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6.58 pm

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton): In a moment of unusual ecumenism, I hope that I will be forgiven for not commenting adversely on the unreality of the speech of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). He is my pair and no one could admire him more than I, or be more grateful for all that he has done for the House. Hon. Members should also be grateful for his sparing them from having to listen to more speeches from me than they might otherwise have to hear, and he should be rewarded for that. However, I hope that he will forgive me for taking a little less than seriously his condemnation of the police for surreptitiously recording and disseminating private conversations. Many of us are beginning to develop a long section in our library dedicated to his privately recorded and disseminated conversations, which are immensely amusing--long may they continue.

Mr. Benn: I dictate my diary and I record my speeches, but I am not a bugger and I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will acquit me of that, lest it go on my criminal record.

Sir Ivan Lawrence: No one could possibly accuse the right hon. Gentleman of doing anything so uncouth, because he is the epitome of charm and decency.

In another brief moment of ecumenicalism, I should like to say how much I enjoyed the comments of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) about the absurdity of the Liberal Democrats' proposals for the amendment of the Bill. I shall not add to the embarrassment of another right hon. Member for whom I have the utmost regard, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), by attacking his attempt to justify the ridiculous. He was probably embarrassed enough by having to put forward the arguments in his speech. The Liberal Democrats will learn what the rest of the House thinks of their proposals when we go through the Lobbies later tonight.

There, I am afraid, my ecumenism must end. The hon. Member for Blackburn began his speech by mentioning that recorded crime had more than doubled, which is true.

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He might have added that that has happened practically everywhere in the western world during the same period. He might also have said that recorded crime will inevitably rise in a prosperous society where nearly everyone now has a telephone and can quickly communicate with the police; where most people now possess cars, which never used to be the case; where houses are now empty for so much longer as more and more families go out to work and are therefore more available for easy pickings by burglars; and where one cannot make a claim against an insurance policy unless the matter has first been reported to the police, which is a more recent development. Finally, as a result of the response to victims and the increasing concern for them that the criminal justice system has shown in recent years, more and more women who are the subject of violence in their houses are reporting those incidents to the police. Those factors explain a fair amount of the increase in recorded crime.

In addition, the hon. Gentleman did not say, although he might have been expected to do so, that, notwithstanding all that, the Government have reduced crime by 10 per cent. over the past three years, which is the largest, fastest and longest reduction in crime since records started to be kept in the middle of the 19th century. It would have been fairer of him had he reminded his viewers and listeners of that, but perhaps it would have been too difficult for him to draw attention to the Government's success so close to a general election.

I was also interested in the exchange between my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Blackburn on the subject of the surrender of power by a possible--albeit unlikely--Labour Government. The Government have always considered impregnable the third pillar issues of justice and home affairs, which are specifically exempted from Maastricht and over which we have the complete veto--they are not even within the competence of the European Community.

The right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) was reported in the Financial Times of 29 January as saying:

Mr. Michael: Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Sir Ivan Lawrence: I shall just finish my point and then it might be easier for the hon. Gentleman to respond.

If an injustice was done earlier by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary--who no doubt wishes to cause no injustice--and if an injustice was done by that newspaper to new Labour, may I ask whether that quotation has ever been denied?

Mr. Michael: Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman should have listened to the comments of my hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), in which he made the position absolutely clear. Instead of posing questions, will he respond to this point? He read out certain elements as if they were quotations; will he acknowledge that they are not direct quotations from my right hon. Friend the

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Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), the shadow Foreign Secretary, but quotations from an article by a Financial Times journalist?

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman also acknowledge that the article makes it absolutely clear--I think that he dropped his voice when he came to this point--that there is definitely no suggestion whatsoever regarding frontier control or domestic criminal law? The words in the article are:

That is clear in the article, which shows on what tenuous grounds the Home Secretary made his inaccurate and insubstantial claims earlier today. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman acknowledge that?

Sir Ivan Lawrence: I am not sure how tenuous it is. The words "unbundled" and "partially communitised" are in quotations. The authors are none other than Edward Mortimer and John Kampfner--the first of whom is held in the highest regard, although I cannot claim to know the other gentleman--so one can assume that the reporting is pretty accurate. Whether or not it is accurate, my question is whether there has ever been--until today--a denial. If there has been no denial until today, is not that another example of the wholly disreputable behaviour of the Labour party, whose members tend to say things in private and then deny them when they are made public? As a result, they are all things to all people in the run-up to a general election, which I consider to be an abuse of proper behaviour.

Mr. Michael: It is for you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to decide whether that is abuse of this House. The hon. and learned Gentleman is twisting words in order to try to justify the Home Secretary's earlier remarks when it is clear that the Home Secretary's remarks cannot be justified. Journalists are responsible for the articles they write. There are inverted commas around individual words and phrases, but the article does not make it clear whether they are quotations from anyone or whether they are simply the use of inverted commas by the journalists in regard to specific terms.

It is outrageous for the hon. and learned Gentleman to take his brief from Tory central office in order to try to twist words and throw around accusations and misrepresentations, which are the only actions left to his discredited party in the run-up to the general election. Even in the article, it is absolutely clear that there is definitely no suggestion of any relaxation on the part of the Labour party in regard to frontier control--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): Order. Hon. Members know that interventions should, by their nature, be short. I should be grateful if we could now consider the contents of the Bill.

Sir Ivan Lawrence: May I say that I have never seen a hole deeper than the one into which the hon. Gentleman has dug himself? However, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall return to the contents of the Bill.

The bugging issue apart, I should have thought that the Bill's objectives would--and I believe that they do--command the enthusiastic support of all to whom the protection of British citizens from criminals is more important than party political point scoring. The Bill is further evidence of the Government's absolute

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determination to reduce crime. It achieves that aim by building up our defences against organised serious and international crime through better co-ordination of our crime defence forces and the weaponry that they deploy.

The Bill takes the Security Service Act 1996 a stage further by ensuring that the National Criminal Intelligence Service backs police operations more effectively, and that must be a good thing. It creates a National Crime Squad, which will more effectively co-ordinate a national response to the serious and, unfortunately, growing problem of national and international crime and that is a good thing. It improves the delivery of information technology to police forces through the police information technology organisation and that must be a good thing.

Finally, through the setting up of the criminal records agency, it helps to reduce the likelihood of serious offenders getting jobs in areas where they might be tempted to carry on offending and that, too, must be a good thing. In all those matters, the improvement of the weaponry with which we are able to counter-attack and to defend against serious crime can only be wholeheartedly welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I believe by the country.

Perhaps I might be permitted to add a thank you to the Government for responding so positively to at least four, and possibly 10, of the recommendations that the Home Affairs Select Committee made when we reported on organised crime 18 months ago, and to other recommendations in our report on the private security industry, regarding the criminal records provisions of the Bill. It is always good to record that this cross-party Committee and the witnesses who gave evidence to it are listened to by the Government, and that our recommendations are acted on. It makes our efforts worth while and shows how effective some of the newer democratic institutions of this parliamentary system can be.

Then there is the matter of intrusive surveillance or bugging. That this measure, even in its earlier form, was a distinct improvement on what preceded it cannot be denied. Until that time, intrusive surveillance or bugging was unlawful, or at any rate not lawful, and no doubt many actions were brought against police forces for trespass--because it is hardly burglary--when premises were invaded and no criminal prosecution resulted or succeeded. No doubt settlements were made out of court, costing the taxpayer a lot of money. Any reference to authority was to a chief constable, which is not quite the same thing as to an independent person.

I would merely add, in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd), that not only did the police ask for the practice to be made statutory, they actually suggested to the Home Affairs Select Committee that judges should be brought in to approve.

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