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7.43 pm

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): The hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) concentrated, as have other hon. Members, on the civil liberties aspect of the Bill. Indeed,

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the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) referred to "lost liberty". We really should put the other point of view.

The freedom of our citizens is being undermined not by some conspiracy at the heart of government or the institutions that uphold authority in this country but by terrorists, whose acts of barbarism maim and kill innocent people, close off streets and town centres and cause massive inconvenience to large sections of the population, including the House; by drug traffickers, who prey on our young people and destroy their lives and their future prospects; and by organised criminals who, through theft and fraud on a grand scale that makes the great train robbery look like a minor crime, are ruining and destroying the financial security and prosperity of businesses and individuals alike.

I say that because I believe that the House has to make up its mind. Are we serious about reducing crime and making this country safer for our citizens and unattractive for criminals? The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) made a point that I wanted to make about the policing arrangements that we need in order to achieve that objective. He said that we are not living in the era of "Dixon of Dock Green". Communities throughout the length and breadth of Britain face ruthless, determined and evil men who care nothing for the interests and property of others. That is the background against which we have to consider the measures in the Bill.

It is always rewarding to see recommendations from Select Committee inquiries in which a great deal of time and effort has been invested coming to fruition in Government action and legislative proposals. I am sorry that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) is not in his place, because he referred to the Home Affairs Select Committee report on organised crime. You will know from personal experience, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the Home Affairs Committee has an exemplary record, and many of its recommendations relating to criminal justice, the police and fighting crime have found their way on to the statute book or have been implemented in other ways.

The first three parts of the Bill refer to matters that were considered by the Committee and very closely follow our recommendations. In our report, we concluded that, although the extent of organised crime in the United Kingdom is not so great as in some other western democracies, the threat is nevertheless very real and, increasingly, criminal gangs are international in their organisation and are resourced to an unprecedented extent, very often because of their association with drug trafficking.

The Committee recognised, as does the House generally, that there is a need for greater action at national level to co-ordinate intelligence gathering and the efforts of regional crime squads in dealing with crime, which frequently extends way beyond police boundaries. In my own force area in North Yorkshire, where before coming to the House I was vice-chairman of the police authority, more and more serious crime is committed not by local villains but by gangs from Teesside--I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)--from the north-east, from West Yorkshire, Humberside, the west midlands, Greater Manchester and occasionally even the south-east of England.

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North Yorkshire police have had considerable success in endeavouring to counter this threat, but increasingly they face huge logistical difficulties. I came to the view some time ago that the sharing of intelligence and the co-ordination of activity between crime squads on a national scale is essential to achieve better results. Those are the key objectives of parts I and II of the Bill.

I will now deal with the new national structure for the National Criminal Intelligence Service. In both the gathering of criminal intelligence at the domestic level and as the focal point for effective contact with overseas law enforcement agencies, NCIS has a crucial role to play in the fight against organised crime, but it needs greater freedom of action and freedom to manage its affairs.

The Select Committee was also told that on occasions it was important for NCIS to undertake what might be described as operational activities, which could involve surveillance beyond mere intelligence gathering. Despite misgivings in some quarters about accountability, NCIS must be allowed the opportunity to ensure that its intelligence gathering is not frustrated by an inability to follow up leads and inquiries when gathering important information about criminal activity. Provision for that is one of the Bill's essential features.

I am glad that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton is now present, so that I can pay tribute to his work as Chairman of the Select Committee, which produced a tremendous report on organised crime. The evidence that we received confirmed that regional crime squads were an essential part of the policing system in the fight against crime. They have been reduced from nine to six in recent years. There was and remains an imbalance in their resourcing and effectiveness, because the funding of each squad is set by the police authority, which wants to contribute the least amount of money.

The former national co-ordinator of regional crime squads and the then director general of NCIS strongly recommended the creation of a National Crime Squad under the control of a national director. That would allow a more co-ordinated and effective use of resources, which reflected the fact that criminals do not limit their activity to one region.

Similarly, as regional forces concentrate on their local problems, full advantage has not always been taken of information provided by NCIS, which by its nature is often on a national and international scale. For some time there has been a pressing need for the response to serious and organised crime to be sharpened and made more effective. That requires a more co-ordinated national structure--a National Crime Squad.

The funding arrangements for NCIS and the National Crime Squad are unnecessarily complicated. I am aware of the well rehearsed arguments in favour of levies as opposed to top slicing. However, in my view those two new organisations are so important that they should be funded centrally.

Doubtless my right hon. Friend the Minister will seek to persuade me that neither the levy nor the charging system will be unnecessarily bureaucratic. I rather think, however, that that is precisely how it will turn out. Recommendations were made some time ago--you will recall them, Madam Deputy Speaker--on the Forensic Science Service. We were persuaded to recommend a charging structure. It has taken a long time for that to bed

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down, and even now some of us are not entirely sure that forensic science is being used as often as it should be, because police forces are charged for the service.

The two new national bodies will be at the forefront of the fight against crime. We should be totally assured that they will have the resources they need to maximise their operational effectiveness. I think that the Home Secretary of the day is best placed to ensure that that happens, although I acknowledge that it will weaken the input on funding decisions from local authorities and police committees, which my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has been at pains to ensure is enshrined in the arrangements that he outlined.

The Police Federation is anxious that officers deployed in NCIS or the National Crime Squad will not be covered by police regulations but by new arrangements outlined in the Bill. The federation has expressed concern that the recently revised discipline procedures for the police service should apply nationally, including to these two national police organisations. Officers should also have the right to representation at complaints and disciplinary hearings.

That is important, especially for officers in the National Crime Squad, who will be serving at the sharp end of the police service. They will have to deal with some of the most ruthless, nasty and dangerous criminals in the country, who are not slow to make malicious and mischievous complaints against officers. It is crucial that those officers have the comfort of knowing that the disciplinary arrangements are the same as in their own domestic forces. If there is any reason to believe--as the Police Federation clearly does--that the proposed arrangements do not provide that comfort, that must be rectified either in Committee or on Report. That is an extremely important matter.

Part III of the Bill has proved to be by far the most controversial. It attempts to provide a regulatory framework for the use of intrusive surveillance. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) referred to the fact that that was a recommendation of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton said, the police asked for the use of surveillance to be regulated, and I think that it should be.

However, having listened to the arguments made in this debate and elsewhere in the past few weeks, I must say that some of the reaction to the proposals has been rather hysterical. Some media coverage has given the erroneous impression that the Bill provides the police with powers that they have not previously enjoyed. In fact, they have been using these powers for a very long time, but we need to regulate them.

It is clear that the use of intrusive surveillance has become an essential tool in the fight against organised crime and terrorism. In the great majority of cases when the police are in hot pursuit of organised criminals, a requirement for them to seek prior approval would seriously hamper their operational effectiveness.

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