Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9.14 pm

Sir Michael Marshall (Arundel): I am grateful for this opportunity to speak briefly. I understand that a number of my hon. Friends wish to speak.

My frustration is twofold. Many of the things that I would have wished to say in a considered way will inevitably be squeezed because of time constraints. My frustration is also due to the fact that there has been a total lack of comment about part IV of the Bill.

As the chairman of the all-party parliamentary information technology group, I must put this thought to the House. I believe that the battle against crime in the 21st century will be fought over information technology. Anyone who has visited the Metropolitan police, as our

12 Feb 1997 : Column 425

group did recently, will realise that crime now encompasses a vast range of factories producing forged credit cards, and also the Internet, which is used in the promotion of pornography and racial discrimination.

Information technology is used not only in objectionable ways but to further intelligence. It is good to note, thank heavens, that Scotland Yard is gearing up. PITO, the Police Information Technology Organisation, allows the co-ordination of forces up and down the country, and it means that there is a chance of success against highly organised technical crime. The recent paedophilia case arrests show how police have developed such skills. PITO is important.

I hope that the Minister will address those issues. The proposed organisation is worthy of serious consideration. It enables us to overcome a problem that has persisted for generations: police forces that could not talk to one another. Their information technology was not compatible, but there has been a sea change, which the Bill reflects.

I shall touch on one or two things that are going on, which PITO is designed to help co-ordinate. In particular, I shall highlight the wider issues that reflect on that organisation's work. There are moral and ethical questions, which the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists brought out in the House of Lords in a symposium earlier this week. Such issues were mentioned by Commissioner Sir Paul Condon in talking to groups in this House. He showed how the way in which his force and others around this country co-ordinate their activities is critical.

When I speak of this country, I refer to pilot schemes in Scotland and London designed to bring service directly to the great British public. It is not commonly recognised that more than a quarter of all calls by individuals on police stations are made to produce documents in connection with motoring offences. When one considers the time and dispersion of effort involved, it is clear that providing kiosks in public places for document recognition, use of the 999 system and to provide a range of emergency services are the sort of wider issues that the organisation can help to co-ordinate and drive on.

We have a national strategy for police information systems, which is the basis on which the organisation and the various forces will operate. However, the police national computer service, which began 20 years ago, is in many ways out of date. It must be brought up to date.

I want to mention briefly my police force in Sussex, which can claim to be at the forefront of the use of IT against crime. Its communications centre in Bognor Regis in my constituency has a state-of-the-art example of what can be done. The way in which it has been able to respond to emergencies, such as terrorist bombings in my constituency, has demonstrated that in practice. More widely, the Sussex police have shown exemplary zeal in pursuing modern technology--for example, in chasing stolen cars by satellite surveillance as they move from Britain to other parts of Europe.

It is on the wider aspect that I shall conclude. One of the major schemes with which the Met is concerned, and in which PITO can help British national interests, is the EU Telematics programme. That goes under the wonderful acronym of ATTACH, Advanced

12 Feb 1997 : Column 426

Trans-European Telematics Applications for Community Help. It is another example, like the kiosks, of the sort of work that will allow us to give the public a direct link to our police force. It is notable--I could quote several other cases--that half the funding for that scheme comes from a 4 million ecu scheme in the European Community. It is a positive case that should be taken into account among what I might call the welter of one-sided views of Brussels.

I could also cite the great hopes for GRASP--the global retrieval access and information system for property items. The greatest crime for the majority of our constituents is theft. The fact that there is another international scheme--again, half-funded through the European Community and involving this country, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Spain--will enable us to trace stolen goods through the greater application of data and imagery.

This subject could be developed far more widely than I have had the opportunity to do tonight. I am particularly concerned that PITO should not only be given a fair wind by the House, but that its operations and activities in the battle against IT crime should be seen for what they are--the real challenge to crime in the 21st century. This House has a role to play in that endeavour.

9.20 pm

Sir Michael Shersby (Uxbridge): I wish to declare an outside interest: I am parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales in accordance with the Police Acts.

The federation is the largest police staff association in Britain; it therefore has a keen interest in the contents of the Bill. It represents constables, sergeants, inspectors and chief inspectors--in all, some 127,000 police officers. The Bill--especially the clauses that affect the federation's members--was drafted in consultation with the Association of Chief Police Officers. There has not been any real consultation between the Home Office and the Police Federation, although I was glad to hear my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary say earlier that there would be consultation in future on the terms and conditions of employment of members of the police service.

The Government have given the federation some assurance that things will be all right on the night, so to speak, but the experience of the federation's members is that, unless their concerns are put on the record, these matters can be left to interpretation. With 43 forces and 43 chief constables, there are at least 43 possible interpretations, each different from the next. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to reflect and to consult with the federation before there are changes to its members' police regulations and complaints and discipline procedures.

All police officers carry out their duties under the auspices of the Police Regulations 1995. The regulations have been properly negotiated at the police negotiating board. The Bill suggests a change to those regulations for officers who work for the National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service. However, any amendment to existing regulations to enable NCS and NCIS officers can be properly negotiated through the tried and tested police negotiating board machinery. If that is not done, there could be problems when officers from those bodies work alongside non-NCS and NCIS officers and different regulations apply to both groups.

12 Feb 1997 : Column 427

The Government have indicated that all officers serving in those two important organisations will be volunteers. That may well be so, but let us consider the case of an individual who, when asked or recommended to apply for NCS or NCIS posts, indicates that such a move is not in accordance with his wishes. I have to ask, would he in fact be committing career suicide by refusing to take the post? Police regulations apply nationally to 43 different forces and cover officers who perform a variety of tasks, from traffic patrol to drug squad, and from domestic violence units to firearms officers. There is no reason why they should not apply to officers serving in the NCS or the NCIS.

There is also the important question of the discipline regulations, which are referred to in two parts of the Bill, in clauses 37 and 81. Undoubtedly, the general public must have confidence in the police service in this country to ensure that there is an effective rule of law. The general public equally need to feel confident that a proper, structured complaints system is in being if the service or its operators are perceived to be acting wrongfully.

All police forces operate within the same discipline code and discipline regulations. Similarly, the method for making any complaint is universal, and well established. The Bill appears to suggest that officers seconded to the National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service will operate under a different discipline code and regulations. That may, I fear, cause confusion among members of the public. It might also create the impression that there is a lack of confidence in the existing complaints and discipline system.

There are practical problems. If an officer, for example, completes his or her duties at the NCS or the NCIS and is accused of a criminal act, does that officer have access to advice before responding to the allegations, as is the right of all people under the rule of law? Then there is the question, if that officer be found guilty and returned to his or her home force, will that finding of guilt be disclosable? How can fairness and equity for all be guaranteed when an officer is placed in that position? If the same officer is accused of a later disciplinary offence and appears before the chief constable of his own force, does that officer's antecedent contain a declaration of a finding of guilt from a different discipline code?

I therefore ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to reflect on those matters, and to give them careful consideration before the Bill is considered in Committee.

I shall briefly say two more things. The first concerns criminal records certificates. I do not welcome the widespread extension of those certificates throughout society, but I believe that, in today's debate, there has been a general misunderstanding of what is likely to happen when certificates are issued at the lower level.

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act--introduced, I well remember, as a private Member's Bill in 1974 by Mr. Piers Dixon, who was then the Member for Truro--provided that the period of rehabilitation be related to the length of the sentence passed on the offender, and the rehabilitation periods guarantee that spent convictions are expunged from the records and will not be provided in response to requests for the lower level certificates. The offences that are expunged range from imprisonment to youth custody, detention in a young offenders institution, corrective training and so on.

12 Feb 1997 : Column 428

I therefore believe that there is less need for concern than has been suggested by the comments in tonight's debate that young people, especially, will be adversely affected if the Bill passes in its present form, because of the very important provisions of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.

I support the Bill. I believe that it is right to put the powers of the police into statute. The police welcome the Bill from that point of view, and I hope that it receives a Second Reading tonight.

Next Section

IndexHome Page