Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Sir Ivan Lawrence: There is more in favour of the police's position than my hon. Friend has explained.

Mr. Greenway: I have not finished.

Sir Ivan Lawrence: It was unlawful for the police to trespass on someone's premises. It was not a criminal offence, but it was unlawful and they could be sued.

12 Feb 1997 : Column 408

Although there were guidelines and the courts treated the evidence that was found as admissible, it was necessary for the police, who always want to be on the right side of the law, to take a risk that the legislation to regulate such action would be harsher than that which they had hitherto enjoyed. So the police deserve greater credit than my hon. Friend has given them.

Mr. Greenway: I entirely agree with my hon. and learned Friend. He has provided greater clarification than anyone else--he has even made it clearer than he did in his speech, which I listened to attentively.

To what extent do the new regulatory arrangements hamper the police's operational effectiveness? They have asked for this regulatory framework, but they have also made it abundantly clear that there are dangers in going too far and making life unnecessarily difficult. We should be a little more circumspect. I have listened to the concerns expressed on both sides of the House that this touches on some important and sensitive issues. The idea that the police will want to use bugging devices in solicitors' offices, doctors' surgeries, Catholic confessionals or even in people's homes on a daily basis is preposterous. However, I agree that the use of intrusive surveillance in homes and offices is a sensitive matter, which in normal circumstances should require prior approval. I made that point to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary several weeks ago.

My right hon. and learned Friend has clearly listened carefully to views about where the balance should best be struck. I have felt for some time that the best practical solution is to allow the chief constable authorisation, subject to immediate review by a commissioner, in the great majority of instances in which the police need to use intrusive surveillance techniques. We have already heard about car homing devices today.

When the use of intrusive surveillance in sensitive premises is planned, prior authorisation should be required, but I feel that in cases of extreme urgency chief constables must retain the power to authorise--although, again, that power should be subject to immediate review. I believe that they will use it extremely sparingly. I know that the House is being asked in effect to approve a proposed structure without any amendments having been tabled to the Bill, but I feel that the arrangements that we are discussing had to be aired on Second Reading, although in fact they are not contained in the legislation as it stands.

I also feel that, in reviewing the use of the powers with which we are dealing, the PACE test of reasonableness is probably the most appropriate test. If we do not use that test, there may well be occasions--as my right hon. and learned Friend pointed out--on which the police get it wrong and, with the benefit of hindsight, people want to second-guess and criticise. I touched on this in an intervention, but I may not have explained clearly enough. I think that the key consideration in a retrospective consideration should be based on what the chief constable knew--or should reasonably have known--at the time, rather than on information became available subsequently.

I honestly believe that, if we cannot trust our chief constables with these powers, we are in a sorry state. I have every confidence that our chief constables will use the powers effectively. I think that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary--and, to be fair, the

12 Feb 1997 : Column 409

hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)--deserve a great deal of credit for reaching such a sensible compromise, and I hope that the Bill can now progress without further delay.

Arrangements allowing better targeting and co-ordination of police operations to deal with organised crime are long overdue. Our constituents want nothing more than to see the police tackle crime more vigorously, so that more villains are brought before the courts. Our constituents expect us to give the police the support and powers that they need to achieve that worthy aim, and we should do so by allowing the Bill a Second Reading.

8.2 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): I take a slightly more sceptical view than the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) of some of the activities in which the police engage. I am glad, but not surprised, that the Bill is having to be substantially rewritten. Just about all the legislation introduced by the present Home Secretary has had to be rewritten. With the possible exception of the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), I cannot think of a Minister who has been required to eat so much humble pie without its having the slightest effect on his demeanour.

The Home Secretary's change of heart is, I think, based on the belated realisation that the Bill, unamended, will not be passed. Indeed, I believe that he has been told as much by many of his hon. Friends, and all credit to them. The Bill raises serious issues, on which a number of hon. Members--not least my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen)--have touched. I do not take the apocalyptic view of the Bill expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who read out a long list of people who objected to it; I think that most of those people objected to the Bill as originally drafted, rather than the form that it will take after being amended.

I intend to concentrate on part III, but I want to make a couple of points about the National Crime Squad. It is important for that body to be accountable, but I am not convinced that the provisions in the Bill are adequate for the purpose. The matter needs to be explored in Committee. There is a history of unhappy experience with elite police squads: the West Midlands serious crime squad and the Metropolitan police pornography and drugs squads come to mind, but there are others. They became a law unto themselves, and senior officers lost control. Some members of those elite squads even turned to crime. Police authorities have proved entirely ineffective in bringing them to book, and have been rendered even less effective by the Home Secretary's recent reforms of their composition.

There are signs that some problems that are familiar elsewhere may already be surfacing at NCIS. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) mentioned some instances. Details of confidential inquiries appear to have been leaked to the subject of those inquiries, and only a few weeks ago it was reported that officers at NCIS were unable to account for records of large amounts of material that had been obtained as a result of surveillance. That is relevant to part III. If we are to have a National Crime Squad that will enjoy public confidence, it must be properly accountable.

12 Feb 1997 : Column 410

I shall now deal with the most controversial part of the Bill. Let me say at the outset that I accept the central premise of part III--that there is sometimes a regrettable necessity for police to eavesdrop on those whom they have good reason to believe may be involved in serious crime. Given the intrusion into personal liberty, however, such action must be properly regulated.

I have no doubt that authorisation should be a matter for High Court rather than circuit judges. I am sure that there are many fine circuit judges who are perfectly capable of rigorously scrutinising applications to bug domestic premises, but they are not necessarily the ones who will be asked--more than once, at least. The judges who will be asked are those--there are many of them--who can be relied on to sign whatever is put before them. Circuit judges are often too much part of the local establishment to be relied on always to exercise the rigorous scrutiny that will be required. I should add that history records that some High Court judges have shown themselves extraordinarily gullible, not to say downright foolish, in accepting at face value the official version of events, especially when it has been delivered by men in police uniform. I recognise, however, that they are probably better placed than anyone to exercise proper scrutiny in this regard.

The police should not be allowed to pick and choose which commissioner to approach. If we allow that, there is a danger that the police will go for the softest touch. The commissioners should themselves draw up a rota to avoid that problem.

Clause 94 provides for authorisation to be given orally in urgent cases. As others have said, that is potentially a large loophole. The commissioners will need to watch the number of urgent cases carefully, and so shall we.

Inevitably--not much has been made of this so far today--much of the material gleaned through surveillance, perhaps all in some cases, will be irrelevant to the investigation. Some will be highly personal, while some will relate to people who are not involved in any way. My question--a question that I asked the Home Secretary in an intervention--is this: what happens to the material once it is no longer required? What assurance have we that it will be kept under lock and key and not used to entertain the troops, as has happened on some occasions? How quickly will it be destroyed?

There is a provision in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 allowing innocent fingerprints to be destroyed. What obligation is there on the investigating officer to report to the commissioner on the destruction of irrelevant material? That matter needs to be examined carefully. I have had a quick look through the draft code of practice that appeared belatedly in the Vote Office and I do not see the destruction of relevant material mentioned anywhere in the code. When I raised the matter in an intervention, I received no satisfactory reply from the Home Secretary. We shall have to consider the matter in Committee.

Incidentally, I note that, once signed, those warrants will last for six months in relation to non-urgent cases and 15 days in relation to urgent cases. In six months, much material can be accumulated and much of it will be irrelevant to the subject of the investigation. We need to find out what is going to happen to such material.

My fourth point arises from clause 92, which defines the circumstances under which bugging is permitted. Similar definitions are contained in the Interception of

12 Feb 1997 : Column 411

Communications Act 1985 and in the Intelligence Services Act 1994, which regulate the activities of the police and security services in respect of telephone tapping. As others have remarked, the definition of serious crimes in subsection (5) is sufficiently wide to include all sorts of innocent or relatively innocent activities. In particular, there is the reference to

    "conduct by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose".

When pressed on the point, the Home Secretary said that the provision might, for example, refer to groups of neo-Nazis trying to disrupt a football match. It might, but it could include many other people: strikers, members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or indeed organisers of any public demonstration.

The solution is simple; the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) suggested it earlier. The "or" at the end of subsection (5)(a) should be changed to "and", which would bring only offences likely to attract a prison sentence of three years or more within the Bill's scope. Similar amendments should be made to the other Acts to which I have referred.

Fifthly, I wonder--I do this hesitantly, as I do not know much about the technology involved--whether I am right in thinking that technology already exists to enable conversations to be monitored simply by pointing a beam at a window. Could it be that, in a few years from now, it will hardly be necessary to break into premises to monitor conversations therein, and that most bugging of domestic premises, or indeed a lawyer's offices, will be exempt from the Bill because, as I say, it is necessary only to point a beam at a window?

I do not know: I just ask. I suspect that that is the way in which things are going. I would hate to discover in a few years' time that most bugging is carried out by some other method entirely than that which we all think is relevant in relation to the Bill. I would appreciate some clarification of that point from the Minister, if he has the opportunity when he sums up.

Next Section

IndexHome Page