Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). In the middle of consideration of a Bill, it is wrong to table proposals that sit outside a proper framework of review that is under way as we speak. We wonder why the House is falling into disrepute, but it is because of the Government's tendency to propose legislation in that fashion. It was once described as government by press release. The Government say, ``Here is a little problem, but we can say that we are doing something about it by tacking it on to a Bill in an inappropriate place while the main issues are being properly reviewed in context.''

Although a perfectly good case can be made for including the matters in the Bill, the hon. Gentleman's argument is extremely strong. This is quite the wrong way to legislate. When that is considered with the fact that the whole of part III received no scrutiny in Committee, it is little wonder that the institution of which we should be proud to be a part is wholly incapable of doing its job and is not serving the people properly by scrutinising or passing legislation that has been considered in context.

The Chairman: Order. I thought that I had made it plain—I clearly did not, so let me do so now—that avenues are open to all hon. Members to discuss how the Committee shall proceed from now on. It would be helpful if they would use those available avenues, rather than making the same point over and over again. I understand the political point that is being made; I do not have a view on it, it is simply a matter of fact. As I said at the beginning of the sitting, there are other forums in the House within which that can be discussed and other avenues open to the Committee it is chooses to take them. The matter should be allowed to rest there.

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful for the comments that do not relate to unhappiness with the specifics. By the way, the specifics have not come from the back of a civil servant's envelope; nor are they ill considered in themselves. For example, on the kerb crawling provision, hon. Members from all parties have mounted a wide campaign for a long time, to which we are trying to respond. However, I acknowledge to the hon. Members for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that, in principle, their case for an holistic approach to law reform is powerful. In general, that is what the Government are seeking to do by establishing reviews. However, in each case, it must be judged whether the best is the enemy of the good.

A strong argument is made that kerb crawling has been of concern for a long time. It is not merely in the general category of sex offences, which involve a whole series of forms of legislation. The Government have sought to give a high priority to issues of prostitution by, for the first time ever, allocating resources—grants from the crime reduction programme—to deal with them. Straying into clause 71, the current climate on issues of pornography and children is changing—rightly so, and we are keen to encourage that. We think that such provisions should come into effect as soon as possible.

So while I accept the thrust of the principled argument that has been made, I urge the Committee not to make the best the enemy of the good. I will discuss with my colleagues whether we can find a way to act more holistically for a new Parliament. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey frequently—and, in my opinion, rightly—argues for codification of the law. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary told the House during the past week that he fundamentally accepts the thrust of such arguments and wants to move down that line. I agree with the hon. Member for Reigate that esteem for the House and for hon. Members will be the greater the more that we approach such matters in an holistic way, but that does not argue against the provisions, simply because the best should not be the enemy of the good.

Mr. Hughes: We are willing at any time to have discussions with the Minister and his Labour colleagues—whether or not they are in government—and with our Tory colleagues to try to reach maximum agreement, so that whichever party forms the Government can introduce a Bill that deals with all those things together. If we could have a process that precedes draft Bills, that would be helpful.

Mr. Clarke: To give the Committee an insight into government, I can inform hon. Members that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House makes strong arguments of the type that are being made here when she deals with such issues. She, too, is keen to have such a process. That is a product of the work of the Modernisation Committee, which we set up, and that is how we should consider the situation in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 70 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I apologise, because I am conscious, having heard the tail end of your remarks, that I might be trying your patience. However, this is, as I am sure you will appreciate, an entirely fresh point of order, of which I have only become aware this morning. You and other members of the Committee will have noticed that I slipped out briefly while my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire was making his opening remarks. I did so because I had received an urgent message that a communication relevant to the Bill had arrived in my parliamentary post this morning. That communication is from an important body—the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales—that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee would respect.

The institute wanted to make some serious points about a series of clauses. Unfortunately, the letter has arrived too late, because it concerns those clauses that we dealt with last night, when Mr. Hood was chairing the Committee. However, I thought that it should be placed on the record that, even had the communication arrived in my post yesterday—and one might say that the ICA should have sent it out earlier—we would not have been able to discuss many of the points, because a large number of the clauses about which the ICA expressed serious concerns were those that we did not get the chance to debate.

The Chairman: I have already ruled on that. It is abundantly plain. The Programming Sub-Committee made a recommendation that was carried by this Committee. The recommendation set out the order of consideration and the programme for consideration of the Bill. I do not know how many times I must say this: there is an option available, through the usual channels, to reconsider that if it is considered necessary to do so. The broader aspect of the matter must be considered by the Modernisation Committee and may be raised by hon. Members on the Floor of the House. I do not expect it to be raised in this Committee again.

Clause 71

Importation of indecent or obscene material

Question Proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Heald: The clause adds to the list of serious arrestable offences the importation of indecent or obscene material. To what extent would that allow Customs and Excise to obtain disclosure of material from overseas in respect of the importation of indecent or obscene material? To what extent would it improve or increase the powers available to Customs and Excise as regards interception of communications?

Mr. Charles Clarke: The additional powers that the clause gives to the police are, first, to enable customs officers to delay notification of an arrest to another party or to a solicitor, thus reducing the likelihood that valuable evidence could be destroyed by associates of the person arrested. Secondly, it will allow those arrested to be questioned for longer periods before charge. Thirdly, it will assist customs officers to obtain search warrants when paedophile material is detected, and enable them to apply for a greater range of material than would otherwise be the case.

The powers are not greater than those given to the police in domestic legislation, but as a matter of policy, customs officers intend to use their additional powers only in the case of the importation of indecent material involving children, or of extremely exploitative and therefore potentially obscene material involving adults.

The powers are not unusual—the child pornography offences under section 1 of the Protection of Children Act 1978 and the obscenity offences under section 2 of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 are already scheduled as serious, arrestable offences in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Extending that to importation offences is consistent with other measures taken to control the circulation of child pornography and other seriously abusive material. I hope that I have answered the hon. Gentleman's question, but I may not have done.

Mr. Heald: I understood the Minister's points, which are set out in the helpful explanatory notes. However, there were two points on which I sought clarification. We have international agreements with other countries, which enable us to obtain disclosure of information. We discussed that earlier in our proceedings. By classifying the offence as serious and arrestable, will we obtain greater access to information from other friendly countries? What difference will that classification make in matters such as interception and intrusive surveillance?

Mr. Clarke: I am sorry. I should have answered the second question. The hon. Gentleman asked it before, and I answered it by omission, as it were. I do not think that the classification would make a difference to interception and the issues that arose under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill. Neither do we think that it would make a difference to the disclosure powers of Customs and Excise in relation to overseas forces, although it does give greater powers under PACE. Thus the answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question is also no.

The extension of powers is as I set out. It is not really a matter of disclosure or interception. Nevertheless, I hope that it will be possible to agree that clause 71 should stand part of the Bill.

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