|Previous Section||Home Page|
Police Officers (Central Service) Bill [ Lords ]
Order for Second Reading read.
The purpose of the Bill is to amend section 43 of the Police Act 1964 and section 38 of the Police (Scotland) Act (1967) so as to overcome difficulties that have arisen over the status of police officers seconded from their own forces to central service--that is, temporary service under the Crown.
Most of those officers are engaged in training duties at the police staff colleges and district police training centres, but they also include the staff officers to the inspectors of constabulary, members of the police research services unit, and officers engaged in various liaison duties. Their numbers are relatively small. There are only some 600 police officers on central service in England and Wales and in Scotland out of a total police strength of 138,000. However, the services that they help to provide are vital to the efficiency of the police services.
The problem, briefly, is this. Section 43 of the Police Act 1964 provides that an officer on central service is to be treated as though he were not a member of a police force for the duration of his secondment. The position is the same in Scotland. The effect is that a police officer on central service has no police powers, no right to wear a uniform, no protection under section 51 of the Police Act 1964, which makes it an offence to assault a constable in the execution of his duty, and no right to membership of a police staff association. There are occasions when seconded police officers need to wear police uniforms in public. Staff officers to the inspectors of constabulary need to do so when accompanying the inspectors on their visits of inspection. Officers at district training centres need to do so when they are in charge of parties of probationer constables outside the premises.
An officer in police uniform would be expected by members of the public to exercise police powers if the circumstances demanded it. A central service officer would therefore find himself in a very difficult position if prompt action were needed that called for the use of police powers. He would be faced with the choice of ignoring his lack of police powers and taking the necessary action or deciding not to become involved. In such circumstances a constable, or most constables, would act instinctively as a police officer and take the necessary action--and I believe that they would be right to do so. We now face a problem, because, before 1964, there was no statutory provision for common police services. Such services were provided on an ad hoc basis, with the officers who were seconded to perform them remaining members of their parent forces. That was not a very satisfactory arrangement. Although the seconded officers were performing duties for which the Secretary of State was ultimately responsible, they were not answerable to
Column 386him. They were answerable to the chief officers of their parent forces. That produced a blurring of the lines of management responsibility and a potential conflict of loyalties.
In 1964 the opportunity was taken to put central service arrangements on a more rational basis. As central services officers are performing duties for which the Secretary of State is ultimately responsible, it is felt--quite rightly--that they should be answerable to him. That, essentially, is what section 43 of the Police Act 1964 provides.
It might be argued that, as the police service has been able to live with these problems for 25 years, there can be no great need for action to be taken to address them now. I do not think that that is the correct view. If there is a need for central service officers to wear police uniform in public when performing their central service duties, they should have the right to do so. If that means that they may occasionally need to exercise police powers when the circumstances demand, they should retain those powers.
Like any other police officer, central service officers should be given protection against assault and they should have the right to belong to the appropriate police staff association.
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : Before my right hon. Friend leaves that point, can he say whether the Bill will apply to the small number of Police Act forces in ports, such as the Port of London police, who I understand were covered by the 1964 Act?
I turn to the provisions of the Bill. Subsection (1) of clause 1 provides for the insertion of three new subsections after section 43(3) of the Police Act 1964.
The new subsection (3A) gives police officers the right to wear uniform, the right to exercise police powers, if the need arises, and the right to remain members of the Police Federation. It also gives them the protection against assaults which is provided by section 51 of the 1964 Act.
The new subsection (3B) makes the Secretary of State liable for any torts committed by central service officers in the exercise of their police powers. This liability is likely to arise very rarely, if at all, but a remedy for torts and a liability in tort must be provided.
As central service officers are answerable in law to the Secretary of State for the performance of their central service duties, it seems right that he should be liable for any torts committed by such officers in the exercise of their police powers.
The new subsection (3C) makes it clear that police officers who are seconded as advisers are to be regarded as being on central service. Subsection (2) of clause 1, provides for the Bill to have retrospective effect. This provision protects the position of central service officers who may in the past have acted--either from ignorance of the legal position or in what they regarded as the public interest--as though they possessed the powers and privileges of police officers. We have no records of any such cases, but there could be some. The position needs to be covered.
Clause 2 deals with Scotland, where the present position is broadly the same as that in England and Wales. It is clearly desirable that the legislation relating to police
Column 387officers on central service should remain consistent on both sides of the border. Clause 2 implements that objective.
This is a small Bill, but it is desirable and not, I believe, controversial. I commend it to the House.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) : This is one of the few occasions when the Opposition find very little to argue over. This is a non- controversial Bill. I do not intend unnecessarily to delay the proceedings by doing what comes naturally to most hon. Members--trying to spin out a long speech when a short one would do.
The Opposition support the Bill. Most of us thought that the provisions were already incorporated in the existing legislation, and it comes as a surprise to learn that they are not. Most of the provisions are completely sensible. It is absolutely right that central service members should be able to wear uniform, have police powers and be members of the Police Federation or the appropriate staff association. It is also right that the police should be provided with protection against assault.
Two small points have been drawn to my attention. The first concerns the nature of the disciplining of officers who are seconded to the central service. I hope that when he replies to the debate the Minister will answer that point in a constructive spirit. The Police Complaints Authority said recently that it is concerned about the fact that a large number of complaints against the police run into the ground because police officers take early retirement on grounds of ill health. I draw that parallel only because I understand that if someone is seconded to central service, disciplinary action cannot be taken if a complaint is upheld against him. Disciplinary action might be evaded if someone is transferred to central service. The legislation ought to cover such a possibility.
Secondly, when a person is seconded to central service it is not entirely clear to us whether the provisions covering personal financial arrangements and outside business interests, which are incompatible with status as a police officer, will also apply to those who are seconded to central service. Does the Bill provide that the code of conduct that applies to police officers will also apply to someone who is seconded to central service? Those are the only two points that worry the Opposition.
Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge) : I wish first to declare an outside interest. I am the parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation. The Police Federation warmly welcomes the Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister has explained to the House that it enables police officers on central service to be treated as members of police forces for the jurisdiction of constables. It also makes them eligible for membership of the Police Federation and provides them with protection against assaults and the right to wear a uniform. Those are two important rights for any officer who is on central service. The Bill makes it clear that central service is temporary service under the Crown as it relates to those services that the Home Secretary provides to promote the efficiency of the police. It is therefore a short but nevertheless important Bill. I agree entirely with the Minister that the Bill needed to be introduced, and it ought to be passed by
Column 388Parliament. The fact that this unsatisfactory state of affairs has continued for some years is no reason for allowing it to continue. While it may seem astonishing to the man in the street that a police officer seconded from his or her force to central service may experience difficulty over status, that is indeed the case. As my hon. Friend told the House, there are some 600 police officers on central service in England, Wales and Scotland. The services in which they are engaged include the police staff colleges, the district police training centres, the forensic science laboratories and the staff officers to the inspectors of constabulary. They make an important contribution to the efficiency of the police service. The House will perhaps be surprised to learn that a police officer on central service ceases to be a member of a police force. That came as a surprise to me, and I have no doubt that it has come as a surprise to other hon. Members. He has no powers, no right to wear a uniform, no legal protection from assault in the exercise of his duty and no right to membership of the Police Federation or other police staff associations. That unsatisfactory state of affairs has existed for a long time and needs to be remedied.
It is for that reason that clause 1(2) has retrospective effect. All hon. Members pause when they hear the word "retrospective". The purpose of the clause, however, is to safeguard those officers who have acted in the public interest as though they had had since 1964 the powers that are normally expected of them. I see this as clarification of the existing position rather than as the conferring of new powers on a retrospective basis.
Although the Police Federation warmly welcomes the Bill, there are several points which I hope my hon. Friend will be able to clarify. It appears that, as a result of specifying the provisions in the proposed new section 43(3A), a person engaged on central service shall be treated as though he were a member of his police force. It follows that, in relation to the remaining sections of the 1964 Act, a person, as a result of the existing provisions of section 43(1), shall be treated as though he were not a member of the force in question.
One of the principal purposes of the Bill is to provide that police officers on central service are treated as members of police forces for the purpose of eligibility for the Police Federation. Therefore, an important distinction must be made between the eligibility of officers on central service being members of the Police Federation and the Police Federation's rights to represent such officers for the purposes of negotiations or consultations.
Let us consider for example the police advisory boards established by the Police Act 1964. Section 46(2) of that Act provides : "The constitution and proceedings of each of the Police Advisory Boards shall be such as the Secretary of State may determine after consulting organisations representing the interests of police authorities and of members of police forces and police cadets." Whereas section 46(2) makes reference to the Secretary of State determining the constitution and proceedings of each police advisory board after consulting the organisations representing the police forces, will my hon. Friend say whether the Secretary of State is under an obligation to consult the Police Federation in its capacity as
Column 389representing those members on central service, unless those officers are to be treated as members of their police force for the purpose of section 46?
Furthermore, and perhaps more important, there are the provisions of the Police Negotiating Board Act 1980. As my hon. Friend will be aware, section 1 of that Act provides for the consideration by the board of questions relating to hours of duty, leave, pay and allowances, pensions, or the issue and return of police clothing, personal equipment and accoutrements. Similar considerations apply to the Police Negotiating Board Act 1980 as to section 46 of the Police Act 1964. Although central service officers may be members of the Police Federation, arguably the Police Federation may not represent their interests on the negotiating board without any amendment to the 1980 or 1964 Acts.
I hope that those matters will be clarified during the debate and dealt with in Committee so that officers engaged on central service shall be treated as if they were members of their police force for the purpose of the Police Act 1964 and the Police Negotiating Board Act 1980. They are clearly very important to officers engaged on central service. I do not wish to detain the House any further, except to repeat that the Police Federation warmly welcomes the Bill and hopes that it will have a speedy passage through Parliament. 5.12 pm
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) : The only oddity about the Bill is that it has taken a quarter of a century to come before the House. It enjoys the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House and need not delay us long.
I should like the Minister to amplify the reasons why the Bill is retrospective. It is somewhat odd that he has chosen to make the Bill operate retrospectively when, apparently, he is not aware of the number of incidents involving central service police officers who have acted as though they possessed the powers and privileges of police officers in each year since the Police Act 1964. I wonder whether his decision to legislate was taken in response to a general representation about the desirability of that change, which is obviously understood, whether or not there are outstanding cases that may be affected by the retrospective provisions.
The Minister's written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) suggested that he did not have the information that might have thrown some light on the reasons for the retrospective provisions, but the Minister did not address the matter directly this afternoon. Perhaps he will do so in his concluding remarks when he hopes to reply to the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor).
It seems right that there should be no doubt that police officers on central service can use police powers that they would enjoy when attached to their force and that they should have legal protection against assault. Can the Minister say whether there have been cases in which that lack of cover has presented a problem? Clearly it is a problem theoretically, but we do not usually legislate to deal with theoretical problems.
I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying the import of the Bill's provisions.
Column 3905.15 pm
Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North) : I shall speak briefly in support of the Bill. Like other hon. Members who have spoken so far, I warmly welcome the Bill, not only because it removes an anomaly in the Police Act 1964 and the Police (Scotland) Act 1967, but because it demonstrates the willingness of the Home Office to amend the 1964 Act where change is necessary to produce a more efficient and effective police service.
The services concerned with the amendment to section 43 of the 1964 Act fulfil many valuable functions on behalf of individual police forces, and those services should be organised on a national basis. They include the police staff college at Bramshill into which my Select Committee on Home Affairs has recently inquired.
It is clearly anomalous that officers in central service posts should not hold the historic office of constable. Although there may not have been many occasions when officers on central service have been called upon to perform police duties involving the exercise of jurisdictional powers, that is more likely to happen in future years, especially now that more than 600 officers of all ranks are involved in those duties--a not inconsiderable number.
I mention that point because I feel that it is probable that the number of central service posts will increase as time goes on in response to those policing problems which clearly require a national response and a common solution. I note the growing importance being placed on the Association of Chief Police Officers achieving co-operation between the 43 police forces in England and Wales. It is for consideration whether a strengthened ACPO secretariat should become part of central services.
The Bill also removes the Police Complaints Authority from its position as a central service. That change is supported by the authority, and will doubtless help to reinforce its perceived and actual independence.
There are only two minor queries that I wish to raise. First, it does not extend to Northern Ireland. I fully appreciate the reason for that. As Northern Ireland has only one force--the Royal Ulster Constabulary--it has no need for combined central services. Nevertheless, from my visits to the police staff college at Bramshill, I am aware that some of the staff there are from the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Are officers from the RUC on the staff at Bramshill to lack the jurisdiction of constables and eligibility for membership of staff associations held by officers on the staff from England, Wales and Scotland? That point will be of particular interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby), who so ably represents the Police Federation of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
If a central service officer were to engender a complaint of misconduct while exercising the powers of a constable vested in him by the Bill, the question would arise as to who should take responsibility for the complaints process under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Would the Secretary of State for England and Wales--the Home Secretary--or would the Secretary of State for Scotland be liable? Would the Secretary of State, who is liable in respect of torts committed by that officer under new subsection 43 (3B) of the Police Act 1964, be responsible, or would it be the chief constable of the force to which the officer was said to belong under subsection (3A)? I should be grateful for clarification from my hon. Friend on those two small matters.
Column 391My queries in no way detract from my support for this welcome measure. It is a short Bill and, as we have discovered, it is a non-controversial measure, but it represents a worthwhile improvement to previous legislation and it may pave the way for further developments in the police central services. It may thus contribute to the development of a more efficient and effective service, which we all wish to see.
Mr. Douglas Hogg : I am grateful for the general support that hon. Members have given to the Bill. I will seek to respond to the specific questions raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) asked whether the Bill applies to ports police, of whom there are a small number of forces. Neither the Bill nor the Police Act 1964 apply to ports police. Ports police are set up under private legislation and the Minister responsible for them is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) raised a number of points, including the matter of business interests. It is true that a member of the forces may not carry out any business in addition to police duties. There is no specific parallel for officers on central service, but as far as we are aware, none of them has ever done so. Such conduct would be strongly discouraged. We have the sanction of returning such an officer to his own force where, of course the ordinary principles would immediately apply.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield also raised related questions about disciplinary procedures, including whether a police officer could evade a disciplinary charge by being transferred to central service. Although there is probably no barrier in law to such a step, there are substantial practical barriers. An officer would not be appointed to the central service in such circumstances and if such a transfer happened through inadvertence, the officer would be returned promptly to the force from which he came.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) raised several questions. Before answering, I want to say how pleased we are about his appointment as parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation and I am certain that the Police Federation will benefit enormously from the advice that he is able to give it. He is correct in saying that, under the Bill, officers are not members of their own force save to the extent that is preserved in the Bill. There are specific points that need to be considered on pay, allowances and conditions. The pay and conditions of service of police officers generally are, as my hon. Friend stated correctly, negotiated in the police negotiating board. Those arrangements do not apply to police officers on central service, whose conditions of service are determined by the Home Office. To that extent, his analysis of the position is correct. My hon. Friend's analysis of the Police Negotiating Board Act 1980 is also correct. Section 1(1)(b) of that Act provides for the staff side of the Police Negotiating Board to represent the interests of members of the police forces and police regulations apply only to members of police forces. Section 43(1) of the 1964 Act makes it clear that an
Column 392officer on central service is not a member of a police force during his period of secondment, so police regulations do not apply to him and his conditions of service are not a matter for negotiation in the police negotiating board. That is the position at present, and nothing in the Bill disturbs that. If my hon. Friend tables amendments, they will be considered, but I do not want to give any undertaking about the Government's response should he decide to do so.
I must say to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) that I am grateful for his support for the Bill. He raised two related questions, one on assaults and the other on the more general question of retrospection. He was right, as I have made plain, to say that the Bill will be retrospective in its effect. The reason is that there have been cases in which officers engaged on central service have acted in the public interest as if they possessed the powers and privileges of members of a police force by, for example, wearing uniform and effecting arrests. It could be said in law that they had acted unlawfully and that, by effecting an arrest, either they had committed the tort of unlawful arrest--unless they had the powers of a citizen in the specific circumstances--or that they had conceivably committed an assault. Those are nice points of law. To cover them, and to prevent some of my colleagues from earning money that they do not deserve in litigation on such matters, the Bill is retrospective.
Central service officers may also have benefited from insurance schemes and provident funds arranged by the police staff associations. One could raise a query about the lawfulness of those benefits. That would be a misfortune, and it is another justification for the Bill being retrospective. The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of assaults on central service officers. We have no knowledge of any such assault, but clearly such an assault is possible and it is right, as a matter of principle, that we should deal with it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler) raised the question of Northern Ireland. Neither the Bill nor the Police Act 1964 and the Police (Scotland) Act 1967 apply to Northern Ireland. It follows that Royal Ulster Constabulary officers who are at Bramshill as instructors will not be covered by the Bill. It may be possible to contemplate changes and we shall have to consider the scope of the Bill. If my hon. Friend wants the matter to be considered, we will consider it, but at this stage I cannot give any undertaking or commitment about the Government's response. My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North also asked a specific question about what would happen if an officer serving on central service were subject to a complaint arising from the use or misuse of his police powers. The answer is that he would be forthwith returned to the force from which he had come and the ordinary complaints and disciplinary procedures of that force would then follow.
I hope that I have responded to all the questions asked of me. I am grateful to the House for the support that has been given to the Bill and I commend it to the House.
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).
That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 10412/88 relating to the abolition of controls of persons at intra-community frontiers ; and endorses the Government's view that in considering the relaxation of frontier controls within the European Community the Government must keep in place necessary measures to control terrorism, drug trafficking and other crime, and immigration from non-community countries.
Mr. Hurd : The debate gives the House an opportunity to take stock of our position on the relaxation of frontier controls in Europe. I should like to make one point at the outset. We believe that frontier checks will continue to be a useful, indeed an indispensable, part of the protection for our citizens against the evils of terrorism, drug trafficking and organised crime, and also against illegal immigration. The documents before us show divergence from the European Commission on this principle. We hold strongly to the validity of the general declaration annexed to the Single European Act, which stated :
"Nothing in the provisions of the Act shall affect the right of Member States to take such measures as they consider necessary for the purpose of combating terrorism, crime and the traffic in drugs." That does not mean that our stance is unreasoning or that we are smugly satisfied with present arrangements. On the contrary, I believe that we are at the start of a period of steadily intensifying co-operation within the Community in police work and in many legal matters. For many years the meetings of the Trevi group of Ministers of the Interior and Justice were relatively few and routine. Now we meet often, for example in Madrid next week, and our programme of work has become formidable.
We in the United Kingdom are among the leaders in encouraging these forward moves, because I believe that they can add to the safety of our citizens. I shall give one or two examples. The more closely we work against the drug trafficker, the better aligned our laws are on extradition, the more effectively we can provide for the confiscation of the assets of convicted criminals in each other's countries and the more clearly we understand each other's policies on immigration and asylum, the more effective we shall be in protecting our own peoples. I hope that we shall spend the next two or three years before the end of 1992 not in jousts between lawyers or in loud rhetorical wrangles over the principle of frontiers, but in solid practical work together in strengthening that protection. This is a new dimension of Home Office work and it is becoming one of the most important.
I should like to make another important preliminary point. The debate and the documents are concerned only with frontier controls as they affect the movement of people but the Single European Act goes much wider. The House will have other opportunities to discuss, for example, the proposals made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer for reducing frontier formalities on the movement of goods.
Column 394The Government welcome the production of a Commission report which pulls together a number of issues related to frontiers and the free movement of Community nationals. We also welcome the recognition given in the report, which has been in evidence in our recent dealings with the Commission, that practical problems require practical solutions. This has been the keystone of the Government's approach. This was the way we tackled the Single European Act and it is the way we are now approaching negotiations with our European partners on frontiers following the Single European Act.
Daily in my mind must be the constant battle that the police and Customs services of Europe are fighting against the evils I have mentioned-- terrorism, organised crime and the traffic in drugs. The Commission's report misunderstands the value of these important frontier checks. Indeed, it says :
"anyone with intimate knowledge of these matters knows that the present frontier controls are ineffective".
I do not accept that. Indeed, common sense tells us that that is not the case. The functions and effectiveness of border controls vary a good deal from country to country, depending largely on matters of geography. It is obviously more difficult to maintain a full system of control at land borders than it is at natural boundaries. We find that ourselves in Northern Ireland. But it is strange logic to say that, because land frontiers are harder to check, there should be no checks at sea and air frontiers, where checks are fairer and more effective.
The contribution that such checks make to the fight against terrorism and serious crime cannot be assessed precisely, though it is clearly significant. The deterrent effect, for example, is bound to be impossible to measure, but we know that terrorists and criminals recognise the controls as a point where they are vulnerable. The intelligence gathered from observation or questions at frontiers can prove vital in piecing together a picture of a terrorist's or criminal's movements or plans. The frontier checks we operate provide a ready opportunity to arrest and charge suspected offenders and to seize illegal goods.
However, the frontier check is not the only weapon against terrorism and serious crime. We must aim at defence in depth, by which I mean defence forward of our own frontiers--in other countries, within the borders of our partners--defence within our own frontiers--in our own towns and cities-- and, where necessary and reasonable, defence at our frontiers.
Increasing co-operation with our European partners is an important part of our policy. We entirely agree with the emphasis that the Commission's report places on collaboration to prevent and combat international crime and terrorism. However, we should not believe that improving the way in which European law enforcement agencies work together can be a full substitute for border controls. This work is worth while in its own right, and we shall certainly press ahead with it.
In the Europan Community this work is carried out, as I have mentioned, within the Trevi framework. We are active, too, within individual states. In January I signed an arrangement with my opposite number in Italy to provide formally for police co-operation--particularly against terrorism, drug trafficking and serious crime. We are talking to the French about a similar agreement, which I hope to sign later this summer. Of course, all that is on top of the more informal help that our police forces give each other day by day.
Column 395We shall have to pay increasing attention to the prevention of drug misuse and to the enforcement of our laws against that in the coming months. In that respect, the value of frontier controls is again beyond doubt. Customs seized some 90 per cent. or more by weight of the heroin, cocaine and cannabis seized in the United Kingdom in 1987. It is clear that there is a significant trade in drugs within the Community. Last year about half the weight of cannabis and one third of the cocaine seized by Customs came from or through other EC countries.
Of course, we are not the only country to seize drugs at internal frontiers. It is interesting that, in 1987, French Customs made 36 per cent. by weight of their cannabis seizures at the Spanish border and 38 per cent. of their heroin seizures at the borders with their Schengen partners. So it is quite clear that strengthening the external frontier of the Community, although desirable in itself, would not by itself provide an adequate defence against drug trafficking. It would be ridiculous to argue that checks could not be made in the United Kingdom where it was easiest and most effective to do so, for example at our national frontiers. It would be ridiculous to argue that it is fine to catch a drug trafficker in Europe before he gets here ; it is fine to catch him once he is in our city and towns ; but the one thing we are not allowed to do is to catch him where it might be easiest to do so--at our seaports and airports. Where there is precise intelligence, one can choose where the pounce on the drug traffickers should be made. It must be understood that a great number of these seizures are made at the frontier either cold--without precise intelligence--or as a result of profiling. That means that the seizures depend on officers being at the frontier to observe, select, question and examine. These checks should not be onerous or unreasonable, and I do not think that they are. They are not routine checks on every passenger. They are made because an officer's suspicions have been aroused by something he has seen or, sometimes, they are the product of random checks.
I believe that there is an increasing coming together of views on this point. There was some rather excited press comment a few days ago alleging that Sir Leon Brittan disagreed with the Government about the value of these border checks. In fact, what Sir Leon said was consistent with the Government's view. He said :
"The control of drug trafficking involves, amongst many other things, the ability to conduct checks wherever that may be necessary. This might be at the Community's external frontiers, at the present internal frontiers or anywhere else."
That was an important statement. His audience of British police officers acting against drug trafficking were reassured by what he said. He made it plain that nobody wants to deprive the forces of law and order of the right to check for drugs anywhere. When commenting on the changes needed at internal frontiers, he said that there would always be the possibility of a spot check here as anywhere else in the United Kingdom.
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : Whether we agree or disagree with what Sir Leon Brittan or anyone else has said, will the Minister at some stage be saying whether these proposed directives on firearms, drugs, visas and extradition ought to be considered under the majority vote procedure or under unanimity? Could he also say clearly, so that the people of Britain will know, whether the
Column 396proviso stuck on the annex of the Single European Act means that, even if unsatisfactory directives are passed, we can ignore them because of that annex to the Act?
Mr. Hurd : I would rather not give a blanket reply, since my hon. Friend mentioned a number of directives and they may fall under different articles of the Single European Act. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is to reply, will be able to deal with both the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor).
Another matter that I know interests my hon. Friend is immigration. As I have said, there is a growing convergence of view on the question of frontier checks to protect citizens against particular kinds of crime. I believe that the problem of immigration is somewhat more difficult to solve. One important benefit of the Single European Act is, of course, the freedom of movement rights that it gave to citizens of the European Community. These rights reflect the high and growing common interest between all European partners. The right to freedom of movement for our own nationals to and fro in accordance with the provisions of the treaty is such a shared interest. Our partners give that right to our citizens and we give freedom of movement, for example, to the German business man or the Danish holidaymaker wishing to come to Britain.
However, nothing in the Single European Act conferred rights of free movement on non-EC citizens. That is our clear view, but others in the European Community hold a different legal view of the impact of the Single European Act on this problem. I believe that we need to set these legal divergences to one side, as I do not think they help with the practical problem. I do not think they will be easily or quickly resolved. We need practical solutions to the practical problems. We certainly would not quarrel with member states that have long land frontiers if they wish to operate their checks on non-EC nationals in their cities or workplaces. Equally, we do not expect to be criticised if we operate our checks on non- EC nationals at the water's edge. As we are an island, that is the sensible and practical place for us to do so.
Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North) : My right hon. Friend touches on a most important point. Does he agree that, for the suppression of illegal drugs and to control illegal immigration, it is essential to maintain our existing arrangements? Elsewhere in Europe, the countries and police systems of the Economic Community often have available procedural devices--particularly identity card checks and controls over who stays in hotels--not available to the United Kingdom. Were we to change or weaken the arrangements at our airports or seaports, we would not have these other devices at our disposal.
Mr. Hurd : I agree with my hon. Friend. A country such as France, with an immense land frontier with hundreds of crossing points, some of them small roads--as applies between the North of Ireland and the Republic- -has a real problem. Like everybody else, the French want to be protected against massive illegal immigration. The French Government might quite rationally decide that it is not sensible to put too much reliance on border checks but that it is better to have internal means of control. In a private Member's Bill debate, the House has discussed a compulsory identity card system and made its view clear.
Column 397Thus, I do not think that that path is open to us. A voluntary system is slightly different, but would not solve the problem. That is an illustration not just of differences of history, but of differences of geography that our partners in the Community as a whole need to take into account. For example, the Dutch, with their important seaports and airports, are conscious of this point. We are certainly not alone in stressing the importance of geography in these matters.
There is a difference between the legal views of this country and others in the European Community. However, that does not mean that we have to rest exactly as we are now. We have already made a change, by introducing a new immigration channel at ports and airports, fusing the British and EC channels. Hon. Members who have been through Heathrow and Gatwick in recent weeks will know that.
What we want to aim at--this is in line with what my hon. Friend was arguing--is that all EC nationals should enter this country with the minimum of immigration checks. There should not be a lengthy questioning procedure on entry to the United Kingdom for citizens of our Community partners or our own citizens. They all now have clear rights under the Single European Act. Citizens of our Community partners should be able to enter the country with the same ease as our citizens. There should simply be the normal requirement that one produces one's passport to show that one is who one says one is. In this case, a person would be shown to be an EC national. I believe that the new streamlined channel is a practical indication of our commitment to the spirit of the Single European Act.
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : Non-EC nationals who are settled here and in many cases have lived here for a long time are invariably required to obtain re-entry visas when they have travelled overseas. Will the Home Secretary give a clear assurance that, under any new arrangements, these people will not face more onerous procedures? Will he ensure that they have easier access to return to their homes and families in this country than at present?
Mr. Hurd : That position will remain entirely unchanged. There is nothing in the Single European Act or in anything that we are contemplating that would in any way make travel more difficult for the people the hon. Member has mentioned.
The Government's reaction to the report is, as I hope our reply to it makes clear, straightforward. We have a positive commitment to freer travel for Community citizens within the Community. We also have a positive commitment and a need to maintain the checks that are necessary and reasonable to protect our people against terrorism and other serious crime and to maintain the immigration control that we believe is necessary for good relations within our cities. That is the message which I hope commends itself to the House and which we should try to carry forward in the network of discussions in groups within the Community over the next two or three years.
Column 3985.59 pm