Maria Eagle: I will try to deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Cambridge in respect of amendment 463. I understand the point that he is making. Apart from police officers, anyone who is involved in preparing the prosecution might be affected, such as prosecutors and the Serious Organised Crime Agency. However, it is essentially correct that the provision will affect those preparing the case at an early stage during the investigation. The hon. Gentleman is right about that.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that this is not some half-baked idea that has come from ACPO, as he seems to be suggestingACPO has said that it thinks the measure might help. However, we are restricting the provision to the most serious end of gun-and-gang homicide, with knives and guns. Those are the sorts of cases where the concern that witnesses have in particular areas affected by this type of crime prevents them from coming forward to give evidence at an early stage, even though evidence is available. The evidence shows that there are hot-spot areas around the country. My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East knows as well as me, because we represent some of those areas, precisely what fear exists and the situations that can arise from gang-related activity in particular places.
One of the reasons why we are restricting the provisionwe had this debate at the end of the previous sittingis to see whether it works. I am not saying that it will definitely work, but we need to do more to ensure the rule of law in hot spots for gangs and crime. We believe that the provision may help and we hope that it will, as does the hon. Gentleman. I welcome the fact that he hopes that it will work, but I am not going to proclaim that it definitely will. If it works, that will be a good thing, but if it does not work, it will not be extended and may even fall into disuse. However, I do not believe, as someone who represents an area which is affected in this wayI am sure that I speak for my hon.
On that basis, while I understand the somewhat academic points that the hon. Gentleman makesI am not insulting himI hope that he understands where we are coming from.
David Howarth: These points are not academic. They are based on my personal experience of being brought up on an estate rather like the one the Minister is talking about. My points have nothing to do with intellectual game playing, because they concern what is really going to happen in real life. My doubts concern the political game by which the Government want to appear to do something about such a serious problem, but are not doing anything.
Maria Eagle: It is not a political game, but a practical effort to deal with a particular problem in specific hot-spot areas for gun-and-gang homicide. We hope and believe that the provision will make a difference. The hon. Gentleman has his doubts, whether academic or otherwise. I hope that we are right and that he is not, but to ensure that we do not infect the entire criminal justice system with anonymity at investigation stages, we are restricting our effort to make a positive difference to the highest level of offences in hot-spot, gun-and-gang-crime-ridden areas.
Amendment 268 agreed to.
Amendments made: 269, in clause 61, page 35, line 29, leave out from that to the in line 30 and insert
the information disclosed is information that might enable the specified person to be identified as a person of the sort described in subsection (1)(a) in relation to.
270, in clause 61, page 35, line 37, leave out from first is to willing and insert
a person who is or was able or.
271, in clause 61, page 35, line 41, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert
(a) the disclosure is made to a person who is involved in the specified qualifying criminal investigation or in the prosecution of an offence to which the investigation relates, and.
272, in clause 61, page 36, line 4, leave out was and insert is.
273, in clause 61, page 36, line 5, after prosecution, insert
of an offence to which the investigation relates.
274, in clause 61, page 36, line 6, leave out subsection (8).
275, in clause 61, page 36, line 22, leave out from liable to end of line 24 and insert
(a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding the relevant period or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or both;
(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years or a fine, or both.
(11A) The relevant period means
(a) in relation to England and Wales, 12 months;
(b) in relation to Northern Ireland, 6 months..
276, in clause 61, page 36, line 25, leave out subsection (12).(Maria Eagle.)
Clause 61, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 62 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Conditions for making order
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 443, in clause 63, page 37, line 34, leave out subsection (5).
Amendment 444, in clause 63, page 37, line 37, leave out subsection (6).
Amendment 83, in clause 63, page 37, line 40, leave out paragraph (b).
Amendment 445, in clause 63, page 38, line 9, leave out subsection (9).
Mr. Garnier: Again, the debate can be reasonably short. Our amendments are intended to extract from the Government some understanding of the thinking behind the age limits and the composition of gangs. In case anyone gets over-excited, the amendments are probing.
The Government are providing that, for the purposes of the clause, those who commit qualifying offences or are suspected of committing qualifying offencesgang membersshould be between the ages of 11 and 30. The applications can be made ifgoing to subsection (9), which is affected by amendment 445the qualifying offence is committed by two or more persons.
Why did the Government choose those age limits 11 at the younger end and 30 at the older end? The right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East and the Minister may have constituency experience of unattractive people misconducting themselves in gangs who may be over the age of 30. They may be egging youngsters on, as gang leaders who are off the balance sheet and careful enough not to be seen on the ground but who, none the less, may be the controlling minds of such gangs. I appreciate that if a person is under the age of 11, they are close to the age of absence of criminal responsibility under the law. None the less, I think that the Government may shut themselves out of an avenue if they think that the regime under clause 61 and the following clauses is a good one. The age group will be limited to between 11 and 30, albeit that I accept that most gangs are probably of that age group; certainly, when I have visited prisonsI think, 50 or so in the past two and a half to three yearsmost of the residents who are there for gangland-related offences are of that age group.
Mr. Boswell: Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is a problem where before the order is made, it has to appear that the majority of persons in the group are in the age group? Given that there is unlikely to be any formal, let alone recorded, structure, it will put a difficult evidential test to work out how many people there were, and who was the numerator and who was the denominator.
Mr. Garnier: My hon. Friend has described the problem much more neatly than me. He has enabled me to cut short my remarks by some measure, which is a happy thing for the hon. Member for Wrexham. The Whips
On a further point, I may be misleading myself that I have properly read subsection (9), but I want to be sure that, where it states that the qualifying offence must be committed by two or more persons, it is sufficient for the purposes of subsection (2), which will give the JP the power to make an order if they are satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the relevant conditions in subsections (3) to (8) have been satisfied by one person. It may be that it is too early in the morning for my brain to engage properly with the matter, but I need to have the numbers sorted out. Does the court need only to be satisfied that one person has committed a relevant offencealbeit that they are a member of a gang of two or moreor is there something else that I have missed through my lack of acuity?
David Howarth: I have little to add to what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said, except to point out that his last point relates to the failure of the Government to take on the whole reform of the law on murder. Dealing with secondary parties to murder was originally part of the Law Commissions task, and the Government have abandoned that effortalthough, given the reaction to the commissions proposals, perhaps it is not quite as surprising as what else happened.
Like the hon. Member for Daventry, I am slightly worried about exactly how the magistrate will approach an application where the conditions are so detailedthe person involved has to be aged at least 11, but under 30, at the time of the offence. It does not say appears to be or would, on reasonable grounds, we believe to be; it says are, which seems too precise. Although subsection (2) will allow a JP to make such an order, if they are satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the conditions are fulfilled, the conditions tend to be precise, rather than slightly vaguer, which would be more appropriate.
More than that, there is a problem with the definition of gang, which looks arbitrary. Why is the cut-off age 30, and not 31 or 29? To pass this on rationality grounds, the Government at least need some evidence of the nature of gang crime and the age of the people involved. Like the hon. and learned Member for Harborough, I visit prisons, and I agree with him that most of the people involved in such activity are in their 20s or younger, but some gangs, especially the more organised ones involved in drug dealing, include slightly older people. I am worried, therefore, about why the cut-off is as it is.
Jeremy Wright: I seek your guidance, Mr. Cook. My point relates to clause 63(8), to which no amendments have been tabled. Do you intend to conduct a stand part debate? If so, would you prefer me to raise my point then, or now?
The Chairman: I am inclined to request that any stand part comments be made at this time, because we are discussing four subsections, at least. Now is the moment, if the hon. Gentleman wants to take it.
Jeremy Wright: Subsection (8) deals with one of the conditions for the making of an investigation anonymity order. The first part of the subsection is perfectly straightforward and sensible: that the person in question be able to provide information of assistance. However, paragraph (b) causes me some concern, so I would be grateful for some clarification from the Minister. Paragraph (b) states that the person in question should be
more likely than not, as a consequence of the making of the order, to provide such information.
It is hard to conceive of an individual who might become a witness in proceedings, who would not be more persuaded to give information if given anonymity. What is the purpose of paragraph (b)? It seems to me that there are two possible approaches: the Government could say either that all those who wish to have an investigation anonymity order, in the context of the other conditions in the clause, should be able to have one, or that only those who need such an orderthose who would not give the information requested without such an ordershould be covered.
Mr. Boswell: Is not the problem with subsection (8) that it puts in place an objective test, whereas clearly it is the wishes and intentions of the potential witness that are relevant? If there is to be an objective test, will it not need to be argued over in court subsequently, because there will be no evidence either way for whether it was better? As often seems to be the case to me, as a lay person in the legal process, we could end up arguing again about whether process has been fulfilled, without making any progress on the substance of the matter.
Jeremy Wright: I am not sure that I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Whatever way it is done, this is a subjective test, because it is all about whether the person in question, who could provide information, would be willing to do so, if certain conditions are fulfilled and help offered. Currently, the subsection states that the order would be available if the person would be more likely to provide information. That is a question about whether that person is more persuaded. However, it seems to me that that test could easily be met. Everyone would be more persuaded to give evidence if given anonymity. What is the utility of the subsection, therefore, and what lies behind it? Why, if they have done so, have the Government concluded that that is a better approach than saying that such orders are available only to those who would not otherwise give useful information?
Maria Eagle: I shall try to deal with that latter point first. I am sure that the Committee will agree that it would not be desirable to spray around investigation anonymity orders willy-nilly. We all have concerns about anonymity. The purpose of subsection (3) is to make the point that if such an offer of support and assistance at an early stage persuades somebody to give evidence that might lead to a conviction for homicide in a gun-and-gang-related murder, for example, that makes it worth while to allow anonymity, which is always a compromise in the criminal justice system.
It may be that that person, because they are offered an anonymity order at an early stage, does not have to give evidence at the trial. The evidence that they offer might lead to the finding of the weapon, and forensic evidence might then be enough to tie the weapon to the individual who committed the crime. The person who comes forward, reassured by an investigation anonymity order, will not necessarily have to give evidence at the trial. They might then be able to remain anonymous, having assisted in bringing to justice a serious criminal who might not otherwise have been brought to justice. That is the purpose. We would not seek to make more investigation anonymity orders than were necessary to assist people to come forward with evidence that might help solve crimes. It is essentially a reassurance.
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