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26 Jan 2009 : Column 44

Mr. Grieve: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. We are clearly going to have to make common cause with his party and with hon. Members in all parts of the House as we try to make the Government see sense on this matter.

Alun Michael: May I counsel the hon. and learned Gentleman, and his ally on the Liberal Benches, to avoid making over-hysterical comments on the issue of data sharing? Does he accept that there is an important need to have a balance between protecting data and using them, especially to prevent crime and reduce offending? Does he recognise that in many circumstances there is a reluctance to share data because of the sort of rhetoric that he and his colleague have used?

Mr. Grieve: My experience of one or two examples of failures to share data, such as that which was highlighted in the Soham murder case, is that there was no requirement whatsoever for any legislation in the House to enable such sharing to happen. Perhaps a slightly greater understanding of what is and is not allowed is needed. However, the country has managed rather well historically by being extremely careful of allowing the Government to share data. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman will recollect that, at one time, people were so concerned about preserving individuals’ privacy that there were separate schedules to the tax Acts to ensure that a tax inspector could not have a complete picture of a person’s finances. We have moved a very long way from there. The path that we are on raises really serious possibilities of the oppressive state, as every hon. Member should bear in mind when considering such proposals.

Mr. Straw rose—

Mr. Grieve: Before the Secretary of State intervenes, let me point out that I am not saying that the Government have malevolent intentions. I do not think that, but if the proposal is passed by the House, it will be a substantial accretion of state power that is available for misuse, and the benefits appear very slight in comparison, except possibly for the convenience of bureaucrats.

Mr. Straw: As I have said before, the hon. and learned Gentleman does his case no good by parodying what is in the Bill, and he seems completely ignorant of the provenance of the proposals, which came not from the Government, but from an independent review of data protection, undertaken by people who are profoundly committed to the provisions—the Information Commissioner and Professor Mark Walport. Moreover, the hon. and learned Gentleman must accept, first, the criticism by Walport and Thomas that the existing regime causes confusion—the proposals are designed to end some of that confusion—and that many of the problems that have arisen about whether data can or cannot be shared to protect the public, and secondly, that the Bill, although I am happy to consider how it could be strengthened—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am anxious not to curtail debate this afternoon, because these are complex matters, but I am sure that the Secretary of State will appreciate that he spoke for nearly an hour and that any intervention he makes should be extremely brief.

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Mr. Straw: There are many safeguards.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful for finally teasing from the Secretary of State some engagement in this debate, which is some progress.

Let me make the position clear. I do not deny that the arrival of the vast volumes of data that the state is now collating does not raise challenges. Indeed, the Information Commissioner is on record as expressing deep concern about the way in which, for example, data about a person’s distant past may be raked up and used in ways that are detrimental to their well-being subsequently. I accept that there is a need for safeguards and supervision, and some of the provisions may do something in that respect, but that does not get us away from the enormity of what is proposed. As it appears in the legislation, this is in fact the moment when the doors are opened to massive and uncontrolled data sharing. We do not think that that is desirable. We certainly do not think it desirable that it should be included in a Bill of this kind.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind) rose—

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD) rose—

Mr. Grieve: I probably ought to make some progress, but shall I give way to the hon. Lady before I do so.

Jenny Willott: Does the hon. and learned Gentleman share my concern at how the Government are presenting their case to the public? We saw an example this afternoon, when the Secretary of State talked about families suffering bereavement. I have also heard him give examples involving people moving house. That makes what is proposed sound like a very minor change, made just for people’s own convenience. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman share my concern that, if that is what is going to be done, a change in the law is not needed; people just need to be asked to give their consent? The Secretary of State is using minor examples to cover what is, as the hon. and learned Gentleman has said, a huge change.

Mr. Grieve: Yes, I agree entirely, and that is characteristic of the Government. It is just like identity cards, on which we were all told that it would be convenient for everyone to be able to prove their identity. None of these things is likely to take me in, and I do not think that they will take in the public either.

Before I move on to consider the clauses, I cannot entirely ignore the Bill’s background, particularly as the Secretary of State has provoked a response in view of his opening panegyric about the Government’s record on reducing crime and making everyone safer. We are entering a recession that is made far worse by Government debt, and it looks quite clear from the Government’s information that that is likely to be detrimental to individuals’ safety from crime as well.

In view of the Secretary of State’s comments, I would be interested to hear whether he agrees with the Home Secretary, who wrote to the Prime Minister in September warning of the increase in crime in general, and violent crime in particular, brought on by current economic conditions. Given that matter, the Bill does not even scratch the surface of what the Government could or should be considering. Violent crime has almost doubled under this Government—a fact now openly
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acknowledged by the head of the Home Office in his memorandum to Ministers, but not, apparently, by Ministers themselves.

There has been failure to plan for, let alone fund, adequate prison capacity, and that is one of the reasons why the proposals relating to the sentencing council take the form that they do in the Bill. At a time when people are concerned about the increase in violence, the full impact of the Government’s reckless early release scheme is becoming plainly apparent, for example in the ClearSprings fiasco; the issue was on the airwaves only this morning. The long-term failure to build the prisons that we need for our criminal justice system has led the Government to rely on weak non-custodial arrangements, and to fail to rehabilitate offenders or protect the public. I just point out to the Secretary of State that since 1999, nearly 400 people have been killed by criminals on probation.

A quarter of magistrates courts have closed under Labour; they were replaced by administrative measures that do not punish criminals properly and risk penalising the innocent. The mass expansion of penalty notices—again, this is something with which we are having to grapple—conditional cautions and warnings means that half of all criminal offenders avoid altogether court and proper assessment of what is required for them.

On the expanded use of spot fines, we now put shoplifters and those caught in possession of drugs on a par with someone accused of dropping an apple. Half the fines are not paid on time, in any event. One has the impression that Ministers are more interested in the taxation and revenue aspects of fining than in tackling the underlying causes, in relation to those who steal. Of course, the same approach is taken to cannabis, as the Government send out more mixed messages about that dangerous drug; they are reclassifying it on the one hand, but continue to make it the subject of fixed penalty notices on the other.

I notice that someone was recently ASBO’ed for singing in the bath, but on the face of it, real thugs do not seem to be particularly deterred by antisocial behaviour orders. The Government have repeatedly attacked the role of juries during their time in office. Each time, the Government have had to be fought off, but in the Bill there is yet another attempt to undermine the jury system, in relation to inquests. As I said, there is also the growth of the database state and creeping surveillance, despite all the evidence that the Government are more likely to lose or abuse our private information than to protect it. I am afraid that we see all the hallmarks of those serial failings in the details of the Bill.

Just to cheer up the Secretary of State, let me say that there are some measures that we welcome, as I have already hinted and pointed out. We agree that reform of the coroners’ system is long overdue. The bulk of the proposals are clearly of great importance, and we will do our best to make sure that those aspects of the reform can work properly. We certainly support measures to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes, and we will work with the Government to ensure proper protection for victims and witnesses, while safeguarding fair trials. There is much that is good in that part of the Bill. There may well be some challenging issues to do with investigation anonymity orders, but the intention behind them is clearly laudable.

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We will also look carefully at the Government’s proposals to reform the law on homicide. On that issue, we accept that the Government’s intentions are good, but the provisions classically illustrate the problem of trying to cherry-pick important, carefully reasoned and crafted, but admittedly controversial, proposals from the Law Commission’s report. There is clearly a need to provide a better definition of partial defences to murder, whether on the grounds of provocation or diminished responsibility. Those will be much harder to rationalise if the Law Commission’s idea for two categories of murder is not followed, although, as I say, I have some sympathy with the Government on why they may have decided not to go down that road.

It is a little strange—I repeat what I said in my intervention—that the Government should propose a wide-ranging partial defence where things done or said could cause a defendant to have a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged, intended to be wholly subjective, yet we are asked specifically to exclude sexual infidelity as a ground for feeling wronged. The whole history of human society, whether one is reading “Othello” or considering the case of Ruth Ellis, suggests that that is a matter on which people who might otherwise be behaving reasonably appear to lose all sense of proportion and reason. Without in any way saying that I have a fixed view on the matter, I very much hope that these are issues that we can properly consider, because it will be important that we get them right.

None of the proposals goes to the heart of the matter. They paper over the cracks. The sentencing council papers over cracks. Let us be absolutely clear. The fundamental point about this reform is to ensure that sentencing is driven by Government expediency, rather than by the requirements of justice. If it were not, there would be no reason why the existing system could not be tweaked. Something far more radical is proposed, and it amounts to a substantial fetter on judicial discretion. The Magistrates Association put it this way, and I could not put it better:

I make the point rightly made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier): the measure applies not just to whether people are being sent to prison; it applies also to non-custodial sentences and whether community punishments are available. It is right across the board.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman. His suggestion that the proposal is driven by a desire to reduce the prison population is completely untrue. It is belied by the fact—we are often criticised for this, but I take it on the chin—that the prison population has increased by twice the rate at which it increased under the Conservative Government. It has increased by 2,000 places a year and rising, and we have plans right until 2014 for its further expansion. Moreover, his predecessor was proud to say that the Conservative party was the only party committed long term to reducing the prison population. Is that his policy?

Mr. Grieve: Yes, I am entirely committed to the idea of reducing prison population in the long term. That is very desirable. My view has always been that the first
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step in reducing prison population is to provide adequate prison facilities for rehabilitation and training. That cannot be done in an overcrowded environment, which is why more prison places are needed at present. Moreover, when the Secretary of State quoted my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) earlier, he failed to add the final sentence of the comment that my hon. Friend made at the time:

On that score, the attempt to suggest that there is a difference of view between my hon. Friend and myself is nonsense.

The Bar Council called the move that the Government propose on the sentencing council a “dangerous” politicisation. We will deny the courts the discretion that they need and one of the reasons for that is that the Government have squandered so much taxpayers’ money that there is none left to discharge Government’s first duty to protect the public.

The Secretary of State challenged us to say how the Conservatives would approach these matters differently. I had not intended to go into this, but I am sure we would not have wasted £70 million on a computer system to link prisons to the probation service, which does not work. We certainly would not have spent £100 million to put the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council into a new Supreme Court, which must be one of the greatest extravagances and wastes of the Government’s period in office. Furthermore, we would not be spending £131 million to house the Secretary of State in his new accommodation. All that is quite apart from the £5 billion that has effectively been wasted on the National Offender Management Service—a subject that the Government are only too keen to gloss over. I note in passing that £27 million was spent on external consultants in 2007. If the Secretary of State wanted me to, I could run on with an endless list and point out all sorts of areas in which sensible savings can be made on foolish Government expenditure. If the Government had not been so profligate and foolish in some of the projects on which they embarked, the Secretary of State’s Department would not have its spending crisis, which has been afflicting it for a considerable period.

Mr. Straw: Just so that we are clear—

Mr. Garnier: The right hon. Gentleman spoke for an hour, but did not make himself clear.

Mr. Straw: In that case, I will now. Just so that we are clear, is the hon. and learned Gentleman saying that any future Conservative Government would guarantee that no IT project would fail to meet its objectives or its budget?

Mr. Grieve: I very much hope—indeed, I believe —that by applying a bit of common sense, it is possible to avoid some of the pitfalls that have afflicted the right hon. Gentleman’s Department. His Department has had many problems, one of which is that his two predecessors were heartily disliked by the Prime Minister when the Prime Minister was Chancellor of the Exchequer. As a result, certainly in respect of constitutional affairs,
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for example, and particularly on legal aid, the Department ended up constantly underfunded, because of the wickedness of the present Prime Minister. That remarkable story will take some time to be fully recounted, but it appears to have had a great deal to do with the Prime Minister’s personal animus against those previous incumbents. That may have given the Secretary of State an unhappy legacy when he took over the Department; indeed, I suspect that it has given him problems from which he has never been able to escape. I am afraid that I am not in a position to help “holistically”—I think that that is the awful word, which is used in the House far too often—to cure the internal dissensions in Government, which go back a long way.

If the measure on the council passes, our concern is that serious offenders who should be in prison will be let out early or will not be sentenced to custody at all, and that the public will pay the price by suffering at the hands of offenders.

Sir Alan Beith: Has the hon. and learned Gentleman noticed the increase of 300 prison places required for the other provisions in the Bill itself? Does he know the reason for that?

Mr. Grieve: I understand well enough that the Government have considerable difficulties, because prison places will rise as a result of some of the measures. Indeed, it is worth remembering that responsibility for the drivers behind the increased costs of both prisons and the court system can be, at least in part, laid at the door of the Government and their zeal in inflicting tougher and tougher criminal offences on the population. Those offences require representation when they go to court and they require more prison places. I understand that well, just as I understand that the problem with ClearSprings at the moment is that half the ClearSprings places have been created either to deal with early release prisoners or as a substitute for prison, to avoid sending on bail people who probably ought to be in a more controlled environment. The evidence is that the people involved have chaotic lifestyles that they inflict on the local communities, and without properly wardened accommodation to help them. All that is part of the Government’s general failure.

I turn to the proposals for bail reform. We accept that tightening up the legal criteria for bail is necessary, and to that extent we welcome the proposals, but they are not what we would have wanted in a wholesale reform: to make breach of bail a crime, to curtail the bailing of prolific and repeat offenders, and explicitly to make public protection a prime consideration when courts take decisions on bail. The Peart review talks of a “lackadaisical and nonchalant approach” to the granting and enforcement of bail. This proposal does not do justice to the scale of the problem, and I hope that the matter can be debated in greater detail as the Bill goes through the House.

That also applies to the proposal for a commissioner for victims and witnesses. The Secretary of State, being so nimble-footed, tries to get away from the issue. The position was first enacted in 2004. Five years on, the explanatory notes to the Bill cheerfully tell us that

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