HL Deb 04 October 2000 vol 616 cc1643-6

(" .—(1) In this section—

"relevant sexual or violent offender" has the meaning given by section (Supplemental); and

"responsible authority", in relation to any area, means the chief officer of police and the local board for that area acting jointly.

(2) The responsible authority for each area must establish arrangements for the purpose of assessing and managing the risks posed in that area by—

  1. (a) relevant sexual or violent offenders, and
  2. (b) other persons who, by reason of offences committed by them (wherever committed), are considered by the responsible authority to be persons who may cause serious harm to the public.

(3) The responsible authority for each area must keep the arrangements established by it under review with a view to monitoring their effectiveness and making any changes to them that appear necessary or expedient.

(4) As soon as practicable after the end of the period of 12 months beginning with the coming into force of this section and each subsequent period of 12 months, the responsible authority for each area must—

  1. (a) prepare a report on the discharge by it during that period of the functions conferred by this section, and
  2. (b) publish the report in that area.

(5) The report must include—

  1. (a) details of the arrangements established by the responsible authority, and
  2. (b) information of such descriptions as the Secretary of State has notified to the responsible authority that he wishes to be included in the report.

(6) The Secretary of State may issue guidance to responsible authorities on the discharge of the functions conferred by this section.").

The noble Lord said: The first clause in this group builds on arrangements already in place so that the responsible authority—that is, the chief officer of police and the local board, which includes the chief officer of probation—will have a joint duty to make arrangements for assessing and managing the risks posed by relevant sexual and violent offenders, or other offenders who may cause serious harm, and to keep those arrangements under review.

I am sure that Members of the Committee will be aware that the police and Probation Service already in practice make arrangements to manage such offenders. The purpose behind making this a statutory duty is to ensure there is consistency in all areas and also to promote good practice among the different areas. We are also requiring those authorities to prepare and publish at least every 12 months a report on how they have discharged the duties I have just described. As part of the report, they must give details of the arrangements which have been made and such information as the Secretary of State has notified to the authorities that he wants to include.

In addition, the Secretary of State will have the power to issue guidance to the authorities on how to discharge the functions under this clause. This guidance will cover important areas such as consultation with other organisations, including social services departments, child protection organisations and prisons, as appropriate in fulfilling these functions. It will also contain guidance on what the report to be issued should contain.

The purpose of these latter provisions is, I hope, self-evident. Events following the tragic death of Sarah Payne have shown that there is a great deal of public anxiety about, and apparently low levels of understanding of and confidence in, existing systems for managing former offenders in the community. We have discussed that at length today.

We want not only that these arrangements should be carried out but for the public to see them carried out. We are not proposing that details of particular offenders should be made available, but we are proposing that the public should be able to see what measures are being taken to protect them.

The next new clause defines what is, for the purposes of the arrangements I have mentioned, a "relevant sexual or violent offender". We have tried to ensure that we catch all those who, by the very nature of the crime concerned or sentence, might present a real risk and threat to the public without requiring the authorities to be statutorily required to assess and manage every type of offender.

The main type of offenders classified under the clause as a "relevant sexual or violent offender" are those who are subject to the notification requirement under Part I of the Sex Offenders Act 1997; or sentenced to a term of imprisonment or some form of detention for 12 months or more; or detained at Her Majesty's pleasure or under a hospital order or guardianship order under the Mental Health Act 1983; or eligible for a disqualification order to be imposed to prevent them working with children under Clauses 27 and 28 of the Bill.

I appreciate that some of your Lordships might be concerned that this list, while attempting to be comprehensive, might not take into account all possible offenders who might present a risk for whatever reason. However, the previous clause requires the authorities to establish arrangements not just for "relevant sexual or violent offenders" but also for other persons who, by reason of the offences committed by them, are considered to be persons who may cause serious harm to the public.

Furthermore, nothing in these clauses takes away from the police their existing common law powers to take necessary action to protect the public or prevent and detect crime. In other words, they remain able to take appropriate action in respect of any person who they believe presents a danger, irrespective of any conviction or sentence. These two clauses are intended to put what the police and Probation Service do on a statutory footing to ensure that the public are protected from those who most clearly pose a threat to public safety and that the public are made aware that such steps are being taken. I beg to move.

11 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

Having spoken with detective chief inspectors, in particular with one who has responsibility for sex offenders, I can say that there was a strongly expressed frustration about the assessment of sex offenders. It is difficult to monitor sex offenders. Monitoring in particular high-risk offenders is labour intensive and officers are kept busy around the clock. The main concern is that assessment must be effective in order that police forces are used effectively.

Can the Minister assure the Committee that the new arrangements will ensure a refined assessment of the risk posed by sex offenders so that the resources available are used in the most effective way possible? Perhaps that is too specific. Does the Minister regard this as an issue, and is he satisfied that it will be dealt with?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Obviously, this is a very important issue since it goes to the heart of all our debates. We seek to make the police and probation services more effective in controlling this particular group of sexual and violent offenders. One can never be certain that one has it absolutely right. Progress in this field of enforcement has been incremental. One has built on experience and learnt from what has gone before, as is often the case. One needs to improve and perfect one's performance. As I have sought to make clear in debate, we are willing to listen and learn from all those with an interest in this subject so that we arrive at the best possible answers. There is no perfect solution to any of these problems, but we must ensure that the police and probation services and prisons have the tools to do the job, that risk assessment is in place, and that we deal with offenders in the correct way. That is no easy task. No doubt we shall have further discussions to try to improve on what we are already doing.

The Earl of Listowel

Looking at the amendment moved by the Minister, the public concern in this area is that perhaps in order to do an excellent job of supervising these potentially very dangerous people everyone will be watched and resources will be spread too thinly so that the effort is not so effective. One example given to me when speaking to detective chief inspectors was the case of two young people. The older of the two had been convicted of a minor sexual offence. The consequences of that offence will be with the person for a long time and it will be treated as seriously as a much graver offence. I am concerned that the new measure may not be sufficiently sensitive to deal with the various kinds of sexual offender about whom we are concerned.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

It is always hard to make a judgment as to whether the legislation proposed goes far enough. We want a precise and targeted, not a scattergun, approach. For that reason we have risk assessment processes in prisons, and the fruits of those programmes are well known to the law enforcement agencies which must engage with sex offenders. We hope that treatment programmes also have an impact. We shall endeavour to improve performance with precision. Clearly, we do not want to bring people within the scope of these measures when their inclusion is entirely inappropriate. That is why risk assessment is available and the police and probation services improve the quality of their training to get it right.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 145: After Clause 60, insert the following new clause—

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