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9.46 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean): We have had a full debate on this important Bill. The threat from serious and organised crime is real and growing. We are not defenceless: the police and Customs and Excise have had many successes in tackling organised crime. I pay tribute to their work, but we must never become complacent.

We have heard much about the use of intrusive surveillance. The impression is sometimes created that the police will be able to conduct surveillance whenever and wherever they like. That is not true, and it will not be true under the Bill. Intrusive surveillance is used to investigate only serious crime, and only as a last resort.

Major criminals make use of every modern technique to cover their tracks. They have no hesitation in using modern equipment to render police surveillance ineffective. They change premises and lines of communication quickly and frequently to escape detection. They will literally be laughing all the way to the bank if the police are hampered in their use of effective surveillance techniques against them. The House must not allow that to happen.

Of course there is a balance to be struck between civil liberty and the fight against crime. The proposed arrangements will strike that balance. The use of intrusive surveillance will continue to be strictly controlled. There will be additional safeguards against possible misuse. I stress that law-abiding citizens will have nothing to fear, but those engaged in serious crime must have nowhere to hide.

A number of hon. Members were worried about the definition of serious crime. It is a wide-ranging definition, but it has to be, to ensure that police can mount operations at an early stage, before there is any certainty about the precise criminal charges that may result some or many months later.

It is important to remember that, in addition to the criteria in the Bill, the draft code of practice specifically provides that authorising officers should satisfy themselves that the degree of intrusion into the privacy of those affected by the surveillance is commensurate with the seriousness of the offence. Even if the police were minded to pursue some lesser criminals, under the

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provisions of the Bill the requirement for proportionality would bite on the type of operation that they could mount. The commissioners would, I am sure, respond to any failure to observe that requirement.

The definition has been around for many years. It has been used successfully under the Interception of Communications Act 1985 and, more recently, the Security Service Act 1996. It is clearly sensible to use the same test in regard to similar activities carried out by different bodies investigating the same type of crime.

The amendment expresses concern about criminal records. No provision in the Bill requires job applicants to produce a criminal conviction certificate. Such certificates are intended to be multi-purpose documents, issued only to individuals. They are likely to be used for purposes other than employment when individuals are required to produce a certificate of good conduct--for example, when applying for visas or permits to reside in foreign countries.

Unlike other certificates for which provision is made in the Bill, those certificates will disclose only information about convictions that are unspent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. It is open to any employer or organisation to seek that information, and the certificates will serve to confirm the accuracy of an individual's statement about his past. It will be for applicants and employers to decide when it is reasonable to produce a criminal conviction certificate.

I was astonished by the Liberal Democrats' concerns about NCIS and the National Crime Squad. I consider those concerns--articulated in their amendment--to be entirely without foundation. One of the Government's main aims was to ensure that the service authorities relating to NCIS and the National Crime Squad were fully consistent with the excellent tripartite arrangements that we have for policing, which provide proper local accountability.

The Bill already provides for police authority members of the National Crime Squad to be in the majority. Of the 17 members, nine will be representatives of local police authorities: nine out of 17 will be local authority members. NCIS is clearly a different kettle of fish from the National Crime Squad, because of its national responsibilities; even so, the Bill will provide for seven police authority representatives out of 19 members. That, I think, takes care of the Liberal Democrats' anxieties.

Hon. Members have raised a number of other concerns, relating to, for instance, police terms and conditions of employment. I paid particular attention to what was said by my hon. Friends the Members for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby) and for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Hawksley). I intend to have another discussion with the Police Federation shortly--before the Committee stage, with luck--and I hope that I can assure the federation that its fears are groundless. I hope that I can assure my hon. Friends that theirs are as well.

Many hon. Members commented on volunteering and the cost of certificates--my right hon. Friends the Members for Chelsea (Sir N. Scott) and for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), the hon. Members for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) and for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) and, again, my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge. Let me tell my hon. Friend that I, too,

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was a young farmer many years ago, and I do not share the concern expressed by the Worcestershire young farmers and others about the deleterious effect that the criminal conviction certificates or the criminal records agency provisions will have on those who volunteer to assist with young farmers' clubs. Nevertheless, we shall look forward to addressing those points in Committee, where I hope that we shall be able to reassure many more hon. Members.

Hon. Members also raised the question of security and destruction of unwanted material. Again, I look forward to giving reassurances in Committee about how that will be properly dealt with.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) asked about the technology for bugging. Once I discover how to work my own mobile telephone, I may become an expert on the technology to which he referred, but I understand that the reference in the Bill to interference with wireless telegraphy has nothing to do with remote surveillance. It is intended to cover the jamming of radio waves, for example, to prevent a criminal in a siege from hearing outside media broadcasts that could assist him. Others, however, may wish to deal with the hon. Gentleman's point about electronic surveillance in Committee.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) for his points on the codes of practice. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) also raised those points. To assist the House, we intend to have valid codes of practice available for Bills going through the Committee, if we can possibly do so. The code of practice has to be rewritten substantially because of the changes in the other place and we shall try to bring a fresh code before the House as soon as we can.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) made an interesting speech. I always enjoy listening to his speeches; one day I may have a chance to listen to one of his sermons. He rightly pointed out that, even when the hardened sinner repenteth, he should be forgiven, but, before I could point it out, he went on to say that it was only for God to forgive sins. I think that the Home Secretary and I had better go no further than criminal conviction certificates on this earth at the moment.

The hon. Member for North Antrim also suggested that the Bill was a constitutional measure that should be considered on the Floor of the House, but I remind the House that two other important Bills of this nature, the Intelligence Services Act 1994 and the Security Service Act 1996, were also taken in Standing Committee. They were not given that unique treatment.

I want to set the Bill in context. It is a key part of the Government's programme of law and order reforms, the results of which are making this country a safer place. Recorded crime in the 12 months to June 1996 was 10 per cent. lower than three years before. That is a fall of more than 500,000 offences, the largest three-year drop since records began in 1857. We are determined to fight crime effectively with full backing for the police, the support of the community, proper emphasis on crime prevention and severe punishment for serious, persistent and dangerous offenders. We have demonstrated that progress can be made.

Since 1978-79, total spending on the police has more than doubled in real terms. Next year, total expenditure on policing in England and Wales will be around

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£7.3 billion. Police authorities' spending power will be increased by £247 million, or 3.7 per cent. That includes extra funding for 2,000 more officers. There are now some 98,000 constables in England and Wales--more than ever before--and 16,000 more officers overall than when the Government came to power in 1979, but--this is of relevance to the debate--our commitment to law and order goes beyond ensuring that the police are properly resourced.

The Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994 set out a new framework for the organisation and management of the police in England and Wales. That Act successfully introduced a new style of police authority, policing plans, objectives and key performance indicators. It is that model, which has worked so well, that forms the basis for the Bill's proposals for the National Crime Squad and NCIS.

We have also continued to ensure that the police have the right tools to do their job, exploiting new technology to the full. We have established the world's first DNA database and we have more than 3,300 matches. The police national network has drastically improved communications between police forces, and the new national automated fingerprint identification system will lead to a 430 per cent. efficiency increase in the number of identifications of fingerprint marks recovered from crime scenes. The creation in the Bill of the police information technology organisation will build on those achievements.

Strengthening the police is not enough on its own. Only 16 months ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced our intention to bring the Security Service into the fight against organised crime. The Security Service Act achieved that, and this Bill will complete the package of measures that he announced.

We have also taken steps to ensure that the police can properly investigate crime. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 modified the right of silence for someone being questioned by the police. Initial research suggests that there is a 50 per cent. drop in suspects staying silent at the police station.

Therefore, our commitment to the fight for law and order continues. We have brought a comprehensive package of measures before this Parliament, intended to make this country a safer place in which to live and work. The Crime (Sentences) Bill, which goes before another place tomorrow, is designed to provide real protection for the public against some of the most serious, dangerous and persistent offenders in our society. We are also taking action, through the Sex Offenders Bill, against those who perpetrate vile crimes against children and commit other sex offences.

Today we are considering the Police Bill, which is part of the Government's overall package. It will strengthen the fight against organised crime and protect the most vulnerable members of our society. The creation of NCIS and the National Crime Squad will establish nationally focused organisations to combat organised crime. We will put intrusive surveillance on a clear statutory basis, but one which protects the civil liberties of our people. We will ensure that the police have access to 21st-century technology in the fight against crime.

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The Police Bill will have real practical benefits in the fight against crime. I urge the House to vote against the wrecking amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats, and to give the Bill a Second Reading. I commend it to the House.

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The House divided: Ayes 41, Noes 264.

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