Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton): When the police gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee in our inquiry into organised crime, it was--

Madam Speaker: Order. I cannot hear the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Sir Ivan Lawrence: I apologise, Madam Speaker. Perhaps my right hon. Friend would allow me to draw to his attention the fact--[Hon. Members: "Now you have stepped over the line."] I am sorry, Madam Speaker, that I have put a foot wrong. It is the first time that I have put a foot wrong in 23 years.

The police suggested to the Select Committee that their bugging powers should be put on a proper statutory basis; the suggestion came from them.

Sir Peter Lloyd: Yes, I am quite sure that it did, although I am not so sure that they pressed hard for pre-authorisation. However, I am certain that thoughtful police officers will agree that there is much benefit in it for themselves: it is a protection for them as well as for the public.

As I was saying to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, I am sure that, as the Bill proceeds, we shall need to consider carefully how the new arrangements will work, and how to make sure that the safeguards are as strong and as comprehensive as they should be.

12 Feb 1997 : Column 389

I am concerned that charities, especially those that serve vulnerable people such as children and the elderly, will be heavily penalised if the amendment made in the House of Lords is overturned as the Home Secretary suggested. At present, such organisations can have the necessary checks carried out at no cost, but if that amendment is deleted they will have to find a large sum out of limited budgets, or charge their volunteers. It would be possible for a number of volunteers to pay. Many may do so, but a lot will be deterred, and quite a number--particularly the unemployed and other people on limited incomes, whom one wants to encourage--will find it difficult, if not impossible.

I hope that that matter will be reconsidered, despite what my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary said. I do not like putting extra costs on the Treasury. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I am on the Conservative side of the House. A surcharge on certificates provided at the request of businesses or public sector organisations could bridge the gap, perhaps. I am sorry that my right hon. and learned Friend appeared to reject any change here and now. Simply to excise the Lord's amendment is not the right answer.

On crime checks generally, I would register but not develop the concern that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) so cogently expressed. I hope that we are not developing into a society in which we all as a matter of course have to have a crime check clearance from the police before we can get a job or some other service, or exercise some other right. It is not an attractive prospect, but it might be coming.

As the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said, perhaps we can turn this Bill into an opportunity to help offenders back into work. As chairman of the only charity I know that runs a job-finding service for ex-prisoners, I wholeheartedly support that hope. A job is the best way to ensure that an ex-prisoner does not become a prisoner again--the best way for him and the best way to protect society. I hope that we can make progress on that suggestion before we return to the Bill on the Floor of the House. It is important that it is looked into. This may be an opportunity to turn what looks like a negative for ex-offenders into a positive.

6.41 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): I am opposed to the Bill. I shall vote for the Liberal Democrat amendment and, if there is a Division on Second Reading, I shall go into the No Lobby. I shall tell the House very simply why.

Recently, 51 Members of Parliament signed an early-day motion that I put down, which stated:

It could not have been put more moderately, and there was support from hon. Members from parties other than my own. I am glad that the Liberal Democrat amendment has been tabled. At least that is a guarantee that we shall have a vote.

I have three objections to the Bill. First, the intelligence gathering will be indiscriminate. People must be naive if they imagine that the police will not put on that computer

12 Feb 1997 : Column 390

every bit of information that they can find as a by-product of other investigations and any information that tells them something about solicitors they do not like as they may be working with criminals in other cases--integrating health and medical records and God knows what. If anyone doubts that, they should look at the comprehensive computer system that the Labour party has developed at Millbank, which is known as Excalibur and which has everything ever said by a Conservative Minister in the past 200 years available for immediate recall.

Knowing the police, they will put everything down that they can pick up--much of it inaccurate. Much of the information could easily be inaccurate, particularly if it is kept secret. Also, under clause 2(4)(a), that intelligence service is subject to objectives set down by the Home Secretary, who can tell it what to do. In the world of information gathering anyone must be naive if they think that anything that comes as a by-product of another investigation would immediately be dismissed by the police or that they would say, "Nothing to do with us. We must destroy it at once."

The measure will result in a building up of dossiers. Hon. Members know about the gross inaccuracies in the information held by the Child Support Agency. I know of many cases. Anyone who thinks that one can build up an accurate information service in five minutes without any proper accountability has made a mistake.

My second objection is to the intrusive surveillance--bugging and burgling. The third relates to the criminal certificates, which are cleverly drafted. The Home Secretary did not answer my question. If I want a job, an employer can ask me to produce a certificate, but if an employer offers me a job, I cannot say, "I will not take it unless you give me a criminal conviction certificate." So the measure weighs for capital against Labour, to use the jargon that is now perhaps forgotten but still relevant. Supposing Robert Maxwell had offered me a job and I was unemployed--

Mr. Beith: He offered several people jobs.

Mr. Benn: He did not offer me one, thank God. Let us suppose that I said, "I'd very much like to work with you, Mr. Maxwell. Could you please persuade me that you have not had any convictions?" He would not have had to reply. If I then went back to the job centre and said that I was offered a job but would not take it because he would not prove that he was not a convicted person, would I continue to get my benefit? Of course I would not. So, the provision is grossly unfair and I will return to its other uses.

We have all heard the background to the Bill a million times. We all read the newspapers and watch television. There is terrorism, drug dealing, the Mafia, triads and all the rest. Crime is high-tech and globally organised, but clause 92(5)(a) includes among the people who can be surveyed

That has nothing to do with terrorism, drug dealing or crime.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) indicated dissent.

Mr. Benn: I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not misunderstand me. I do not know whether he followed

12 Feb 1997 : Column 391

the debate in the House of Lords. I do not usually follow those debates, but I found it much better than I had expected on this issue.

When Jim Callaghan was asked, he said that he never knew about all the intrusions, and when he was given the figures, he said, "Those were industrial disputes." That is what the Bill is about. At the heart of the Bill--all covered up to make it look as if we are going to fight terrorism--is a power that the Government can use against anyone they do not like, so long as two or three are gathered together. That has a biblical significance, which is bringing the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) to his feet.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): I do not know what Mr. Callaghan said, but he was a party to the telephone bugging of my home, and he asked for the reports from the police. He got reports from them on tapes taken from my home, so he knew what was going on.

Mr. Benn: We should not reminisce, but I am coming to my experiences, too. The fact of the matter is that companies are also

Any Home Secretary could arrange for the bugging of any company for any reason. Imagine if a left-wing Government were in power. How would the Conservative party react to powers that we took that allowed us to bug and burgle any company that we thought might be engaged in any conduct that could threaten a particular political interest of ours?

The police could bug and burgle and do all this--with advance judicial permission, if there was time. Everyone knows that, if it was a case of kidnapping, one might ring up the commissioner on the way. That is not the problem. It is the fact that it extends to the large number of people engaged in a common purpose. That is the politics at the heart of what is otherwise a police Bill.

I did not know until I heard the question that some people do not realise that confidential relations between Christian ministers and their flock are not confined to the Catholic Church. The Bill does not say that Christian ministers cannot be bugged--or barristers, journalists, solicitors and doctors. The commissioner would be asked, if there were time. Under what circumstances could it be so urgent to bug a barrister that one did not have time to ring the judge, particularly as the police have to ask the barrister for the information first to qualify for the right to intervene? The thing is absurd and all the information collected will be stored on the National Criminal Intelligence Service computer.

The argument was that that has always been done. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn said that, too. I do not need to be told that. I was bugged and burgled as a Cabinet Minister. My son, who was an electronics buff, established that that happened while I was a Cabinet Minister.

My waste sacks were collected every day in a Rover car. I know that Kensington borough council is proud of its services, but I have never heard of someone having his rubbish removed every morning. My son fitted a little bell. We called it the rubbish bell. We used to watch the rubbish go every morning. I wrote to Merlyn Rees, the Home Secretary, asking whether my phone was bugged. I did not get a reply; perhaps he did not get the letter.

12 Feb 1997 : Column 392

I wrote again and, I think, a third time and did not get a reply. Then I went to see Jim Callaghan. He said gruffly, "Why are you asking all these questions?" I said, "I would quite like to know. I am a member of the Cabinet." He said, "I can tell you it is not happening now." He did not say whether it had happened before or might happen again. I have read it all in "Spycatcher". The Government spent millions of pounds trying to stop me reading a book that confirmed what I knew to be true, and then they say that they want more openness.

If things that were done before by administrative action are to be put on a statutory basis, what about a Bill to allow Ministers to lie? That has happened in the House. I can imagine a Ministerial Statements (Amendment) Bill to allow Ministers to lie in the House on the grounds that they have always lied, or at least that some have always lied. It is not a sustainable argument.

In the old days, those who talked about being bugged were described as paranoid; nowadays, people say, "What's new?" Both attitudes are wrong. We should not be regarded as paranoid if we know it is happening, and it should not be regarded as normal because everyone does it. Civil liberties protect our society. Dissent protects our society. We never know which dissenter is going to be right. The Pope put Galileo in prison for heresy because he had the dangerous idea that the universe did not go round the earth. I visited his cell. Until recently, I used to feel worried watching Patrick Moore on television because the Pope had said that that was heresy. Fortunately, the Pope has let Galileo off, although it was a bit late to help him.

Democracy is about the growth of dissent until it can persuade a minority to become a majority. I am not alone. Sometimes when I make such points, I am alone, but feel that I must stick to my guns. However, this time I have Lord Carr, Lord Jenkins, Lord Callaghan and Lord Merlyn-Rees, who are all critics of this Bill. That is four Home Secretaries, none of whom is subject to the electoral temptations of 1 May. That is why they were able to do it. It tells us much about the Front-Bench teams that 1 May looms larger than Sir Edward Coke's famous judgment that

Those Home Secretaries opposed terrorism, but they did not what know what was going on. Lord Carr did not know, nor Merlyn Rees, nor Jim Callaghan; neither does the present Home Secretary; and nor will the future Home Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), know what the police are doing. Read Peter Wright. He said that he had bugged and burgled his way around London while the people at the top turned their backs.

Let us be realistic. The Bill has been attacked by Lord Rees-Mogg, the Financial Times, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Observer, The Sunday Times, the New York Times. The Evening Standard called it "disgraceful." It has been attacked by Alison Halford, the former deputy chief constable who was bugged by her chief constable when she brought a sex discrimination case; by Peter Carter-Ruck, the Law Society, Liberty and the former Attorney-General, Lord Rawlinson, whom I knew well.

There is also the criminal convictions certificate, which, as I said, can be required by employers but not from them. If I wanted an enhanced certificate, I would have to be

12 Feb 1997 : Column 393

fingerprinted to get one. That is in the Bill. Even if we did have to provide such a certificate to be elected to Parliament, as far as I know, my record is clear. There may be a mistake in the police computer that I cannot explain but if I wanted proof, I would have to be fingerprinted.

If that is not a police state, I should like to know what is. If we really want to deal with all the criminal problems, we should tattoo everyone with a national number and put an electronic device under their skin. Then we will know where everyone is all the time and there will not be any problems. Leaving aside the politics, there is a conflict between fighting crime and maintaining civil liberties.

We will create a new underclass of unemployable people with convictions. One third of men under 35 have convictions. A third of women in prison are there for non-payment of television licences. I have never forgotten a case that I had when I represented Bristol. A woman came to see me in a terrible state. Her husband had died, she was 55 and she had applied for a job in a supermarket. The security officer asked whether she had any convictions. She said no. He was an ex-policeman, and he rang the police, who told him that she had been picked up for something when she was 15. He confronted her with that 40-year-old offence. She had a nervous breakdown. I got a letter of apology from the chief constable in Bristol and from the Home Secretary. If we open such prospects, we will create unemployable people whose only chance of rehabilitation would have been finding other work.

This is not a left-right issue. Interestingly, it divides the Executive, both present and future, from the legislature. I appeal across the Floor to people who might not otherwise agree with my views. This is a Bill that Brezhnev operated. No doubt Milosevic finds it useful in Belgrade. Probably the Albanians will try to copy it in view of their difficulties with pyramid selling. It is not a Bill that a serious democratic Parliament should pass.

Where is the demand for the Bill? Does middle England want it? Has a middle-class focus group made up of barristers, lawyers and priests said, "We must be bugged more often to safeguard us from terrorism." Of course not. The Bill comes from those who want more power over the people of Britain. Libertarians should resist it. It is part of a pattern. I do not want to go back over all the legislation, but, over the years, we have lost many of our liberties.

I went down to Dover to support the animal rights people. There was an argument between a policeman and one demonstrator in an empty street. I went over asked the constable what was wrong. He said, "That man is standing in a part of this town I have not designated for protest." I asked whether a member for Kent constabulary could designate any part of Kent. He said, "Yes, I can." I asked what the problem was. He said that the street could not be blocked. I said that it was a huge street and that no one was there. He went to have a word with an inspector. Do not think that we are not losing our civil liberties. We are transferring the protection of our rights from Parliament to the police.

I mention Europe because, without reopening the difficult question of the single currency, everyone knows that we have a developing relationship on terrorism and

12 Feb 1997 : Column 394

crime with European Governments. They will want access and we will give it to them from everything that we have on our computers. It is happening already. If a German comes to Britain to work and the employer asks for a criminal conviction certificate, he will say, "We do not have them in Germany." What will happen then to the level playing field? The whole thing will be handed to European control.

Every society requires a huge amount of consent to survive, and an element of coercion. There are criminal classes and people who have to be coerced. The Bill reflects a deep anxiety in the British establishment about the future. When you were elected, Madam Speaker, I said that I thought that there would be social unrest in the years ahead. I was interrupted for saying it, but I believe it.

The Bill is an instrument for getting greater coercive powers over people. I hope that the House will reject it as do people of all political opinions. I would be a libertarian with those among Conservative Members if they would only drop the economic nonsense. On true libertarianism--protecting people from having their lives controlled by others--I would be with them. I hope that the House will not accept the Bill.

Next Section

IndexHome Page