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Mr. Beith: I am grateful for what the Home Secretary has just said about the Data Protection Act. Does he not recognise that, as a result of the Bill, any person applying for any job anywhere in the land, even a job that does not involve sensitive work with young children or security, may be required to produce a criminal conviction certificate, and that any employer, particularly a trustee or a director responsible to shareholders, will feel increasingly obliged to ask for such a certificate? Does he not recognise what a massive change that is to the labour market?

Mr. Howard: I doubt that the draconian consequences that the right hon. Gentleman has identified will flow from the Bill. We must, however, recognise the legitimate concerns that have been expressed about the need to protect those who need protecting. That is at the heart of these provisions.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) rose--

Mr. Howard: I would like to make progress, if I may.

The Bill will significantly strengthen the fight against serious and organised crime. The creation of the NCIS Service Authority and a National Crime Squad will ensure that intelligence is properly harnessed and that operations are carefully targeted to inflict the maximum damage on organised crime. Putting the authorisation of intrusive surveillance onto a statutory footing will ensure that the police and customs will have the tools that they need to prevent and investigate serious, organised crime, and there will be new, additional safeguards against any possible abuse. The provisions for wider access to criminal records will improve the protection of vulnerable members of our community and reduce the opportunities for those determined to abuse positions of trust to commit crime.

This is an important Bill. It will make life very much harder for major criminals. That is what the public want to see. That is what the whole House wants to see. That is, I believe, what the Bill achieves. I commend it to the House.

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5 pm

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn): Over the past decade and a half, recorded crime in this country has more than doubled. As the British crime survey and a number of local crime surveys have shown, the level of crime today is such that, over a three-year period, nearly three quarters of the population will have had a personal experience of crime, either directly as a victim or indirectly through having to share the distress and anxiety of crime committed against the family or a close friend. What turns the screw even more is the fact that the poorer people are, the more likely they are to be a victim of crime.

Much of the crime that affects people in their day-to-day lives appears to be disorganised: a crowd of youths whose behaviour changes from the exuberant to the threatening; the opportunist theft of a car stereo; or the quick break-in of a dwelling when the chance presents itself. But behind much apparently disorganised crime lies something altogether more sinister--organised crime.

Organised crime used to be involved mainly in armed robberies and protection rackets. Now its scope has extended far wider. Every gram of heroin that is sold on a street corner, every Ecstasy tablet that is passed on in a club, has behind its lethal trade some of the most ruthless individuals and gangs ever seen. On top of that danger, there is the continuing threat from terrorism. Staff turning up for work in Canary Wharf, or shoppers hoping to enjoy a Saturday morning shopping in Manchester, have a right to expect that they can go about their business without their lives being wrecked by the mindless, callous acts of the Provisional IRA.

I wish for the world of "Dixon of Dock Green"--but if that world ever existed, it has been and gone for sure. The most important civil liberty that it is our duty to protect is the freedom for citizens to live without fear. If we are to create safer, more orderly communities, we have to tackle crime and disorder as it occurs on the street, and take action to deal with its underlying causes. However, we also have to tackle serious crime more effectively and ensure that, within a clear framework of the law, the police and the other law enforcement agencies are given the tools to do the job that we ask them to undertake on our behalf.

In July 1995, the Home Affairs Select Committee produced an important report on organised crime. It was a unanimous report. It made many recommendations, one of which was that NCIS and the crime squads should be put on a proper statutory footing, and so, too, should the use of intrusive surveillance techniques by the police. The report was widely welcomed. It was also welcomed by Labour Front Benchers.

This time last year, during the proceedings on the Security Service Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) and I referred to the need to bring the report's recommendations to fruition. Parts I, II and III of the Bill seek to do that. Parts I and II provide a proper statutory framework, for the first time, for NCIS and a new National Crime Squad.

Seventeen years ago, in a private Member's Bill that I introduced to improve police accountability, I proposed that there should be a new national police agency to take over the national police functions of the Metropolitan police and other agencies and organisations. Our tradition of locally based policing, with independent chief police officers, is key to the success of the British police and the

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fact that they are far more sensitive to local communities than many of their counterparts in other countries. However, we undermine rather than strengthen that tradition if we pretend that all policing can be undertaken within the boundaries of a local force. Serious crime and terrorism are national and international. The overall organisation of the police must reflect that.

I deal with those two parts of the Bill briefly because of time. Their provisions will need to be examined with great care in Standing Committee. Given the starting point, however, it was probably inevitable that two separate organisations had to be created. The fact that, in practice, their role will overlap is reflected in the requirement in the Bill for the supervising authorities to have common members. I believe that we have to keep an open mind on whether at some stage, and in the light of experience, a single national body would be the more effective arrangement.

I now deal with part III, on intrusive surveillance, which has aroused great interest outside and inside the House. The use by the police and other agencies of covert, secretive methods to obtain information is rightly one of the most sensitive parts of the criminal justice system. We know from the experience of other countries, including the United States during the McCarthyite period, that there is always the potential for such powers to be abused. Effective controls and checks must therefore be in place to ensure that that does not happen, to ensure that powers that should be used to detect and deter serious crime and terrorism are not more widely used to undermine the freedoms that citizens in a democracy should enjoy.

In securing a proper balance, and in judging what is proposed in the Bill, it is important that we begin from what is and what has been, not from what might have been but was not. When debate about the intrusive surveillance powers of the Bill first began in public, last November, much of the comment was so profoundly misinformed as to be downright ignorant. One newspaper commentator claimed that the Bill changed our constitution because


That statement, picked up by many others, was completely untrue.

Mr. Budgen: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, in view of the widespread misunderstanding, it would be very much better--to restore public confidence--if these issues, particularly that of prior authorisation, were debated on the Floor of the House rather than tucked away in semi-privacy upstairs?

Mr. Straw: I do not regard a Standing Committee as operating in semi-privacy--it is open to the press just as much as debates on the Floor of the House. Nor do I wish to subscribe to the hon. Gentleman's proposition that every Bill of importance has to be debated on the Floor of the House. [Interruption.] It is not, in my judgment, the same constitutional matter, for example, as the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, which palpably had to be debated on the Floor of the House because it had enormous constitutional significance. The hon. Gentleman and I may disagree on whether the Police Bill is a constitutional measure. I have made it clear, and will do so again, that I regard this measure as one that improves safeguards in the exercise of these powers rather than introducing these powers in this country in the first place.

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I ask my hon. Friends and the hon. Gentleman to bear it in mind that, on all the best estimates, this Session of Parliament cannot last for much more than five weeks. There are other very important measures to which we attach great importance, particularly the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, and I would not wish extensive discussion on the Police Bill on the Floor of the House to lead to a situation where the Firearms (Amendment) Bill could not be enacted.

Mr. Cohen: Why can my hon. Friend not introduce a firearms Bill, as the first Bill of a Labour Government? Then at least we would not have a Bill that is as bad as the Police Bill.


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