The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Rory Stewart)
With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the findings of the report into the management and supervision of men convicted of sexual offences.
First, let me begin by acknowledging this incredibly important report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorates of Prisons and Probation and, secondly, by passing my apologies to the House, particularly to the shadow spokesmen, for the fact that they were not able to receive advance notice of this statement.
Sexual offences are among the most horrifying and tragic of all the incidents with which we have to deal in this Chamber, or indeed in public law. They inflict unspeakable harm on the victim at the moment at which the offence is created, and lasting harm throughout the individual’s life, leading to trauma, which, in the worst cases, can even extend to that individual committing suicide. No one should underestimate in any way the seriousness of this type of offence, or the obligation on the Government and their agencies to protect the public from sex offences.
This is a journey that begins in custody, but needs to go right the way through probation into the community. We are deeply grateful to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation for the work that they have done to look into this specific issue. I have spoken to both inspectorates this week. I spoke to the new director-general of prisons and the new director-general of probation, and asked them to look carefully at these reports.
At the end of the statement, I will go point by point through the major issues raised, but in essence, the central issues relate to: first, the accommodation provision for sex offenders on release; secondly, the risk assessment process for sex offenders; thirdly, the way in which professional training ties into that risk assessment process; fourthly, the opportunities for rehabilitative programmes; and finally, the question of home visits, and, in particular, issues of children.
Before we move on to those, I want to take this opportunity to reassure the whole House about the overall approach that we take to managing sex offenders, and in particular to public protection. There has been a huge shift over the past 20 years, as hon. and right hon. Members will be aware, in the way that we approach sex offenders. Many more people are now brought to justice for sex offences than were 20 years ago. That does not mean that more people are committing sex offences today; it means that more people are being brought to justice. This is driven by two things in particular: the rise in access to pornography, particularly on the internet; and the prosecution of individuals for historical sex offences—in some cases, committed many, many years ago—and the additional priority that the police have put on bringing those individuals to justice. We therefore have far more people in prison and on probation who are convicted sex offenders than 20 years ago.
When running through this very difficult and unpleasant subject, it is important to be aware of the range of people we include in the term “sex offender”. Some have committed a contact offence; some have not. Let me illustrate for the House what the range could be. Let us look at a recent case: a 50-year-old autistic man in the north of England who became addicted to internet pornography was driven to ever more extreme sites, and was eventually convicted—because we can detect people doing this—of sex offences. He served time in custody and has now come out. In that case, it was possible to work with the individual to get them off the internet and to reduce their offending. It is possible to protect the public from that kind of individual.
However, the range of sex offences goes right the way through to the most extreme high-risk cases, which would be dealt with through particular multi-agency protection arrangements. They would include an adult who was convicted of raping their partner, or an individual who had been in a position of authority, perhaps decades ago, and abused vulnerable children in their care. In thinking about how we deal with sex offenders in prison and on probation, we need to take into account the fact that they are very different individuals. Some of the oldest prisoners are now over 100 years old, and clearly the measures put in place for them will be very different from those put in place for others.
We must consider three things in particular—I would be grateful for an opportunity to discuss this in more detail with right hon. and hon. Members—that we do to protect the public: first, the multi-agency protection arrangements, meaning the way we work with the police and the probation service to ensure that we have a real focus on knowing where an individual is and on ensuring that they adhere to the conditions imposed; secondly, the licence conditions, which are imposed by the Parole Board mostly in cases of high-risk sex offenders; and thirdly, the sex offenders register, which has its own specialised requirements on what can be done with a sex offender.
Given the limited time available, I will focus on the issues raised in the report. The first, which has attracted a great deal of media attention, relates to the accommodation provided to offenders. As right hon. and hon. Members will have seen in the media, the inspectors highlighted cases in which sex offenders were placed in hotel accommodation. The first thing I want to say is that this is something we will work very hard to avoid in future, and I will explain how we will do that shortly. This is a very small number of cases. Every year, over 10,000 people are released from prison under that form of supervision, and of those only 54—sometimes it is 55 or 56—will end up in some type of emergency accommodation.[Official Report, 12 March 2019, Vol. 656, c. 1MC.] Of those individuals, only a very few—perhaps half a dozen—will end up in hotel accommodation. Before that can happen, the police and the probation service will conduct a detailed risk assessment to ensure that the individual does not pose a risk of a contact offence against a stranger. The individual will have committed a sex offence of the sort I explained at the start of my statement, or will have risk factors that do not impose that kind of risk on the public.
Nevertheless, we should still not place those individuals in that type of accommodation. With the director-general of the probation service, we are doing two major things to address this. First, we are providing the resources to build over 200 additional places in approved premises, so that individuals have such accommodation to go to. Secondly, in the interim, we will work with organisations such as Langley House Trust to provide alternative accommodation. My objective will be to significantly reduce, if not entirely eliminate, the possibility of anyone going to that form of hotel accommodation in future.
The second issue raised by the report relates to the risk assessment mechanism. Criticisms have been made about ARMS—active risk management system—which is the monitoring and assessment process that considers the risk factors when dealing with an offender. There is more that we can do on that in professional training. I have asked the director general of the probation service to look at moving the ARMS process, if possible, out of the community, where it has generally been located because of flexible changes in risk, and back into the custodial prison environment at an earlier stage in the process.
The third issue that the inspectors raised relates to approved accommodation. In relation to both approved accommodation and home visits, we must ensure that individuals are visited in their home, and that no gaps emerge between the police and the probation service. There are many other issues that we need to touch on, but I am aware that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, wish me to restrict my comments to 10 minutes, on a subject that I could speak about for an hour. I hope that in the questions that follow this statement, we can go into the subject in more detail.
In conclusion, we owe the inspectors a huge debt of gratitude for the work that they have done. We need to acknowledge that they have rated our national probation service as good, and that our public protection mechanisms, which I have mentioned, are among the very best in the world and have been praised by the inspectors, but they have also raised four areas of concern. We will tackle them one by one, because in public protection there is nothing more important than protecting people from the horror and trauma of a sexual offence.