Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Jackie Ballard: I want to speak to amendments Nos. 160 to 162 and 6. On Second Reading, we expressed our support for proposals to restrict drug traffickers' freedom to travel, but we gave notice that we would seek to amend the open-ended nature of the restrictions. Like us, the Minister will doubtless have received briefings from Liberty, which questions whether such a restriction is compatible with the European convention on human rights, the freedom of movement and the right to trade in goods and services throughout the European Union. I am sure that he will say that, as with all the other clauses, this one has passed some form of compatibility test. Indeed, the Government are hardly likely to table legislation that they do not believe complies with the European convention on human rights, but that does not guarantee that the clause does indeed comply.

There is no upper limit to the length of the orders. Although they will apply only to people who have been given prison sentences of four years or more, first-time offenders—as well as those who offend repeatedly—could be included. Amendment No. 160 would replace subsection (2)(b) to make it clear that

    ``the court shall only impose an order if it considers that it is necessary to prevent the offender from committing further''

drug trafficking offences. A pre-sentence report might well state that, on the balance of probabilities, the offence was a once-only occurrence. Indeed, we might all imagine circumstances in which a person was used as, say, an unknowing mule. Amendment No. 161 would change the balance by requiring the court to

    ``state the reasons for its decision'',

whether or not it decides to impose a travel restriction order. At the moment, the norm is that a travel restriction order should be imposed, and reasons must be given for not imposing one. If our amendment were accepted, reasons would have to be given in either case.

Amendment No. 162 would remove the minimum restriction of two years and leave it to the discretion of the court. Amendment No. 6 would set a maximum time limit that is no more than the original prison sentence.

Mr. Charles Clarke: This is an important clause and I am glad that the hon. Lady raised those points. It provides a new sentencing option for the courts: a travel restriction order. The reason for it is straightforward. The trade in illegal drugs is an international multi-million pound industry, which, in 1997, was estimated to have a turnover of approximately 8 per cent. of total international trade. That is an extraordinarily large figure, which shows the task that we are wrestling with. We believe that travel restriction orders will make it more difficult for drug traffickers to travel overseas, thereby helping to prevent or disrupt trafficking. That is one of the main objectives of the Government's drugs policy, which commands general support throughout the House.

The orders will be available when the courts impose a sentence of imprisonment of four years or more for a drug trafficking offence. That threshold has been chosen in accordance with the sentencing guidelines issued by the Court of Appeal to distinguish serious cases. In such cases, the courts will be under a duty to consider making a travel restriction order and if a court decides that a ban is not appropriate, it will be required to give reasons. The period of the order will run from the time of the offender's long-term release from custody--for example, on licence--and will last for a minimum of two years. Courts may also order the surrender of any United Kingdom passport.

Jackie Ballard: I should be grateful if the Minister would explain the rationale for the minimum period of two years.

Mr. Clarke: I shall come to that when I deal with the amendments.

Amendments Nos. 19 and 160 would have a similar effect. We intend the order to add to the range of powers available to the courts to deal with drug trafficking offenders and to be a discretionary measure, subject to the sentencing threshold stated, which was chosen to distinguish serious cases in accordance with Court of Appeal guidance. The effect of the amendments--I accept that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) said that they are probing amendments--would be to impose on the courts an unreasonable speculative requirement. The Government want the courts to make the judgment set out in subsection (2)(a) in lines 37 to 39--that is, whether a travel restriction order, in all the circumstances of the individual case, is an appropriate sentencing option. That requires a broader sentencing judgment than that suggested by amendments Nos. 19 or 160, both of which would require the court to speculate unreasonably.

Similarly, the Government are not suggesting that the mere imposition of a travel restriction order will necessarily prevent reoffending and I do not understand how a court could reasonably be asked to make such an assessment. The phrase ``similar offences'' in amendment No. 160 is too vague.

The amendments would also prevent the courts from applying travel restriction orders when they consider that to be an appropriate punitive sanction--I emphasise punitive. Overseas travel is a common prerequisite for drug traffickers and we are discussing international drug-dealing businesses. It is right that the courts should have the option of punishing those who abuse the freedom to travel with an appropriate sanction. The Government believe that for individuals convicted of drug trafficking offences, whose life style involves frequent overseas travel for pleasure or other purposes, the imposition of a travel restriction order may be an effective element in the overall punishment, as well as an appropriate and justifiable way of expressing society's condemnation of their unlawful activities. We do not accept that the conditions set out in amendments Nos. 19 or 160 are appropriate.

Amendment No. 6 is technically flawed because ``previously sentenced'' could refer to any previous offence. However, we believe that its broad intention is what the Government envisage in the new sentencing option--an escalator based on the sentence of imprisonment handed down at the same time. The record of our debate today will confirm that intention and the courts will be informed when notified of the introduction of the new power.

I cannot accept the amendment because it would unacceptably limit the discretion that we want to give to the courts and could have an adverse impact on the sort of offenders that we want to protect. The hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) gave the example of a single mother acting as a mule for a drugs gang. That is a serious offence, but the courts may decide that, in all the circumstances, an appropriate punishment would be a short prison sentence relative to the period of the travel restriction order. The Government do not want such discretion to be limited.

Amendment No. 161, as with amendments Nos. 19 and 160, has the clear intention of shifting the presumption of the use of travel restriction orders to only those cases in which the court believes that there is a strong likelihood of similar reoffending that would be prevented by imposition of a travel restriction order. I have explained that this is not the test or the rationale for travel restriction orders that the Government intend. I see no merit in requiring the courts to explain their reasons for making a travel restriction order. If an offender believes that an order was inappropriate in his or her case, the normal appeals mechanism provides a means of redress.

3.30 pm

Amendment No. 162 seeks to remove the minimum duration for travel restriction orders. Clause 35 stipulates that the new orders will not run for less than two years and I hope that it is self-evident that for those orders to be given a chance to impact on drug trafficking activity, or to represent a meaningful punishment, a sensible minimum period for the prohibition on overseas travel is necessary.

Members of the Committee may not be aware that offenders released on licence are already subject to a ban on overseas travel, without the permission of their parole officer, for a set period of the licence. In the case of an offender sentenced to four years' imprisonment, that restriction would currently last for one year. In response to the hon. Lady's question, the reason for the two-year period is that the Government intend that travel restriction orders should be a tougher restriction on overseas travel than already exists under the terms of the parole licence, which would need to be more than one year. That is why we have set two years, which is a sensible and reasonable minimum period.

Jackie Ballard: Will the Minister confirm that the restriction order would be an addition to the one-year restriction on travel under the licence?

Mr. Clarke: I was just taking advice on that point. No, it would not be an addition; it would be a parallel restriction. The offender would have one year under parole and an extra year in this situation. With your permission, Mr. Gale, I have dealt with that matter at some length because there will be public interest in the Government's intended application of the order. It was important to place on the record the thinking behind the various aspects of the order. I apologise for taking the Committee's time. I hope that, with those clarifications, hon. Members will consider withdrawing their amendments.

Mr. Hawkins: As I said in opening, we were simply seeking to probe. The Minister's comments have been helpful. We in the official Opposition definitely want to crack down on drug traffickers. It may help the Minister and, indeed, the Committee, if I say now that when we deal with clause 37 I do not propose to speak to amendment No. 18. The matters raised in our probing amendment, No. 19, on this clause are similar and the Minister has given us a full and adequate response. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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