Mr. Blunkett: I want to link the review that we have been undertaking to further substantive consultation early in the new year, alongside the DfT's Bill, with the aim of securing a definition. I was pleased to be able to discuss the matter with my hon. Friend at length. Like a number of other Members on both sides of the House, he has been campaigning for a change in the law, and a revision is clearly necessary. However, as with so much to do with the Home Office, getting it right is not the same as having the right intention.
David Davis : The Home Secretary knows that I have a great deal of sympathy with what was said by the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), but may I return him to the impounding of uninsured cars? It worries me that police authorities do not always pursue prosecution for non-insurance when other charges are pending, or when the associated bureaucracy seems onerous. Will the Home Secretary associate himself with a general condemnation of that approach? Police constables should prosecute in such cases, not just through impounding but through the full force of the law.
Mr. Blunkett: I am a great enthusiast for the picking up of all offenders. If it is possible for us to make the process of dealing with them through the prosecution service more sophisticated, and make it as easy as possible for the police to deal with prosecutions together rather than separately, we should try to do so. The right hon. Gentleman has made a very reasonable point.
All those measures bring together the necessary powers, local changes, the structures that oversee them, the new arrangements for accountability and the linking
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of the international with the neighbourhood. I believe that they will make a substantial difference in protecting us from organised criminality, engaging people positively with the criminal justice system and bringing confidence to everyone
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way; I sensed his peroration and I wanted to ask him a final question. He has generously suggested that in considering this important Bill in Committee, many important debates should take place and many important matters should be considered in detail. Indeed, amendments might even be made to it; who knows? However, is he satisfied that the time allowed in the programme motion will be remotely sufficient to enable the taking place of the process that he himself has suggested should take place here in the House of Commons?
Mr. Blunkett: As far as I am aware, we reached an agreement on the Bill's programming, and we introduced Second Reading as quickly as was humanly possible. I am offering the opportunity for such debate, and where measures can be improved, we should do so. I make that offer in respect of consideration both in Committee and on Report.
I shall not go back to my peroration, in case someone else decides to intervene. This is a practical Bill with a practical application. It is about making a difference to people's lives, and I am very happy to recommend it to the House.
David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): During last week's debate on the Queen's Speech, I told the Home Secretary that the Conservative party supports the establishment of the Serious Organised Crime Agency. I shall attempt to follow him as best I can, although not, the House will be happy to know, in considering every clause in the Bill.
The Opposition have advocated the creation of such an agency for a long time, so I repeat our support for it today, but the Government must not fudge this proposal as they have some other Conservative ones. The establishment of an effective agency is fundamental to Britain's ability to fight organised and serious crime. I am always concerned that a policy that enjoys all-party support might turn out very badly if it does not get rigorous scrutiny.
I knew that I would get support from my right hon. Friend for that point, at least, which is particularly true where civil liberties are concerned. So although my party supports the establishment of SOCA, we will consider parts 1 and 2 of the Bill very carefully.
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The agency takes up only some 50 per cent. of the Bill, and it is perhaps appropriate that a so-called SOCA Bill is a Bill of two halves. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] I knew the House would like that one. But we are pleased to see the inclusion of clauses aimed at stopping harassment by animal rights activists, and we hope to have a sensible discussion on them in Committee, and to add further to such provisions to ensure that communities, companies and individuals have adequate protection against pernicious activists.
But the rest of the Bill is an exercise in tidying-up Labour ideas that have failed to deliver the anticipated results. It also lumps together proposals that we support with some that we do not. It gives more power to community support officers, out-sources antisocial behaviour orders, attempts to stop the breaching of ASBOs, expands police powers, introduces new traffic and insurance offences, provides powers to stop and search for fireworks, introduces an offence of incitement to religious hatred, stops trespassing on a designated site, andMembers seem to be very interested in this onedirects behaviour in the vicinity of Parliament. There is more, but that shows the range of initiatives that the Government are trying to smuggle through in this Bill. The title of the Bill suggests a focus on organised crime and the police, but it does far more than that.
SOCA is much needed, but it is going to have its work cut out, as the Home Secretary himself seemed to recognise. Let us consider drug trafficking, which is one of its prime targets. An estimated 35 million tonnes of heroin and 45 million tonnes of cocaine are smuggled into the United Kingdom each year. The Bill may well attack the racketeers, butat the risk of giving a Blairite sermon to the Home Secretaryit is an attack on the symptoms of crime, not the causes. The Home Secretary himself said that criminals are better capitalists than real capitalists. He will of course understand that I would not put it that way, but it is certainly true that the international trade in drugs is a fluid and fast-changing marketplace. It is therefore hard to stamp out the supply chain: when one importation route closes, another opens. As The Economist recently said,
So although SOCA will be useful in breaking up the cartels, that by itself is not enough. That is why I raised with the Home Secretary on various occasions my concern at the Government's abject failure in eradicating Afghan opium crops. To stop the drugs trade, one has to disrupt supply as well as demand; however, that job will be made much harder as a result of our porous borders. Many of our points of entry currently lack the rigorous security measures that would make organised crime much harder to carry out. This issue has been raised with the Home Office, in the context of SOCA, by various senior police officers, so I hope that we will see more work on that front later this year.
Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab):
Following decades of abject failure in Colombiaall the efforts there have not reduced the production of drugs; in fact,
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they have reduced that country to bloody chaos and permanent warare we not doing the same thing in Afghanistan, where drug production has increased? Even if we were successful in decreasing production, it would then spread to Pakistan, Myanmar and Kazakhstan, just as production in Colombia has spread to Peru and Bolivia. Is not trying to solve the problems on the streets of Birmingham and Chicago by disrupting the economies of third-world countries futile, and is there not a grave danger that we are embarking on the "Colombia-isation" of much of central Asia?
David Davis: The hon. Gentleman has an honourable but very different view of drugs management from mine. He is a liberaliser, and he knows that I disagree with him, although I respect his view. I did not intend to dwell on this point, but the simple fact is that the British Government accepted responsibility for eradication of the drugs trade in Afghanistan, and having done so they should pursue that responsibility. However, I am told by American drug officers, among others, that last year, Afghan heroin flooded the British market and that this year, because of our lack of action, it is flooding the world market. That disastrous outcome is the result of the Government's taking responsibility but not carrying it through. If the hon. Gentleman believes in his argument, he should have made it to his own Government at the beginning of this process, so that somebody else could have taken responsibility for dealing with the problem.
People trafficking was described yesterday by Sir Stephen Lander as a bigger problem even than drug smuggling. In truth, that has been apparent for at least five years. He admits that the UK is at or near the top of the list of targets for people smugglers, as it is for drug smugglers. We all know of the vicious criminal networks that people traffickers feed, using illegal immigrants in the drugs trade, the sex trade and many other illegal activities. The Home Secretary doubtless does not disagree with that, although he admits to not knowing how many people are in the country illegally. Any number of initiatives, new organisations and schemes can be concocted, but the most effective measures would surely be 24-hour, fully manned surveillance and embarkation controls.
We are now told that SOCA will not be the British FBI that some feared, but as I pointed out to the Home Secretary during his speech, we are concerned about the rights and powers of those who will work for it. Civilians who work for it will be given police, Customs and immigration powers. Traditionally, Parliament has given police, Customs and immigration officers specific, often very intrusive, powers that are needed for their particular tasks. Now, they will all be under the direction of one manthe director-generaland in theory, under his control any agent can exercise any one of a wide range of powers.
I was going to ask the Home Secretary what guidance will be given in that regard, but he elaborated on the issue somewhat in his speech and discussed the restrictions with respect to accreditation. However, I hope that, in winding up, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), will explain whether civilian agents will have the same training as a police, Customs
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and immigration officer combined. That would be a pretty onerous load, but such training is implicit in what the Home Secretary said.
The Bill's provisions make the agency accountable to the Home Secretary, and in that regard my initial reading of the Bill was a little different from the Home Secretary's description in his speech. SOCA will be required to submit an annual report and will be inspected by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. But given the agency's range of powers and its importance, would it not be wise to have specific arrangements for parliamentary scrutinyI am thinking beyond just scrutiny by the Home Affairs Committee, because in the first few years of SOCA's existence such a requirement will be fairly onerousand to get Parliament to debate SOCA's work annually, at least for the first few years, so that we can see how this very important agency beds down?
We are still concerned about whether the agency will lead to a skills loss in the national police force. We share the Police Federation's concerns that SOCA might be considered an elite unit that creams off all the best policemen. There are a large number of extremely dedicated and talented people in conventional policing, and portraying them as second class would damage police morale. We will look in detail at the way in which SOCA co-ordinates its work with the policethe Home Secretary has recognised the importance of that. In particular, we will look at the impact of the new agency on the autonomy of chief constables, which is vital to the independence of our police forces.
The Home Secretary has previously pointed out in the House that organised crime plays an important role in feeding terrorism. I accept that the new agency does not have a specific role in relation to terrorism, but I should be grateful if, in her winding-up speech, the Under-Secretary provided more detail on its role. How, for example, will it work with the counter-terrorism agencies, which cover an enormous amount of the same ground? In connection with that, when the Home Secretary published the White Paper on SOCA earlier this year, there was much talk of changes to the intercept rules, which would make it possible to lift the ban on phone intercepts in court. That is as useful against organised crime as it is against terrorism. The House of Commons library notes that
"a proposal to allow the use of intercept material is still under consideration. Ministers are expected to announce their conclusions on the findings of a Home Office review before the end of the year, which could make it possible to add new clauses".
I told the Home Secretary that we would support the use of intercepts as long as there was proper scrutiny of the measure to ensure that steps are taken to protect innocent people from being convicted on intelligence that turns out to be wrong. However, I warn him that we will not tolerate the insertion of clauses that pose a fundamental challenge to civil liberties at the last minute and without scrutiny. That is an extremely important point.
The Bill proposes an overhaul of police powers. It moves away from consent-based policing towards policing by discretion. Amendments to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 extend powers to search premises to seize evidence. Section 8 of PACE is changed to introduce a new all-premises search warrant in addition to the existing search warrant for specific
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premises, thus allowing constables to search all premises "occupied or controlled" by the person named on the warrant. That it is worth while, as it will clearly help to solve problems faced by the police when dealing with criminals with multiple premises, but are the Government not concerned that the measures put a great deal of discretionary power in the hands of the police? The Bill outlines plans for civilian staff to be designated as staff custody officers for the purposes of PACE. Subject to the obvious practical concerns about training and supervision, some of which the Home Secretary dealt with in his speech, I support the proposal. We need more police on the streets and less paperwork, and I believe that it will help to achieve that.
Moving on to measures to deal with illegal animal rights activism, the clauses themselves are not contested at all by the Conservative party. We welcome the fact that something is finally being done, even though it is a little late and is not enough. The Bill should include provisions to protect companies against a targeted campaign and to protect shareholders or names from publicity when a company is being targeted. We can make constructive proposals to tackle such problems. The legislation must be effective, and fighting against such offences requires determination, skill, and a proper range of powers. We believe that the provisions should be expanded, and we will table amendments to that effect.
There are some parts of the Bill with which do not entirely agree or with which we disagree. We are concerned about the increased powers for community support officersa group of people whose effectiveness has yet to be assessed. In his contribution to our debate on the Queen's Speech, the Home Secretary admitted that assessments of CSOs are still under way, both within and outside the Home Office. It may be premature to provide CSOs with more powers, as that may put them into situations for which they are not prepared. The chairman of the Police Federation said:
We respect and support the concept of visible policing, but with more power comes more responsibility along with more duty which, under this Government, means more paperwork, thus cutting the cost-effectiveness of CSOstheir primary attraction, it appears, to the Government so far. That "powers creep" is taking place at a time when forces such as Hampshire have turned down the extra CSOs ring-fenced for them. The chairman of Hampshire Police Authority said that
Hampshire wanted the 13 police officers that that money would have provided. In Question Time last weekand I do not know whether the Home Secretary chastised him afterwardsthe Prime Minister made an unusually interesting comment, when he said of policemen that
That may have been a slip of the tongue, but it was certainly revealing. The public do not want policing on the cheap, which is precisely what the Bill is trying to encourage. They want fully trained police officers whom they can trust to cut crime.