Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Charles Clarke: The clause sets out the circumstances in which a person who is made the subject of a travel restriction order will be able to apply to the court for suspension or revocation of the order. Those are quite separate provisions and it may help if I explain the distinction.

Suspension is to cover circumstances where overseas travel is needed for urgent, exceptional, compassionate reasons, whenever that might arise after the travel ban takes effect. The explanatory notes cite the example of the need to travel overseas for urgent medical treatment. Applications for revocation are to cover other circumstances, where the offender wants to apply for the travel restriction to be lifted, such applications to be made after two years in the case of an order made for four years, four years for orders of between four and 10 years duration, and five years in all other cases. Amendments Nos. 165 and 166 deal with applications for temporary suspension, amendments Nos. 163 and 164 to applications for revocation.

I shall deal first with amendment No. 164 for brevity, because I dealt with the relevant arguments during debate on the previous clause. I shall not repeat those arguments, but simply urge the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment once she has had a chance to consider the points that I made.

Amendments Nos. 165 and 166 refer to applications for temporary suspension and would weaken the provision for such applications. Both would lessen the test to be applied by the courts when considering applications for suspension of travel restriction orders. That is unacceptable and would risk undermining the orders. An ''essential'' business appointment overseas—such as the example of a conference in Paris cited by the hon. Lady—might be offered as a reason to justify the suspension of the travel restriction order, and indeed there might be such a meeting or conference. However, that could all too easily provide a simple cover for illegal activities.

Indeed, if we do not make the sort of distinction that the Government have in mind, there would be little point in having separate suspension and revocation mechanisms. A drug trafficker bent on continuing his illegal trade could simply apply to have the order lifted as required, availing himself of sick relatives or urgent business trips as necessary. Under the lesser tests proposed by the amendments, such circumstances might all be reason to grant suspension of the travel restriction order.

Jackie Ballard: It sounds as though the Minister is suggesting that it will be easier for the courts to determine whether compassionate grounds exist—whether sickness is genuine—than to determine whether there is a genuine work-related reason for going abroad. I should have thought that in most circumstances it would be easier to produce documentary evidence of a work-related need to travel abroad than of the existence of a sick relative.

Mr. Clarke: That is true, but sick relatives are less common than business opportunities. I should have great difficulty inventing a sick relative in Paris because I do not have a relative in Paris, let alone a sick one. On the other hand, I should find it quite easy to invent a business event or conference that I needed to attend in Paris—even if the meeting actually took place—and to provide documentation to progress my application. The genuineness of the compassionate ground is much more restrictive, because the circumstances are far narrower. It is possible to invent fully documented activities in respect of business grounds in a wide variety of ways, which might require my presence although the real purpose of the visit was to continue conducting my drug trafficking arrangements. We worded subsection (3) so as to balance the need to respond appropriately in genuine exceptional compassionate circumstances and the desire to operate an effective sentencing regime.

Amendment No. 163 would remove the notion of the minimum period. If the amendment were accepted, a person subject to a travel restriction order would be able to apply to have that order lifted the day that it took effect, which would clearly be nonsense. In deciding whether to grant applications for revocation, the court will need to be able to consider the range of circumstances set out in subsection (4), including the conduct of the offender since the making of the order. Such a judgment can be made only after a passage of time as, by definition, taking account of that conduct—since release from prison, for example—depends on there being such a passage of time.

The amendment would give the court an incomplete picture on which to consider any application for revocation and weaken the effect of the clauses, so I hope that the hon. Member for Taunton will consider withdrawing it.

Jackie Ballard: I anticipated the Minister's argument on amendment No. 164, and I am convinced by his argument on amendment No. 163, but not on amendments Nos. 165 and 166. I do not know what sort of school he attended but, having been a teacher as well as a pupil, I know that it is common for people to invent a host of sick relatives who prevented them from doing their homework or attending school.

Mr. Clarke: In my school there was plenty of creativity in those areas, too, but people did not invent sick relatives in other countries.

Jackie Ballard: I hope that the Minister will forgive my saying so, but there was probably less travel between European countries than there is now. I am not suggesting, of course, that he was at school so very long ago.

I am not convinced that it is more difficult to invent a sick relative than a work-related reason to go abroad. However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 37 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 38 and 39 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 40

Intimidation of witnesses

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

Mr. Hawkins: The official Opposition have pressed for the introduction of new powers in law to prevent intimidation or threats of witnesses in previous legislation. We welcome the fact that the Government have introduced such a provision here, and we do not intend to block it. However, I was personally involved in some debates on other Bills in which we called for such measures and said that an early opportunity should be found to bring forward legislation. We are pleased that the Government have responded.

The provisions are, sadly, necessary at this point in time. That was reinforced for me during a visit in a neighbouring constituency with one of the Minister's colleagues—the Solicitor-General. He was making an official visit to the Crown Prosecution Service for the south-east, which is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn). I was visiting as a neighbouring Member and a shadow Minister. Both the Solicitor-General and I were surprised to hear that a notorious family of criminals from another area had not only been threatening witnesses but issuing personal threats and taking action against a senior prosecutor. I would not want to exacerbate the problem by drawing attention to the people concerned, but it was happening to someone involved in the administration of justice at a senior level, who suffered serious fears about what was being threatened against him and members of his family. If people involved in the administration of justice can be subject to attempts by serious criminals to exercise such intimidation, how much more necessary is it to protect witnesses and potential witnesses? We fear greatly that we may have to return to the matter and consider yet stronger powers than the Government are introducing in this and the subsequent two related clauses. Although we welcome the fact that action is being taken in response to calls that the Opposition have made for some time, it may be necessary to go even further. However, we do not want to delay the Bill's passage by tabling amendments, as it is worth seeing how the protections that it will introduce will operate.

Jackie Ballard: I do not want to take up too much time. The clause relates to the intimidation and protection of witnesses. A lot of progress has been made on the treatment of victims and on recognition that they need to be kept informed at every stage of the process. However, there is not yet enough understanding of how witnesses feel. Many people are reluctant to come forward as witnesses, especially in relation to serious crime. Even if the crime is less serious, potential witnesses might not want the hassle of going to court.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): I do not know whether it will affect the hon. Lady's remarks if I point out that the clause relates primarily to witnesses in civil cases and the small category of criminal cases that are not provided for under section 51 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. It is designed for someone who would be a potential witness in a domestic violence or antisocial behaviour case, rather than one relating to a serious crime.

Jackie Ballard: I thank the Parliamentary Secretary. He spotted that I was taking the opportunity to say something more general.

Mr. Lock: He is very clever.

Jackie Ballard: Yes, he is too clever for me. I will not develop the point that I was going to make.

As hon. Members will know, my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has a special interest in criminal matters. However, he wanted me to make a couple of points on his behalf in this context. What steps are being taken or are envisaged to encourage witnesses to come forward in future? His second point might relate more to criminal proceedings, but not necessarily exclusively. It concerns the ability of witnesses to be moved before the trial takes place. He says that the current system is a complete lottery and depends partly on how well local authorities co-operate. He suggests that witnesses could be moved to a network of addresses or accommodation. I can imagine all sorts of practical difficulties in that, but I would be grateful if the Minister were to tell us the Government's thinking on the matter.

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