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Mr. Rogers: That is putting the cart before the horse.

Mr. Shepherd: I accept the very point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Last night, the Government published their response to the Home Affairs Select Committee. Is that a way to legislate? That is all I ask. It is profoundly mistaken. One of the reasons for the crisis in the standing of the House and the confidence of the British public in it is that people no longer trust our ability to make proper legislation. It is incoherent, it is often ill thought through and it is not tested.

The Asylum and Immigration Bill has been raised. I was tempted by the idea of pre-legislative consideration of the contentions behind that Bill. I see no problem with that as a proper arrangement. The Canadians do not legislate without a White Paper, some form of commission or a proper examination of the contentions within a piece of legislation.

We are looking at this legislation blind. It will go into Standing Committee upstairs and it is my guess that I will not be a member of that Committee. I was not a member of the Standing Committee on the Intelligence Services Bill. We know how the House works, and one accepts that, but is it an appropriate and proper way to legislate? That is the truth of the matter.

Most of my hon. Friends know no more than I do about the security or intelligence services, yet they proclaim that this Bill is the most appropriate route forward. Few hon. Members have the knowledge or the understanding to know whether, in truth, it is the appropriate route. That is all that this Second Reading debate is about.

I get nervous when I hear so many hon. Members saying that everyone is wonderful and that the legislation is wonderful. I am Scottish--being born in Aberdeen, I guess that I qualify as such--and the moment that I hear such a consensus, the hair at the back of my neck prickles. There is something wrong in this. I do not know where the force came from. As recently as May, the Home Secretary assured the House in a written answer that there were no plans for this legislation, which was dumped on us on the very day the House rose for the Christmas recess. We are dealing with it the day after coming back, having had the Christmas and new year holiday in between. The House's ability to consider the legislation on the information available is very limited. That is my caution.

Is there not another way to legislate, with pre-Second Reading hearings? It would make use of the talents and resources of the House if we considered the contentions in legislation.

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9.20 pm

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): I listened with interest to the reservations that the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) expressed about the way in which we legislate in the House. It is a point that the Opposition frequently make-- the need for a more considered and reasonable way to deal with legislation and for more opportunity to think in advance of its publication.

That reservation is a general one and it is correct. It seems odd that it should be raised tonight, however, when there has been a reasonable and constructive Second Reading debate, which frequently does not happen, and when the sort of reservations that the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills raised have been mentioned by many hon. Members and will clearly be the subject with which the Standing Committee will deal seriously in due course. The very fact that the Home Secretary has shown a willingness to hear suggestions demonstrates that the Standing Committee stage will be more constructive than usual and I hope that the Minister of State will give us some promises in that direction in his reply.

This has been an interesting debate on the contribution that MI5 can make to the fight against organised crime, as well as the checks and balances that are essential in a democracy. There has also been a subtext of the wider role and history of the intelligence services, but I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House who have gone down that avenue will forgive me if I do not pursue them, because I want to concentrate on the Bill and the elements that need to be added to it during its scrutiny in the House.

The Bill has been introduced against a background of general concern about organised crime, which was the subject of the recent report by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. It comes at a time of increasing public anxiety about a series of particularly violent incidents. Although generally seen to be local in nature and not directly related to organised crime, those incidents fuel a public sense of unease.

In recent years, there has been a heated debate about the best way to tackle crime. The Home Secretary has offered tough action and the Labour party has certainly refined a coherent strategy to be tough on crime and on the causes of crime, but there have also been major changes in the accountability of the police.

In the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, the Home Secretary took considerable powers over police finances--the power to set national performance indicators--and established new-style police authority committees, in which the role of elected members was reduced. At that time, there was no acceptance of proposals that were widely supported by police and local authority associations, to give a statutory basis to a partnership approach, which would have required the police and the local authority to work together and with the local community to tackle crime. For that reason, I was particularly glad to hear the Home Secretary affirm his support today for local policing and to hear that he is against the nationalisation of the police service.

How, though, is that to be achieved by the Bill? We must strike a balance between effective leadership and co-ordination in the fight against organised crime, and

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local accountability--two principles that inevitably involve tension, but whose importance was acknowledged by the Home Secretary.

Given the existence of police authorities in the new form determined by the Home Secretary, I am slightly puzzled by their exclusion to date from consultation on the Bill. I know that the police authorities have offered their co-operation, and that, like us, they want strong legislation that is supported in all quarters; I therefore hope that the Home Secretary will involve them as debate on the Bill continues.

The Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994 maintains the underlying concept of the police service as a local responsibility, but provides that it should also deal with serious offences that transcend regional boundaries. That is what we are discussing today. I hope that the Home Secretary will allow representatives of police authorities to be involved in discussions on matters on which concern has been expressed today by hon. Members on both sides of the House--in other words, to take part in the debate about the best way in which to achieve the Government's objectives, and to deal with such issues as structure, accountability, the definition of organised crime and the measurement of performance standards in an area of joint responsibility.

Listening to the views of experts from a variety of countries at an international conference on organised crime not long ago, I was particularly impressed by the way in which organised crime differs in different countries, notwithstanding the international element in serious crime. In the past we have tended to think of sinister monolithic organisations, but to a great extent organised crime is a market in which the entrepreneurs flourish by taking opportunities that are there for the taking. It is important to design our system of law enforcement and intelligence in a way that denies opportunity in the specific conditions of the United Kingdom, and to resist expansion into the UK market by those who have succeeded elsewhere.

There are no simple solutions. We need to retain the basic values of the British police, and local accountability, while providing national co-ordination and leadership by means of the right systems and structures.

There has been extensive debate about whether there should be a single national police agency--an expanded NCIS or a new agency--to undertake national and international inquiries, or to co-ordinate the input of agencies, including customs, as well as the police and security services. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) spoke of the need to grasp that nettle; I hope that the Home Secretary will do so quickly, and in the same spirit of co-operation and search for consensus that characterised the speeches from both Front Benches today. There are reservations about the structure and resourcing of the NCIS and its accountability, some of which were acknowledged by the Home Secretary. It is important that the Home Secretary and Parliament should lay down clear tasks for the national agency.

The Bill deals with a narrow but significant point. There is an increasing belief that, following the end of the cold war, the resources of the security services should be used in the fight against organised crime at national and international level. The Bill gives statutory authority for that--we accept the principle--but it contains little detail, as a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House

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have pointed out. It does not clearly provide for the systems that are needed to provide accountability, transparency, control, supervision and discipline, and to deal with complaints.

Several hon. Members on both sides of the House-- including my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) and the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason)--spoke with passion about the history of the subject, and the importance of checks and balances. The same issues have been raised by the Committee that the House established to study the issues, which has reported under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). Several chief constables and senior police officers have also expressed that opinion over recent weeks.

In introducing the debate, the Home Secretary explained that his purpose in having a wide-ranging but simple Bill was to obtain maximum flexibility and avoid spurious legal challenges that would allow the guilty to walk free. Although I agree with him on that purpose, Parliament must be precise on the powers that it gives and the purposes for which they are to be exercised. The systems to which I referred are in place for the police and those issues must be clarified in respect of joint operations or circumstances in which the security services act in support of the police.

The Home Secretary had fuelled expectation that he would set out his approach to those issues in the debate and confirm that the police will task the Security Service to act in support of those inquiries. The verb "to task" is a rather inelegant term. Although it is commonly understood and familiar in police service jargon, it is less precise in normal usage of the English language and it has no established meaning in law. I am glad that the Home Secretary made his intentions clear and gave specific confirmation of who will task the security services, but he did not deal with the detail and it is not in the Bill.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn said in his opening comments, the Bill says that the Security Service will act in support of the prevention and detection of serious crime, but it does not say that the service will act in support of the police. It would be simple to say in clause 1 that the Security Service's function will be to act in support of the police and other law enforcement agencies in preventing and detecting serious crime. The Bill should provide detail on how accountability to the police will continue as the task that it is given at the beginning of the exercise is carried out.

The Bill refers to "serious crime", not organised crime, although the Home Secretary made it clear that organised crime is its specific target. I am sure that we shall have an opportunity in Committee to explore exactly what that means. One hon. Member referred to paedophiles and I share the Minister's view that we should not so define the Security Service's functions that an individual who is not part of an organised activity, although the activity is organised, can walk free. However, we must be specific in setting the limits of the activities and targets. For instance, would the three recent murders in Essex come within the ambit of organised crime? The Committee stage should be used as an opportunity to explore those definitions.

The Home Secretary stressed that the security services are not being given new powers. Ministers must satisfy the House, however, that the unqualified term "serious crime" is not too wide. I do not want to create a legal

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minefield, or the possibility that the House's intentions will be frustrated, by being over-precise. I simply want to clarify the broad intentions of the phrase. The Home Secretary's sympathies and intentions appear to be entirely in accord with those principles, so I hope that we shall have cross-party co-operation in seeking an acceptable form of words. He offered to listen to our suggestions and he will have our active co-operation in seeking to square that important circle. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater stressed the need for the Standing Committee to resolve that issue. It will enhance the House's reputation if we do so in a positive atmosphere.

In the spirit of co-operation that has characterised this part of the debate, I have given notice of the issues that we must cover in forthcoming debates in Committee. My remarks and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn reflect the spirit and content of the report to the Prime Minister by the Intelligence and Security Committee, which even the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills acknowledged as a useful report. It said:

which we welcome--

    "there are clearly some very important decisions to be taken on exactly what the Service's role will be, the structures within which it will work, its accountability and what has been termed by Chief police officers 'transparency'".

We welcome the fact that the Committee brought its report forward rapidly so that it might be, as the Committee noted,

Some hon. Members have commented--they are correct--that there was a very short gap for consideration after the publication of the report. Indeed, we do not have a Government response to it--we hardly could have in the time. I hope that the Minister will tell us that the Government's response to the Committee's report will be available to the members of the Standing Committee when they debate the detail of the Bill.

Some of the important points in the report should be highlighted. For instance, the report mentions "agreement on principles", and I hope that the Minister will inform us whether those principles are accepted by the Government. I refer specifically to the items listed on page 2 of the report. The report states that the Committee

    --primacy of responsibility for countering organised crime lies, and should remain with, the law enforcement organisations;

    --in respect of intelligence work on organised crime, the Security Service should work through NCIS and the existing co-ordinating groups . . . It should not operate independently and unseen by those bodies;

    --the Security Service should act in support of NCIS, Chief Officers of Police, Regional Crime Squads and HM Customs and Excise".

One important question is on whom accountability rests when there are local activities in a police force area. Does it lie on the NCIS or on the chief officer of police, whether a chief constable or the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis?

The set of agreed principles referred to in the Committee's report also includes an important one that was touched on by a number of hon. Members:

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I hope that the Minister will assure us that that is the case, because it is important.

The Minister also needs to confirm the Committee's understanding on page 3 of report about the way in which the relevant agencies will be co-ordinated, both at operational level and at a policy level.

The report will be an important text for the Standing Committee when it considers the details of the Bill and what should be added to the Bill. If the type of safeguards that hon. Members on both sides of the House have requested and the reservations that have been expressed, again from both sides of the House, are not to be reflected in the Bill, they at least should be clear and in the public domain. The Standing Committee will have a more than usually important task because of the narrow and unconditional nature of the provisions in this short Bill. I hope that the Committee's debate will be constructive and helpful.

There are also elements in the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs which need careful scrutiny. I welcome the fact that the Government's response to the report states:

Often in politics, Ministers and Opposition representatives are expected to have absolute and universal knowledge, and never to admit that they do not know everything about the subject with which they are dealing. We actually know far too little about the realities of crime. The published crime statistics are not always illuminating about realities. The Home Secretary's recognition in the Government's response to the Home Affairs Select Committee is welcome and gives an appropriate basis for trying to improve the standard of knowledge within the country generally, within the Government and within the House; I welcome his remarks.

The Home Affairs Select Committee, the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Government's response to the Select Committee show the wide-ranging debate which is going on at present. Today's debate has been characterised by the willingness of the Home Secretary to open up debate constructively, and to seek both consensus on and effectiveness in the Bill. It has also been characterised by the positive response of the shadow Home Secretary to the Home Secretary's statement. I hope that the Minister will tell us that that approach will be extended to law and order generally and to the Standing Committee proceedings.

I have to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hillhead. The Home Secretary is greatly to be preferred when he offers co-operation and reason than when he is in his normal wolfish guise. I am, of course, simply quoting my hon. Friend's words.

The House has a duty to protect the individual citizen and the public at large against misuse of power; after all, that goes to the root of our existence. We also have a duty to ensure that the public are protected against the serious crime which threatens the very foundations of civil society, which we exist to protect. That is a local as well as a national issue, as the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber) illustrated graphically, and most of us can think of similar examples in our constituencies.

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I promise the Minister constructive debate in Committee, with the purpose of fashioning legislation that balances the two key principles. The Home Secretary invited suggestions and he has made it clear that the Committee has a real job to do. We will take up with enthusiasm the opportunity offered to us.

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