Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East): If surveillance is carried out under the urgency provisions and it is then reported to the commissioner, who takes the view that it was unreasonable and should not have taken place, will the evidence obtained be inadmissible in a court of law?

Mr. Howard: That will be a matter for the courts to decide. The commissioner will have the power to stop the operations there and then, to quash the authorisation and even to order compensation. Those are considerable safeguards. I am surprised that the hon. and learned Gentleman is not prepared to entrust the decision on admissibility to the discretion of the court.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): My right hon. and learned Friend knows that I approach the problem from a wholly different perspective, because I agree with him that there should be a regulatory framework but that the police definitely need the powers. Will he assure us that, under the provisions that he intends to introduce by amendment in Committee, what will matter is what the chief constable knew when he took the decision to authorise intrusive surveillance as an emergency, without the agreement of the commissioner, not second-guessing on information that may subsequently have been discovered suggesting that he ought not to have given the approval? Surely it is what he knew at the time of the decision to give approval that matters.

Mr. Howard: That is certainly the starting point, but I cannot give my hon. Friend the categorical assurance that he seeks. For example, the Bill rightly contains provisions that enable someone to complain about the authorisation, and part of the complaint may be that the chief constable could and should have made other inquiries at the time of the authorisation that would or should have led him not to make it. That would be a relevant matter to be taken into account. However, the information available to the chief constable at the time that he makes the authorisation will be the starting point for the scrutiny that the commissioner will exercise.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): Inevitably, such operations result in the gathering of a lot of material that is subsequently found to be irrelevant and which may affect other people who are not involved in the criminal

12 Feb 1997 : Column 354

investigation. What will happen to that material? What assurance can the Home Secretary give that it will be destroyed, and how will it be stored in the meantime?

Mr. Howard: The commissioner has the power to call for all the information and material, and has specific power to instruct that that material should be destroyed. If it is not withdrawn into the hands of the commissioner, it will be a matter for the police, who will decide whether to retain the material on the basis of whether they think that it will be useful to them in pursuit of the inquiries on which they are engaged. That is a perfectly reasonable and sensible way to deal with the matter.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): Will the Home Secretary expand on that point? As I read the Bill, the only reference in clause 97 to the destruction of records is when the commissioner has decided that the person who gave an authorisation was not acting properly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) pointed out, there may well be cases in which the authorisation was proper and a great deal of information has been collected about people who are not the subject of the authorisation. That situation does not appear to be covered by the clause.

Mr. Howard: I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making.

Mr. Gerrard rose--

Mr. Howard: If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that if, in pursuance of a properly authorised operation, the chief constable came across other information relevant to the investigation of a serious crime, he should destroy it, I utterly refute that suggestion. These are matters that can be left to the discretion of the chief constable, as they normally are.

Mr. Gerrard: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Home Secretary is clearly refusing to give way to me, having distorted what I said. I made it clear that I was talking about information relevant to people who were not concerned with the investigation under way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse): That is not a point of order for the Chair. It is up to the Secretary of State whether he wants to give way.

Mr. Howard: That was not a point of order and it was a point that I comprehensively answered. I will repeat my reply for the benefit of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). If in the course of investigating a serious crime, the police come upon other information relevant to another serious crime, I--and most citizens of this country--would expect them to use it in the course of that other investigation.

Mr. Budgen: Does my right hon. and learned Friend concede that it is obvious that the House is deeply concerned about the details of prior authorisation? This is the first time the House has been able to express its views on the details. Since the measure must carry the confidence of the whole country, on reflection would it

12 Feb 1997 : Column 355

not be better to have a debate on the Floor of the House rather than to have the suspicion that it is being bashed through in a rather authoritarian way?

Mr. Howard: I do not make the concession for which my hon. Friend asks, and I ask him to reflect on the fact that if, on every Second Reading of a Bill at which concerns were expressed about the details, the matter were remitted to a Committee of the whole House, our proceedings would be considerably more cumbersome and protracted than they are.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South): I hope that I can ask this question in the well phrased and courteous way that is characteristic of the Home Secretary. It appears that the House is being asked to approve new methods of police surveillance hitherto not found acceptable and that he is asking us to pass a Bill that will make those methods acceptable in respect of a known crime. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) inquired what would happen with information obtained during one investigation, which was interesting but had no relevance to it.

How would that information then be used? Would it be in police records? Would it be used as a Member of Parliament democratically investigating one matter and finding information relevant to something else would use such information? Surely that is the nub of the question which concerns the House. In that respect, authorisation is vital. Otherwise the information would not be available.

Mr. Howard: I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's premise. There is no basis for the suggestion that the use of such powers has been found unacceptable over the years--they have led to remarkably few complaints and criticisms. I accept that it is desirable that those powers should be put on a statutory basis with additional safeguards, and that is what we have done. [Interruption.] Opposition Members suggest from sedentary positions that nobody knew about that, but the guidance published by the Home Office in 1984 was public. I am not sure that the guidance published by the Labour Government in 1977 was public: the Opposition claim to believe in open Government, but I understand that the 1977 guidance was headed "confidential". The guidance published in 1984, however, was a public document available to all. Therefore, there has been no secret or mystery about the availability of the powers.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): I have been bugged on at least two occasions, but I am unsure what variety of organisation was bugging me. I have two points. First, there has been a misunderstanding about the intervention of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). I thought that he was asking what would happen with information that was incidentally gathered and which was not relevant to any other investigation. Would it be destroyed? Secondly, I wish to reinforce the points already made about the desirability of having a good debate on this issue in the House.

Mr. Howard: I am sure that we shall have a good debate on the Floor today, on Report and on Third Reading. On the destruction of material that is not relevant to any line of investigation, on the face of it I see no reason why that should be treated differently from any

12 Feb 1997 : Column 356

other material that comes into the possession of the police when they are engaged in an investigation. However, it is clearly a matter on which different views may be held and which can be considered in detail at the appropriate stage, both in Committee and on Report.

I am aware of the concerns that have been expressed about the possibility that the police might conduct surveillance of confessionals. The police have told me that this has never been necessary in the past and are happy to give an undertaking not to mount surveillance operations in circumstances covered by the seal of confession. We will finalise the details shortly, and will insert a specific reference to that undertaking in the code of practice.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) rose--

Mr. Beith rose--

Next Section

IndexHome Page