Clause 92 - Offences relating to notification

Sexual Offences Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:15 pm ar 14 Hydref 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Ceidwadwyr, Beaconsfield 12:15, 14 Hydref 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 250, in

clause 92, page 47, line 12, leave out paragraph (b).

The amendment is a continuation of the discussion we were having on the previous group of amendments. It was separated from the other amendments when I thought that they might be grouped together. The amendment relates to whether the draconian nature of the sanction of up to five years imprisonment on conviction or indictment could have any relevance for clause 92(2)(b). I accept that it could have profound relevance for some of the other clauses and offences to which it relates, but this is over the top. As a matter of good practice, we should not have an offence that can have visited upon it a sanction that bears no relation to its gravity. If a parent fails to ensure that a young offender attends at a police station, even if that is done wilfully, I cannot think of grounds for that being triable on indictment or punishable by five years imprisonment. I am enforcing the point that I was making under the earlier group of amendments, but this amendment does have a separate existence.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Ceidwadwyr, Woking

I asked the Minister under an earlier clause what possible situation he could envisage where a parent could or should go to prison for five years. I ask the Minister whether there is a parallel to be drawn with a parent who is brought before the magistrates court for failure to ensure school attendance. That is something that has been in the news rather a lot recently, and the Government propose to have on-the-spot fines of £25, doubling to £50 the next week and doubling thereafter. I do not think that the Government have yet announced that a parent will be liable to five years on indictment for failure to ensure school attendance, yet some would say that the degree of culpability of the parents in the two cases is no different. What possible situation could deserve a five-year sentence? Given that a continuing failure to send a child to school can result in more prosecutions and successive day prosecutions, why does that same principle not apply to a failure to ensure attendance at a police station? What are the main differences

between the attendance at school compulsion and this compulsion?

When the Minister writes to me in due course, will he deal fully with the issue of boy soldiers who are under the care of a commanding officer once they leave home?

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 12:30, 14 Hydref 2003

I am rapidly learning that one must become an expert on a range of issues to participate in some Committees.

On how the provision might relate to school attendance, I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing the Sexual Offences Bill. However, consistency is important. I shall consider his question and get back to him. On boy soldiers, I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has been involved in a long-running campaign. He has had an opportunity to make his point.

The first point that I would like to make is that, while there is some continuity between our previous discussion and this one, we must remember that clause 92 covers all offences, not just parental directions.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Ceidwadwyr, Beaconsfield

Of course, I appreciate that the effect of the amendment would be to remove the five-year term for all other offences. I hope that I made it clear in introducing the amendment that that was not what I intended, as I fully appreciate that that would be undesirable. However, I wanted to focus on the five-year sentence in clause 92(2)(b), which is totally disproportionate. What is probably needed is a minor amendment to clause 92 to ensure that the particular fault is summary only.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I will reflect on the hon. Gentleman's point. To answer the hon. Member for Woking, who asked whether I could give an example of circumstances in which a parent might be sent to prison for five years, frankly, as I stand here now, I cannot. The significance of a five-year sentence is that the offence becomes arrestable, which would be of some practical benefit to the police. I shall reflect further, but I ask him to accept that that is an important point.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Llafur, Redcar

I think that the Opposition are being uncharacteristically soft. If there is absolutely no reasonable excuse for a parent not to bring their child to report, I do not see why there should not be a penalty that includes the availability of arrest as a step toward enforcement. Of course, if it is impossible for a parent to bring the child, there is the power in clause 91 for him to apply to be discharged from the responsibility to do so.

May I raise a different issue? If the parent is arrested for failing to bring the young person, what happens to the young person? Is there a penalty against the young person, who does not bear responsibility for his own reporting because his parent does? What happens? How is the registration of a young person enforced once the parent has been arrested?

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

To respond directly to my hon. and learned Friend, there are no direct consequences in law for the young offender in that scenario. However,

there would be huge implications and consequences for their welfare. Clearly, the young person would be placed in further difficulty if the parents were charged with the offence, and welfare and other organisations would become involved.

We have had many discussions throughout our deliberations about whether particular offences should be summary only or triable either way. In the spirit that I promised prior to the conference recess, I looked very carefully at the issue. There is an argument for consistency, and I hope that at some point there may be some good news for members of the Committee who have been pressing for consistency in legislation. We must also have consistency in the Bill.

Hon. Members know the history: when the Sex Offenders Act 1997 came into force the offence was a summary-only offence; the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 made it an offence that could be tried either way. Amendment No. 250 would reduce the maximum penalty available for a breach to six months. One of the worst aspects, which touches on the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar, is the sort of message that would be sent out if, having increased the seriousness of the offence, we then reduced its seriousness. That would send a regrettable message to the victims of such crimes and the wider community. We need consistency and I believe that we have got the balance right.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Ceidwadwyr, Beaconsfield

I must apologise to the Committee for having raised a hare by giving the impression that in our probing amendment we were trying to get rid of the indictable offence for all the categories of breach of clauses 84(1), 85(1), 85(4)(b), 86(1) and 88(4). I absolutely agree that in relation to the person who must register and carry out the notification procedure, there are compelling arguments for the offence to be arrestable. Plainly, the first thing that the police will want to do if they fail to observe the terms is to arrest him for the reasons given by the Minister. Apart from anything else, he may pose a public threat.

I have no problem with that, but the position of a parent, with respect to the hon. and learned Member for Redcar, is different. The parent is not the sex offender or predatory paedophile. The parent is failing to carry out an obligation imposed by law to assist the working of the criminal justice system by bringing the child or young person to the police. I cannot conceive of any circumstances in which, first, arrest would be necessary, except as a form of harassment, because the police could proceed by summons; or, secondly, a sentence of more than six months' imprisonment would be necessary for what is effectively a failure to honour a commitment or requirement imposed by the state to help in the administration of justice. To impose a five-year sentence seems unnecessary and I can think of no circumstances, as, I believe, the Minister acknowledges, in which it would be needed; nor do I believe that a power of arrest would be particularly helpful.

I simply say to the Minister that as one of my jobs as Opposition spokesman is to scrutinise legislation to ensure that we put on the statute book legislation that is coherent and sensible, I hope that he will go away and revisit the issue of making breach of section

90(2)(b) an indictable offence because I do not believe that that is necessary and Parliament should not pass legislation that imposes substantial penalties unless that is necessary.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Llafur, Redcar

May I press slightly further the point that I sought to make when discussing the previous amendment?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Ceidwadwyr, North Thanet

Order. No. The amendment has been discussed. If the hon. and learned Lady wishes to raise a separate issue arising from the clause, she may do so, but she cannot reopen our previous debate.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Llafur, Redcar

I used my words too loosely—of course I want to raise a separate issue.

My concern is that clause 92 punishes—there is a debate about whether it does so too severely—a parent for not making a young person who needs to and should be registered do so. The penalty is against the parent. If the young person is not willing to register, the parent might get into the difficulty discussed under the previous amendment, with no penalty following and no apparent means of rectifying the position if a young person wilfully refuses to comply with the court's requirement to be registered. There seems to be no penalty, solution or means of enforcing the court's order, and that troubles me because it is an indication of a young person committing a sexual offence and not complying with what society deems are conditions that ought to be imposed on such a person. That is why it was appropriate to raise the matter as a separate issue from the question of the penalty on a parent and to wonder whether I am missing something in clause 92.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Ceidwadwyr, North Thanet

It is unfortunate for the hon. and learned Lady that I listen to debates. She did, in fact, raise precisely that point. She may feel that the Minister did not answer it. Were I in any way partial, I might even agree with her, but the fact is that she raised the point before. However, if the Minister wishes to respond to the specific point, I am prepared to let him do so.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I will reflect on my hon. and learned Friend's comment. I reiterate the point that I made before: in such a case there would be consequences for the young person, although there might not be any consequences in law. For example, the young person might be taken into care as a result of the breakdown. There might be welfare consequences, although there would be no legal consequences.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Ceidwadwyr, Beaconsfield

I have great sympathy with what the hon. and learned Member for Redcar said. It makes much more sense to impose a penalty on the young person for a failure to register, possibly in tandem with a penalty on the parent. However, simply to leave the young person with no penalty strikes me as surprising. After all, if a 15-year-old can commit serious offences, it seems odd that he cannot also have criminal sanctions brought against him for failure to register.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I am prepared to consider the matter further. Clearly, if the parents of a young person who has committed an offence so grave that he has to register cannot exercise sufficient discipline to get him to the police station, something even worse has happened.

There would clearly be consequences for the welfare of the child and a need for supervision and support. Those would be issues taken up practically on the ground by the relevant agencies. Whether there should be consequences on the face of the Bill is a separate question, quite rightly raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Llafur, Redcar

I was envisaging a situation in which the parent was brought to court. They might put forward the reasonable excuse that they could not compel the child to come and register because of a breakdown in the relationship. That might mean that the parent was acquitted, so there would be no prison sentence and no need for welfare intervention to protect the young person. Yet the young person who refused to go and register would be left with the parent who could not compel them to do so. How does society protect itself against that young person's sexual tendencies thereafter?

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

In the situation in which the parent has lost control, they can apply for that order to be discharged. None the less, the question remains: what happens to that young person? My hon. and learned Friend asks a compelling question. I say again that in terms of welfare and other considerations, the local agencies will no doubt try to sort out the appropriate form of supervision and support. Whether there should be a consequence in law, in the Bill, is a separate question, which I will consider more deeply.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 92 ordered to stand part of the Bill.