Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Ms Blears: We have just seen an illustration of the way in which the provision can be approached from both sides. We can make the criticism that it is a catch-all measure that does not allow anything through and that arrests will take place for the more trivial offences. Equally, we have the concerns expressed by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar. I can do no more at this stage than try to reassure the Committee that we will endeavour to ensure that the issues raised by hon. Members will be addressed in the code of practice.

I want to deal with the more general question that has been raised, particularly in the Liberal Democrat amendments, about why we have not gone for the original PACE review recommendation that we should simply come up with a prescribed list of offences. The review recommended creating a definitive list complemented by information on how the offences could be applied, but said that more radical ideas about expanding the scope to arrest required further consultation. The review said that the prescribed list was a starting point, but called for more fundamental change.

That is why we have tried to incorporate the necessity test and to get away from the arbitrary issue of the seriousness of the offence. It is important for me to tell the Committee that the proposal has not simply been promoted by the Home Office. We had the PACE review and then the consultation, and that is why we have ended up opposing the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. We do not believe that a prescriptive list is enough, and we think that the approach that we are taking is a better one.

Vera Baird: I, too, am trying to improve things or to give the Minister food for thought; that is all. Of course, if the grounds of arrest set in statute are not sufficient to cover any particular situation, whatever the code of practice says will not alter that. The grounds of arrest have to be in the statute. If there is anything in either of the concerns that have been expressed today, an amendment should be tabled later on, rather than the code of practice relied on. As I say, if the grounds are not in the statute, one cannot put them there through a code of practice.

Ms Blears: I think that I have shown that I have heard what hon. Members have to say. At the moment, I am in a position to go no further than the code of practice, but I have clearly heard the remarks of those on both sides of the argument.

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I want to briefly deal with the other two issues raised by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. The first is citizen's arrest and the proposals for our new section 24A, entitled ''Arrest without warrant: other persons.'' He will know that those provisions are narrower than the arrest provisions for constables, and rightly so. We obviously have a citizen's power of arrest in this country. I want to assure the Committee that the measure is not designed to extend the powers of community support officers. We expect that they will continue to exercise the powers with which they are designated by their chief constables, and will not enter into the wholesale use of citizen's arrest powers under another guise.

Secondly, I recognise the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman, despite his personal bravery in tackling criminals, about the possibility of citizen's arrests being used for trivial offences. Citizens have a difficulty now in knowing what is an arrestable offence, a serious arrestable offence or a general power of arrest, and how they might act. If we are to have a new amended form of citizen's arrest, we need much more communication with the public about where it might fall. I am happy to say to him that I will consider the matter seriously before Report to see whether I can meet the genuine concerns that have been expressed in the Committee about narrowing down even further the circumstances in which a citizen's arrest can take place. I understand the concerns that have been raised.

I suppose that it is a peculiar feature of British law that the constable is the citizen in uniform and that we all have the ability to arrest. It is right that that should be set at an appropriate level, but also communicated to the public so that they know the circumstances in which they might operate. I hope, on that basis, that the hon. Gentleman is reassured.

Finally, I want to deal with breach of the peace and Government amendment No. 255. We originally proposed to abolish the breach of the peace power; in a way, I was trying to strike a balance with civil liberties. I wondered whether we needed such a catch-all power if we were bringing in a power to make every criminal offence arrestable. Was not that a belt-and-braces job, giving the police more powers than they should really have? That was a strange position to find myself in as Minister with responsibility for policing.

In the consultation, however, the Police Federation highlighted two examples of where the power is used pre-emptively, and that was quite persuasive. One example is cases of domestic violence in which there is no complaint from the person who is being assaulted or who is likely to be assaulted, and the power has been very useful there. The other example involves people with mental health problems who are held informally, as using the power in such cases can help to contain a situation while the formal legal processes are conducted. Those are just two examples of situations in which the Police Federation said that it is extremely useful to have the power.

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I want to go on thinking about the issue. We are introducing a power under which every offence will be arrestable, and there are even more powers of arrest outside that. I entirely accept that people feel that this is a useful power, but I hope that hon. Members will see that my approach is perhaps indicative not of a Minister who is seeking not to extend powers arbitrarily, but of one who is genuinely trying to strike a balance between civil liberties issues and the need effectively to fight crime.

I urge hon. Members to support amendment No. 255 and to oppose the Conservative amendments, which would reinstate the seriousness test in place of the necessity test, and the Liberal Democrat amendments, which seek to introduce a prescriptive list of offences, rather than the necessity test.

Mr. Heath: I welcome you to the Committee, Dame Marion.

I am grateful to the Minister for the time and care that she has taken in responding to the debate; she has moved us further forward in a number of ways. I have no idea what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield intends to do about the amendments standing in his name, but I take some comfort from the Minister's comments about the PACE codes of conduct. She has given us assurances about those codes of conduct, which are critical to the operation of PACE; they are not a trivial matter or some guidance in the ether, and they will have a real effect on the operation of the power before us. None the less, I hope that she will consider further qualifying the initial power of arrest to reflect the seriousness test, which she wants to be implicit, but which, at the moment, is not. If she looks carefully at what has been said, she will recognise that that is the case.

On the power of citizen's arrest, however, I still think that the provision in the Bill is completely mad. It is not even qualified by PACE; it provides for a general power of arrest, for anybody, for anything.

The Minister spoke to my new clauses and explained why the Government have taken the avenue that they have in redefining the power of arrest, but she did not say whether there is any way of qualifying the powers in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and other legislation that flow from the term ''arrestable offence'' to ensure that they are used only in cases in which the seriousness of the offence merits their application. Whenever Committees have considered new powers of this kind, Ministers have been quick to assure us that they will apply only to arrestable and therefore more serious offences. Now that we are making every offence arrestable, all those assurances are worthless. That is a genuine concern for many of us.

3 pm

Ms Blears: Perhaps I can give the hon. Gentleman some assurance; I apologise for not dealing with the matter in my original remarks. I refer him to schedule 7. The trigger powers—powers to search and set up road blocks, and all the powers that emanate—will relate to offences that are triable either way or only on indictment, not to offences that are triable summarily only. We have tried to set a higher threshold. I take the
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hon. Gentleman's point about that. With the abolition of the concept of arrestable and serious arrestable offences, the setting of a threshold at the level of indictable offences should reassure the hon. Gentleman that the powers will not be exercised in an arbitrary fashion. Some of them are quite intrusive, and they should require a higher threshold.

Mr. Heath: That is very helpful, and if the Minister had made those comments earlier I might not have spoken again, so I hope that she will forgive me. Although she has gone some way towards reassuring me, I still have concerns about various aspects of the clause and continue to believe that the provision on powers of citizens' arrest is unsupportable in its present form.

Mr. Grieve: I repeat my gratitude to the Minister for the way in which she has handled the debate, and enabled us to engage in proper Committee debating, with an exchange of views rather than just formal set speeches.

To deal first with the question of the arrest without warrant by a constable, I am still concerned about how the provision will work in practice. I am sure that the Minister appreciates that it is difficult for we parliamentarians to pass legislation that is to rely on codes of practice—on a wing and a prayer, to some extent. I share the view of the hon. and learned Member for Redcar that it is possible to improve the relevant provisions and I am pleased that the Minister has agreed to think further about it. I continue to be concerned that the power could bite two ways: it could leave an officer unclear as to how seriousness had a bearing on whether he could intervene in any offence; and proposed new section 24(5)(e) of PACE could be used as a catch-all excuse for an officer who wanted to exercise his powers to justify arresting someone. Those are specific concerns.

That said, I am not minded to press to the vote any of the amendments that I tabled as probing amendments to proposed new subsections (1) to (6). I shall wait to see what the Minister has to say. Perhaps she will write to Committee members before Report, explaining the Government's approach and their response to the debate, which that would be helpful. If not, I suspect that we shall return to the issue on Report in some form or other, when I have had time to think further about the implications

As for arrest without warrant by other persons, I am pleased that the Minister is to think again about that as well. I had the impression from her words that she will think again about that in perhaps a slightly more fundamental way than she will about the first part of the clause. There remains, I believe, a big problem. I am a great believer in citizens feeling empowered to enforce the law—indeed, I think one of the real problems in this country today is that people feel disempowered to intervene, even when they could probably do so quite safely. I am not suggesting that people should expose themselves to risk, although some may choose to do so, but in some instances there
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is no prospect at all of restoring order and reducing disorder unless citizens are prepared to intervene proactively.

I do not want to deter citizens from such action, but I am bound to say the provisions that we are considering will allow every officious little intermeddler to have a field day. Neighbours will arrest each other. I foresee the most dreadful complications as the police are constantly summoned to take over the custody of the person arrested when they are not in a position to respond.

The Minister faces a problem, because removing the distinction between an arrestable and a non-arrestable offence, which I suppose is implicit, if not explicit, in the first part of the clause, raises the difficult question of what criteria should be satisfied for somebody to be allowed to conduct a citizen's arrest. If the Minister moves away from the established principle, under which the arrestable offence should be punishable by five years' imprisonment, she will have to produce a definitive list and ensure that trivia are kept out of that list. I refer in particular to most, though not all, road traffic matters. If someone is blind drunk and sitting at the steering wheel of car about to drive off, that would be a justifiable reason for conducting a citizen's arrest. However, the Minister will have to consider that list carefully. Furthermore, once we move down that route, it will be the Government's responsibility to provide in a brochure a bit of publicity about what people can and cannot do. I would certainly support the Minister in that.

I am pleased that the Minister has agreed to retain the power of arrest for breach of the peace. She cited two good examples and I can think of a number of others. On Thursday we shall consider incitement to religious hatred, about which I have serious reservations, as the Minister knows. However, I have always been of the view that if somebody stands on a street corner and starts uttering inflammatory language that causes a crowd to gather and threaten to start a riot, the power to remove the person who is causing that serious irritation and is about to precipitate a serious breach of the peace is one that the police should feel ready to exercise—and, in my experience, they have done so. That power is an important moderating feature. The police can go up to somebody and say, ''Look, if you carry on like this, we will have to arrest you for breach of the peace. Go home.'' That can be a useful tool in sensible policing, so I am pleased that it is to be retained, just as I am pleased that it is available in the context of domestic violence and the other matters that the Minister mentioned.

I do not wish to press most of my amendments in the group, but, taking the matter in the round, I shall press amendment No. 166, which would delete the provisions on citizen's arrest. I wish to encourage the Minister, but I cannot let provisions that are in such a dreadful state pass without registering a protest. On the assumption that that is possible, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Amendment proposed: No. 166, in clause 101, page 68, leave out lines 6 to 28.—[Mr. Grieve.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Division No. 8]

Clappison, Mr. James
Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Heath, Mr. David
Mitchell, Mr. Andrew

Baird, Vera
Blears, Ms Hazel
Brown, Mr. Russell
Cairns, David
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Griffiths, Jane
Heppell, Mr. John
McWalter, Mr. Tony
Ward, Claire

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment made: No. 255, in clause 101, page 68, line 34, leave out subsection (4)—[Ms. Blears.]

Clause 101, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 102 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 7 agreed to.

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