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2.1 pm

Mr. McNulty: With the leave of the House, I shall try and deal with some of the points raised in this appropriately narrow debate. I do not want to attack or challenge the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) or the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). They have merely been consistent in wanting to kick against a trend that they think they have detected. They believe that important matters are increasingly dealt with through statutory instruments, codes of practice and so on rather than in primary legislation. I do not agree with that, but I accept the broad parliamentary point.

I also accept the consequence of consistency—that those who oppose the original proposition in a Bill are being entirely consistent when they oppose it when it crops up in a statutory instrument or code of practice that flows from the Bill. I do not underestimate the integrity of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills or of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham. What they say is entirely fair and reasonable. I do not agree with them, about either the parliamentary or the substantive point, but I admire them for their consistency.

In passing, even in my short time in the House I heard those views expressed extremely eloquently many times by the late right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. The position is perfectly acceptable, it is just that I do not agree with it. However, I appreciate that it is right and proper to express those views in the narrow confines of this debate—which was spoiled only when the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) came clodhopping in with his attempt to make it far broader than had been intended.

I turn now to some of the specific questions that were raised. It is of course envisaged that, if the police need to interview detainees after they have been transferred to prison, arrangements will be made for them to be moved back to the appropriate police station. That is entirely in keeping with the needs of an investigation, and there is no restriction of access to legal advice when a detainee is in prison. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) asked about that and I hope that my response has reassured him.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) asked about terrorist detainees in prison. As with all prisoners, they will come under the regime of Her Majesty’s inspector of prisons. Importantly, Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of
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terrorism legislation, has said that he will take a close interest in all aspects of the proposed extended detention. I welcome that, given that his original brief was to oversee all aspects of the legislation.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): Usually, a very detailed record is kept of what happens when a prisoner is detained in a police station. It is very useful, as any allegation of duress, or that a confession was obtained under pressure, can be refuted by allowing the prosecution to look at the record. However, I am concerned that that record will not be kept in the same way when a person is detained in prison. As a result, the prosecution might be at a considerable disadvantage if it is alleged that pressure has been applied through some mechanism while that person was in prison.

Mr. McNulty: That is an entirely reasonable point, although it may not be germane to the integrity of the code of practice. However, it may be worth pursuing, and I accept that custodial records and the evidentiary base available when a person is detained in a police station will be markedly different from what happens in a prison. I shall therefore explore the implications and get back to the hon. Gentleman on that.

I come now to the question of the 14-day period before transfer to prison. The initial period of detention is often the time when the police need immediate and direct access to the person detained, and the present period of 14 days in police detention has been shown to work adequately. Even Lord Carlile was more concerned about what happens after the 14-day period, during the extended period up to the 28-day limit, as it is clear that police cells are not built to cope with a doubling of the detention period.

Our experience is that the problems are not as marked with detention periods of up to 14 days as may be the case with the longer period. Although I recognise Lord Carlile’s point, I do not think that the 14-day cut-off point is arbitrary, as it is based on experience. We recognise that the exceptional nature of the extension introduced by the 2006 Act requires an extra safeguard, and that is why we regard the 14-day cut-off as an appropriate time for transfer.

I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, but it is not really appropriate to go on about how long it has taken to bring the code before the House. Royal Assent was secured for the 2006 Act only on 30 March this year. By any standard, given the necessity of detailed assessment of the points raised in the consultation process and the urgency of the matter at hand, the Government have been rather speedy in getting the code before the House. It is very easy to ask why it could not have been written and subject to consultation before the Bill was secured, but that would have been rather presumptuous—after all, the Bill could have been changed markedly as a result of the deliberations in this House and the other place.

I have heard people reminisce wistfully about the debates that we had on the Bill, which could never have been called non-contentious. It could never have been
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claimed that the Government would be able to secure their business come what may—and that indeed turned out not to be the case—so it was never going to be possible to have written the code of practice and subjected it to consultation long before the Bill even came before the House.

The Government lost the odd vote on the Bill, which was highly contentious. It was therefore right and proper for us to wait until it secured full assent. I do not recall exactly how the votes went, but we could have been left with a pre-charge detention period lasting 14 days, 28 days—or no days at all. Any result different from what was obtained would have made a difference to the code of practice, or put in doubt whether we needed one at all.

I want to say, in the nicest possible way, that the remarks made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs were unbecoming. I shall not go anywhere near describing the most unbecoming rant of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who purports to be the shadow Leader of the House. Given the investigations that were going on at the time, I am sure that she will agree, on reflection, that it would have been better if she had not said what she did say.

In passing, it might also have been nice if the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs had, when talking about the incident at Forest Gate, said clearly and on the record that he fully supported the police in their actions in carrying out the raid. We cannot second-guess what the police seek to do before or after an event, particularly afterwards when we have the benefit of hindsight. I accept that it is perfectly in order to comment on Forest Gate, but it might have been useful if the hon. Gentleman had prefaced what he said with remarks endorsing what the police did.

None the less, for all the cheapish comments—

Nick Herbert: Cheapish?

Mr. McNulty: They were not completely cheap, but cheapish, in line with the hon. Gentleman’s usual—

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Very good value.

Mr. McNulty: It is far from that. “Cheapish” is right this time. There was some value, so his remarks were not just cheap, but they were unnecessarily partisan and—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. As the Minister said, this is a very narrow debate— [Laughter.] Perhaps we might return to the code of practice.

Mr. McNulty: Thank you very much indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker, for intervening to get me off that track. I suppose I should draw the lesson that when I mean to insult someone I should just do it rather than trying to insult them politely.

I resent the charge from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that national security and
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public safety were somehow put at risk because of the consultation period on the code of practice. That is simply not the case.

In my next breath, however, let me say that the Bill is in a far, far better place than it was because of the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that there should be a code of practice and that it should be separate from the regular PACE code. In both regards, he was entirely right and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) endorsed what he said so that we could come back today. That shows how we can move forward on a consensual basis to improve the lot of people who will be affected. It is important that matters should be dealt with in this way.

I make no charge against the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills because I fully accept their integrity and the legitimacy of their reasons.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I sense that the Minister is coming to a conclusion—

Mr. McNulty: No.

Mr. Heath: I beg the hon Gentlemen’s pardon.

The Minister has not responded to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) about training. Does he expect custody officers in each police force to be trained in the new code, or will someone held under the code be transferred to a police force with appropriate facilities and custody officers?

Mr. McNulty: I suspect and hope it will be the latter. If, not because of the Bill but because of other activity, we need the equivalent of Paddington Green-type stations everywhere, that would imply a huge increase in activity among those likely to be charged under the code. Separate expert facilities, such as those at Paddington Green, will, at least at first, be the way to go. In the broader context of police restructuring—I am not seeking to provoke anyone by mentioning level 2, closing the gap and counter-terrorism provision—all that is being looked at, away and aside from the whole restructuring debate. That may result in there being equivalents of Paddington Green elsewhere. If, as I suspect, every force eventually needs the equivalent of a Paddington Green, I am sure that training will be forthcoming.

Mr. Hogg: Building on the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and adopting the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), where the detained person is held in a prison rather than in a police station, questions of appointing and training prison officers to serve as custody officers might arise. Clearly, if a detained person is to be held for an extended period, many of the
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considerations that could arise in a police station will arise in the prison. I hope that the Minister will consider that and the implications for the Prison Service and training.

Mr. McNulty: I have already said to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that that is a fair point and that I will look at it. In the main, however, in terms of individuals detained, the norm would be, as with the 14-day period, that they be returned to the safe and secure police facility for interviewing. I take the point about evidentiary trails and the role of custody officers in police stations being rather different from their equivalents in prisons. That is worthy of exploration, and I will get back to the House through a response to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield.

Without wishing unnecessarily to prolong matters or to go off on another insulting and inarticulate—

Nick Herbert: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McNulty: Of course, once I have breathed and finished my sentence.

Nick Herbert: Oh, go on, then.

Mr. McNulty: I had reached my peroration, but I shall, of course, give way.

Nick Herbert: I am very grateful. I hope that the Minister will forgive my interruption; I had thought him on the cusp of winding up. I shall not be provoked by his comments on police amalgamation, but given his generous recognition that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) suggested that the revised codes should be put in place, does he also concede that the Prime Minister’s contention that the reason why the Government were unable to introduce the 28-day provision quickly was that we, the official Opposition, insisted on a longer consultation period for the code is simply not the case?

Mr. McNulty: I, too, will not be provoked. Let me get back to my failed attempt at a peroration which, as I attempted not to insult anyone else and to exhort everyone else to be narrow, slipped into my broadening the base of the debate myself.

There are, as I have said, points of wider political debate around the order, and those may well be points for another time and another place. On the substance of the code of practice and the changed code for non-terrorist suspects, there is broad consensus in the House. Having smelled that consensus, I shall sit down before I provoke its breakdown.

Question put and agreed to.


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Orders of the Day

Electoral Administration Bill

[Relevant documents: The First Joint Report from the Constitutional Affairs and ODPM: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committees, Session 2004-05, HC 243, on Electoral Registration, the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6647, and Oral and Written Evidence taken by the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06, on Electoral Administration, HC 640-i and 640-ii, and on Party Funding, HC 1060-i.]

Lords amendment considered.

Before Clause 13

Lords amendment: No. 8B

2.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

The Government’s approach throughout the passage of this Bill has been to seek consensus wherever possible. Indeed, in several areas we have achieved it. For example, in response to issues raised in this House and in another place, we have made amendments to the co-ordinated online record of electors, to the new duties on electoral registration officers, to the position of service voters with the support of my colleagues at the Ministry of Defence, and to anonymous registration and other things.

We have even achieved consensus on measures to address postal voting security. The Bill was introduced with provisions for the piloting of personal identifiers. Those clauses have been replaced by a national system of postal voting identifiers.

Provided that the Bill receives Royal Assent soon, to which I will return later, these tough new security measures will be in place by the elections in 2007. The only remaining area on which we disagree is that of individual registration.

We have set out our reasons for opposing individual registration, at this point, on a number of occasions, and I believe that right hon. and hon. Members are by now fully aware of them. Today, therefore, I shall focus instead on addressing Members’ concerns about the measures we are taking outside individual registration. In previous debates, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who speaks for the official Opposition on this matter, has expressed his view that individual registration will address two issues: the security of electoral registers and potential fraud in polling stations.

On the first point, we should not ignore the significant changes that the Bill already puts in place to make electoral registers more secure. Under the Bill, electoral registration officers will be able to remove ineligible people from the register right up to five days before polling day and, for the first time, people will be able to make public objections to entries on the register that they believe to be inaccurate or fraudulent. An ERO will consider every objection, and can call for evidence and remove people who prove to be wrongly registered. That opportunity, too, will be available up to five days before the close of poll.

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