Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Does my hon. Friend agree that our exchange with the Minister at Home Office questions yesterday showed that there is huge concern among Government Back Benchers about the events at Huntingdon Life Sciences and elsewhere? I understand that the Minister is suggesting no more than half a day to consider new clauses that the Committee has yet to see. Is not that unacceptable and does not it show, once again, the Government's contempt for democracy and debate?

Mr. Heald: The issue concerns many hon. Members, including Labour Members who are former research scientists and Opposition Members with constituency interests. I have an interest, because my constituency is about 15 miles from Huntingdon, and scientists from Huntingdon Life Sciences who have been terrorised live there. We must also consider the issue of secondary action, when people ring up to make false orders for goods, funeral services and the like. Such situations are distressing, but the Minister has not promised time to consider them. The issues cannot be tackled easily by making amendments on the nod at the end of the Committee. We need to spend time going through all the issues. I know that the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) is concerned, too, because her constituency and mine are about equidistant from Huntingdon, and some of her constituents work at Huntingdon Life Sciences.

We want to cover not only besetting and poisonous postal communications, but many other issues. I am worried that there is insufficient time and that we may argue sensibly about matters such as DNA only to discover that we have just the last afternoon to discuss matters concerning Huntingdon Life Sciences. That is the Minister's proposal—I have seen the draft timetable. That is insufficient time, because we have additional new clauses to discuss.

10.45 am

We want to exclude people who assault police officers in the execution of their duty from the home detention curfew scheme. It is not right that 200 people who have assaulted police officers should have been let out of prison having served less than half their sentence. That is bad for police morale, police recruitment and law and order. We want to debate that matter in considering a new clause. We want to debate the issue of sex offenders. We may not get time for that, or the Minister may say, at 5 pm on 8 March, that we can go on all night to discuss those matters. We could end up discussing the most important issues at 2 am when other issues have been discussed at more convenient hours.

Either one believes that the House should deal with matters of importance during daylight hours, when people are fresh, and that modernisation brings benefits, or one does not. Some hon. Members do not, but the Minister cannot have it both ways.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend has touched on an important point. Many wide implications arise from the new clauses that we have not seen concerning the protection of research scientists. I should declare an interest, because both my parents are research scientists, although they are now retired and were not involved in animal research. I am aware of the important work of Dr. Mark Matfield and the Research Defence Society. That excellent society will have proposals that should be considered fully and properly while the Committee is fresh, and not in the middle of the night.

Mr. Heald: I agree that those matters are important. The eyes of the nation are on us. People are concerned about how scientists are protected while conducting valuable medical research. There is also debate on the safeguards that should be available to the parents of children who have had their organs removed. Medical governance and how science is dealt with are at the centre of political debate, and the Minister may be condemning us to a late night sitting to consider such matters. Preparation time would be curtailed because of the introduction of extra sittings to meet his unrealistic timetable. That is not right.

Other issues for consideration in Committee cannot be dealt with quickly. The Minister suggested that we can deal with the whole issue of fixed penalty notices today. We will find out whether that is realistic. There are many aspects of fixed penalty notices, as we will soon discover. The Criminal Bar Association alone has produced a long consultation response on the subject that mentions a raft of legal issues, including human rights legislation. Discussion of that will not be easy.

Other issues for consideration include ensuring that stop orders are properly targeted on licensed premises, and whether there should be tougher penalties for people under 18 who attempt to purchase alcohol. Lawyers tell me, although I know that the Minister does not like them—

Mr. Charles Clarke: I have great respect for them.

Mr. Heald: That is a new one. That may be because lawyers, such as the Home Secretary and Prime Minister, surround the Minister.

We also need to discuss travel restrictions on drug trafficking offenders. I am in favour of that, in principle, but we need to consider circumstances in which first-time offenders may require a suspension.

The extent of the bureaucracy involved in child curfew schemes has been raised with me by police organisations.

The CBI has concerns about how Office of Fair Trading information will be sent to foreign competition authorities that have different laws from ours. That may put our companies in jeopardy when they have done nothing wrong in this country.

We should also consider the safety and privacy of legally privileged documents under the new seizure powers, and the use of video and audio links to extend detention periods, which is causing disquiet among those who are concerned about civil rights.

If someone, perhaps a vulnerable person, was being detained, or there were concerns about the way in which a detention was being managed, it is possible that the person authorising the continued detention might never see or talk to the detainee. It is worrying that the detainee would have no right to make representations about this, that and the other to the person who was about to authorise the extension of the detention. We need to explore that.

The retention of DNA and fingerprints in cases where people are found not guilty, or are not charged, has been mentioned not only by us but by the Liberal Democrats. I am sure that on such human rights issues they will want, as they customarily do, to raise the issue of liberty and the handling of individual rights.

We need assurances from the Minister about the curriculum for police training, which is absent from the Bill. Is it right to introduce a raft of new ranks for senior officers so that there are far more ranks above inspector than below? Why is he not prepared to give us an extra day, when he has discovered that his pledge of 16 sittings cannot be delivered on anything like a civilised timetable? We have grave concerns about the programme resolution.

Several hon. Members rose—

The Chairman: Order. I remind the Committee that this debate is limited to half an hour. A number of questions have been asked. If hon. Members want the Minister to respond, they must allow time for that.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton and I welcome you, Mr. Gale. I have served under you before and am very happy to do so again.

As the Committee has heard, my hon. Friend sat on the Programming Sub-Committee on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Confronted with the Government's revised proposal for fewer sittings, she made a practical suggestion to get round it; it was neither our choice nor our ideal, but it would extend the length of sittings to give us roughly the time that would have been available originally. We are unhappy that programming, which could be a good system in theory, is not good in practice.

It is nonsense to decide immediately after Second Reading for how long the Committee is to sit, before anyone has had a chance to reflect on the issues that have arisen, the number of people with an interest and the general tenor of the debate. That contradicts the ethos of looking at a Bill and then deciding how long is needed for debate. We shall continue to oppose programme motions on the Floor of the House for as long as they continue immediately to follow the Second Reading debate.

We supported a 16-sitting proposal for what is the Government's flagship Bill of the Session. By any definition, that is constrained, because, as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said, it is not only the Bill and any amendments that are tabled that we shall discuss. In theory, there may even be amendments tabled by Labour Members, although they are rare these days, given the nature of the modern, compliant Labour party—

Mr. Charles Clarke: Not so.

Mr. Hughes: I do not count Government amendments. The Government table hordes of amendments to every Bill. They come in rafts. We know that there is likely to be a new clause relating to animal protesters. Although we have not seen it yet, we welcome it in principle and are ready to discuss it, as we hope that it can be agreed. As the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire said, new clauses have already been tabled, and we shall table some too. There is much work to do on the Government's flagship Bill.

The whole system is rendered even more ridiculous because the Government continue to hold to the view—the Prime Minister expressed it the other day—that fixed term Parliaments are a bad idea and we should allow prime ministerial flexibility. If we knew the date of the general election, we could have a sensible programme for our political life.

The truth is that the Bill will almost certainly not become law if there is a general election this spring. So we sit here, going through the motions and having lovely discussions about curfew orders, but it is all froth and Government window dressing. The Government want to look tough, even though the Bill will not become law. Civil servants do the work, lobbyists come to brief us, researchers do all the background work and MPs will spend hours discussing it, but that will all probably be lost because the Prime Minister will pull the plug and call an election for March, April or May.

On the inner workings of the Committee, we would welcome sight of the so far hidden proposal on exactly how we are to divide our time. We shall vote against this resolution because we understood that it was to be a 16-sitting resolution. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton tried to ameliorate the situation, but that is not our preferred option. If the Government get their way on the motion—which they probably will—we hope that they will give an early indication of how we will break down the time and fit in the five hours that my hon. Friend said will be needed.

It would be sensible to have plenty of notice of that, not just for you, Mr. Gale, and your co-Chairman, but for us all, so that we can plan our lives intelligently. It would be helpful to have a rough idea of how long each major issue will take, and for that to be known publicly so that people interested in the Committee proceedings will know too.

There are at least 10 big issues in the Bill and I hope that we will give ourselves time to debate them. However, I regret that our time will be constrained and that Committee members from all parties might feel frustrated by the Government's proposals.

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