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Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East): Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem affects not merely voluntary organisations? There are 100,000 registered child minders in this country, many of whom do not earn much more than £2 an hour. A child minder with a partner and several teenage children might have to pay as much as £50 for certification. Would that threaten the registration process and encourage some people not to register as child minders? The National Childminding Association has raised that issue.

Mr. Straw: I accept the concern that my hon. Friend has expressed, and I hope that the matter can be discussed in more detail in Committee.

I want volunteers and voluntary organisations to be helped as much as possible. I am glad that the Secretary of State has accepted the proposition that there should be a power to exempt categories of volunteers from the charges. I accept that it may be necessary to have a power to exempt other categories, such as the long-term unemployed. The figures and mechanisms for that deserve further scrutiny. We shall scrutinise that in Committee. In government, we would seek to minimise the burden on voluntary organisations as public finances allowed, although I do not think that we could end it altogether.

The Bill proposes the creation of a new agency. The experience of setting up new agencies is not happy. The Crown Prosecution Service and the Child Support

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Agency are the best and worst examples, but by no means the only ones. Agencies set up from scratch and all at once have a habit of early systemic failure that can last for years. A high error rate has had severe consequences for the CSA. If the new criminal records agency made similar mistakes, it would be catastrophic for public confidence and would undermine the purpose for which it is to be established.

I therefore believe that the agency must be created at a measured pace. There is a strong case for phasing in the arrangements, starting with the certificate regime that is most needed to protect the public--that contained in clauses 104 and 105 for criminal records certificates and enhanced certificates. Once that system had bedded down, the regime in clause 103 could be introduced. That phasing would also allow more time for consultation with employers, trade unions and voluntary organisations about appropriate safeguards for the issue of certificates.

The first three parts of the Bill contain measures that we have sought to put NCIS, the crime squads and intrusive surveillance on a proper statutory basis. We also support the establishment of the criminal records agency, but with the important safeguards and reservations that I have expressed. We shall ensure that the detail of the Bill is properly examined in Committee and on Report. Meanwhile, we shall ensure that the Bill receives its Second Reading.

5.58 pm

Sir Nicholas Scott (Chelsea): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a modest contribution to the debate. I shall be brief because I know that many others want to speak. I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to those present in the Chamber, as I shall not be present for the whole debate because of unavoidable commitments outside the House later this evening.

The thrust of the Bill is to protect the public from the activities of criminals. We know from reading newspapers, watching television and listening to the radio how an increasing threat of crime affects the lives of more and more of our citizens. At the same time, there is no doubt that we have to be conscious of the return of a terrorist threat to this country. We must respond to those twin threats in considering the Police Bill. Therefore, I strongly commend my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for bringing it forward. I realise that it had a fairly rough ride in another place. I congratulate my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Blatch on the way in which she handled the Bill and carried it forward in another place and on her letter of 19 November that set out very clearly the progress that had been made in doing so.

I certainly welcome the Bill. I welcome the new role of the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the introduction of a National Crime Squad, which will pull together the regional crime squads that have operated so effectively. I share the view that I know is held by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, and I suspect many others on both sides of the House, that we do not want to create a Federal Bureau of Investigation or a national police force. Local policing is one of our great prizes in law and order, and we should hang on to it as much as possible. As we face the threats and increased mobility of criminals and terrorists, however, national co-ordination will be essential. The Bill addresses that,

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and I shall return to it in a moment. Before doing so, I want to say a word or two about part V, to which the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) referred towards the end of his speech.

I certainly welcome the proposal for a criminal records agency. I am sure that, in time, it will be widely accepted. However, many voluntary organisations still have some concern about the impact of the cost of differing certificates on the volunteers or trainers and the organisations that use their services. It is obviously immensely important that organisations ensure that, where financial matters are particularly sensitive or where people are responsible for children, young people, vulnerable, elderly, disabled or confused people, those who are employed in a paid or voluntary capacity are properly checked out and those organisations are able to establish their credentials before they take on the employment. Such a system is needed and can be of immense value.

We are told that the charges will be of the order of £5 to £6, or perhaps £8 to £10 for more sophisticated certificates. At first, I was hostile altogether to charging for such services. I have recently received a representation from the Central Council of Physical Recreation, which made a good argument against charges and said that it regarded them as a tax on volunteering and training. I am not sure whether I agree with that. I certainly understand that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary would be loth to ask his Treasury colleagues for £200 million to remove any impact of charging on volunteers or the organisations concerned. However, I hope that he will be able to monitor the effects of charges on volunteering and the employment of people in such organisations. I want charging to be regarded not as a tax on volunteering but as a proper opportunity for people to be able to establish their credentials for a modest charge.

I return to the larger issue that is central to the Bill: intrusive surveillance. At first sight, it is not an attractive concept but, sadly, I regard it, as I suspect do most in the House, as extremely necessary. I first became conscious of the issue when I was the parliamentary private secretary to the former Home Secretary, my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Carr. I remember the assiduity with which he dealt with representations from the intelligence services in passing the necessary warrants for surveillance of one sort or another. I also became conscious during my four years as Minister with responsibility for security in the Northern Ireland Office of how important surveillance was and how, frequently, it was important that such surveillance could be instituted immediately and some big, cumbersome procedure did not have to be undergone to bring about the necessary results.

Our task is to make it possible for the security forces--the police and other law enforcement agencies--to take speedy action to frustrate or apprehend those who are involved in crime or terrorism. I know of the immense responsibility resting on those who have duties in that sensitive area. The Bill meets the need for balance. The phrase "an Englishman's home is his castle", which has been used in this debate, remains an important part of our approach to society, but, sadly and all too frequently, there may be no other way in which information necessary to frustrate the aims of criminals and terrorists can be obtained but by surveillance.

The Bill's provisions and the establishment of the new roles for the two agencies will be of real and practical benefit to the police and other law enforcement agencies.

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At the end of the day, we are seeking to underpin the efforts of the law enforcement agencies on behalf of our citizens. It is right that we should do so, although we must of course put such provisions on a proper statutory basis, which is what we are about in the Bill. We may be able to learn rather more when the elusive code comes before us and perhaps has to be amended, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has mentioned.

Intelligence is clearly vital as we face rising serious crime levels and the return of a terrorist threat. Increasingly, there is interaction between the two. Kidnapping, drugs, fraud, counterfeiting, vehicle and other serious crime often overlap with terrorist activity. If we are to frustrate the aims of such criminal activity, we shall have to get our act together. The Bill is an important step forward in that regard.

I welcome the change in the role of the NCIS. It was interesting to look at some statistics on the apprehension of sophisticated criminals over the past year. It looks as though about 26 arrests of serious criminals have taken place week by week in that time. We must congratulate the law enforcement agencies on that, but recognise that we need to improve in future. The bodies in the Bill will do much to counter increasing criminal and terrorist activity. Although local policing is, as I have said, absolutely vital and part of our heritage, we need a national strategy for such policing, and the Bill provides that foundation.

Obviously, accountability will be important. The chief constables and the commissioners who will consider applications for surveillance must be prepared to operate under codes of practice to ensure that their actions are commensurate with the real threat that is posed to our society. Those codes of practice should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. The Bill is necessary, and I commend my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary for its introduction.


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