Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): Ha.

Mr. Heald: I am generally in favour of currying favour with the Americans, which is obviously the reason for tacking on the measures, but it is important that the Labour Government recognise that they do not know business as well as they should. They should consult. I could go into a whole range of political issues where the Government have shown themselves to be inept as regards business, but this is not the place.

If the Government want to introduce something that will break with the long-standing tradition of protecting British business, and ensure that they do not make criminal that which is civil or open British companies to liability where it is unnecessary to do so, they should consult. It is poor practice not to find out what business thinks.

These are probing amendments, but we want the Government to take the issues on board and consult properly with business. Would it not be better to exclude the provisions from the Bill, hold consultations, and if necessary, introduce legislation that has more concern for British business? If the Minister is not prepared to consider that, he should at least fully explain why this is happening and acknowledge that the measures provide for a major change in policy that has not been announced to the House. Indeed, perhaps he could explain why the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has not come to the House to explain why something so important is being changed.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I welcome you to the Committee, Mrs. Adams. Unless something has happened since we last spoke, I am your Member of Parliament for part of your life, so I will try to represent your interests as well as I can.

Like the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), the Liberal Democrats believe that this is an important part of the Bill, and a wide-ranging clause, which deserves consideration. We support the amendments, which would ensure that we limit the number of investigations in which the powers that are proposed in this and other clauses can be used. I share his view that we have not yet debated what information given to one Department, Government agency or public sector organisation should be available to another.

The Government seem to presume that it should be possible for all the information that comes into the hands of public authorities to be moved around. The Minister might deny that, but it looks like that and feels increasingly like that. It is a sign of a big brother approach. There are 71 Acts listed in schedule 1 that will be subject to the powers in the Bill by way of clause 45. There are Conservative amendments that aim to delete some of those Acts, and it is desirable to try to reduce the number of Acts to which the Bill will apply without consent.

I will reserve some comments for the clause stand part debate, but the burden of proof is on the Government—on those who argue that we need to change the position. I have long argued that we should have an integrated tax and benefit system. To take one practical example, there is an anomaly whereby defendants in court can use their financial position in mitigation, if, for example, they are drawing benefits, despite the fact that nobody can check that out. That is a controversial matter for debate, and I understand the technical complexities of integrating tax and benefits.

The proposal would allow all sorts of information transfers in the context of criminal proceedings. We must proceed cautiously. The two significant amendments in the group would limit the criminal investigations to serious arrestable offences and limit them to the United Kingdom. That is a better starting point; that is how we should seek to legislate. We all recognise that there is an increasing amount of international crime. I understand the need for provisions that cover areas wider than England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but such provisions should be made with the consent of industry, agencies and the private sector. The legislation should be consistent across the EU and should have general public approval. I share the scepticism about whether we have got it right yet in respect of the debate about what disclosed information should be passed around. I do not think that people have yet assented to the proposition that when information is held by one agency, it should be commonly available.

10.45 am

The legislation absolutely should not be retrospective. There is a worrying tendency to legislate retrospectively. Someone might give information to an accountant, who then discloses it to the Financial Services Authority. Three years later, that information could be dug into, taken out and handed to someone else. That is completely contrary to the basis on which many agencies and public organisations work.

Mr. Heald: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the measure is specifically aimed at companies and the US anti-trust authorities? Other provisions allow the Government to disclose information for the purposes of investigations into serious offences overseas. For example, narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances are dealt with under the Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Act 1990. A mutual assistance convention deals with criminal matters. The measure is not about drug trafficking, money laundering and such issues. It is about making it difficult for British companies that perhaps have a civil liability in respect of anti-trust legislation, making them criminals.

Mr. Hughes: That is my fear; it is a likely danger.

In my earlier life, I worked for the European Commission. I dealt with matters under articles 85 and 86, concerning monopolies and controls. There is a European Union regime for dealing with such matters. There is also a set of protocols, agreements and conventions that would benefit from being codified. The matter is becoming very difficult. In the case of employment, if members of the Committee chose to employ someone, and pay them a decent amount, the accountant would be expected to know which conventions, bilateral agreements or reciprocal tax arrangements apply. Agreements might be EU-wide, initiated by the Council of Europe, bilateral or, like the International Labour Organisation arrangements, brokered under an agency such as the United Nations. A variety of measures govern the dealings of the private sector.

We are debating a Bill about the citizen's rights vis-a-vis the state, but we have included other issues that would be far more at home in a debate about the Proceeds of Crime Bill, which was published in draft form yesterday. I would be happy to debate it. I have had discussions about it with people in other parties and my colleagues in Scotland. That would be a perfectly proper debate, and that is where this discussion should take place.

Mr. Heald: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is somewhat incongruous that a Bill that deals with giving on-the-spot fines to those who are drunk and incapable in the street should have tacked on to it a rather complex piece of legislation dealing with anti-trust laws?

Mr. Hughes: It is incongruous but, sadly, that is how the Government work. I have described previously what happens every year, particularly if the Prime Minister asks for eye-catching initiatives. Ministers scurry around to the civil servants in each Department and ask, ``What do you have at the top of the pile?'' They collect a list of topics. The history of Home Office litigation is a series of such portmanteau Bills, with a bit of this, a bit of that and a bit of the other all cobbled together and put under one title. That has happened almost every year since I have been in the House, so it does not surprise me—but it is not good legislation.

The Minister has often agreed that we must attempt to approach legislation logically, so that a Criminal Justice and Police Bill concentrates on a few issues to do with the criminal justice system, as that is normally defined, and the police system, and does not contain lots of additional items taken from the Christmas tree, as it were, which have been waiting in various queues in the Home Office for someone to act on—even though there is an argument for that. We are terribly bad at legislating coherently in this country. Our legislation is driven by a combination of inertia in the face of recommendations from the Law Commission and so on, and whatever the opposite is—I do not know whether ``ertia'' is a word—when an election is looming and the Government suddenly think that they should be seen to be doing something.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I was interested in what the hon. Gentleman said about the work on article 85 that he used to do. I also worked on that, but from the industry's point of view, when I was with a multinational company. He said that it was a portmanteau Bill. Does he agree that it is more a kind of Christmas tree Bill on which the Government want to hang the trendy, eye-catching idea or initiative of the moment? I entirely support what my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and he said about the fact that the Government are proposing such legislation only because an election is pending.

Mr. Hughes: We are getting into rather odd mixed metaphors about hanging eye-catching initiatives on Christmas trees; I thought that eye-catching initiatives were put in windows rather than on Christmas trees. However, the problem certainly exists.

I am not naive enough—probably no one else in the Room is either—to deny that when elections are looming, Governments rush around and try to look busier than they are. I guess that when the Conservative party was in office and, just a few years before that, when the Liberal party was in office—[Laughter.] My recollection of the Liberal party rushing around is not quite as clear as my recollection of the Conservative party rushing around, but they both did it. The nature of politics is that one seeks to respond.

It would be good to amend the Bill along the lines of the amendment but even better to remove the clause altogether. Unless we are persuaded otherwise, my hon. Friends and I will vote against the clause. It should be put in the right place at the right time, after considered debate.

 
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