Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Allason: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, before the Security Services Act 1989 and, indeed,

12 Feb 1997 : Column 385

since then, any electronic surveillance conducted by the police was not illegal, as he suggested, and that, provided that it was authorised by a chief police officer, it was entirely legal? Secondly, does he accept that any private enterprise bugging--as he describes it--is completely illegal as it is a breach of the wireless and telegraphy legislation? Finally, does he accept that there is a huge difference between the kind of electronic surveillance undertaken by the Security Service, where those involved are intelligence officers, and that used by the police, whose officers are part of a uniformed and disciplined organisation with a direct structure of accountability and discipline?

Mr. Beith: I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman is trying to argue with his last point, but he is wrong if he assumes that all surveillance and eavesdropping activities--or even interception activities--are legal. The law is far from complete on this point. The Home Secretary conceded that, in the controversial case of Alison Halford--the former assistant chief constable of Merseyside--the chief constable intercepted communications on a telephone in the assistant chief constable's office, but was not acting illegally and did not require authorisation when he did so.

Mr. Budgen: Does the right hon. Gentleman concede that the bugging done in the past by the police was not illegal? The police have, very honourably, come to the Government and said that they think that what they are doing could be subject to criticism in the future, and that they would like a proper statutory framework for those activities. Is it not most unfortunate that the Government are not giving the police the opportunity to have this matter fully debated on the Floor of the House? There have been doubts about the police's behaviour in the past--in the west midlands, for instance, where the serious crime squad had to be disbanded. Would it not be better to have a more public debate on the details, which have so engaged the interest of the House, on the Floor? Is it not inevitably unfair to everybody concerned to have the debate tucked away in Committee?

Mr. Beith: The hon. Gentleman believes in the merit of repetition, as I have already answered his last question in the affirmative. However, it must be said that the police were in danger of facing criminal charges, and certainly actions for civil trespass, for some of the actions that they might have had to take in carrying out those duties. It is true that they have been among those seeking a proper statutory basis, and it is right that the Home Secretary has responded to that--although it would have been better to do so when we were dealing with the Security Service legislation.

Another major issue in the Bill that has not received sufficient public attention because of the concentration on the bugging issue is the criminal conviction certificates. We accept the case for special certificates which will be required for special categories of work--especially work with vulnerable people such as children, where the enhanced criminal record certificate will apply. There will have to be safeguards, as situations could arise in which someone who is wrongly listed is blackballed from work because of an error. We have all seen constituency cases of mistakes made by the Child Support Agency, and if that were to be transported to this sector, it would have catastrophic consequences.

12 Feb 1997 : Column 386

We are concerned about the Government's attitude to the Lords amendment relating to charities. It will not do to take the power to remit the costs and do nothing about it, as that would raise entirely false expectations. The Government are imposing a large burden on charities, voluntary organisations and those who work for them. A former Speaker of this House took up that cause in another place, with widespread support, and the Government must give a better response.

We have a particular concern about the general criminal conviction certificates which, potentially, will be required for any job anywhere at any time. It is a fundamental change to the position of our citizens if they are to find in future that they will not be able to pursue an application for any job of any description unless they obtain such a certificate. They may have no reason to worry about it, but may still have to pay for the certificate and may not wish to do so. Others may have had criminal convictions in the past which they have put behind them and which are entirely irrelevant to their attempt to obtain employment now.

It is clear that those in a fiduciary position as trustees of charities or directors of companies will increasingly feel that they had better ask for those certificates in case someone should one day take money out of the till and for it to emerge that the company did not ask for certificates, which would have shown previous convictions. The measure will spread and become more general. It will create particular problems in some areas--for example, where an informer has been relocated, perhaps from Northern Ireland, with a new identity. If he goes to seek another job, he must produce a criminal conviction certificate. How will he do that without disclosing precisely the information that he must conceal if he is to be protected? He will have been given that protection because of the service he rendered, enabling the police to track down, arrest and convict other terrorists or dangerous.

My noble Friend Lord Rodgers made a significant point in another place, when he asked why, if everyone else in the country will be required to produce a criminal conviction certificate, Members of Parliament should not have to do so. Why are we prepared to lay on other people a responsibility that we do not accept ourselves? Why should we not have to lodge with the returning officer when we put in our nomination a criminal conviction certificate that is open to inspection by any member of the public? It seems perfectly reasonable that we should do what we expect everyone else to do. If we are prepared to place that responsibility on everyone else in society, we cannot shy away from it ourselves.

My fear, and that of many organisations working for the rehabilitation of offenders, is that we will set back that rehabilitation, especially for those who commit one or two offences at a young age and then go straight. A third of men under 30 have a criminal conviction--I still find that figure astonishing and hard to believe, but it is constantly produced by the most reputable bodies--and they would have that recorded on the certificate. That is a matter for deep concern.

The composition of the authorities that will be responsible for the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad is too heavily weighted towards the Home Office, which will appoint the chairmen of those bodies.

12 Feb 1997 : Column 387

There is also concern about the disciplinary arrangements for police officers seconded to NCIS and the regional crime squads. It is unsatisfactory that, at present, the management of NCIS has no disciplinary responsibility; nobody works for the head of NCIS, as the officers are all seconded and subject to somebody else's discipline. They are disciplined only in their home forces.

The Bill provides for a double discipline procedure: while seconded, the officer will be subject to a separate discipline code that will apply also to non-police officers working for NCIS. When the officer goes back to the home force, he or she will be back in the normal police disciplinary code. The Police Federation understandably has concerns about that; those concerns will have to be addressed. Such matters could be considered upstairs in Committee, but I agree that part III, the bugging part, would be better dealt with on the Floor of the House.

We shall vote for our reasoned amendment tonight. Someone had to take a firm stand. The Labour leadership certainly did not do so until goaded by our amendment and by others. If people do not take firm stands about essential civil liberties, those liberties will be eroded.

6.31 pm

Sir Peter Lloyd (Fareham): I am not persuaded to support the amendment, but the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has once again put very cogently some important points that will have to be considered with the greatest care as the Bill proceeds towards enactment.

I agreed with a great deal of what the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said. As he in turn agreed with a great deal of what the Home Secretary said, I am glad to find myself agreeing in considerable measure with my right hon. and learned Friend.

The developments proposed in the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the formation of the police information technology organisation and the National Crime Squad are welcome. I am sure that they will increase the effectiveness of the police in dealing with crime, and especially major organised crime, which requires a national and international response.

There is great scope for improving police strategy and tactics for the solving and preventing of crime. There has been a welcome fall in reported crime, in which the Home Secretary rightly takes pride. The success of Operation Bumblebee is well known, and I am sure that the fall in reported crime owes more to the thorough use of police resources in terms of intelligence and information, the cumulative effect of programmes such as the "Safe City" programme, and the judicious use of closed circuit television, than it does to longer prison sentences--but that is probably another debate.

Intelligence is crucial. That is why the police information technology organisation is vital for collecting, matching and processing relevant data and enabling them to be retrieved efficiently when needed. Serious criminals are using every scientific device and refinement of technology. If the police are to keep ahead, they must do so too. They must be able to collect hard-to-get information if they are to track down the drug barons and godfathers and the other criminals who are skilled in not leaving their fingerprints behind.

Bugging and electronic eavesdropping are, alas, essential. Their use by both police and criminals is bound to increase and to become ever more sophisticated and

12 Feb 1997 : Column 388

more frequent, so we must take extra care that, in our efforts to catch criminals, the traditional liberties and rights of the public are protected--especially their privacy at home and in their place of work.

The police have always had a policy of respecting those traditional liberties and rights, but we nevertheless require them to apply to a judge or a magistrate for a warrant before entering or searching private property, and to get permission from the Home Secretary before tapping a telephone.

It would clearly have been wrong, when putting bugging on a proper statutory footing, for prior authorisation not to be required as it is for the other two procedures. A bug under the dining room table is as intrusive as the telephone being tapped, if not more so. I am glad that the Home Secretary has been persuaded of that. When I first heard that he intended to table a new amendment, I was told that he wanted to require prior authorisation for the bugging of doctors, lawyers and journalists only. That would have been unacceptable. I do not see why the editors of The Sun should have greater protection than their readers or the people about whom they write.

If I understand the Home Secretary correctly, he will require pre-authorisation before anyone can be bugged at home or at work. The Liberal party, in particular, has asked about other places, and I am sure that we should consider such matters in Committee or, if time permits, on the Floor of the House. If I have understood my right hon. and learned Friend correctly, he is to be congratulated. Nobody believes that the police want to misuse their power to bug, but it is best, when they need to intrude clandestinely--immersed as they are in fighting crime--that they are not the judges in their own case. Pre-authorisation is a useful discipline on the police and a necessary safeguard for the individual citizen.

Next Section

IndexHome Page