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Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Denham: I am sorry, but I must make progress.

During debate on those provisions in the other place, there was broad support for the proposal that the chief constable of the British Transport police should be able to establish community safety accreditation schemes. Accreditation of such security personnel would bring immediate benefits in tackling antisocial behaviour on the railways, so I propose to introduce amendments to bring the British Transport police within the ambit of the accreditation arrangements.

The other place saw fit to overturn the conclusions of its own Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee by rejecting the power to amend chapter 1 of part 4 by order. The Home Affairs Committee acknowledged that the powers of CSOs may need to be amended in the light of experience, so we shall need to look at how best to ensure that the Bill confers the necessary flexibility.

Chapter 2 of part 4 includes provisions to modify and supplement police powers. There is not time to mention all of them, so I will confine my remarks to two areas. As the law stands, an unconscious driver can avoid prosecution for a drink-driving offence because he is unable to consent to the taking of a blood sample. The Bill therefore enables a blood sample to be taken from an unconscious driver for subsequent analysis once he has regained consciousness and consents to the analysis. As now, a refusal to agree to the analysis will be a criminal

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offence. The Bill provides for nurses to take blood samples in routine road traffic cases, but since its introduction we have received representations from chief officers that that does not go far enough. It is important that the person taking the blood or other intimate sample is appropriately qualified and trained; their job title is irrelevant. We will therefore introduce amendments to enable qualified paramedics to take samples both under the Road Traffic Act 1988 and under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

The Bill includes measures further to enhance the effectiveness of antisocial behaviour orders. I shall not go into them in detail, but I know that they will be welcomed on both sides of the House, given our previous debates on ASBOs.

Part 6 removes the anachronistic bar on foreign nationals other than Commonwealth nationals and citizens of the Irish Republic joining the police service. As in other walks of life, recruitment to the police service should be assessed on merit and determined according to relevant objective criteria. A person's place of birth does not provide evidence of whether he or she would make a good police officer.

Finally, I shall deal with sex offender orders and give notice to the House of two more amendments that we will introduce in Committee. Sex offender orders are an important tool in the management of the most dangerous offenders living in the community. If someone previously convicted of a sex offence starts to act in such a way that the police believe that he may soon reoffend, they can apply for a sex offender order, which includes a list of prohibitions designed to prevent him reoffending. If he breaches any of those prohibitions he can be sentenced to up to five years' imprisonment. For the majority of offenders subject to an order the existing system works well, but it has become apparent that there are real problems when the police have to deal with offenders who move from one area to another part of the country or between the separate jurisdictions of the United Kingdom.

We would therefore like to amend the law in two interrelated ways. First, we propose giving police throughout the UK greater flexibility in the way in which they apply for orders and, secondly, because the original provisions applied separately to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, we propose to make them apply across the UK as a whole. In addition, we would like to provide for interim sex offender orders in England and Wales, which would allow us to deal more effectively with the most urgent cases, and follows the success of interim orders in Scotland.

The Police Reform Bill will help the police service to deliver a better and more consistent service to the public. It will build on successes over the past five years in reducing crime and tackling antisocial behaviour, while recognising that much more still needs to be done. Reform is essential if the police are to meet public expectations of improved public services; I believe that the police service recognises the need for reform, and is up to the challenge. The Bill will give it the means to get on with the job, and I commend it to the House.

6.6 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): The Minister will be congratulated by the Home Office; he was clearly given a brief to speak fast and say little, and he has succeeded admirably.

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This is a major Bill; it is one of the most significant Bills introduced by the Government this Session and we agree with or acquiesce in roughly 98 per cent. of it. However, we disagree almost wholly with 2 per cent. of it., as the Home Secretary knows. He knows that the House of Lords took the same position after mature reflection, because the Bill includes major issues of principle that will change entirely the relationship between the Government in Whitehall and the country's police forces. He knows those things, because he has spoken about them. However, he has chosen to make a speech in Cardiff about a Bill that he removed from this Session's legislative timetable. It is possible that he lacks influence over the business managers of the House, but that is doubtful.

It is also unlikely that the Home Secretary was entirely unaware that our debate was rescheduled for a later hour as a result of the concoction of several other parliamentary events this afternoon. We are led to believe by the evidence before us that the Home Secretary wishes the Bill, as far as possible, to disappear. I have news for him: we will not allow it to do so. We are debating a major issue which deserves consideration because the Government are taking, for understandable and perfectly upright reasons, a wrong turn in British history. We must make sure that that wrong turn is not taken.

The primary issue concerns what used to be clause 5. The Minister and the Home Secretary have consistently maintained—the Minister did so today—that it does not fundamentally alter the relationship between Whitehall and police forces. The Minister maintained that it does not give the Home Secretary a new power of direction over police forces. A reading of the clause, after the Government's propositions were half-added to it, but before its removal by the Lords, does not bear out that interpretation.

The clause is headed "Power to give directions to chief officers". It tells us that the Home Secretary, who is mentioned 21 times in the first four pages of a Bill that he does not choose to defend in the House, will have the power to ensure that whenever he, and not somebody else, judges that any police force, or any part of any police force, is not efficient—efficiency to be determined and defined by him—he may

Now, if there were merely those two subsections, we could have thought that the Home Secretary intended the initiative to lie with the chief constable, but that is not the case. In subsection (4) we are told that if the Home Secretary does not like the action plan, he has the power

If the chief constable does not choose to revise the plan, he may then be forced

The fact is—this cannot be denied by anyone who reads the plain text of the Bill that was before us and which the Minister tells us he intends to reinstate—that the Bill, for the first time in our history, consciously gives to the Home Secretary the power to determine the way in which each of the police forces of this country goes about policing the district or districts for which that force is responsible.

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It is open to argument whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, and I would have had considerable respect for the Minister's position, and in particular for the Home Secretary's position, if the Home Secretary had come to the House today and argued openly for that proposition. He believes, and I can understand that belief, that he is sitting there in Whitehall—he has said as much repeatedly in the media—holding levers which, when he pulls them, have no visible effect on policing in this country. I sympathise with that feeling of frustration.

The Home Secretary and I share many desires to see, for example, the police back on the streets of our country. I understand that he would like the power to direct chief constables how to deploy their forces, but if he wishes to have that power he ought to come and defend the proposition. There are two arguments that the Home Secretary would have needed to meet and which the Minister would have needed to address in order to carry any conviction on that point.

The first argument is one of principle. However the process starts in practice, it could all too easily end by a politician in Whitehall exercising such influence over the day-to-day activities of chief constables and of those in command of the basic command units in their territories that, in effect, he begins to be the chief of police. There is a great danger to our democracy lurking in that proposition.

I do not say that the current Government would wish to abuse that power; they would not. I do not say that an immediately future Government would be likely to abuse it; they would not. But some day, people would look back at that clause and identify it as the moment when we had begun to slip into tyranny. That is too great a danger. [Interruption.] No, it is not hyperbole. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. We are sent to the House to be vigilant. We are sent here to look forward to possibilities with which legislation is pregnant, and the Bill is pregnant with that possibility.

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