Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hughes: The Minister's comments are extremely helpful, informative and positively interesting. We are grateful for that explanation.

I have a question for the Minister. A person may have a speeding conviction and an endorsement on their licence. That is dealt with by magistrates—it is not a fixed penalty matter. In such a case, does that person acquire a criminal record at the CRO as a result of their conviction, and does that record remain on the computer permanently, irrespective of the fact that after a certain period, when the offender is considered to be rehabilitated, it will be erased for other purposes? I ask that because if, years afterwards, the person with the conviction is still on the database as having a criminal record, that might have an influence on their life.

Mr. Clarke: I shall respond to that in due course, as I do not want to be misleading in the information that I give. I was particularly concerned about the question of fingerprint and DNA databases, because that is the issue with which the clause deals. I will respond to the hon. Gentleman on that later.

We wish to clarify the position of other law enforcement agencies in relation to their ability to cross-search records, and the reciprocal arrangements that will allow police forces in this country access to records held by other police forces.

The United Kingdom is a world leader in the field of DNA and we were the first country to establish a national DNA database. As other countries develop DNA databases, we wish to ensure that the appropriate mechanisms exist to allow sharing of vital information.

Crime is not limited by national borders. The police may have reason to believe that a fingerprint or a DNA sample that has been recovered from a crime scene relates to a foreign national. They may wish to try to confirm the suspect's identity by checking with the relevant country's fingerprint or DNA database. A similar logic applies to overseas forces seeking assistance from our police service. It is an obvious point that Dover is closer to Calais than it is to Manchester, and we live in a world where travel is more and more common. Sadly, an increasing number of crimes are committed by UK nationals abroad or by people from abroad in the UK.

This clause will not give the persons and bodies listed access to our databases. It will enable the police to check our records against the records of the law enforcement agencies that have their own records of fingerprints and samples, but only for the purposes of the prevention and detection of crime or the investigation or prosecution of offences. The police will also need to comply with the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998.

I shall now respond to the point raised by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. The exchange of fingerprints and DNA currently takes place under the authority of the European convention on mutual legal assistance of 1959 and the Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Act 1990. One of the effects of clauses 80 and 81 will be to place these exchanges on a clearer statutory footing, which will give a better basis for that form of co-operation. I think that all members of the Committee would wish to encourage that.

The primary gateway for requests for intelligence information from overseas police forces is through Interpol, and ACPO does not intend to change that arrangement. The requests for exchange of information relating to DNA or fingerprints would be dealt with using existing procedures. In considering requests for such information, Interpol would look at a full range of factors, including the validity of the request, the purpose to which the information is to be put, compliance with data protection guidelines and security of the information. The request would be granted only if the criteria were satisfied.

Amendment No. 224 would limit the power to check samples to records held by other United Kingdom police forces, NCIS and the National Crime Squad, removing the power to check samples held by other public authorities with crime investigation functions, including police forces in other jurisdictions and international tribunals.

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Most public authorities that have prosecution functions will not have their own records of fingerprints or samples, but the police should be able to check their records against those that do, such as the immigration service or Customs and Excise. I do not accept that the wording is ambiguous; it is important for the clause to be relatively flexible to meet the development of new agencies. As to whether a local authority fits within that category, in theory, it could fall within paragraph (1A)(d) in so far as it has a prosecution function, which is an important limitation in that respect. However, it is unlikely that it will have any fingerprints or sample records that the police would want to check against the database.

Mr. Heald: As the Minister knows, I am interested in the detection of benefit fraud. I understand that the Government have plans to increase the powers available to the benefit fraud service, which is welcome. Is it intended that it will be able to hold fingerprints and will it fall within the public authority category?

Will the Minister please explain what

    ``unlawful under the law of one or more places''

means? Does ``the law'' in that context mean criminal law?

Mr. Clarke: I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's question about places when we discuss the relevant amendment.

At present, the Department of Social Security relies on the police; it does not have its own database and prints. The clause would, at some stage in the future, if policy were to change, allow a public authority such as the Benefits Agency to come within the provision. However, we have no such intention at present. That is not what the proposal is about, but it gives flexibility for the future.

We have already discussed amendment No. 269, and I explained that the meaning of ``British Islands'' is set out in the Interpretation Act 1978. It has exactly the meaning that the amendment would give it: it means the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man. I have not myself read every Act passed since 1978 to check the exact meaning of the words in every circumstance, but I believe that it is the standard wording. The Government are advised on the wording by parliamentary counsel—there is no secret meaning. It is not something for the CAFE society—Conservatives Against a Federal Europe. I do not know if the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is a member of that organisation, which wants to pull out of the European Union. The term has no special meaning, it is merely the wording that is customary in our legislation.

Mr. Blunt: If the amendment states exactly what the clause intends, is clear about the jurisdiction and does not cause confusion, the wording in the amendment should be in the clause. People should be able to read and understand legislation, so far as that is possible.

Mr. Clarke: I think it better to use the tried and tested language.

Mr. Hughes: Less tried and less tested.

Mr. Clarke: I am second to no one in acknowledging the advantages of codifying legislation and drafting it in ways that people understand. I agree with the hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) that that would be a good thing. I am a conservative individual, as my hon. Friends know, and I am not in favour of a radical new departure of the type proposed.

Mr. Hawkins: Whatever may have been the position under the previous Labour Government of the Interpretation Act 1978, this is not something that would fall within any definition approved by the Plain English Campaign, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate said. The wording in our amendment is much clearer and has been used for many generations, not just in one Parliament. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire helpfully points out, the words ``United Kingdom'' are used in the Police Act 1997, which is sufficiently recent to be provided by the excellent servants of the House for the use of all members of the Committee, so we have proof positive from an Act of this Government that they have not always used ``British Islands'', which rather proves my point.

Finally, I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray): the Minister attempted to misdescribe the Conservatives Against a Federal Europe as in favour of withdrawal from the European Union, but that is certainly not the case.

Mr. Clarke: I certainly would not dream of going any further down that line.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister started it.

The Chairman: Order.

Mr. Clarke: I am interested in the focus that the Opposition are giving to the phrase ``British Islands'', and I agree that it would be as well for Parliament to consider how we use such geographical definitions so that people understand the situation most clearly. However, I intend to urge my colleagues to vote against the amendment if it is pressed to a vote.

Amendment No. 270 would add the Republic of Ireland to the list, which we discussed earlier, but police forces in the Republic will already be covered by new subsection (1A)(e) and we see no reason to include it and it alone in addition to British island authorities. I therefore urge hon. Members not to insist on that amendment.

Amendments Nos. 271, 272 and 274 would limit the exchange of information only to those persons specified by the Secretary of State by affirmative resolution. It is an unnecessary safeguard because of the other measures that are already in place and because none of the bodies will have direct access to our records. All requests from abroad will be mediated through the Interpol desk at NCIS. Any disclosure will be limited to the purposes of prevention and detection of crime, the investigation of an offence or the conduct of a prosecution, as contained in clause 81. I do not know whether the key point will be a vote about the question of affirmative resolution on the matter, but we do not need the process that is described and affirmative resolution would not in any case be the right way to go about it.

 
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