Previous Section Index Home Page

Can the Home Secretary confirm whether that advice reached her, and whether she agreed with it? I assume that she did because of her sensible decision to consult, which we entirely welcome. I suspect that the Home Secretary and her Department will have the sympathy of many Members across the House about the Home Office’s legitimate concerns in this area. We will look carefully at any proposals that she presents, and test the justification, proportionality and safeguards rigorously, robustly and with an open mind.

The Government, and in particular the Home Office, now have one of the most extensive and intrusive security powers available anywhere in the democratic world. It is noteworthy that today one aspect of that—the collection and retention of the DNA of those who have never been charged or convicted of offences—has fallen foul of the European Court of Human Rights. I am delighted to learn that, and I long believed it would be the outcome to the challenge to the Government’s incoherent position on the subject. It would be nice to learn during the course of today’s debate how the Government intend to move to put right this wrong that has been perpetrated and that has caused immense upset to large numbers of law-abiding people, as I have routinely found from the letters I have received in my mailbag.

There are also concerns about the national identity card register proposal and the further attempt to force through the measure of 42 days of detention without charge. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 has been stretched well beyond its original focus of dealing with serious crime and terrorism, and we have the onset of a surveillance society that has been outpaced only by the rise of the database state.

The Home Secretary is wrong about the repeated suggestions from Government that if Members do not agree with any particular security proposals they care less about tackling the threat of terrorism than she does. I wonder what way of life will be left for our children if we do not start to get the balance right on matters such as DNA and surveillance and start to restore some common sense into our arguments, and if we fail to question, and if necessary resist with all due vigour, incessant Government requests for more oppressive and intrusive state powers. This is not ultimately a question of balancing security and liberty, because we cannot defend our freedom by sacrificing it. Time and again the Government have proved that they cannot be trusted with the powers and authority enacted by Parliament. That is one of the key issues we will have to address.

If ever there was a time to question the powers of counter-terrorism police and to test ministerial accountability over, and responsibility for, the unwieldy security apparatus built up over the past 11 years, and
4 Dec 2008 : Column 171
to make the case for resisting the Government’s periodic attacks on the right to trial by jury, it must be now, when a Member of this House has been arrested carrying out his work. Parliament itself—the heart of our democracy—suffers at the hands of what increasingly appears to be an unprecedented abuse of state power. It is an abuse of power that this Home Secretary says she knows nothing about and does not wish to take responsibility for. We need much better than that.

1.28 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I am only modestly surprised to be called to speak so early in the debate, given that it is rather extraordinary that the—

Mr. Ellwood: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, who has only just risen to speak, but is it possible to check whether the parliamentary Annunciators across the Estate are working? Judging by the numbers present on the Labour Benches, Members are unaware that this important debate is taking place, and perhaps they should be aware of it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a point of order for the Chair.

Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman was making, in a rather different way, the very point I was about to make about the extraordinary absence of Members from the Government Benches for a debate that is about an issue our constituents, and voters in general, feel extremely strongly about. The question of how to tackle crime is frequently the No. 1 or No. 2 issue of most concern to voters. It is therefore extraordinary that the Government Benches are so denuded.

Our reaction to the Home Secretary’s speech and to the proposals is that this is another example of what the Home Office is extremely adept at: using legislation as a glorified press release. We are to have the 26th criminal justice Bill and the seventh immigration Bill from this Government since 1997. Various of those Bills have been shovelled through this House so hastily that whole sections and clauses have not been considered at all and have had to be reviewed in the other place. We now know from parliamentary answers to questions tabled by Liberal Democrats that no fewer than 3,600 new criminal offences have been introduced by this Government since 1997, yet extraordinarily, the Home Secretary—who, sadly, is no longer in her place—assures us that one of her key priorities is to reduce the need for police paperwork and bureaucracy. The extraordinary creation of offences by the Government is massively complicating the job of law enforcement and of the whole criminal justice system.

Some of these offences are completely bizarre—for example, the offence of causing a nuclear explosion. The idea that anyone might cause a nuclear explosion without killing anybody, and therefore being subject to a possible charge of murder, is extremely far-fetched. It is perhaps reassuring for some on the Government Benches that were there to be a nuclear explosion that did not kill anyone, the perpetrator could, indeed, be charged. Other of the new offences include: wilfully pretending to be a barrister; disturbing a pack of eggs when instructed not to by an authorised officer; obstructing workers carrying out repairs to the docklands light
4 Dec 2008 : Column 172
railway; offering for sale a game bird killed on a Sunday or Christmas day; attaching an ear tag to an animal where it has previously been used to identify another animal; landing at a harbour without permission a catch that includes unsorted fish. I could continue that extraordinary list of new offences.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman has mentioned only one or two offences, from this list of 3,600, that he wishes to remove. On reflection, he may not really wish to remove the protections against the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, to which he made cavalier reference a moment ago. As he is so concerned, and as he has obviously done a huge amount of research on these 3,600 offences, he should make public a full list of all the ones that he would like repealed.

Chris Huhne: I am grateful to the Justice Secretary for intervening in that way. When he wrote to me in those terms, challenging me to come up with a complete list, I replied offering him the chance to repeal certain of the more absurd offences that have been put on the statute book. I have still not received a reply to that letter, in which I assured him that as soon as those offences, such as causing a nuclear explosion, had been repealed, I would provide him with a new list of further offences that he could then work on repealing.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is either making a trivial debating point or a serious point. The point that he makes all the time is that there are 3,600 new offences. I may question him on a number of those, but he says that he has culled his information from various parliamentary answers. The only conclusion to be drawn from his making that point repeatedly is that he does not think that these 3,600 offences should be on the statute book. He has mentioned about five of the offences. As it is his point, he should be responsible for providing us with a full list of the offences that he thinks should be repealed.

Chris Huhne: The Justice Secretary accuses me of making a trivial point, but I just wish he knew the difficulties we had in getting Departments even to list the new criminal offences that they have created. If he can assure me that, when we follow up those questions by asking those Departments for a full list of every new criminal offence, he will instruct his colleagues not to rule our request out of order on the grounds that it involves disproportionate cost, I will be delighted to give him a full list. If the Government can be less obstructionist in how they answer parliamentary questions, perhaps Opposition parties will be able to do that. He knows perfectly well that I have given him very good clear examples of absolutely absurd offences that have been put on the statute book, and he has done nothing to repeal them. I can give him chapter and verse and can continue through this list. Frankly, it is not good enough for the Justice Secretary to ask the Opposition to do something that he, in government, ought to be able to do.

I very much welcome what the Home Secretary said, particularly about how the provisions in the draft legislation on identity checks, which it would seem have been misinterpreted, will be implemented. The key issue has always been the potential for extending legislation beyond its original intention when it is put into practice. We
4 Dec 2008 : Column 173
have seen that happen time and again, for example, in the application of counter-terrorism legislation to stifle the heckling of the Justice Secretary—as he now is—at a Labour party conference: Walter Wolfgang, a Labour activist, was arrested under counter-terrorism legislation. We must be very careful to ensure that legislation is not extended in this way.

I very much welcome what the Home Secretary said about the ratification of the protocol on human trafficking. Ratification is well overdue and I am delighted that it is to go ahead. One of the key issues for the Home Office must be implementing the legislation already on the statute book, given that most serious offences have been on the statute book or in common law for many decades, rather than indulging in this extraordinary exercise that we have every year of introducing yet another criminal justice Bill and yet another immigration Bill as a substitute for doing something about implementing the law that we have.

There is much to support on the police Bill, precisely because it represents a massive U-turn on the central targets that have been a key feature of the Home Office’s attitude towards the police since 1997. The Green Paper, the consultation and the response are now saying exactly the right sort of things about local accountability and cutting red tape, but, of course, substantial differences remain between the parties on how that accountability should come about. I listened with interest to what the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said about the Conservatives’ proposals, but I am not persuaded that their proposals for a single elected sheriff for a police force would avoid the problems of populist posturing, Robocop-style campaigning and confrontational politics that he says it will. The differences in this respect between the Government’s proposals and the Conservatives’ proposals are minimal, and bring to mind Dr. Johnson’s quote that he would not debate

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. First, there is no question of having Robocops. The elected commissioner—he would not be called a sheriff—would not replace the chief constable, whose operational independence, which is a subject we have touched on earlier today, would be entirely preserved.

The elected commissioner would be able to do two things. First, he would be able to produce accountability through his contact with the chief constable, and the fact that he would be informed of what is going on and would be able to feed in his ideas and those on which he stood for election. Secondly, if he were doing his job properly, he would be able to provide leadership throughout the police area that he represents, in galvanising the councillors and the crime and disorder reduction partnerships into better co-operation with the police. That is a sensible way forward.

Chris Huhne: I am grateful for that clarification, but it does not reassure me in one key respect. The single elected commissioner, or the multiple mini-commissioners proposed by the Home Office, would be elected by the first-past-the-post system. That would be the first time that any new body had been elected under that system since 1997. We know from peer-reviewed academic literature
4 Dec 2008 : Column 174
that if elections are carried out under first past the post, the resulting body is substantially less representative in terms of both gender and ethnic minority than is the case with other electoral systems— [ Interruption. ] Well, the Justice Secretary uses unparliamentary language to say what he thinks of that particular point, but I would be happy to send him the references for the literature I mentioned.

If we were to go ahead with the Government’s model for elected police authorities, there would be the most extraordinary results. I have asked the Electoral Reform Society to analyse the likely results of electing one person for each crime and disorder reduction partnership. On the basis of the 2007 election results, the Government—I am told they are a Labour Government—are proposing a system under which the Conservatives would win 65.2 per cent. of all the police authority seats in England outside London, despite polling only 38 per cent. of the vote.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman should not assume that we desire to introduce a system that would necessarily lead to individuals standing under political labels. I envisage a system that might even lead to cross-party support for individuals standing for such posts.

Chris Huhne: Given the knowledge that we share of how the British political system has developed over many decades, the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point is a trivial one. Independents in local government are an endangered species: they are on the way out. We may regret that, but the likelihood of our being able to revive that endangered species is limited. We have to work with the world as it is, and I would have thought that that point would appeal to Conservative Members, who have traditionally regarded themselves as realists—but apparently it does not.

If the Government were to introduce legislation along the lines that they have suggested, the Labour party would lack any elected representatives on 10 police authorities, and it would have only 10 members out of 176 in the three southern regions—the east of England, the south-east and the south-west. That would mean the most extraordinary disproportionality in representation in various parts of the country. Inevitably, those elected would be badged by political party, and the Conservatives would have an overall majority of elected representatives on 26 police authorities—the majority of those in England—on a minority of the vote.

There are two really key issues. First, the bodies simply will not be representative of the complexity of the populations in police force areas. That may not matter so much in rural and homogenous areas, but it would matter in urban areas outside London. I take the point made by the hon. and learned Member that his proposal would not apply to London, although he does suggest that the Mayor should hold the police to account in London. The question then is whether the Metropolitan police authority would be able to hold the Mayor in check—

Mr. Grieve: At present, we have no intention of changing the system presently in place in London. It is in its infancy, and doubtless all parties will wish to look at how it functions, but the present position is that we do not intend to touch it. It would be foolish to try to do so when it has only just come into existence.


4 Dec 2008 : Column 175

Chris Huhne: I am glad that we have some agreement that the system in London, which appears to be quite a good system, should continue. However, I am slightly mystified why, if the Conservatives think that the system for London is relatively good—it involves the election of the GLA by proportional representation, followed by the selection of the MPA—they ignore those lessons for the rest of the country.

In complex urban areas, with substantial ethnic minorities, such as Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the west midlands, the Conservatives’ proposal—and to a lesser but almost equal extent, the Government’s proposal—would ensure that the people elected as commissioners and members of the police authorities would be white, middle-class, middle-aged men in suits. They would not represent the genuine differences, especially ethnic ones, in police force areas. That worries me, because it would set up exactly the sort of problems that led to the riots in Brixton and cities such as Bristol in the early 1980s. If a potentially confrontational system led to the populist election of a single commissioner or a single person in each crime and disorder reduction partnership, it is likely that the police authority would be insensitive to the rights and freedoms of minorities in that area. If that happened, policing by consent would be substantially undermined, and that is a serious danger.

When I have talked to senior police officers about this matter, they have been very concerned by the potential introduction of populist and confrontational politics into the system—as proposed by both the Government and the official Opposition.

Mr. Straw: I hold no particular brief for the Conservatives’ proposals, but the hon. Gentleman’s reference to the Brixton and Merseyside riots is complete tosh. If he scoured the Scarman report, he would be unable to find any suggestion that the causes of those riots included “populist policies” being followed by local politicians or, in the case of the Metropolitan police, by the late Willie Whitelaw, who was the antithesis of a populist.

Chris Huhne: The Justice Secretary deliberately confuses two things that I said. We had at that time serious concerns in ethnic minority communities about the use by the police of stop and search powers, which were clearly part of the lead-up to the riots, especially in Brixton. The only point that I am attempting to make—I am surprised that he finds it difficult to grasp—is that problems will arise if the political authority running a police force in an area with a substantial ethnic minority population is not sensitive to the sorts of issues that created major problems with public disorder in the early 1980s, including the insensitive exercising of police powers. The Government should take that point into account when they put forward their proposals, because in their present form they would mean the under-representation of ethnic minorities and women, leading to the consequences that I have outlined. I hope that the Government will have reconsidered their position by the time they actually introduce the legislation.

Mr. Mark Field: Given the hon. Gentleman’s passion for proportional representation, how would he try to rig the PR system to ensure that there are no members of the British National party on any of those police authorities?


4 Dec 2008 : Column 176

Chris Huhne: I have absolutely no suggestion that we should rig any system. I take a democratic view: if there is a system—as is the case in London, with the GLA—whereby BNP members are elected, they are elected. They do not get very far when they are elected, and are often revealed for what they are. All the rest of us who abhor their politics can then point out how useless they are. In a democracy, that is the correct way to deal with those people; it is not to try to sweep their views under a carpet and pretend they do not exist, but to introduce the best disinfectant of all in the political system—sunlight—to get some transparency and reveal them for the odious characters they are, and beat them.

Mrs. Cryer: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman understands the damage the BNP can do in positions of democratic accountability—so-called. There were two BNP councillors in my constituency who were absolute poison and did great damage to inter-community relations. I am not sure that he takes that into account.

Chris Huhne: I fear that the hon. Lady and I will have to disagree on that point. I yield to no one in my abhorrence of BNP politics and I would be extremely supportive of any mainstream party that fought the BNP, but the correct way of doing that in a democratic system is openly. I am shocked that the hon. Lady implicitly suggests that we should introduce a ban on that party because we do not approve of its politics. We have a long and honourable tradition of giving vent to political views, including those of authoritarian and totalitarian traditions on the left and right, and the correct way of making sure that those people do not get a grip on our politics is by getting them out in the open and fighting their politics, and ensuring that their voters understand that the mainstream parties are addressing the issues voters care about. The main reason why a party such as the BNP grows in importance is precisely that so many of our voters feel alienated from a political system that is broken, because this place and other aspects of our political structures do not give adequate vent to people’s views or deal adequately with their grievances. In a number of areas, the Liberal Democrats have shown that where we can campaign on the basis of community politics and ensure that people’s local grievances are dealt with, the swamp that allows the BNP to fester is drained. That is the correct way to deal with the BNP—nothing else.

Mr. Mark Field: I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman has been saying about the BNP, but when he talks about populist politics, does he not understand that it is precisely in the areas of law and order and immigration that PR systems along the lines that he recommends will give the BNP the oxygen of publicity?


Next Section Index Home Page