Previous Section Index Home Page

4 Dec 2008 : Column 226

The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield knows that if convention rights are incorporated into domestic law, as they are across Europe, the highest domestic court will sometimes be overturned by the Strasbourg Court, but that does not undermine the case for incorporation. My point is that we do better, where there is no margin of appreciation, if there is no incorporation. The one point on which there is agreement across both parties is that we remain committed to the convention itself. Of course, the hon. and learned Gentleman is in favour of the Human Rights Act.

The judgment, which I have read in full today, is interesting. I recommend in particular paragraph 119, which draws out what the Court means by the

It goes on to suggest that distinctions should be made between the nature of offences for which samples have been taken, and discusses whether they should be time-limited and whether there should be an independent review. Those matters will be considered by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in consultation across Government. We have an obligation to report initially to the Council of Ministers and the Council of Europe by March.

It was I who introduced, in section 82 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, the change that DNA samples could be retained even when there was a subsequent acquittal. I did that for a straightforward reason, because of a case involving a man who was charged with burglary. Before his trial for that burglary, a rape was committed, and the police matched a DNA sample that had been taken from him when he was arrested for burglary with a sample found on the person who alleged the rape. He was convicted of the rape, but was subsequently acquitted of the burglary. He appealed all the way up to the Law Lords, who said, on a construction of the law as it then stood, that the DNA sample had been retained unlawfully, and that the rape conviction, which was otherwise entirely proper, therefore had to be struck down.

I thought that unjust to the victim—indeed, I am clear that it was—and so I introduced that measure. My recollection is that the measure had all-party support at the time, but I will check the record. The judgment might mean justice for those whose data is being held, but there is a much more important issue to consider: justice for the victims of the most serious and egregious offences, and ensuring that the offenders who commit such crimes are convicted.

Nick Herbert: One argument that the right hon. Gentleman has advanced regarding the incorporation of convention rights into our domestic law is that the European Court would take increasing account of the jurisprudence of the British courts. How much account did the European Court take of our courts’ decisions in this latest case on DNA?

Mr. Straw: If the hon. Gentleman reads the judgment, he will find that the Court did take those judgments into account. There is page after page on that. It happened not to agree with them, but that is a different point. He does not make a strong point, if I may say so, because it has never been suggested that the margin of appreciation means that if a country incorporates the convention into its domestic law, the European Court will never
4 Dec 2008 : Column 227
overturn a decision of its highest court. That must be nonsense. If he were to talk to members of the Court in Strasbourg, he would know that proper account is taken of the high level of consideration that our courts give to the articles.

Mr. Mark Field: I want to return to the Secretary of State’s previous point about faulty DNA evidence. I think that he stated that justice for the perpetrator of what turned out to be a crime was less important than justice for innocent people, but surely a fundamental tenet of the British legal system is that a defendant should have a fair trial. Should not justice for the defendant therefore be paramount in the Secretary of State’s mind, and is not that in stark contrast to what happens in many European legal systems?

Mr. Straw: Of course I accept that, and I would be happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman in more detail outside the House about what happened in the case that I was effectively overturning.

At the heart of the Marper issue are the circumstances in which the police should be entitled to retain DNA and fingerprint samples where there is no subsequent conviction. There is no right to test British citizens at random; no one is suggesting that that is the case. The question is whether there is a right not only to take DNA and fingerprints on arrest or charge, but to retain such samples, and if so, for how long. The point that I am making is that, unless there is significant provision in this regard, a number of people who are guilty and who pose a real and serious threat to society—including rapists—will go free. The man who was quite properly convicted of that rape, and subsequently got out on a technicality, had had a fair trial. The evidence was overwhelming: he had committed the crime. He got out on a technicality, and I do not happen to think that that is fair.

Mr. Grieve: I appreciate the Secretary of State’s point. Obviously, I have not had a chance to study the judgment in great detail, but it seems to me that it would be perfectly possible to cater for the particular problem that he identified in 2002 while still observing the terms of the judgment, which will generally allow people who have been acquitted or never charged to have their DNA removed.

Mr. Straw: Let us hope that that is the case. If hon. Members study carefully one of the most important paragraphs in the judgment—paragraph 119—they will see, as we shall see in the headlines tomorrow, that although the Court was

that general statement was then highly qualified. I am sure that the lawyers in the Home Office will be looking with great care at the nature of those qualifications—and quite right, too.

I want to deal briefly with the points raised by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, and then with other key points. The hon. Gentleman made much sport about the Government’s programme of constitutional renewal. This has been the most radical constitutionally reforming Government since the war; there is no question about that. This compares with the paucity of constitutional
4 Dec 2008 : Column 228
change—in fact, the absence of it—during previous Conservative Administrations. The Conservatives might complain about the Human Rights Act 1998, the Data Protection Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, devolution, the establishment of the Mayor of London, and what we have done in respect of the House of Lords, but these are major constitutional changes that Vernon Bogdanor—a very independent-minded constitutional expert—has said will be seen as a quiet revolution in our constitutional arrangements.

Moreover, although I accept that we have to do more, not least in terms of the time spent on the Floor of the House on Report, Parliament has been strengthened massively in the past 20 or 30 years, compared with the kind of Parliament that existed in the 1950s and 1960s. I shall refer—although I shall not read it out at length—to what Michael Ryle, a former Clerk of Committees of the House, said in 2005:

Parliament in the apparently golden age of the 1950s was supine; there were no rebellions of any kind at all. It was a supine, part-time Parliament, and that has now changed for the better.

The constitutional reform Bill is specified in the Gracious Speech. Everyone knows that what has changed since then is the overriding imperative of dealing with the world economic downturn, but the Bill will require parliamentary time. The Queen’s Speech states:

As ever, Her Majesty meant what she said—and that is my intention, too.

On the proposals in respect of a Bill of Rights and responsibilities, documents will be published. I accept that they have taken more time than I had hoped, but the hon. Gentleman can hardly complain that I have been silent on the issue; nor has the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon. Indeed, I know that the hon. Gentleman has paid me the compliment of reading very important—if I may say so—speeches that I made in October last year and in February and September this year, and I have paid him the compliment of reading his speeches too, which are interesting, if to some extent misconceived.

Nick Herbert: On the Lord Chancellor’s previous point, may I press him on the constitutional reform Bill? It was a draft Bill in the last Session. Today the Leader of the House published the Government’s legislative programme. It includes 14 Bill, but the constitutional renewal Bill does not feature among them. There are seven draft Bills, but the constitutional renewal Bill does not feature among them either. Can the right hon. Gentleman be clearer about the prospects for legislating in this Session on constitutional renewal?

Mr. Straw: We have already had a draft Bill, so there is no point in publishing another draft Bill. That would be absurd, if I may say so, and a waste of parliamentary time. The reason why the subject was referred to in the
4 Dec 2008 : Column 229
Queen’s Speech in those terms is that a slot for the Bill could not be guaranteed. That is why that formulation is used. My earnest intention, which requires negotiation with the usual channels as well as with my colleagues, is that the Bill should be brought forward. I cannot guarantee that, not least because of the negotiation with the usual channels. We shall have to see what progress is made on other Bills, but that remains my earnest intention.

Time is short. I can see that, much though hon. Members wish to spend most of their time on a Thursday evening listening to me, some have pressing commitments elsewhere, surprisingly. On the coroners and justice Bill, the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs helpfully summarised it and welcomed a good deal of it. Each part of that has been the subject of an extensive consultation exercise.

Chris Huhne: Can the Justice Secretary give the House an assurance that he will not reintroduce in the coroners Bill the clauses on secret inquests and the Secretary of State’s powers from the counter-terrorism Bill?

Mr. Straw: I am afraid I cannot satisfy the hon. Gentleman on that. The proposals were never for secret inquests; they were for inquests without a jury. Only 2 per cent. of inquests in any event take place with a jury. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I are considering the points that have been raised. Proposals will be brought forward in due course—in the Bill as presented to Parliament, I hope.

The Political Parties and Elections Bill is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) drew to the attention of the House, a carried over Bill. It has already had its First and Second Reading, and its Public Bill Committee stage upstairs, and awaits its Report stage downstairs. There is a considerable amount of work to do before Report, not least in respect of the Electoral Commission, as we wish to take account of what was said on all sides on the issue of strengthening registration procedures, and also on issues relating to party funding. I repeat the commitments that I have given to the House, as has the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon, that we believe, and I have always believed, that such a matter should be proceeded with only with a consensus between the parties, if at all possible.

I began these remarks by referring to the record of the Government on crime. We are the first Government since the war to have seen a reduction in crime, both in recorded crime and in the British crime survey. Our determination, however, is to make the communities that all of us serve even safer. It is for those reasons that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have brought forward these measures. I commend the Queen’s Speech, and the debate, to the House.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned. —(Helen Goodman.)

Debate to be resumed on Monday 8 December.

4 Dec 2008 : Column 230

Naomi House Children’s Hospice

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Helen Goodman.)

5.25 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to hold this debate, and I am grateful to the Exchequer Secretary for coming along to respond to it.

Naomi House was badly hit in the recent Icelandic banking crisis. The charity had a deposit of £5.7 million with Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander, which had its assets frozen two months ago. Naomi House is a children’s hospice that supports hundreds of families with children who have illnesses that will shorten their lives—terminal illnesses. Those families come from throughout Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, Dorset, West Sussex, Berkshire, Wiltshire and Surrey. To deliver its service, the hospice relies on trained doctors and nurses as well as on the efforts of more than 400 volunteers. Some 1,400 corporate organisations, many in my constituency, support the hospice, including the Automobile Association and Winterthur Life.

Singer & Friedlander, an old, established British bank taken over by the Icelandic bank Kaupthing in 2006, was regulated by the Financial Services Authority. When the Government acted to freeze its assets, it was clear from the start that they did not intend charities, large or small, to suffer as a result. Indeed, in one Prime Minister’s questions, the Leader of the House, who was standing in for the Prime Minister at the time, stated that there would be 100 per cent. protection for small charities and that the Government were

That was an encouraging response, in which the Government articulated specific support. Indeed, on another occasion the Leader of the House, when questioned specifically on the plight of Naomi House, stated in the national media that direct support for charities would be in place, that the Government would do everything that they could to help charities and that they would not leave charities on their own. More recently, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), made it clear that the commitment to helping charities through this crisis was still very much alive and well.

The problem is that we are now two months on from when the assets were seized, and Naomi House has yet to see any of the promises bear fruit. It has seen confirmation that it is classified as a large charity under FSA rules, which means that it will be placed in a queue with other wholesale investors such as local authorities. In no way have the specific difficulties faced by charities been recognised, particularly in respect of securing borrowing to try to get them through this difficult time.

At the creditors’ meeting on Monday it was clear that recovering the money that has been lost will be an immensely long and drawn-out process, with no certainty about the outcome. Naomi House has also learned that the Office of the Third Sector will produce an action plan, but that is promised only for some time in the new year. Recent comments from the Minister with
4 Dec 2008 : Column 231
responsibility for the third sector at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations recession summit made it clear that the action plan will look more broadly at the economic downturn faced by charities, rather than at the banking crisis in particular. Frankly, despite specific approaches to the Prime Minister, the Department of Health and the Charity Commission, there has been radio silence from the Government about how they will keep their undertakings real and alive for Naomi House.

The problem faced by Naomi House is that one third of its assets—£5.7 million—are frozen. For any organisation, that is a significant and overwhelming financial crisis. As a direct result of that, on 25 November Naomi House was forced to suspend its at-home service for terminally ill children in my constituency. The hospice-at-home outreach programme provided unique and much-needed support for families, and it was due to be rolled out into other areas of Hampshire, yet now the future of that service is bleak, and it has been suspended indefinitely. Two months may not be a long time for a Minister or Department, but it is a very long time for a charity that is almost completely reliant on its own financial resources. The trustees have been forced to take this action to safeguard other services. Without some clarity today, there may have to be further announcements.

This matter cuts across other Departments. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, is well aware of the issues that face Naomi House, but his recent comments serve to illustrate the fact that a one-size-fits-all financial solution will not necessarily work in this case. I hope that the Exchequer Secretary can respond to that point. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the Department of Health, local authorities and primary care trusts could offer some way forward in terms of additional short-term funding, but the local situation in Hampshire for Naomi House means that it has no local authority contracts or PCT funding and receives only £300,000 from the Government through the Department of Health. In the context of a yearly turnover of £2.5 million, that is a tiny amount of money, but there is no indication from the Department that it is going to increase it in the near future, unless the Exchequer Secretary can advise me otherwise.

The time has come for the Government to act decisively by clearly stating the support that Naomi House will receive. It is doing what it can to help itself. It helped to establish the Save our Savings group—a group of charities that are affected in the same way by the Icelandic financial crisis—and has secured a seat on the Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander administrator’s creditors committee. However, the time has come for the Government to do their bit, too, and to show that they will follow through with some tangible support, as they promised when this crisis started.

Going back to the promise made from the Front Bench by the Leader of the House on 15 October, what steps are being taken to protect larger charities, particularly given the protracted nature of the administrative process? The NCVO has been working hard to support the sector and pressing for a loan facility. What is the situation with regard to loans? Providing such support until charities are able to recover their own money may be just the sort of help that can stop any further cuts to important services such as those that Naomi House provides. The Leader of the House said that that money would be available, but we are still to hear any details.

Next Section Index Home Page