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Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Will my hon. Friend point out to the House that that scenario is not as far fetched as it is sometimes made out to be? In a number of our fellow member states of the European Union, political pressure can result in the use of such powers. That is a possibility and, as my hon. Friend said, it should not be discounted merely because we have been lucky enough to live in an atmosphere in which that has not happened to any great extent in the past.
Mr. Mitchell: My right hon. Friend makes a good point. Those concerns apply to the potentially oppressive and excessive presence of inspectors at domestic or residential premises, and I have no doubt that his point is correct. We did not have the pleasure of his presence in Committee, but I assure him that the Opposition made such points trenchantly.
In conclusion, the investigatory powers are significant and Parliament should not grant them without good reason. Conservative Members reluctantly accept the Minister's general point that investigatory powers must be enhanced, but the legislation is defective in the ways that I have set out this afternoon.
I have set out at some length the safeguards that we seek to place in the Bill, which would deal with how long an inspector can stay on premises, when they can enter those premises and the test they must pass in order to do so. In Committee, I drew attention to a likely scenario in which a harassed mother is feeding her children, with an aged, possibly infirm, relative upstairs, and an inspector is able to enter the premises without adequately demonstrating that they should be there. The inspector then stays on an open-ended basis for as long as they wish without being bound to answer questions of the kind that I propose.
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These are strong powers, as was pointed out in Committee by a former Labour Minister who listened to the arguments advanced on both sides. The measure would significantly enhance the powers of inspectors at the expense of our constituents. The Minister will have to make an extraordinarily good case in order to undermine my arguments and to prevent us from dividing the House.
Mr. Fallon: There are some 23 amendments in this group, and I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not deal with all of them. I want to support my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) on amendment No. 1. His case is so overwhelming that I am surprised to learn that it was not supported in Committee. Adding these words to the clause would do no harm to anybody and would considerably strengthen the position. I hope that the Minister, with her usual courtesy, will at least do the House the service of explaining why that cannot be done. I shall certainly support the amendment if it is pressed to a Division.
"he thinks that to do so will materially assist him in the exercise of his functions".
I do not like using "thinks" as a test. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield proposes in other amendments to remove the word "thinks" and either to add to it or to replace it with a test of reasonable belief. Is it enough for an investigator to stand up in a court of law and say, "I undertook this investigation and entered these premises because I thought it would assist me"? I am not a lawyer, but I presume that if pressed he would be able to say, "Well, that is what I thought at the time; I may not think it now, but I thought it then", or, "I was misguided, and it turned out that I was wrong, but that is what I thought."
That test is not sufficient, and I should prefer it to be replaced by the test of reasonable belief. The word "thinks" is entirely subjective, and it would be extremely unfortunate were it left in the clause. I hope that the Minister will explain why it is used and whether that has any precedent in previous legislation that allows people to enter or to remain on premises.
Mr. Gummer: I sometimes think that it is helpful to the House to insert the negative of an amendment into a Bill in order to demonstrate why it is necessary. The Minister might find it reasonable to suggest that if one does not insert the words in amendment No. 1,
"Where there appears to be good reason",
one is really saying, "Even when there appears not to be good reason." If the Minister does not insert those words, she is effectively condoning circumstances in which there appears to be no good reason for such activities to take place. In my long experience of business, I have met with nothing but courtesy and helpfulness from those concerned with companies' money, and I therefore speak without angst about people who are likely to perform the activities that we
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are considering. I simply want to put the case for our being careful to ensure that the public are happy about the way in which we deal with investigations of all kinds.
It is possible for investigations to arise perfectly properly from misinformation and misunderstanding or simply because people have presented their accounts in a way that leads to questions that are not immediately answerable. Some investigations will, therefore, always be carried out, in reasonable circumstances, of people who have nothing to hide but for whom it would be embarrassing if it were thought that they had behaved other than correctly.
I therefore do not suggest that there will not be occasions when investigations take place to protect the public and ensure that there is no dishonesty, and it is discovered that no dishonesty has occurred and that there was no reason for the investigation, which was nevertheless properly carried out. However, it is difficult for one's constituents to understand that. Several constituents have approached me to point out the huge damage done to them by investigations that have turned out to be groundless. I cannot blame the investigatory authorities because the facts as presented to them made an investigation necessary. In some cases, the way in which it was conducted or the fact that it was made public had a serious effect on business.
It is proper for us to consider the wording carefully for two reasons. First, that would protect our constituents in the circumstances in which they are investigated. Secondly, it is important to ensure that our constituents feel that somebody has thought about the circumstances. I have participated in several discussions about changes to, for example, the Finance Bill. It is clear from them that, the more complicated we make matters, the more our constituents feel harried and harassed simply by the difficulty of understanding what they should be doing.
That is also true about responsibilities that we place on directors' shoulders. I am in favour of thatI believe that directors should have more responsibilities. However, the quid quo pro is recognising that there is a fear and a concern that needs to be assuaged. I wonder whether it would be easy to say to a constituent that the Government are not prepared to insist that some things happen only when there appears to be a good reason. I would not like to hold that discussion in my surgery.
Would the Minister be happy to sit opposite someone who says, "This happened and there was no good reason for it. I've been told that it could happen because there was no protection"? I believe that she would find that difficult. She might have an esoteric argument that she could present in Committee, but face to face with a constituent, she would find it hard.
I agree but I was trying to address the Minister. It would be even more embarrassing for her. She would have to say, "I stopped something happening in the House of Commons so that fishing expeditions could go on." At least I could say, "I fought against this because I don't approve of fishing expeditions." The Minister would have to say that she was in favour of fishing expeditions. That would be difficult for her.
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I should like to turn to amendment No. 2, which proposes replacing the word "thinks" with the words "reasonably believes". I have a number of constituents who think that Britain should leave the European Union. I think that they are entirely wrong. That is not a reasonable proposition, in my opinion, but there are those who hold that view. Some of my constituents think that Joseph Smith found the Book of Mormon on a hill, where he was led by the angel Moroni. They think that, but I think that they are entirely wrong, and that it is not possible for them reasonably to believe it as a matter of fact. I certainly do not think that it is possible reasonably to believe that Britain should leave the European Union. There is, therefore, a fundamental difference between "thinks" and "reasonably believes", and it is quite clear that, in normal circumstances, we can draw that distinction.
I find it extremely hard to understand why the Government do not like the words "reasonably believes". They are a reasonable Government, I am often told. They certainly appear to be a believing Government, otherwise the Prime Minister would not have been able to come to the House to speak on the Iraq war in the way in which he did. So they are a believing Government; they are also a thinking Government. What is wrong with the words "reasonably believes"?
What is wrong with the words "on reasonable grounds", which are proposed in amendment No. 3? Why should "thinks" be better than "on reasonable grounds"? In normal circumstances, we know precisely the distinction between the two concepts. Thinking involves a matter of opinion. People think the most ridiculous things, but they cannot reasonably believe those things, and they cannot have reasonable grounds for believing them.
Amendment No. 5 proposes the inclusion of the words "during normal office hours". The Government often talk about the importance of entrepreneurial activity, and they are determined to appear in favour of small businesses. However, they do not seem to realise how small businesses begin and bear their first fruits. They often begin in a domestic situation, in circumstances in which the business is able to do what it needs to do because it does not have the overheads that a larger business would have. It is important to realise that we have more unconventional businesses now than we have ever had before. It is therefore reasonable to include a provision about normal office hours to protect people from unreasonable intervention and interference in certain circumstances.
I also want to point out the importance of some of the time limits that are being proposed. I do not know anything about the Minister's private life or her private reactions, but a large number of my constituents are easily frightened, even when they have no reason to be. We have all had people come into our surgeries to describe cases in which they are entirely innocent, but in which they have been frightened by the tone of a letter, by the way in which people have approached them, or by
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the fact that they have been held without being given an answer for a long time. All those things cause fear where fear is unnecessary.
When Members of Parliament are asked why they came into politics, most would say that one of the reasons was to ensure that people were not bullied, and to stand up for people who found it difficult to stand up for themselves. These provisions are an example of how we can, in a small way, do something for such people. We are merely saying that there are necessary interferences in the way in which individuals carry on their lives, particularly if their lives are to some extent public, in the sense that those people run businesses. We are not objecting to that, or making any suggestion that there should not be investigations. Nor are we saying that such investigations should not be given all the aid that they should necessarily and properly have. We are saying something quite differentnamely, that the terms of those investigations should not unnecessarily raise fears or concerns among people who are innocent and have no real reason to fear or be concerned. Therefore I hope that the Minister will think seriously about these small amendments, which are nevertheless important. What they do is assure the public that we have thought through the circumstances in which they may find themselves.
That is my last point: Parliament is often thought ill of because the public do not believe that we have put ourselves in their position in such ordinary, common circumstances. They think that we have not felt for them in relation to how they may be frightened or concerned if matters go on longer than is necessary; that we have not thought that they can be seriously inconvenienced or have their business entirely closed down if people act without good reason, act because they "think" rather than "reasonably believe", or act because they "think" rather than "have reasonable grounds".
I hope that the Minister will recognise that this is not mere nit-picking about individual words, but a different way of examining the relationship between Parliament and the public. If the public understood that we understood the positions in which they quite easily find themselves, they would be more willing to accept the legislation that we pass and to have respect for this institution. They would feel that when the Minister went to her surgery, she would not have to pretendshe could say that she insisted that none of this was done unless there were reasonable grounds, unless people could reasonably expect, and unless there appeared to be good reasons. I did that. I did not need to be pushed by the HouseI saw why it was sensible. If she cannot do that, it is an embarrassment to her, and I would hate to embarrass her or any of her colleagues.
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