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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I do not want this intervention to be regarded as evidence of an insatiable ambition to sit on the Standing Committee, as I entertain no such
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ambition. However, he said that the Bill covered almost everything but the kitchen sink. Will he enlighten me as to why we need clauses 129 to 131, which deal with vehicle registration and road traffic offences? The Vehicles (Crime) Act 2001, which passed through this House under the auspices of the Home Secretary's predecessor, the present Foreign Secretary, dealt with those matters, and I do not understand why they should need to be addressed in this Bill. I presume that they do need to be so addressed, but I should like to be enlightened.
Mr. Heath: I have no difficulty with those particular clauses, but one always wonders why the Home Office did not think of a particular provision in the last Bill that it presented to the House. Every Session, half a dozen Bills come from the Home Office. Another one is always due, and there is always plentiful opportunity for provisions to be attached to whichever legislative vehicle happens to be passing. That is the case here.
I want to return to SOCA. I pay tribute to its predecessor organisations in policing terms, the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad. I was involved with NCIS at an early stage in its genesis, as I sat on the standing committeethe predecessor of the service committeethat was set up by the previous Home Secretary to oversee the organisation. I believe that NCIS has done a tremendous job in providing and underpinning intelligence used by the police on a national basis. I hope that the lessons learned in the development of the two predecessor agencies will be incorporated in the ethos and context of the new agency.
However, some concerns remain. A principal concern affected the development of the regional crime squads and the National Crime Squad, and it has to do with the interface between national bodies and local constabularies. The feeling is that important areas of crimeand category 2 crimes are an obvious examplemay slip between the two jurisdictions. In the early days of the NCS, there was a strong feeling of discontinuity in that respect, and it is possible that there may be a new discontinuity in terms of intelligence sharing. We have corrected one difficulty by creating the new agency, but we may also be developing another problem. It is very important that that turns out not to be the case.
Questions remain about the status of officers. The Home Secretary knows the views of the Police Federation on this matter, which has rightly stressed the important concept of the officer-constable. We discard that at our peril, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman listens very carefully to what the federation has to say. The problem has practical consequences if officers are dissuaded from joining the new agency simply because they do not like the status or conditions attached. That is a matter of serious concern.
There are proper concerns about the Bill's application in Scotland, which was touched on in an intervention. I do not think that we have got to the bottom of this matter, but I am grateful to the Home Secretary for the conciliatory nature of his response. It is clear that work is still in progress, but we do have to question what happens when an officer belonging to the new agency
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operates in Scotland. The Scottish judicial system and police arrangements are totally different from ours, and it is possible that difficulties will arise as a result.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): My hon. Friend visits a point that I consider to be of supreme importance in the context of this Bill. I have raised this matter in the House already. I am not sure that it needs to be dealt with in the Bill, but does my hon. Friend agree that training lies at the heart of the problem? To put it simply, does he agree that people must not take on the powers of a constable in Scotland unless they have been properly trained in Scots law and procedure?
Mr. Heath: That is absolutely right. For instance, familiarity with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which applies to England and Wales, would not be sufficient to allow an officer to operate in Scotland. Specific training needs to be given, and I hope that we will be able to explore that in Standing Committee.
My final point in respect of SOCA has to do with accountability. We have already touched on that to a certain extent, but I was glad to hear that the agency will fall within the remit of the Home Affairs Committee. That important fact was not clear before today, but why has the Home Secretary taken the view that the new agency should have no service authority? Both NCIS and the NCS had one. In effect the right hon. Gentleman has taken on direct responsibility for the new body. Presumably, strong arguments were made in respect of why service authorities were required for the predecessor bodies, and I expect that similarly strong arguments have been made to explain why no such authority is needed now.
Mr. Blunkett: I should like to take this opportunity to be helpful to the hon. Gentleman. We have put a majority of non-executives on the new strategic board because we believe that it will be more streamlined and effective as a resultincluding, of course, when it comes to holding the director general to account.
I do not take issue with the Government on the new proposals for disclosure. The Bill's extension of existing powers will clearly be of value, but I am worried about how they will be safeguarded to ensure safe trial. I shall return to that question later.
As I understand it, the Bill puts on a statutory footing the current situation in respect of plea bargaining. I have no problem with that, although some reservations are inevitable when it comes to total immunity from prosecution, which is a major concession to make to a person. Will the fact that total immunity has been granted to a witness be made known to the jury that hears his or her evidence? It is possible that the granting of total immunity could affect the validity or credibility of the evidence that is provided.
Vera Baird : The national witness protection scheme appears excellent, but it defines a witness as a "witness in proceedings". Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that could exclude people compelled to give evidence under the terms of the disclosure notice? In serious fraud cases, there is probably no need to protect people in that position, but in other cases such witnesses are likely to come under threat from the Mr. Big involved as soon as the notice is served. Should not those witnesses be subsumed in the witness protection measures too?
Mr. Heath: The hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right, both in what she says and in her concern about what is not made explicit in the Bill. That is something that we can explore at greater length in Standing Committee. Also, I want to make certain that the same level of protection is provided for witnesses in failed prosecutions as in successful ones. That is essential to making sure that people are ready to come forward with appropriate information.
I think that the Government have got themselves into a bit of a pickle in connection with the general power of arrest. I do not understand why they have adopted the approach evident in the Bill. In this country, the problem is that there is no clear differentiation between misdemeanours and felonies, as there is in other jurisdictions. The police and criminal evidence review examined this matter in 2002, and it acknowledged that there was a difficulty of definition. We understand that, but the review explicitly rejected the removal of distinctions that the Government are now proposing. Why have the Government rejected the review's proposal? The review was explicit on that point:
I agree, and I would even accept the obverse of that suggestiona comprehensive list of offences to which no power of arrest applied, which would be a different way to approach the same issue. Providing no distinction allows an officer to arrest for trivial reasons, which would take us dangerously close to the sus approachand I thought that we had moved away from that. It worries me, and we need to consider it with much more care.
The benefit that the Home Secretary adduced for the changethat it removes the necessity for discretionis not true. The police officer has to exercise discretion as to whether the offence that he thought he was arresting someone for fell within the definition. He will now have to exercise a different discretion, as outlined in the Bill. All it will do is substitute one discretion for another without improving clarity. That proposal needs more work.
We have been clear in our support for community support officers, not in supplanting but in supplementing the police service. We have also been clear that we do not want to see a steady accretion of power to community support officers so that they become indistinguishable in power, but not in training, from properly trained police officers. I fear that we are moving towards that situation. It makes sense for CSOs to have some of the traffic powers they will be given, but the powers of arrest could create difficulties. They could also put CSOs at risk unnecessarily and we should draw back from granting them those powers.
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I strongly support the harassment clauses. The House must stand up and be counted by saying clearly that those who engage in animal research do so with our blessing, for the betterment of mankind. They deserve to be protected from people who take a contrary view. Those people are entitled to take a contrary view, but they are not entitled to harass or threaten physical violence. We have already made huge changes in our approach to animal experimentation. When I was at university, I was issued with a vivisection licence as an undergraduate on matriculation. That does not happen now and I am glad, because there was no justification for me to undertake animal experiments as a first-year undergraduate. Things have changed and we should recognise that. We should be aware of the need to take a sensitive view of animal experimentation, but violence against individuals on that basis cannot be condoned.
The most difficult issue addressed by the Bill is incitement to religious hatred. No one in the House wishes to allow or promote incitement to religious hatred and I do not doubt the intentions of the Home Secretary in introducing this legislation. It is unacceptable for people to promote hatred against any group of people defined on the basis of their religion, which is often a cipher for racial hatred. Let us be clear about that. However, that does not stop me having serious doubts about the form in which the Government have chosen to bring forward this legislation.
I accept the difficulties involved, but the dialogue has not been sufficiently conclusive to allay the genuine concerns of a strange alliance between evangelicals and comedians. That alliance suggests that the Government have not got it right. We must be explicit about regarding incitement to religious hatred as unacceptable, but it is equally unacceptable for our law to prevent the expression of any religious belief or none. We should also accept the sensible expression of satiric intent or humour. We must strike that balance. There are genuine concerns about the present proposals and we will need to explore them in Committee and on Report. Unless we get them right, they will not be acceptable to the House or to the other place. It is incumbent on us to get them right, if we possibly can.
The Home Secretary is eager to help some faith groups through this measure, but there are more important issues, such as ensuring no discrimination in the provision of goods or services. In practical terms, that is more important than the measure before us today. Let us have a sensible debate, without ascribing motives that do not exist.
It is hard to compress one's remarks on the Bill because it covers so many issues. However, I cannot finish without mentioning the specific proposals for Parliament square. Members on both sides of the House will have varying views about the almost permanent demonstration in Parliament square, but I reject the introduction of new criminal legislation to deal with what is essentially an ad hominem problem that can be dealt with by civil sanction. If there is a nuisance, let us use an injunction to deal with it, but we should not
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introduce a new criminal offence that is indiscriminate and willI predictbe used in inappropriate circumstances in the future.
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