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9.27 pm

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington): Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am grateful for the chance to catch your eye to make a brief speech.

I am sure that the whole House supports, as we have heard, the idea of legislation to give the police extra and more effective powers to fight crime, especially organised crime, by what are described, I understand, as firms of big time criminals. That is obviously in the public interest. In so far as the Bill is designed to achieve such a purpose, it definitely deserves a Second Reading tonight, and one which I hope will attract a good-sized majority.

However, when we legislate to provide extra powers for the police, as the Government have done on very many occasions in the past 18 years, we must always try to ensure that such measures are balanced by proper constitutional safeguards for the citizens of this country against the possibility of abuse of power by the forces of law and order. In that way, we can ensure that the practices of policing in this country remain justifiable in the eyes of our constituents and of the courts, and equally that the practices are effective in achieving the main purposes of preventing and detecting serious crime.

I do not have time to go into detail, but I hope to have a chance to develop my thoughts in Standing Committee. I have three principal concerns about the Bill and the ways in which it could still be improved. First, we need tighter and more justifiable definitions of serious crime than are in the Bill at present.

Secondly, the principle of prior independent authorisation should be followed as widely and as fully as possible in the legislation, and in so far as any exceptions are deemed absolutely necessary, they should be kept to a closely defined minimum.

Thirdly, the House should study and discuss fully the codes of practice to which we have heard reference, before the measure becomes law. We are all too well aware of the precedent of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. It took five years for the codes of practice to appear in all their glory, and a further six years thereafter for the revised edition to appear. That is intolerable, and that pattern must not be repeated in this case.

We in the House should be concerned not only to combat organised crime, but to preserve the civilised quality of policing and law enforcement in our society. We ought to be aware of the extent to which the nature of our society and its cherished freedoms can be degraded by oppressive and unreasonable police practices.

Ministers are to be commended for having rightly decided at last to put on a statutory basis police practices which hitherto have been unregulated by statute. We should do the job properly and completely while we are

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at it. Otherwise, we may all live to regret an important and timely opportunity to legislate in a truly responsible and balanced way.

9.31 pm

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): With the news tonight that a British soldier has been killed in Northern Ireland, we should remind ourselves that the protection of the public from terrorism and crime is a serious and difficult business.

The public expect the police to have the powers to protect them and their families, and they expect us to protect their civil liberties. In other words, the public expect Parliament to resolve conflict between the principles of public safety and civil liberty. Both are important. The public do not expect Parliament as a whole or individual Members of Parliament to be for one and against the other. They expect us to deal with such tensions. That is the essence of political responsibility.

I am looking forward to the Committee stage of the Bill, because it is a substantial piece of legislation that addresses a number of long-standing concerns on which the Labour party has sought action. The issues raised in the House are important and varied, which is why this has been an excellent debate. In his thoughtful contribution, short though it was, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) demonstrated that some of the important remaining concerns are shared by Conservative and Opposition Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) made it clear that we will ensure that the Bill receives a Second Reading. We look forward to a constructive Committee stage. The Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), can be combative in debate, but he can also engage in constructive debate.

That is not as cosy as those who rarely visit the Committee Corridor seem to think. It is harder work for the Opposition and for Ministers to engage in reconciling issues and trying to find a way through some of the difficult problems that face this Parliament. Opposition is easy; constructive opposition, in which the Labour party is engaged, is hard work for both sides, but it represents the House of Commons at its best and it shows real democracy at work.

Incidentally, I was one of those who voted for the television cameras, radio and the press to be admitted to the proceedings of the House. That resolution covered the Committee Corridor--not just the attractive cross-examination that goes on in Select Committees but the work of Standing Committees. That important work deserves greater scrutiny by the press and the media.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) asked where the pressure for the Bill comes from. It comes from the Labour party, among others, because in our view it is unacceptable in a civilised society and democracy for intrusive surveillance to be undertaken by the loose conventions that have applied for the past 30 years, and applied under the Labour Government of which my right hon. Friend was a Cabinet Member. Nor is it acceptable for an organisation like the National Criminal Intelligence Service to lack corporate entity and be unaccountable, as it is now. It has loose

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accountability to the Home Secretary, but that is not practical day-to-day accountability; although the need for a national dimension to deal with crime is evident, it would not be right to set up a national crime squad without tying its activity back into the British tradition of local police accountability.

Those measures are contained in the Bill. We called for them and welcomed them when the Bill was published. There remain issues to be dealt with. It is right for hon. Members on both sides of the House to want to get the Bill right in respect of surveillance, and I am not surprised that that has been the most contentious issue under discussion.

That, however, is not helped by what my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) described as an apocalyptic view, which was illustrated by some hon. Members who spoke in the debate. On the other hand, several hon. Members, including the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) were right to say that we need to be careful to protect the confidentiality of client and lawyer or doctor and patient. As we go into Committee, we welcome the fact that Government and Opposition agree on the objective and are joined in the search for the right words.

The hon. and learned Member for Burton was right to reflect on the protection of volunteers and voluntary organisations, and to say that he had changed his views somewhat from the conclusion reached by his Committee. It is good that we should listen and learn, and I hope that that is how we shall continue on the Bill. It could be argued that the debate on the Bill is a good example of democracy in practice. Greater accuracy from the press and the media when they first started to look at the issues would have been helpful, but the debate in the House tonight has shown Members raising important issues on an informed basis.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) made some important points in a thoughtful speech about surveillance. He said that the subject of surveillance may know nothing about it, whereas one would know if one were having one's fingerprints taken. It is an important point and it is why a nominal oversight as proposed by the Liberal Democrats would not be adequate to meet the need to have a tight and specific oversight of the use of the powers proposed in the Bill.

In two interventions, my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) raised points that have not had great attention. She spoke about the regulation of data via mobile phones. As the reply of the Home Secretary, on whom she intervened, appeared to miss the point that she was making, I hope that the Minister of State will undertake to review the whole matter in preparation for the Committee stage. If the use of mobile phones is covered by the Interception of Communications Act 1985, will he ensure that the collection of information is undertaken in the same way as for telephones attached to land lines? If it is not so covered, will he deal with the problem and ensure that we understand the position? Will he also tell us the current legal position with regard to subscriber data? That information can identify the location of a mobile phone user to within some 50 yd, and a great deal more. I should have thought that it comes under the existing Act. Is that the case? I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify those points.

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What is the position with regard to user data on land lines? As we all know from perusal of our own bills, a mass of information is available on our calls. Is that information protected from intrusion without some due process? If the Minister cannot answer tonight, will he undertake to give that information to the House or at least write to me, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn and my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley, to clear the matter up properly?

The Home Secretary had to take several interventions about where the Bill's consideration in Committee should take place, including a number of rather lengthy and convoluted contributions from his hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen). The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) made a similar point.

I am not sure that in all cases more is got out of a debate on the Floor of the House than in Standing Committee. The Committee stage is frequently the time when the most difficult issues are debated. Sometimes the Government are intransigent, as when we were debating the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill or the Police and Magistrates Courts Bill.

On other legislation, such as the Sexual Offences (Protected Material) Bill last week and, indeed, the Security Service Act 1996, there have been positive and constructive debates in Committee that improved and changed the legislation, precisely because the details could be teased out in the slightly different atmosphere of Committee sittings. Indeed, it was during the passage of the Security Service Bill last year that we called for independent police authorities to oversee the work of NCIS and the National Crime Squad.

It is interesting how the option of dealing with one bit of a Bill excites a number of hon. Members who rarely, if ever, participate in the detailed work of Standing Committees. The hon. and learned Member for Burton makes regular contributions in Committee, but he does not seem to expect to be on the Committee that will consider this Bill, which I assume is why he was so quick to offer a place on it to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West. I have to include the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in that, because there are occasions when the Liberal Democrats get bored very easily when they make appearances in Committee.

I stress the importance of careful examination in Committee. I hope that we will not reach the point where Standing Committees are regarded as unimportant. They are an important part of scrutiny to ensure that we get legislation right, and they should not be minimised, as some hon. Members have sought to do tonight.

The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) referred to concern expressed by the Police Federation that the same terms and conditions and the same discipline should apply to officers seconded to NCIS and the NCS. I am not clear--perhaps the Minister will help on this--whether there is an omission or intention in the Bill, but we need to get to the bottom of that matter in Committee, and consider amendments to tease out the situation or to clarify exactly whether change is being made. As a matter of principle, there should surely be only one police service in this country.

The hon. Member for Ryedale referred also to evidence given to the Home Affairs Select Committee, but I must point out the need to take care with that evidence. My

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hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn and I were puzzled by the evidence of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the regional crime squads, in which they appeared to be tell the Committee that they favoured the process of application to a circuit judge.

A careful reading of the evidence showed that that was the view expressed by the regional crime squads, not the Association of Chief Police Officers, which subsequently made it very clear to us that it did not share such a view. The problem that seems to have arisen is that the regional crime squads thought that it would be much easier to get the go-ahead from circuit judges than to get permission from chief constables, who turned out to be quite stringent about their applications. We need to be careful when we look at evidence to be sure that we have understood the reality behind it.

The hon. Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) referred to part IV. I am glad that he did, because until that point I thought that I would be the only person to refer to it. Police information technology has indeed been a mess over the years. Some forces are better than others. I pay particular tribute to the Dyfed-Powys police--a small rural police force that is trying to make use of new technology, precisely to overcome the problems of distance and sparsity with which it has to deal. Co-ordination has been bad in the past. Chief constables have often been scathing about the lack of support for new technology development. That part of the Bill requires scrutiny in Committee, and we will seek to be satisfied that the structure will work, and will not be an arm's-length location for a different set of excuses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) made a series of points. I always listen to him with care, because he is a man of great principle and expresses genuine concerns. However, I think that he misunderstood a great deal of the Bill, and I offer him a private seminar, which would have been available to him before, had he expressed an interest.

The hon. Member for North Antrim referred to the confessional, and seemed to interpret that part of the Bill as referring to only the formal process of confession to a Roman Catholic priest. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) referred to it in much wider terms, and I think that he is right. I am not sure whether we have thought this matter through. The Home Secretary has clearly accepted the point in general terms, as with legal and medical confidentiality. It is a genuine matter for consideration in Committee to ensure that we get it right, so that the public can have confidence when they discuss personal issues with their minister of religion.

The code of conduct is very important. I appreciate the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock. In 1987, in the Committee considering the first major Bill in which I played some part as a Whip, I argued strongly that we could not deal properly with that legislation without the draft immigration rules. As Christmas approached, I asked for the draft and I presented the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton), with a gift-wrapped copy of the previous immigration rules. We knew that the draft existed--it was on his desk--but it was not published until the day after Third Reading.

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I commend the Minister for publishing the draft statutory instrument last year at the start of consideration of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Bill, because it enabled us to deal coherently with that measure. It greatly improved debate in Committee, and the legislation that came back to the Floor of the House as a result.

If the Bill is moving, it is a moving target. I understand the criticism, given that the original draft was not available in the Vote Office today; but that is a lesser evil than not seeing the statutory instrument. I ask the Minister to keep us up to date. A moving target is harder to work with, but it is better to have the Bill, even if we do not have the detail.

There has been limited opportunities in the debate to cover a wide range of issues. I look forward to discussing these matters further in Committee, and then returning to the Floor of the House with an improved Bill.

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