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5 Nov 2002 : Column 190—continued

Serious Criminal

Lords amendment: No. 104, in page 34, line 3, leave out from Xis" to end of line 5 and insert
Xconvicted in the United Kingdom of an offence, and either—
(a) the offence is one for which the maximum period of imprisonment is ten years or more, or
(b) the offence has been specified for the purpose of this subsection under subsection (3A)."

Mr. Blunkett: I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this we may consider Lords amendment No. 105, amendment (c) thereto and Government motion to disagree thereto, Lords amendment No. 106, amendment (a) thereto, Government motion to disagree thereto and Government amendments (a) to (e) in lieu, Lords

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amendments Nos. 107 and 108, and Lords amendment No. 109, Government motion to disagree thereto and Government amendments (a) to (d) to the words so restored.

Mr. Blunkett: There appears to have been an interesting misunderstanding. As I understand it, their lordships did not after all intend to prevent us from disqualifying serious criminals, and I am very relieved to hear it. We might therefore gain agreement that there should be a clear presumption sending a clear message that those committing known and serious crimes will be disqualified.

However, I accept that Lord Kingsland made a valid point in saying that, as well as a clear definition so that everyone would understand it, there should be a schedule of offences that may fall outside the specific, defined sentence that is applicable, but which would constitute serious offences. Lord Kingsland referred to

I recognise that that is unacceptable. Although my presumption is that the judiciary, especially in relation to forthcoming legislation following the Queen's Speech, would always have sent such criminals into custody for more than two years, I accept that there may be some doubt. We are therefore prepared to accept a schedule that would deal with such serious offences. I stress that it would be about serious offences and not trivialities, and we would want to assure and reassure the House that that would be the case.

6.45 pm

Simon Hughes: The Home Secretary has confirmed that the existing law ensures that a court can recommend deportation of anybody convicted of a serious offence under the Immigration Act 1971 and that that would follow as a matter of course. The court has power to recommend deportation and he can act on such a recommendation.

Mr. Blunkett: A judge could recommend deportation, but we are entirely in the hands of individual judges as to whether that happens or whether they send people to jail for the oddest things, such as trying to get out of the country because their papers were incorrect in the first place. There have recently been some very interesting judgments.

I am trying to deal with this House, and not someone else, taking responsibility for determining that a serious criminal should be disqualified and removed from the country. I do not accept the Liberal amendment insisting that a custodial sentence of 10 years or more should have to be imposed for an offence to be deemed serious—far from it. Most people outside using reasonable definitions would consider that the provisions, including a defined set of circumstances under the schedule, would make sense.

I hope that their lordships accept that we have taken on board entirely the spirit of what they debated and now appear to have intended and that we can now agree.

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Of course, offences committed overseas would not include acts that are not offences here, so we will not deal with crimes that are considered in some countries to be political and will not, therefore, disqualify people who have a perfectly legitimate and serious case that they are risk of death or torture. Such people would not be detrimentally affected. It is in that spirit that I ask the House to accept the motion to disagree.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): It is always a pleasure to talk to the House with so much support from one's colleagues. [Laughter.] I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) in his place to give me that support.

The Home Secretary will agree that it is a pity that such an important clause can be scrutinised in the House for only about 15 minutes. That is the way in which we operate, but it is perhaps unfortunate. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the Bill contained no such clause on Second Reading and that it did not appear in Committee. He also knows that, in effect, it was rushed through unscrutinised with 14 or more other clauses and several schedules just before 10 pm on 21 May. That is a pity, because he is a great supporter of debate in this House. I hope that he accepts that I speak with some sincerity in saying that is a pity that such important issues sometimes do not get the opportunity to be fully debated.

Opposition Members appreciate what the Home Secretary has said. We think that the clause as it was originally drafted, so as to involve a sentence of two years or more, was flawed. Lord Kingsland pointed out in the House of Lords on several occasions that the presumption of being a serious criminal would apply only where a British court imposed a two-year prison sentence. That leads to potential difficulties, as the Home Secretary readily acknowledges. Wearing my judicial hat—I was regarded on Monday as a serious sentencer, but on Wednesday I shall perhaps be viewed as a less serious sentencer—I appreciate that there is a potential discrepancy in sentences that different judges hand down for the same crimes.

Another problem is that the refugee convention refers to especially serious crimes but the Government's test in the Bill originally related not to the seriousness of the crime but to the punishment. Under the Government's original proposals, a person who had been sentenced to two years for assault would be a serious criminal, but not someone who had been sentenced to 18 months for child pornography offences.

The sentences imposed by courts abroad posed an additional problem. They might vary tremendously from those imposed in this country, and might or might not relate to the seriousness of the crime. When their lordships changed the Bill, the media reports of the Government's defeat in the House of Lords were based on factually incorrect information. They claimed that the amendment that was passed simply raised the threshold for presumption as a serious criminal from a sentence of two years to one of 10 years. However, we were discussing crimes for which a 10-year sentence could be imposed.

Whenever I have stood at the Dispatch Box, the Home Secretary has always been kind to me. However, he was a little unkind, if press reports are true, in raging

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at the tactics of Conservative peers who joined the Liberal Democrats to block moves giving the Government the right to deport refugees who had committed serious crimes. He apparently pledged to reverse such Xsilliness". He now knows that the Conservative party in the House of Lords was doing its best to introduce genuine sense to the proceedings. The vote on the clause was won by 77 votes to 71. Many of right hon. Gentleman's supporters were absent that night.

Conservative Members in the House of Lords tabled another amendment on Third Reading to give the Home Secretary power to add a schedule of offences when the maximum penalty was less than 10 years but he believed that the offence was sufficiently serious to warrant the perpetrator's inclusion in the definition of a serious criminal.

Matters have moved on. The House of Lords had a mature debate about the subject, with the result that the Bill reverts to us in a different state. The Conservative proposal was that someone would constitute a serious criminal if he or she were convicted of either an offence for which the maximum sentence is 10 years or more, regardless of the sentence received, or any other offence specified by the Home Secretary as one to which the presumption of serious crime should apply, for example, child abduction, child pornography and drug dealing.

The Government's current proposal states that a person is deemed to be convicted

That is fair enough, and I hope that the Home Secretary will accept that Conservative Members believe that the proposal is good. Perhaps it is not perfect, but it moves the debate forward.

We believe that Government amendment (a) fulfils the convention's principles. We previously doubted whether the Government's proposals did that. However, proposed new subsection (3B)(b) provides that the order

I take it that that means that one would need to pray against it rather than using affirmative resolution procedure. Some people claim that the affirmative resolution procedure might be more satisfactory.

When the provision was first included in the Bill on the last night of Committee, we had no chance to consider it carefully. A combination of peers has examined the matter and pointed out the flaws. Consequently, the Home Secretary has presented a proposal that we regard as satisfactory. We are grateful, and I thank right hon. Gentleman for it.

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