Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): It is worth setting out the rationale of the clause. I hope that the Committee will excuse me if I stray into a clause stand part debate, but it is important to understand the context of the amendments.

The clause contains several measures on taking fingerprints. Under subsection (1) the police will be allowed to retake fingerprints where an individual has been convicted of a recordable offence if the initial set of prints was incomplete or of poor quality, or if there were errors in the data-capture process. Under subsection (2) the level of authorisation for the taking of fingerprints is changed from an officer of superintendent rank or above to inspector or above.

On amendment No. 219, I shall not add much to what was said yesterday. The structure of the police force is changing in the ways that I described. In answer to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, we are not setting out a coherent world picture. Nevertheless, through the Lancaster House process on police reform, we are actively debating with the police how best to move towards a more holistic approach. An important aspect of the development of a modern and flexible police force is re-examination of past problems by the police themselves—rather than by politicians and civil servants—to establish the most appropriate methods for the modern arena. Amendment No. 219 in itself, however, is not part of any holistic view, but is related to the developments that I have described.

10.15 am

It may be worth saying that changing the ranks for fingerprinting was included in the consultation document published in July 1999—``Proposals for revising legislative measures on fingerprints, footprints and DNA samples''. Our recommendations are based on that document, so I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

Clause 77(3) mirrors the provisions in clause 77(1), allowing the police to retake fingerprints when an individual is charged with a recordable offence if the initial set of prints was incomplete or of poor quality, or if there were errors in the data-capture process. These measures are important to enable the police to benefit from new technology. Digital capture, storage and searching of fingerprints will significantly increase the speed with which matches can be made. For the process to work efficiently it is important to have good quality images.

Under the current provisions of PACE, if a partial set of prints is taken during the course of the investigation, the police cannot take the remaining prints to get a full set. Developments in technology enable a single fingerprint to be taken for ''live-ID''—an on-line check of an individual's identity where a record of that individual's fingerprints already exist.

Subsection (4) deals with what happens where doubt has arisen about the identity of the person who answers to bail at a court or a police station. In those circumstances, the fingerprints of a suspect may be taken without consent where it is authorised by the court or an officer of at least inspector rank.

Subsection (6) extends the power to take fingerprints to cautions for recordable offences because of a current loophole. If offenders' fingerprints have not been taken during the course of an investigation or when they are charged or informed that they will be reported for the offence, it is not possible to obtain fingerprints later if the police decide to proceed by way of a caution. A caution is an administrative disposal, not a conviction, which means that details of cautions held in national police records may not always be supported by fingerprints. Similar provisions are introduced for warnings and reprimands under section 65 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

To answer the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, final warnings and reprimands currently stay on the record for seven years and cautions for five years, except for offences against children, the mentally or physically disabled, or elderly people, or offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, in which case they stay on the record for longer. If fingerprints have been taken under the current Bill, it is intended that they be retained permanently.

Clause 77(7) enables fingerprints to be taken electronically and stored in a digital format. It is important that any form of evidence has a proper evidential trail, so when fingerprints are taken electronically, they must be taken in an appropriate manner in line with the recommendations of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. The practice has already been adopted in Scotland through the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Act 1997.

The definition of a fingerprint is clarified in subsection (8) to remove any ambiguity or argument about the means by which a fingerprint is recorded. Finally, section 39 of the Criminal Justice Act 1948, which has fallen into disuse and is no longer able to provide proof of previous convictions, is repealed under subsection (9).

Those are the main purposes of the clause. I was asked whether we want to move towards compulsory fingerprinting. The Bill does not change the basic position under PACE. Fingerprints can be taken on suspicion of involvement in a recordable offence and also on conviction. The Bill allows them to be retaken if they are technically deficient and following a caution, warning or reprimand.

I understand the argument about the league table of fixed penalty notices, but the purpose of the fixed penalty notice provision in clause 1 is to have a rapid and effective means of dealing with the offence. To require fingerprints to be taken and an approach to be established by that means would work against that.

Mr. Heald: As the Minister knows, one of my concerns about the Bill is that criminal damage is one of the offences covered by fixed penalty notices. Fixed penalty offences are unlikely to be detected using fingerprints, but that is not true of criminal damage. Those who damage vehicles and cause criminal damage often leave fingerprints, so they provide a means of detecting some of the more serious cases of criminal damage. I am worried that we might give someone a fixed penalty notice, which is a more serious disposal than a caution, and not have fingerprints. Is there any protection against that?

Mr. Clarke: I understand the point and I hesitate to add to the hon. Gentleman's catalogue of approval that he will cite in various circles, but we had a good debate on criminal damage and the amendments that he and his hon. Friends tabled on clause 1. I made it clear then that we intended fixed penalty notices to cover the lower level of criminal damage and not serious criminal damage. We had a long discussion about the ability of people whose property suffers criminal damage to take action. His concerns about more serious criminal damage and the need for evidence such as he described were dealt with during that debate. When fixed penalty notices are issued, identity and suspicion of involvement will not be an issue. Fixed penalty notices are not a conviction, so we are not including the power to take fingerprints. The point is reasonable, but my explanation is entirely sustainable.

Amendments Nos. 218 and 220 would perpetuate an inconsistency because some records would be supported by fingerprints and others would not. If the police were unable to take a full set of prints during the investigation or the prints were of poor quality, they should be able to retake them. If they were unable to do so, subsequent investigations might be hindered if the offender reoffended.

I have dealt with amendment No. 219 and I hope that hon. Members will not press it to a vote.

Mr. Hawkins: I am afraid that the Minister will be disappointed, because I am not satisfied with his response on amendment No. 219. There should not be a downgrading in the level of management responsibility, and the Government may live to regret that. If there is a miscarriage of justice, a future commission may criticise them and say that if a superintendent had been in charge, it probably would not have happened. I am not criticising police inspectors, many of whom are personal friends and for whom I have enormous respect, but there is significance in the involvement of a very senior officer. We feel strongly about that, and I shall urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote with me against the proposal and in favour of amendment No. 219.

Mr. Hughes: I want to return to a matter to clarify what the Minister said, but I am minded to press amendment No. 220 to a vote. If someone is dealt with by the courts with a caution, warning or reprimand and has his fingerprints compulsorily taken, my understanding is that they will remain permanently on police records, but under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, the caution, warning or reprimand will be removed from the record after a specific period. If that is so, the provision is exceptionally draconian.

The ethos of the warning, reprimand and caution process was conceived to be an administrative disposal short of a conviction, so that the offender did not acquire a criminal record and the disposal could be referred to only for a specific period. It seems wrong that, as a result of a less-than-conviction disposal, fingerprints, which will remain on file for ever, can be taken compulsorily. If the Minister confirms that that is the case, it is the beginning of big brother and an oppressive state.

Those who are told that this process is being undertaken to record an offence but to avoid a conviction will not usually understand that the record will remain on police files afterwards. Such people will be likely suspects in subsequent investigations of offences.

If the Minister confirms that I have understood the matter correctly—I do not want to vote on the basis of a misunderstanding—I will certainly press amendment No. 220 to a Division. Amendment No. 218, which refers to fingerprints being re-taken if the first set is defective, has less impact on civil liberties, so it would be logical for the Committee to focus on amendment No. 220. However, I would be grateful for confirmation that I have not misrepresented the situation.

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