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Mr. Straw: I do not share my hon. Friend's view about the Police Bill. I also wish to see the Firearms (Amendment) Bill on the statute book as quickly as possible. If we form a Government--as I believe and hope we shall--we could not introduce such a Bill before July, so it probably would not get on the statute book until next December at the earliest. That is not an acceptable timetable for the introduction of a measure that should have been law by now.

The statement made in one of our serious newspapers that, for the first time in history, the police will exercise these powers without having to obtain a warrant was completely untrue. Intrusive surveillance techniques using electronic equipment have been used by the police for at least 30 years without a warrant being required or there being any formal system of judicial supervision.

Since at least 1965, Appeal Courts have accepted that evidence obtained in that way is admissible in the criminal courts. Until 1977, there was no Home Office guidance to police forces on how they should use these powers. In 1977, the Home Office, under my right hon. and learned Friend Lord Rees as Home Secretary, issued a page and a half of guidance in general terms. However, that guidance was not published until 1982. In 1984, more detailed guidance was issued and published, which made it the personal responsibility of chief officers to authorise the use of those techniques. Despite the fact that the guidance was made public, there were few calls at that stage for the system to be put on a statutory footing. No arrangements for systematic judicial supervision or for central record keeping were put in place.

Mrs. Clwyd: My hon. Friend will recall that I asked the Home Secretary how many applications had been received from the police to access the United Kingdom Cellnet system. He said that that information was not held centrally. In fact, he boasted that it was a good thing that it was not held centrally. The Interception of Communications Act 1985 provides that interception can be carried out only under a warrant issued by the Secretary of State. In that case, either the Secretary of State is breaking the law, or the police are.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, and for raising it with me previously outside the House. I thought that the Secretary of State's answer was one of the least convincing of all those that he gave in reply to interventions--and there was much

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competition for that prize. It is nonsense for the Secretary of State to suggest that, because some decisions are rightly made by independent chief officers, there should not be proper and comprehensive record keeping. Records are kept on plenty of other police operations, so they should be kept in that case.

The interception of telephone calls from mobile telephones is covered by the Interception of Communications Act 1985 under the proper statutory system, so there should be information about that. From reading the written answer that my hon. Friend was given, it does not appear that the collection of subscriber data--when the calls were made and from where--is subject to the 1985 Act. The collection of such data by the police may be necessary for the detection of serious crime, but it should be regulated either by the 1985 Act, by this Bill or by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. It must be subject to statutory supervision under one of those provisions, and we shall certainly raise this matter in Committee.

Despite the fact that no central records have been kept, or any systematic arrangement for judicial supervision made, chief police officers have not been unaccountable for their actions in authorising intrusive surveillance. On a number of occasions, they have been called by the defence to give evidence in court to justify their decision to authorise such surveillance. Although a non-statutory system was and is inherently unsatisfactory, it must also be said that, in practice, there have been remarkably few complaints about the way in which chief officers have met their responsibilities.

This time last year, the role of the Security Service was extended, with our backing, so that it could support the police in the detection of serious crime. The same Bill required that the use of intrusive surveillance techniques by the Security Service in that area should require, by statute, the Home Secretary's authorisation. That put into sharp relief the need for the use of those powers by the police to be placed on a similar statutory footing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth and I--and, it has to be said, the Government Front-Bench team--made clear when we discussed that Bill.

The Police Bill, as originally published, provided that the use of any intrusive surveillance techniques by the police had to be authorised by the relevant chief officer according to strict criteria laid down in the Bill. There was then to be a system of judicial supervision of the use of such powers by a commissioner, who would be a senior High Court judge appointed for that purpose. That system parallelled that used for phone tapping, for which the commissioner is Lord Nolan, who is better known for his work on improving--or trying to improve--standards of conduct in public life.

I said when the Bill was published, and I say again, that, on any basis, the system in the original Bill was a significant advance on the non-statutory arrangements that have applied for the past 30 years. However, we were concerned from the start that the Bill provided insufficient protection for the work of lawyers, doctors and journalists. As the debate has progressed, I have also accepted that the basic arrangements in the Bill for judicial supervision should be significantly strengthened.

In the other place, the Government accepted our proposals that the number of commissioners should be increased from one to at least three, and that for all

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authorisations the time scale for informing a commissioner of an intrusion had to be shortened, so that, in many non-urgent cases, the commissioner could quash an authorisation before the operation had taken place.

Mr. Forman: I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's argument and his explanation of the way in which his party's policy has evolved. What is his understanding of the words in clause 91(2):


Can the hon. Gentleman give the House a good example, from his own knowledge or from his thought processes, of where it would not be reasonably practicable to apply to the commissioner?

Mr. Straw: The purpose of the phrase "not reasonably practicable" was to allow the police, when there was great urgency about placing some intrusive device, to carry out the operation on the chief officer's authorisation, and retrospectively to obtain the consent of the commissioner. If, for example, a kidnapping has taken place, the police may not have time to plan an operation, as they would for a drug dealer. With a kidnapping, they have to act quickly: they may be following a vehicle that is going to the place where the kidnap victim is to be held, but they would not know where that place was until moments before the kidnap victim and the kidnappers arrived. It would be absurd to expect the police to seek approval from a commissioner, and even more absurd to expect them to go to a circuit judge.

I have discussed this matter extensively with chief officers, as I hope the House would have expected me to do. I do not believe that they want to abuse that provision, because if they did, their authorisations would be quashed by a commissioner. Moreover, at the end of the year, the commissioner, in his report to the Prime Minister, which could be published, could name a chief officer who had transgressed the terms of the Bill. It would still be possible, as it has been for the past 30 years, for the chief officer to be taken to court to explain why he gave his authorisation.

A code of practice will be laid down under the provisions of the Bill, which will require the approval of both Houses of Parliament by affirmative resolution following consultation. It is my hope and intention that that code of practice should more specifically lay down the circumstances in which the urgency provisions should apply.

Mr. Mackinlay: Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be more appropriate if we at least had the draft code of practice before us on Second Reading? The contents of the code go to the heart of this part of the Bill. We could make a much more intelligent contribution to the debate, and decide how to vote later this evening, if we knew the contents and intentions of the code of practice.

Mr. Straw: It is a fact that the code of practice has already been published in draft, and was available for discussion in the other place.

Mr. Mackinlay: I was able to extract a copy by fax from the Home Secretary's office at lunchtime, but copies

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have not been available in the Vote Office: as far as I am aware, they are not available now, although I have asked for them repeatedly. I do not know whether I can use your good offices, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to have that checked, but copies of the code are not available. I defy my hon. Friend to obtain a copy in the next few minutes.

Mr. Straw: I know that the code is available, because I happen to have a copy. If it is not available in the Vote Office, it ought to be. I entirely accept that it should be available to the House, but that is the responsibility of the Home Secretary and his colleagues, not my responsibility. It is a matter of fact that the code of practice is available--I have read it--but I do not believe that it should go into law in its present form. There should be the widest possible consultation on its terms, as indeed there will be.


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