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My second point about SOCA is that the agency will be close to sinister organised crime, and although there must be no crossover, that danger is always present in such organisations. We shall give the agency many new and powerful tools, so we must also have procedures for complaints about and regulation of the agency that command public respect and confidence.
The Home Secretary said today that accountability would be provided by the Home Affairs Committee. I do not quite understand how that will work, and I remain to be convinced about it. Clearly, there must be a strong independent element in the complaints channels, which must be publicly accountable and transparent, and it is not clear to me that the Independent Police Complaints Commission will work well.
The single co-ordinated and integrated agencySOCAwill take the fight to those involved in serious crime. We should all welcome that, but we need to look carefully at the status of SOCA's officers, who will lose their status as officers of the Crown. The Police Federation has serious concerns about that, and we must listen carefully to those concerns, not least because
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the vast majority of current National Crime Squad officers are unwilling to submit to transferring to SOCA, which may represent a great loss of skills for tackling serious crime.
I come now to a raft of technical police powers that I broadly welcome. The extension of investigative powers, which will enable the police to collect evidence and compulsorily question those who can help to solve serious crimes, particularly while the crime is hot, is an important measure. Used sensibly, it can help. I broadly welcome the extension of powers of arrest to all offences, but we must define limits to that, of course. I have great concerns about citizens' arrests, as will most hon. Members.
I welcome the super-warrants that will empower the police to act quickly against villains who are now much more organised and cleverer. They will give the police increased power and flexibility while the chase is on and the evidence is still available. I also welcome the police power to test for drugs at the point of arrest. The increased power for the police to take forensic evidence at the earliest possible moment must also be greatly welcomed. At a much lower level, the power to deal with incorrectly registered and uninsured vehicles is long overdue.
The powers to tackle animal rights extremists and to protect people from serious harassment are also long overdue, although I do not know why we did not simply extend the powers in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 to do just that. That would have been a much easier way to deal with the matter, and it could have been done years ago. However, the power to remove protesters or to put onerous conditions on them, particularly as we are taking that power to deal with the problem outside Parliament now, gives me deep cause for concern. As someone said, hard cases make bad law. That is absolutely true, and we must be careful not to over-respond to the situation in front of Parliament. We must do nothing to stop fair and decent protesting in this country.
All those powers will enable us to make society safer and to bring more villains to justicewe all want to do thatbut they will also enable us to establish people's innocence earlier. If we are taking evidence and testing earlier, we can establish people's innocence earlier. That must not be forgotten, and it is a very good thing. People who are innocent would not object to those powers being used on them, as that would establish their innocence.
These measures will help us to improve detection rates and therefore to increase convictions. Detection and conviction are the best ways to deter serious and organised crime. These measures will tip the scales of justice back towards the innocent victim and society, and against the serious villain. Some of the measures may offend the legal profession, but hon. Members must act in the best interests of society, not in the best interests of the Law Societyalthough I thank it for its excellent briefing on the Bill. It is high time we took tough action to catch and convict villains and to support the victims, especially if they have protected themselves, their families and their property against burglars, intruders and other attackers. We must also make the punishment of convicted people much tougher.
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The Bill makes changes to the judicial system and increases police powers. I wait to see how Queen's evidenceplea bargainingwill be designed and work in practice. It offers clear administrative advantages, and I am not necessarily against that. I stress again, however, that when a sentence is given it must be appropriate, even after a plea bargain. We must not give slaps across the wrist to serious criminals. The punishment must be so tough that they and others are seriously deterred, and must also strongly promote and enable the rehabilitation of criminals while they are in prison. Bad people can and do reform to become good people, but not often enough under our politically correct wimpish systems of punishment.
Tough and harsh action at the start of a career in crime can and does deflect many away from crime. A constituent from Hadleigh e-mailed me yesterday to ask me to raise that with the Home Secretary. My constituent knows full well that tough action at the start of a career in crime can save not just society from crime, but the life of someone who gets involved in crime. Sadly, the Bill does not address punishment in any way. We need a Bill to do that.
We can all welcome the witness protection proposals and the improved money laundering provisions, but we must not forget low-level offences such as credit card crime and cheque fraud. Pound by pound, those crimes can feed through into serious crime and fund terrorism, on the old IRA model. I hope that SOCA will bear that in mind, especially while we suffer from the threat of terrorism, which on the international scale is largely from Muslim sourcesand although that is a fact, I might be at risk under the religious hate crime provisions for saying it. That would be wrong.
The religious incitement measures will damage freedom of expression and religious liberty. They will prevent fair comment about religious beliefs and cults and enable them to silence their critics. Some cults are off the wall, some are downright nasty, some are dangerous and some are just sillywe have heard about the Jedi knights twice already, I think. Some cults are corrosive to society, especially Christian society, which is still broadly the society that we enjoy in this countryand I do not want anyone ever to be at risk of being prosecuted for saying that.
The law will be brought into disrepute by this measure. The Attorney-General and the courts will find it impossible to interpret the proposals consistently. How will we select a jury to deliberate on such charges? Will the jurors' religion be taken into account when the jury is formed? What relevance would that have to the decision that they made, depending on whose religious beliefs were being offended?
The Bill could even prevent comedians from poking fun at religions. It is a measure of how civilised we are that we can tolerate and withstand fun, jokes, jibes and criticism. The Bill is a move backwards to a less tolerant society. I can just imagine the thought police dragging Dawn French, under arrest and in handcuffs, off to prison after a particularly challenging episode of "The Vicar of Dibley"[Interruption.] It might take several
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police to do that job, but where would the outrageous alternative comic stand in the face of the Bill, and who would like to see Billy Connolly thrown in jail?
The incitement to religious hatred proposal of 2001 provoked widespread criticism from many groupsnot only Christians, but Muslims, atheists, humanists and gay rights activists. After two defeats in the other place, the Government dropped their proposalsyet another example of the other place doing a better job for the country than we are able to do in this House now. No wonder the Prime Minister wants to destroy the other place.
Existing criminal law already protects religious believers from criminal acts or incitement to commit such acts. We already have protection against religiously aggravated offences under legislation of 2001. It provided increased safeguards and much tougher sentences where a religiously provoked crime was committed. At the moment, the Crown Prosecution Service is monitoring 70 or 80 religiously aggravated cases, so it is working well. As I said, the laws to provide protection are already in place.
The new proposal is a step too far. It will prevent good organisations from fighting for human rights freedoms and religious freedoms around the world. I deal weekly, if not daily, with such matters, with the help of the great campaigner, Wilfred Wong. In Westminster Hall tomorrow, if I can catch the eye of whoever is in the Chair, I hope to speak up for Christians in Iraq. The Christian Institute does excellent work, dealing with cases of individuals who are mistreated because of their beliefs, but that clause in the Bill could prevent it from doing its job in the future.
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