hon. and learned Member for Putney that, in effect, an indeterminate sentence is needed. Why release a person if it is known that he poses a risk to the public? If he is known to pose a risk to the public, there should be a full assessment before sentence is passed. There should be treatment during the period of sentence and no release without an assessment that the risk to the public was at a minimum.
At present, people can be released when they are known to pose a risk to the public and it is then necessary to wait for them to reoffend before they are reconvicted. I urge the Government to consider more closely the need for a full assessment before sentence is passed, so that indeterminate sentences can be imposed on people who continue to pose a risk to the public. The Government should propose much stronger measures.
5.36 pm
Mr. Michael Alison (Selby): I join the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) and many other hon. Members in applauding the introduction of the Bill, especially part II, and I wish to say a word of congratulation to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has involved himself in this subject exhaustively over a long period.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State reminds me of one of those great capital ships that one used to see in documentary films about naval encounters, speeding towards the war. There was a period when, some of us thought, the great guns that my right hon. Friend carried tended to face in the wrong direction; but, slowly and deliberately, those massive guns have undergone a switch in trajectory and they have swung right round to focus their powerful charges on this appalling and horrible type of criminal.
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Not only has my right hon. Friend involved himself deeply in this subject, but I think he will agree that he has received substantial help from outside pressure groups such as the Coalition on Child Prostitution and Tourism, and his proposal gets to grips with the problem. I warmly congratulate him on that and thank him for the part that he has played.
I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would give me some further advice when he replies, or on another occasion, or even in Committee. The Coalition on Child Prostitution and Tourism has made a point relating to the exclusion proposed in clause 2(3)(d), which applies to someone who

    "is outside the United Kingdom"--
while the time requirement of up to 14 days is ticking away. Can the fact that such a person is outside the United Kingdom at the relevant time provide him with an indefinite escape from registration? He might, for instance, decide to stay outside the UK for one of the periods stipulated on page 2 of the Bill--five years. That might enable him never to have to register, because the time for which he has to register would expire before he returned to the United Kingdom. I should be glad of the Minister's guidance on that technical point.
Another aspect of the Bill slightly worries me, and it was vividly put in interventions by the hon. Members for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) and for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton). My slight misgiving about the Bill is paradoxical. The aim of the Bill is to protect vulnerable children and juveniles in overseas countries and territories. Certainly, part II will indirectly benefit children in this country, but its essential purpose is to help to safeguard poor, vulnerable children or juveniles in overseas countries. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to reassure the House that this part of the Bill will not inculcate a tendency or preference on the part of paedophiles for going overseas to commit their crimes.
A paedophile might go overseas because of the difference between what constitutes a culpable offence in Britain and such an offence in another country. My fear is that paedophiles might concentrate their activities on, say, girls over the age of 14 in some Asian countries; at that age they become marriageable and are allowed, without committing an offence, sexual intercourse. Thus a group of girls who may be protected under our framework of law are not necessarily so protected in other countries: they are therefore more vulnerable.
Does the Minister share my anxiety, furthermore, about the possibility--this is a double jeopardy--that those guilty of offences against girls outside the narrow age range of 14 to 16, and susceptible to charges under the Bill, might go abroad to commit their crimes, and then hand themselves over to the local jurisdiction if they have the faintest suspicion that their activities have been discovered by, for instance, investigators from a non-government organisation? They might then plea bargain, asking to be prosecuted for the alleged offence, and in exchange for pleading guilty they would demand a sentence of deportation. Many less developed countries try to deport overseas visitors caught in criminal activities as rapidly as possible, because the last thing they want is the image that attaches to countries that prosecute tourists. For them, deportation is a quick and easy way out.
If such a plea of guilty has been entered and deportation has ensued, does that mean that the case cannot be tried back in the United Kingdom?
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Is my right hon. Friend certain that we are not introducing any measure that will promote such activities against children in overseas countries--such locations being, from the point of view of those who may be apprehended, the lesser of two evils? I wish to reinforce the point argued by the hon. Members for Bolton, North-East, for Swansea, East and for Mossley Hill. Serious consideration must be given to registration when an offence has been tried abroad and knowledge of that event has reached us.
Otherwise I warmly endorse everything positive that has been said about this Bill, and I congratulate Ministers on the action that they have taken.
5.44 pm
Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): Anyone who saw Sue Lloyd-Roberts' excellent film on child prostitution in Sri Lanka, shown about 10 days ago, will have no hesitation in arguing that people convicted of sexual offences in other countries ought to be on the register in this country too. Anyone who saw the film will have seen a Swiss millionaire who has been accused of abusing about 2,500 young people in Sri Lanka and who is currently being tried in that country. It is terrifying to think that he might come to live here without anyone knowing that he had been convicted of sexual abuse in another country. His and many other examples argue strongly in favour of including such people on our register as well, in case they plan to come and live here.
We tend to speak of our own direct experiences. In my constituency a few months ago, a man was convicted of sexually abusing 18 young children--this in one small village. The man had moved to Cynon Valley from Liverpool, where he had been convicted of sexually abusing under-aged children. He had served his sentence and then moved, presumably because he knew that he would be anonymous in Cynon Valley. Like many paedophiles, he was very clever. He was married with two children. He kept horses, and had a bouncy castle in his back garden. He had a great many things that attracted young children to his house. Indeed, he offered to baby-sit, so parents in the area thought he was a nice man--he seemed kind to children. He was also a taxi driver.
It was almost by chance that the man was eventually caught out. The parents of the children concerned are extremely upset and angry because they believe that he has been given a relatively short prison sentence. I do not want this evening to discuss the length of prison sentences. Suffice it to say that if parents in my area had been aware of the man's conviction of serious sexual offences elsewhere, they would have been on their guard and would have protected their children.
That is why I believe that the register must be retrospective if it is to have any worth. I know that several right hon. and hon. Members feel the same. Many of these people continue to pose a serious risk to the public, and will do so for many years to come. Some repeat sex offenders are known to have been given short probation and community service orders or short custodial sentences even though they have previously served longer sentences. I therefore ask the Minister to think again. There are all too many examples to show that, had there been a retrospective register of this kind in the past, many people would have been enabled to protect vulnerable children.
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There is another case in my constituency where several local business men have been accused of sexual offences against under-age children. That is proceeding, so I shall say nothing about it, except that as we roll over the stones, the ghastly picture of what is happening in our society emerges.
When I heard the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts)--the former Minister at the Welsh Office--speaking about his concerns, I wondered why the Welsh Office had not sent inspectors to examine a problem that had been evident in north Wales for many years and about which plenty of evidence had been given to the Welsh Office. Where was that inspectorate?
What happens when the state is responsible for the protection of young children? It must be the most awful thing of all, when children are taken away from homes where they have been physically or sexually abused, put in the care of the state and find that things are worse than they were at home, and when the state allows abuse to go on against those children. As we know, a tribunal is meeting in north Wales. Some of my constituents are involved in it and will give evidence there, and some will choose not to do so, because they find the experience so painful.
For many years children who were in the protection of the state were continually sexually abused by those who were supposed to care for them. Unless the register is retrospective, it will not identify people who have previous convictions and who are still in positions of responsibility, working with children.
Someone who is in charge of an organisation that trains young people telephoned me in July and said that he was concerned that when he was taking on new staff and asked the police for information because he had doubts about certain members of his staff, the information was withheld from him. It is essential that such information is given to those who are responsible for employing staff who will come into contact with young people.
Do the Government intend to give direction--not just guidelines--to chief constables on the policing of known sex offenders, and the disclosure of information to child welfare protection agencies, housing agencies, prospective employers and the general public? Without such direction, it is arguable whether police forces will be any more effective than they are at present in preventing further offending, bearing in mind the fact that they already have at their disposal information through the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and existing police intelligence reporting. Indeed, police forces nationally, as the Minister well knows, complain that limited resources impede their ability to reduce crime. The added task of collating information, with no direction on its usage, becomes increasingly questionable.
With such limited sanctions as fines not exceeding scale 3 and/or imprisonment, with the maximum term not exceeding one month, the Bill should not be viewed as a deterrent to serial sex offenders who we know are skilled in concealing their identity and whereabouts. At best it may serve as a further deterrent to lesser-risk convicted offenders--those who have committed opportune offences where the process of detection and conviction has already reduced the likelihood of recidivism. The Bill would give the police considerable power over lesser-risk
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sex offenders, but with regard to serial paedophiles, part I is unlikely to deter their activities and therefore to protect children or other vulnerable sections of the public.
The Bill does nothing to alter the rate of prosecution for those alleged to have committed sex offences. For example, the number of prosecutions resulting from a major police inquiry into child abuse in north Wales was minimal, considering the number of complaints made. If Parliament wants to address more effectively the prevention of sex offending, it should consider measures intended to distinguish between different types of offenders, enforcing treatment where appropriate, and measures to protect the public when that is deemed necessary.
The Bill will not help to deal with the problem that only a small number of sex offenders are caught, and that most are free and will not be affected by the Bill. We are only beginning to uncover the problem in the United Kingdom. The young people whom I interviewed, who are now in their thirties, were sexually abused while in state care when they were aged 14. Such abuse at that age has destroyed their lives. I have five of those young people in my constituency. All have served prison sentences.
It is extremely moving to hear those young people talking about their experiences. I am surprised that they can talk about them at all, but they find it easier to talk to women. When they speak about their experiences, they say the same thing over and over again: they are not after compensation. I must refute recent claims that those who now give witness to what happened to them when they were teenagers are after compensation. The majority want to know why it was done to them, why it took so long for the abuse to be uncovered and why no one ever said to them, "I'm sorry."
5.56 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): That was a moving speech from the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd). I strongly welcome the Bill. I support the measures in part II which allow the prosecution in the United Kingdom of British citizens who go abroad to abuse small children in foreign countries.
I was present for the first Adjournment debate in the small hours of the night four years ago, when we discussed the matter, and I was privileged to serve on the private Member's Bill last year and to support pleas from my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) and others for a more far-reaching measure to be introduced. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who took so much trouble to listen to our arguments then, has introduced such a measure in part II of the Bill.
None the less, as time is short and many hon. Members want to speak, I shall focus on part I. Earlier speakers have dealt with individual details of the Bill. Instead, I shall focus on the only strong argument that has been put forward against the Bill--the argument advanced in an article by Matthew Parris, which has been alluded to several times. It is important that the article is answered strongly, for two reasons: first, because of Norman Tebbit's famous dictum that the worst legislation that goes through Parliament is usually the legislation that everyone in the House agrees with and which is therefore not properly scrutinised--not the case with this Bill, but
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there is some truth in the observation--and secondly, because if the argument is not properly answered in this place, we may have difficulties in another place, and as we are so close to an election, the Bill is particularly vulnerable.
Mr. Parris claimed that "the central principle" of the Bill is

    "that a great swathe of offenders who have served their sentences and returned--disgraced at the workplace, disgraced with landlords, disgraced among their families and their friends, and almost certainly unemployed--to try to begin their lives again, should now be bound to the 20th-century equivalent of the leper's bell. This"--
he says--

    "is primitive nonsense. Will nobody say so?"
His views may well by echoed by the legal establishment--for example, let us look at the way in which it has resisted many of Mr. Pigot's recommendations. Curiously, Mr. Parris outlines the skeleton of the opposing argument in a subsequent paragraph. He says:

    "Apologists for the Home Secretary will object that although sex offenders are victims, they create victims of their own."
Most people would not accept that sex offenders are victims, although they certainly create victims. He continues:

    "Are these not our first concern? There is a clear answer to this. If we judge a person so dangerous that his neighbours must be warned about him, he should not be allowed back into the community."
Many people would say, "Amen to that." The danger to which Mr. Parris refers can be measured in two ways: the nature of the danger and its numerical extent.
First, many hon. Members have pointed to the horrendous primary damage caused by the sexual abuse of children, but two secondary forms of damage have scarcely been mentioned. The first is the fact that the increased number of AIDS cases in this country heightens the risk of children catching serious sexually transmitted diseases that may affect their health for the rest of their lives. In AIDS cases, they are likely to result in death.
The second form of secondary abuse to which the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) referred--I pay tribute to her tireless pursuit of this cause--is the abuse that continues in the criminal justice system after the primary offence. In seven or eight speeches and ten-minute Bills in this place, I have referred to cases of untrained or unvigilant judges allowing lawyers to abuse grossly their powers in court. I have described the way in which children are sometimes treated in court. A whole range of organisations point to the secondary abuse of children in court that may continue for a year or a year and a half after the original offence.
Children are deliberately tormented again and again by being forced to wait hours--sometimes days--before they take the witness stand. Children as young as 11 or 12 are sneered at and often face allegations that they encouraged their attackers. That kind of treatment, which goes far beyond the bounds of normal cross-examination, can make the original abuse much worse. That is why, even when there is an overwhelming case against a sex offender, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and social services feel compelled--even before the parents intervene--to abandon proceedings.
That brings me to the second danger: the numerical incidence of sex offences. According to the overwhelming body of academic evidence, only rarely does a convicted
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paedophile cease offending. The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) called for more treatment for sex offenders. The problem is that I have seen no academic work--I have examined a number of studies--that shows that a course of treatment for paedophiles has had anything more than the most modest success rate. The danger of re-offending is numerically very high.
Mr. Thurnham: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the work of the Faithful Foundation. It has produced evidence--which others have accepted--of a substantial reduction in sex offences of 60 per cent. or more.
Mr. Brazier: I shall look at that study. The evidence points to a large number of repeat offences, and the danger is both grave and frequent.
My answer to Mr. Parris's article and to those outside Parliament who will continue to claim that the measures in the Bill are too draconian--when many hon. Members believe that they should go much further--is that, when dealing with threats to children, the tiny proportion of offenders who are caught and convicted deserve to be placed on an offenders register. I believe that that register should be made publicly available because parents have a right to know when a convicted paedophile moves into their area. The rights of children--the most vulnerable group in our society--must come before those of convicted criminals.
The most important single service that the House can perform for the victims of sexual offences is to pass the legislation before the election. Therefore, I would not move any troublesome amendments if I were selected to serve on the Committee to consider the Bill. Let us pass the legislation quickly and put the provisions on the statute book.
6.4 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I shall try to be brief. I am concerned that, although hon. Members appear to be enthusiastic about the legislation, they are not granting it the means of success. Page ii of the explanatory and financial memorandum states:

    "There will not be any significant financial burden on public expenditure arising from the Bill. Any additional costs will be met from within existing resources."
We are kidding the nation if we try to claim that we will resolve the situation by changing the law without providing extra resources.
As to part II of the Bill, I believe that we should do everything we can to halt sexual tourism. However, I do not believe that we will achieve that simply by changing the law. The only way to stop sexual tourism is by changing the law and ensuring that we secure a series of high profile prosecutions. We must make it absolutely clear that a civilised society will not tolerate such behaviour. That will cost money, so we should not pass legislation unless we are prepared to make the necessary finances available. I add the caveat that we must be aware that the provision may encourage entrapment and blackmail in some cases. I believe that the change is worth while, but that we must find the money to pay for it.
I have many more reservations about part I of the Bill. How useful would a register be? The evidence from the United States suggests that such a register does not work. The Government tell my constituents that they will have
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to pay for the register, which will result in fewer resources for the police. There will be fewer policemen on the beat--despite the calls for an increased police presence on our streets at every meeting that I attend in my constituency. Fewer resources will be allocated to pursuing breaches of probation--a low-priority activity for the police--to witness protection and so on. The Minister has said that there will be no extra resources. Therefore, the police must reduce their efforts in other areas and relinquish some of their resources in order to make the register work.
Mr. Maclean: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way--although it makes it more difficult for me to say that he is talking nonsense in his latter point. The expensive resources are there: the updates to the police national computer system and to the police national database, which links every police force in the country with digital communications equipment to each other and to the PNC, are the essential resource. The only extra work for the police will involve transmitting the new information to the PNC when a person turns up at a police station and provides his name and address. We have already allocated the resources required.
Mr. Bennett: I am not convinced that the resources are available, but I want to develop the argument. It will take police time to process new information, and people will turn up at police stations only if the police take action against those who do not bother to show. That involves enforcement. A voluntary register will not work: the register will work only if it is enforced, and that will involve extra resources.
What is the purpose of the register? If it is merely to show that Big Brother is watching, there is some point to it. However, there is an implication that it will go further and identify suitable and unsuitable residential areas. What will happen if someone who has been convicted of offences against young children registers, giving an address that is adjacent to a children's playground or day nursery? Do the Government expect the police to do nothing about that? If they do nothing and there is an incident involving that person, there will be a public outcry.
The police will have limited powers and some of the convicted will still be subject to various forms of supervision. It would be possible for the police to say, "That is not a suitable place. What should we do?" If registration merely means providing a name and a place and nothing more, there will be many unhappy people in our communities.
When registration takes place, confidentiality ensues. There is a danger that information will get out, as it were, and that people in local communities will take action. Where will registration take place? My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) took up the issue. I am concerned about people who do not have a regular home. The phrase in the Bill, which is pretty vague, is "regularly visits".
I am conscious of problems in my constituency. Men who are registered and live in bed-sits in my constituency sometimes spend little time at those addresses and most of their time in someone else's household. They often
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mislead the person in the other household about their past record. They are often a serious threat to the young children in that other household. Registration will relate to the bed-sit where occasionally such people will be found rather than the address where they are living fairly permanently. The Government must take that on board.
It seems that we are changing the nature of cautions. Originally, someone was given a caution if he committed an offence that was out of character and one that he was unlikely to recommit. If that is the nature of a caution, paedophiles should not be entered on a register. If the nature of a caution is being changed to include people who are likely to recommit an offence, they should not be cautioned. Surely they should be prosecuted. That is unless a deal has been made, stitched up by the police and the individual, on the basis that he would not like the nasty publicity of going to court and, perhaps, pleading guilty. That is an unsatisfactory use of a caution and something that we should examine.

My main message to the House is that it is extremely dangerous to enact legislation unless we are prepared to find money to make it work.
6.11 pm
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I find myself in the sad position of raising a slightly dissenting voice. I wish to sound a note of caution on the registering of sex offenders. I wrote to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary about the matter in early November 1996. I set out my concerns, which were reinforced in an article in The Times on Friday.
I am concerned with justice and the freedom of the individual. I believe that all men must be capable of redemption. I find it strange, however, to hear myself arguing for more civil liberties. It is not normally a position in which I find myself.
I would never describe myself as a liberal. God forbid. Nor am I a lawyer. I was unhappy about the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. Employers and others should be able to ascertain the background of those whom they wish to employ. Indeed, a year or two ago, I was entirely opposed to the reduction of the age of consent for homosexuals. Matthew Parris and I might part company on that one. I believe that the state should not send such a message to young people who may be confused about their sexuality.
I voted for hanging. I would most certainly hang paedophiles who kill children such as Hughes, who was mentioned in the Sophie Hook case. I might vote for corporal punishment. I might vote also for chemical castration, which I believe is practised in some parts of the United States. I do not know a great deal about it. A register for sexual offenders gives me cause for concern, however, on the ground of justice.
There is a revulsion for some sex crimes. A man who exposes himself in a park commits a sex crime, but that is no more revolting than a mugger who beats up an old lady and leaves her for dead, or someone who sells drugs to children. Indeed, children who are on drugs are often tempted to engage in prostitution. Organised drug syndicates and their bullies commit awful crimes. The same can be said of muggers who use knives or other forms of gratuitous violence. I have a revulsion for all violent crime, including sex crimes against children and others.
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We are faced with a huge paradox. Over the past 40 years, we have seen much more sexual licence. Sexual activity used to be confined largely to marriage. Sexual activity outside marriage did not meet with approval. The breakdown of the family that we have seen over the past 40 years has led to many more children being brought up in children's homes. We often see child abuse in step-families.
Since the early 1960s, we have encouraged everyone, including children, to consider casual sex as almost an ordinary part of life. At the same time, homosexuality has been given almost official sanction. About two years ago, we came close to reducing the age of consent to 16 years. Labour Members who voted for that reduction in the age of consent should understand that if a man has consensual sex with a boy of 15 or perhaps 17--my right hon. Friend the Minister might correct me--that act will be punishable within the terms of the sexual offenders register, for at least five years. That is my understanding.
The Sun, which passes for a newspaper, titillates its readers with pictures of girls aged 16 wearing school socks. I have never bought The Sun, but I have read it. It contains captions such as, "Look at little Tracy in her school uniform. I would like to teach her a thing or two." What passes for an editorial is called "The Sun Says". In contrived outrage, this so-called editorial states that The Sun would like sex offenders to be hanged, drawn and quartered, and castrated for good measure. Those who have read "Howard's End" will know "only connect", meaning that we will see the connection even if it kills us. Some guilt lies there, and those who shout loudest often wish to shift the guilt on to others.
I should like my right hon. Friend the Minister to discuss reoffending rates. I understand from Home Office figures that sexual offenders have a reoffending rate, or reconviction rate, which is different, of only 16 per cent., compared with a reoffending rate of 17 per cent. for burglary. I do not pretend to be an authority on paedophilia and I have learnt much about the subject during the debate. I am interested, however, when others say, "These people are paedophiles and these people are not." I suspect that the issue is more complicated than that.
My right hon. Friend described paedophiles as clever and manipulative. Surely cleverness and the ability to manipulate are skills that are not linked to paedophiles alone. I am aware, of course, that there are some vile individuals. I would lock them up until they were no longer a threat to anyone. Myra Hindley has been mentioned during the debate. She and her friend, Brady, should have been hanged back in 1966.
I fear that a sexual offenders register may catch pathetic old men who have flashed in the park. One of my constituents is ostracised in his village. As I understand it, he has never been convicted of anything. He says, however, that a former police officer accused him of something unmentionable. Bricks are thrown through my constituent's windows. I do not know whether he is a dirty old man. Similarly, I do not know what he has done in the past. Perhaps he should be treated with caution, but surely the House should be prepared to treat him and others with some pity. As I said, he accuses a former police officer of having spread information about him that has led to hostility.
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I remember the death of my hon. Friend Stephen Milligan, who represented Eastleigh. The press reports of the time stated that each Metropolitan police station had a police officer in the pay of newspapers. I do not know whether that is true, but I am aware that the police are not renowned for being entirely secure with their information.
Matthew Parris's article about a "baying mob" at Garrets Green in Birmingham described a man who was forced to flee. Yesterday, I asked a colleague why he would want to know that a convicted sex offender had moved in next to him. He replied, "I would want to get him out." Surely that only moves the problem along.
We must, of course, protect children from vile paedophiles, vile pornography and other evil things. Let us have a central computer, so that we might ensure that convicted paedophiles cannot get jobs with children. Let us keep an eye on them. I fear, however, that the Bill is akin to branding them on the forehead. In effect, the Bill states that prison cannot rehabilitate, that there is no cure and that there is no chance of rehabilitation. I cannot accept that. I was taught that when a person has been punished and the punishment is finished, he has paid his debt to society and the slate should be wiped clean. That is not to say that we should forget everything, but we should keep that in mind. I expect that I shall be pilloried in tomorrow's tabloids--the comics that pass as newspapers: the same ones that have such a prurient interest in our sex lives and the sex lives of everyone else.
My son is seven weeks old. If anyone should harm him, I, like any parent, would want to harm that person. Of course, we must protect children, but there must also be justice, and I do not think that this measure will prevent children from being harmed. The register may lead to mob rule. Under the Bill, for having sex with a girl aged 15 years and 364 days--an offence that may be worth a caution--a boy aged 20 years and one day will be placed on the sex offenders register and will have to report to the police for five years. Will the police differentiate between him and others on the register, or will he be merely an offender? Will not people who find out think that he is an offender and a threat to their children?
Do hon. Members remember Mr. Diggle, the rapist in a kilt? He was the rather pathetic man who committed rape after a highland ball in London. As a rapist, he will go on the sexual offenders register. That is fine, but do we really think that he will reoffend? The case caused hoots of laughter: it was a sad, pathetic case, particularly for the woman. He will be on the sexual offenders register for an indefinite period, and I am not sure that that is just.
I doubt whether the measure will serve justice well. Criminals who have finished their sentence also have rights. Above all else, we should protect the innocent, but I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider very carefully how the measure will work in practice, and whether its effects will be just.
6.21 pm
Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness): Like other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, I intend to be brief. Unlike the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), I do not follow his line of argument. My hon. Friends and I broadly welcome the Bill, and we welcome the Government's change of heart about introducing it in Government time.
All of us have read about the hideous and appalling crimes that have recently been committed against children. I was horrified by two cases in particular--as
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were my constituents and everyone in the country. The appalling murder of Sophie Hook and the hideous crime committed against Daniel Handley have increased public concern about the activities of paedophiles. The whole country is looking to the House to find ways to increase the protection offered to the public against the criminal activities of sex offenders, and to enable the police to keep a better eye on the movement of such people.
If the Bill is to be effective, it must be practical. It is reasonable for the Bill to define those who are to be covered by the notification requirements. I think that the hon. Member for Blaby was wrong: the rapist to whom he referred will not be covered by the notification requirements. Extending the retrospective application of the Bill could cause significant practical problems for the police, by imposing difficult burdens on them. I do not think that loading the police with additional administrative burdens will help them to offer greater protection to the public.
In all these cases, a reasonable line must be drawn between the type of offences that will be on the register and the people who will be covered by the notification requirement. In the context of the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), I think that the lines drawn by the Bill are, in broad terms, about right.
As many hon. Members have said, we must reconcile the requirement to protect our important civil liberties with the need to provide greater protection to the public and to help the police to pursue sex offenders. I accept that it is difficult to draw that line. The Government are right to include in the terms of the Bill persons who have been cautioned for committing certain sexual offences. That is the right balance to strike. If there is a trade-off to be made between protecting the public, helping the police and protecting civil liberties, I am in doubt about where that line should be drawn. It should always be drawn in favour of protecting the innocent, protecting children and helping the police.
Some of these people have committed foul and hideous crimes against innocent children, such as Sophie Hook, whose family come from my constituency, and Daniel Handley. If it is a choice between protecting the innocent--indeed, the lives of those children--and protecting civil liberties, in my book there is no difficulty about where that line should be drawn.
I welcome the Government's inclusion of cautions in the Bill. We must operate along the lines of a precautionary principle. If someone is evidencing behaviour that gives rise to serious concern that he may offend against innocent children and others, he should be on the register: we should know where such people are, and the police should know about their movements.
Many hon. Members have spoken about the need for wider access to the register. The right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) drew the House's attention to the need for the Bill to extend access, and for members of the public to be notified of the whereabouts of paedophiles. This is a difficult area, and we must exercise caution and common sense about where we draw the line.
I have four young children, and many of my constituents have young families. A reasonable question that we could all ask ourselves is: would we want to know
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that we were living next door or in close proximity to a person who had been convicted of a serious sex offence against a child? If we were honest with ourselves, our answer would be, "Yes, of course we would want to know that."
I am not saying that the Bill is defective because it does not extend the principle of public access--we shall return to that issue in Committee. Have the Government considered widening public access not to every offence included in schedule 1, but to certain offences in that schedule? We must be careful, but in the case of sex offenders, particularly those who have committed sex offences against children, we should seriously examine our normal concerns about protecting civil liberties.
I have a number of specific concerns about the Bill, to which I want to draw the House's attention. Clause 2(2) is an example of poor parliamentary drafting. We appreciate that parliamentary drafting is not a precise art: some problems emerge only through litigation in the courts; some problems hit us right between the eyes when we look at the Bill. This is an example of an obvious problem. I know that this is a Committee point, but it is not clear whether the present drafting of the Bill properly covers the case of a known sex offender who changes his or her address during the period after conviction.
The Bill provides that the person is under a duty to notify the police if there is any change that would falsify the original notification details. What a convoluted provision. What a load of gobbledegook. Why does not the Bill simply provide that a person is required to notify the police if he changes his address? The Bill does not do that: it imposes a duty to notify the police if a subsequent event occurs that may falsify the original entry in the register. I do not understand why the Government have chosen that wording. That is an obvious problem. Some people may argue that they are not required to notify the police, even if they change their address. That would strike at the purpose of the Bill, which is to keep offenders under proper observation.
The other obvious problem with the Bill is that it refers to the list of offences in schedule 1. Hon. Members have referred to the fact that, as the Bill stands, there is no obligation on a person who comes to live in this country and has committed a sex crime against people abroad to notify the police of his address and details. That is an obvious mistake.
A more obvious mistake is that the schedule does not include persons who, in this country, have been convicted of a crime under the Sexual Offences (Conspiracy and Incitement) Act 1996. I know that there are problems about how we would define offences in foreign jurisdictions, and make them broadly compatible with the list of offences in schedule 1, but we are talking about offences that a person would commit under that law, which would be dealt with in an English court. Why are they not included in the list? We are discussing people in this country who have conspired with others to commit sex crimes against children abroad. They are paedophiles, however we define that word: they have committed serious sex crimes against children.
I trust that the Bill will do two things. I believe that it will help the police to monitor sex offenders; I also believe that it will reassure the public that the police are taking such offences seriously, and are developing new information systems to ensure that we know where the
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offenders are. It is a modest Bill, and I do not think that it will stop the commission of offences overnight, but I think that it takes us in broadly the right direction. It should be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I am sure that it will be broadly welcomed by our constituents as well.
6.30 pm
Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton): Along with everyone else who has spoken, I welcome the Bill as a substantial step forward in protecting children from the vilest of offenders, who prey on their innocence and ruin their lives.
I am particularly grateful because, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and I went to see Ministers some two or three years ago, I can only say that we encountered polite interest but were given little hope of immediate action. It is praiseworthy that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and the Home Office team did listen and allowed themselves to be persuaded to act, and I thank them.
We should also compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall), whose Sexual Offences (Conspiracy and Incitement) Act 1996 started the track followed by this Bill by giving our courts jurisdiction over the organisers of sexual tourism abroad. The Bill constitutes the next stage of that Act, which was inherently flawed. Clearly, many cases will be brought under this rather than the earlier legislation.
I welcome the Opposition's support for the Bill, but I think it a little churlish of them to criticise the Government for not leaping on to the Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson). We keep talking about speedy Bills that are bad law, and it was plainly sensible for the Government to consult, take soundings and obtain research before producing their White Paper and, subsequently, the Bill. Consensus naturally prevailed, and has produced a good result.
Our revulsion has been generated by the astonishing number of offences against children. In the United Kingdom, a newspaper headline in December 1996 read: "15 forces hunt child abusers". According to the accompanying report,

    "A third of Britain's police forces are now investigating allegations of abuse in children's homes".
These are astonishing revelations to most of us, who lead ordinary, decent lives.
The same applies to offences committed abroad. A recent article in The Criminal Law Review refers to

    "Paedophile murders of children in Belgium",
which are currently being investigated. It states:

    "In July 1996 Stephen Mitchell, a British sexual tourist, was convicted and imprisoned for 17 years in the Philippines for paedophile acts. In October 1996 a British tour organiser . . . was sentenced to . . . 16 years for promoting child prostitution in the Philippines."
Also in October 1996, a Dutch court jailed a man

    "for having sex with six young girls, some of whom were aged only 11. A senior diplomat . . . was convicted and imprisoned for the importation of videos depicting sex acts with children."
The former Australian ambassador to Cambodia is standing trial charged with abusing youths in that country.
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We are learning horrifying details from the newspapers, and we feel that we must do something. Such crimes transcend international borders, which is why the Council of Europe, UNICEF--the United Nations Children's Fund--and the European Union, in its third pillar manifestations, have all published, or are publishing, views on what must be done. Because activity of this kind is so often international, we must be prepared to deal with it internationally. NCIS, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, is also compiling details of organised criminal gangs that go in for this sickening activity.
I do not want to confuse parts I and II of the Bill, but, just as there is a case for a sex offenders register for United Kingdom crime, there is obviously a case for including foreign paedophile offenders on our register when that is possible. My right hon. Friend the Minister's response that that is impracticable is roughly the same as the response that we received originally, when we went to see my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary two or three years ago to ask about the kind of legislation that we are now passing.
The fact is that we must do all we can. Not every paedophile conviction in foreign countries will be notified to us, but a few will, and measures such as this will ensure that that is more likely to happen. We may be able to stop some hideous offenders getting away with it by extending the register to some of those overseas offenders.
The question that so many of us have been considering during today's interesting debate--a question asked by, in particular, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor)--is, what more can we do to deal with the horrors of paedophilia? My right hon. and learned Friend suggested action after danger manifested itself, but before conviction. That is a tempting thought, but the trouble is that, in our legal system, a person can be punished only after he has committed a crime and that crime has been proved by evidence. Suspicion and rumour are not enough; nor are failed prosecutions. We cannot punish people without strict proof, or we shall find ourselves punishing the unpopular as well as the innocent.
Perhaps we should not despair. I am not sure that the gap is all that great between all the provisions that are now being made available and those that we would in our hearts like to see. Some deviants do seek help and submit to treatment; others are caught, tried, convicted and sentenced, and are then treated in one way or another. Under the Crime (Sentences) Bill, they can be subjected to more supervision--in some circumstances, for up to a lifetime.
Under the same Bill, even those who commit trivial offences, and are therefore cautioned, will appear on the register. Those who are convicted a second time may, thanks to the Government's courageous action--which, even now, is probably being attacked in the other place--be removed from circulation for life, or for as long as it is considered a matter of public safety for them to remain in custody.
Those who have been convicted once will now be on the register, and some of those who have not yet attacked--stalkers--can perhaps be brought within the ambit of the Protection from Harassment Bill, if a child is the target. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will examine the possibility of extending the register to such offences. Can anything be done about those who are merely suspected? I do not think that we would be realistic if we
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thought that the local police did not put such people on an unofficial list, and watch them very closely. They watch them as potential offenders waiting to be caught and they ensure that as much attention as local resources will allow is directed there.
I have professional experience of one such case. A very serious alleged child offender, who was charged with murdering children, was watched and watched and watched and finally caught and convicted. He is now serving a long sentence, so the fact that the names do not appear on the official register does not mean that the local police will not watch anyone against whom suspicion is strong.
There are other suggestions for strengthening the law. In some states in America, communities are informed when paedophiles move into the district. Should that happen here? My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney asked why ordinary people did not have the right to know what police officers know. The problem is vigilantism: people seeking to take the law into their own hands and getting it wrong. Most of us in the House, however angry we are, might hesitate to encourage that behaviour because the evil could be even greater than that of a possible paedophile who is at large and is being watched.
It has been suggested that there should be a criminal offence for convicted sex offenders to seek jobs that give them access to children. What has happened to that proposal? Has it been discarded? Has it been discussed with the police and other involved parties? What conclusions have my right hon. Friends come to? It would be better to have that weapon in the armoury than one that incites vigilantism.
I conclude, as many have concluded, with a hearty welcome for the Bill and with a desire to find out what more can be done in Committee or elsewhere. However, may I end on this slightly different note? Several hon. Gentlemen have said that paedophilia is not susceptible to cure. I doubt that. In Britain, there is evidence, which is growing, that some paedophilia can be cured.
The hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) said that a scheme in an area that he knows has been successful, and I have met some of the organisers. We must be prepared to spend some resources on treatment in prison and some on treatment after prison. Treatment must also be a part of our weaponry against this most detestable of all offences, towards the control of which the Bill takes a substantial step.
6.42 pm
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): I follow the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) in saying, with a lawyer's hat on, that there are problems in relation to the dissemination of the names on the register, access to it and the information that it holds, but I will briefly comment on part I.
I hope that the Government will, on consideration, ensure that there is some means of including the list of offenders who have been prosecuted abroad. That is clearly a loophole, and inclusion would be a deterrent. Relatively few cases would be brought to the Government's attention by our embassies and by the network of non-governmental organisations. I hope that
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all addresses where offenders habitually reside will be on that register. I would like the Government to consider carefully access to our register by some outside organisations if, for example, they suspect an individual who operates in his own country. I hope that people who seek to leave the United Kingdom to avoid registration will nevertheless be obliged to register with British embassies overseas and that that will be considered.
I welcome part II, for the same reasons given by the hon. and learned Member for Burton. Clearly, one must have a consistent and co-ordinated attack on exploitation of children across the board. There must be co-operation among police authorities and an attack on corruption. We must be prepared to assist NGOs in this sector, particularly the consortium of NGOs working on behalf of street children in developing countries.
I was therefore particularly unhappy with the Government's response on 14 January to my parliamentary question. They claimed that their promise on 27 February 1995 in the Official Report, at column 689, was "an unfortunate error." They admitted that, since February 1995, they had provided only £46,000 to the consortium. I hope that they will reconsider that and provide more adequate means for the NGOs, which are doing a magnificent job overseas.
6.45 pm
Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport): The contributions of hon. Members on both sides of the House demonstrate their loathing and disgust for people who abuse children. The Bill will provide extra protection for children, but, for it to achieve its objectives, underpinning the legislation, there must be a comprehensive package to improve the reporting, detection and conviction of people who sexually abuse children. A widespread criticism of Government machinery is the failure to deliver a coherent and consistent policy across the various Departments. The agencies that are responsible for the protection of children--local authorities, the police, probation and health departments, which have achieved much at local level--must be supported by a coherent policy nationally.
I would be interested to hear from the Minister what discussion he has had with his colleagues with responsibility for health and education. Both Departments keep lists. The Department for Education and Employment maintains a list of people who are barred from employment by a local education authority, school or further education establishment, as a teacher or in any other capacity that involves contact with children or young people up to the age of 18. The Secretary of State for the Home Department may also bar people on the ground of misconduct or on medical grounds. Anyone convicted after October 1995 of a sexual offence against a child under 16 years is barred automatically. That is list 99. Employers must check that list.
The Department of Health operates on an advisory basis a consultancy service that applies to England and Wales, whereby local authorities and private and voluntary agencies can check--it is not mandatory--the suitability of people they wish to employ in a child care post. On 26 July 1995, in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), pointing out the differences between list 99 and the Department of Health consultancy service, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment said that the latter was to alert
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employers to people whose applications they should consider with particular care, but that it was up to the prospective employer to decide whether the person was suitable for appointment in each case.
The difference is clear. If someone commits an offence against a child under the age of 16, he can never teach as long as he remains on the Department for Employment and Education's list 99. However, that same person is not barred from working with children in children's homes, in a foster home or in other settings. As the Minister said, it is a matter for the prospective employer.
I am sure that no responsible employer would dream of employing such a person, although, in 1995, the social services inspectorate study into small registrable homes discovered criminal convictions among owners of such homes, including a sexual offence. However, that is not the point. The point is that both lists are kept to protect children and should have the same status in terms both of mandatory consultation by employers and of barring employment. If the Secretary of State for Education and Employment can decide that a person is not fit to teach a child, the Department of Health should decide that the person is not fit to have access to children in a caring situation.
Although agencies' access to information on the national register is not being determined by the Bill, it would make sense if the additional information provided by the register in updating addresses and the use of other names were also available to other Departments that keep lists with the aim of protecting children. The determination of paedophiles to gain access to children must be matched by a determination to stop them. I hope that, in Committee, the Minister will be able to clarify how the national register will operate with those other lists.
I am interested in the Minister's discussions with his colleagues in the Department of Health, which has major responsibilities for child protection. Under section 47 of the Children Act 1989, local authorities have a duty to investigate allegations of abuse, including sexual abuse. However, there seems to have been a shift in the Department of Health's approach to child protection following the publication of the document entitled "Messages from Research". There is widespread promotion of a lighter touch, and although I can understand that approach in relation to the debate on smacking, I am not sure how it will operate in terms of allegations of sexual abuse, or how a new severity criterion might operate, especially as, alongside that, messages seem to be emanating from the Department of Health about introducing a substantiation criterion.
The document "Messages from Research" notes that some types of allegation are rarely substantiated and suggests that they might be pursued or dealt with under the "in need" rather than the child protection procedures. The most common form of unsubstantiated allegation is sexual abuse. Perpetrators are fully aware of the difficulty of proving that sexual abuse has taken place. Indeed, some paedophiles target lone women with small children for that very reason.
Irrespective of the message from the Department of Health, the Children Act continues to place a duty on local authorities to investigate. To enable a lighter touch, there would need to be changes to that Act. I warn the Government against any attempt, arising from an
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ideological war with local authorities, to weaken child protection procedures in the area of sexual abuse. The losers would be children and the gainers would be the abusers.
What discussions have Home Office Ministers had with colleagues in the Department of Health to ensure departmental consistency? There is little point in a Home Office Bill to increase protection for children if Ministers in another Department undermine the procedures that detect that abuse, enable convictions and protect the public by a national register.
We welcome the Bill's principles and its aim of giving children better protection from those who would sexually abuse them, but it can be effective only as one of a number of measures. A commitment to the protection of children cannot be judged solely on fine words. In every aspect of government and in every Department there must be effective legislation and procedures.
6.51 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Timothy Kirkhope): I am pleased that we have had an opportunity to discuss the Bill, and I am encouraged by the commitment of hon. Members in all parts of the House to the need for firm and effective action to tackle the scourge of sex offending, particularly that involving children.
Those who spoke in the debate included my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor); my right hon. Friends the Members for Conwy(Sir W. Roberts) and for Selby (Mr. Alison); my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and for Blaby (Mr. Robathan); and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence). Opposition Members who spoke included the hon. Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd), for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) and for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson). The number of hon. Members who spoke shows the great interest that the debate engendered. I am sure that the Bill will continue to engender such interest as it proceeds.
Nothing could be more hateful than sexual offences against the most innocent and vulnerable members of our or any other society, and the Bill contains important provisions for tackling the problem. It responds to widespread public concern. Many will be watching our proceedings with interest, and the lives of many others will benefit from the Bill's provisions. Its enactment will mean that the police will have up-to-date information on the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders and will be able to use it for the investigation and prevention of crime.
The registration requirement will also be a powerful deterrent. Offenders will be aware from the moment they register a change of address that the police know about them and have them in their sights. Those who are tempted not to register should know that that would result in the commission of a further significant criminal offence.
The provisions are tough, and we make no apology for that. They will place some offenders under an obligation to report their movements for the rest of their lives, and that is
27 Jan 1997 : Column 71
right. Any measure that strengthens the power of the police in tackling the scourge of sex offending, particularly against children, is to be applauded.
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray): Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Kirkhope: I am sorry, but time is too short to give way.
Part II of the Bill is significant. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said in opening the debate, it was my privilege in August to represent the United Kingdom at the Stockholm world congress on the commercial sexual exploitation of children. I was moved by what I heard about such exploitation is some parts of the world and by the determination of everyone present to deal with the problem.
It was clear that we have much to teach others about the investigation of child sexual abuse and the care of child victims in the criminal justice system. I am especially pleased that the Bill will enable us to put in place a key further element in our response to the phenomenon of child sex tourism by extending the jurisdiction of our courts to cover offences that have been committed by Britons abroad.
There is not enough time available to reply to all the hon. Members who spoke. However, I should like to deal with one or two matters. In her winding-up speech, the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) specifically asked about co-ordination and liaison. Not only is there fully developed co-ordination between Departments but there is a good relationship between Departments of State and the non-governmental organisations which were mentioned by some hon. Members. That relationship is important, and since Stockholm I have been keen to encourage it. There will shortly be another meeting with members of the coalition against child prostitution who have worked hard to focus attention on issues relating to international child abuse. By such means we are able to take forward our plans.
I should like to make a slight correction to the comments of the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael). I mentioned in August the Government's decision to extend the jurisdiction of United Kingdom courts to allow trials in the United Kingdom of those
27 Jan 1997 : Column 72
committing child sexual abuse abroad. I gave a clear undertaking that the Government would make progress as soon as possible when a suitable vehicle was available. I do not want to trade words with the hon. Gentleman about who said what first, but we have always recognised the importance of these matters. I made that clear last summer, long before some of the dates to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
The hon. Members for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) asked whether it was possible to take account of convictions in foreign courts and to use them as a basis for registration here. To place an obligation on the authorities in respect of those who have been convicted abroad would undoubtedly imply recognition of the judgment of a foreign court. It would also assume that the sentences were compatible with the sentences that would have been imposed here and that the standards of evidence and procedure in the foreign courts were compatible with ours.
Such a recognition of foreign criminal judgments, passed anywhere in the world, would create precedent. Therefore, it is difficult for us to move down that path, although it might be regarded by many as worth considering. Perhaps it could be considered further in Committee. As the House knows, there is compatibility in our extradition arrangements and it is based on the concept of dual criminality. That removes the problems that might otherwise occur in the proposals that have been suggested.
There is insufficient time to deal with other matters that have been raised. Most hon. Members who spoke expressed the wish that the legislation should proceed as quickly as possible. I agree, and in Committee we shall be interested to hear their further thoughts on improving the legislation, because it is important that it reaches the statute book as soon as possible.
We have had an interesting and informed debate. We have also heard of the determination of all hon. Members who have spoken in this debate to make a real impact on the terrible problem of sex offending. The Bill is an important contribution to efforts in dealing with the problem, and I hope that it will very quickly reach the statute book.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).

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