Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. Grieve: The Minister persuades me that, in respect of what were previously arrestable offences, the mechanisms provided for in the first part of clause 101 could well be described as an improvement because they provide for a greater degree of flexibility, albeit—I suspect that she would agree—that the police already exercise some flexibility even over arrestable offences. My anxiety arises in respect of the general powers of arrest for offences previously provided for under section 25 of PACE. Although the criteria may have been more prescriptive in section 25, I am left with the slightly uneasy feeling that the consequence is that more of those who have committed minor offences or who are alleged to have done so—this will be an allegation, not a proven fact—will end up being arrested unnecessarily under her proposals.
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Ms Blears: It is difficult for any of us to look into a crystal ball, see the future and predict the effects. The aim is to achieve the opposite to what the hon. Gentleman set out. That perhaps includes seeing fewer arrests, as people will be able to exercise a better degree of discretion and professionalism about whether an arrest is necessary. At the moment, it is tempting for a constable simply to think, ''This offence is in the list and I can arrest, so I will exercise my power.'' We are trying to ensure that the constable does not automatically go down the route of making an arrest, but says at certain points, ''Is it necessary for me to do this?'' If the hon. Gentleman thinks about some of the tools that we brought in, such as fixed penalty notices and other tools to tackle offences, he will see that our whole direction is towards reducing arrest, as we want to reduce the time that constables spend processing people through the custody suite so they can spend more time out on the streets fighting crime.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Co-op): I hope that my hon. Friend will not go too far down the road that it has been suggested we should take, particularly by the Liberal Democrats. For instance, many police officers are currently unclear about whether they can make an arrest if they are sworn at. In one sense, we can say, ''It's only a word, and it's common'', but on the other hand, swearing often displays extreme disrespect to the police and makes it difficult for them to do their job, unless they know that they have the power to arrest in that situation. That is the sort of circumstance in which it is right that a police officer can arrest with a strong feeling that he is enabled by that power to police more effectively.

Ms Blears: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the police being able to do their job more effectively. That is the purpose of the provisions—to ensure that the police have sufficient powers and that the system is rebalanced so that we do not look at seriousness in isolation, but consider the effect on the victim and the conduct of the offence. In particular, I highlighted the need to allow prompt and effective investigation, which is an important addition. We are talking about exercising powers with a view to securing not only an arrest where an offence has been committed, but a good investigation and a conviction. That is how we can make people confident in the criminal justice system, so that they are more likely to come forward with the community intelligence that is fundamental to our neighbourhood policing. The change that we are introducing is about trying to see the situation not from the offender's perspective, but from that of the citizen and the victim.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) raised the issue of zero-tolerance policing, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter). There is no policy shift to zero tolerance in any circumstance. We are seeking to provide the police with a range of tools to have at their disposal, so that when they come across a situation, they can decide the appropriate way to deal with it in the interests of justice and of getting good convictions and detections.
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That is why we have introduced fixed penalty notices, dispersal orders and all the antisocial behaviour tools. The provisions before us have the same policy context. They are about saying that we want to be effective on the streets, and sending a message to offenders that we are going to give the police the powers to get them off the streets.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for supplying us with copies of section 25 of the old PACE provisions, which has been helpful. As she said, subsection (5)(e) is the important addition in the clause. Can she confirm that paragraph (e), to which she has referred at length, will be of use to the police only in cases of the less serious offences, which are not arrestable? As matters stand under PACE, a police officer has the right to arrest someone for an arrestable offence. The provision can be used only for the less serious type of offences.

2.45 pm

Ms Blears: Clearly, the purpose of the amendments that we are making is to introduce a framework in which any offence is arrestable, from the most to the least serious. The clause sets out qualifying factors to decide whether or not arrest is necessary in those circumstances. The phrase

    ''to allow the prompt and effective investigation of the offence''

would apply to the whole range of offences, and the police officer would need to think about that.

Mr. Clappison: The point that I am making to the Minister is that the police already have such a power in the case of an arrestable offence, because the police officer can simply arrest somebody. The provision before us will apply only in the case of less serious offences. If there is a test of seriousness, it applies to less serious offences, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has been saying.

Ms Blears: I accept that we already have a position in which people would be able to arrest for serious offences. I entirely accept that. We are seeking to introduce a new framework. If we move to the new tests, it is important that we have such a framework.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): As I understand it, contrary to what the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) implied, section 24 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 will be repealed, so there will be no general power to arrest at all, except the one before us. [Interruption.] I hope that that is clear. I am sorry; I thought that he had not taken it into account.

My concern runs contrary to the one that is being raised now and to the one I thought I had, which was too many arrests, and I think that it troubles some of the police representatives who are here this morning. My hon. Friend the Minister says that paragraph (e) is a sort of proxy for seriousness, but I cannot make that connection myself. I do not understand why a grave offence is likely to require more prompt investigation than a weak one. Consequently, I cannot see why the gravity of an offence would automatically bring an arrest justifiable under paragraph (e). The concern is that, when there has been a really serious offence, if the
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officer makes the error of thinking it should fall under paragraph (e) or cannot find a subsection to put it under, he might have made a false arrest. That would mean that all the evidence recovered thereafter would not be admissible. That is a problem, as one can see when coming at the issue from the opposite point of view, and I invite the Minister to consider it.

Ms Blears: I understand the point that my hon. and learned Friend is making. I do not entirely accept it, because there could be circumstances in which a serious offence would need prompt investigation. There may be a need to preserve evidence or immediately to question somebody for serious matters, so I do not accept that paragraph (e) relates only to more trivial offences. It could relate to trivial and serious offences. If she looks at paragraph (f), she will find that it ensures that prosecutions are not hindered by the disappearance of the person in question. Again, if a serious offence has been committed, the likelihood that someone will seek to escape from the scene may be greater, as the more serious the offence, the more serious the consequences. I do not accept that the issues are exclusive, but I take her point that the provision could apply to both serious and less serious offences.

Vera Baird: What I am really saying is that neither paragraph (e) nor paragraph (f) will automatically apply to a serious offence. The matter will not necessarily lie with the gravity of the offence. Officers who understandably want to arrest for a serious offence and who might think about bail being permissible but only under strict conditions in due course might not have a ground to arrest. The true position with this new model, whose purpose I understand, is that the gravity of the offence has disappeared completely as a criterion.

Ms Blears: I do not accept my hon. and learned Friend's contention. Some of the responses to our consultation expressed entirely the opposite view. In fact, the nature of the provisions means that they are so catch-all that they are not a serious filter in terms of narrowing the issues that can be taken into account. We have received criticism from both sides. There have been suggestions that there are no circumstances in which the necessity test could not be passed, let alone circumstances in which other matters might escape. That is why it is important that, when we prepare the code of practice, we give as much guidance as we can about the nature of the holistic decision that we are asking officers to take in relation to the circumstances that face them.

Mr. Grieve: I thank the Minister for giving way, as she is doing so in the best spirit of Committee debate.

I understand the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). Curiously, I approached it from the other angle, and I do not think that the two positions are incompatible. She has highlighted the fact that, with the lack of a seriousness test, an officer might feel disadvantaged in taking the
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decision. Equally, I think that there appears to be an open door to an officer to arrest on fairly trivial grounds, because

    ''to allow the prompt and effective investigation of the offence''

appears to be a bit of a catch-all provision.

We are narrowing down our discussion to the nub of the anxiety. It may well be that the guidelines can cure it, but the alternative approach might be to have a seriousness test or possibly a seriousness test and paragraph (e).

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