Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Simon Hughes: I am very pleased to speak to the amendment, which, as the House will have noticed, was tabled jointly by Conservative Front-Bench Members and Liberal Democrats. We tabled it because we have a common view on the key issue, which was raised by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and has been the dominant theme—as it was bound to be—of our consideration of this very short Bill.

I guess that this discussion is a trailer to the debate that we are about to launch into next Monday. Although the Bill appears to be rather limited and circumscribed, and is apparently not of great national importance, it none the less touches on the same issues that the anti-terrorism Bill will, on a much larger canvass, bring before the House

14 Nov 2001 : Column 925

from next Monday onwards for a few weeks. This is the foothill, as it were, to the mountain of important legislation that will come before us within a week from now. The legislation is linked by this common theme: the question of when it is right to restrict the liberties of British citizens and others in terms of doing what we would usually expect to be able to do. In this case, we are considering travel around this continent, within at least the area of the European Union in which there is a common travel entitlement.

An article in the New Law Journal by Ian Blackshaw reviewed the debates on football disorder legislation, especially recent court cases. The first paragraph of his conclusions mentions the Gough case, which, as the Minister knows, was decided only a few months ago. It states that the case

We are all trying to deal with getting the balance right.

Let us consider the key arguments. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield, other hon. Members and I argued in Committee that we should do only what is necessary, and that precautionary legislation, which takes away liberties, is probably bad and should exist only if it is justified by the evidence. We put the case that the evidence does not yet justify permanent legislation, and that it could not do that because we have not had sufficient time to collect, consider and assess it.

In Committee, a Labour colleague, who has a special interest in and knowledge of football because he is the chairman of a league club, argued that we should not have permanent legislation—I hope that I do not do him a disservice—because football disorder will not always be with us. We hope that we will not need to display in our shop window that England needs permanent special legislation to deal with football hooligans. Even those who argue that the measure is currently necessary hope that it will not be required in weeks, months or years from now.

There was a difference of opinion at the beginning of the debate on the Football (Disorder) Act 2000 about the duration of the sunset provision. It was fair of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield to point out that different proposals had been put before Parliament. We are trying to make the Government the most generous offer by proposing a long period and by picking up on a suggestion that the Minister's predecessor made, who hoped that the House of Commons would agree to a sunset provision of five years. We sought a better deal. The House of Lords included in the 2000 Act a maximum limit of two years. It also provided for a one-year renewal requirement. That is why we are debating the subject again this parliamentary year.

I want to make two further points about the need for more evidence. First, the Government have inexplicably introduced the Bill at almost the earliest opportunity in the parliamentary cycle instead of waiting until the end of the football season and the weeks before its expiry date next August. Even if they wanted to move urgently towards permanent legislation, their case would be better supported by waiting.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 926

Secondly, I want to consider the argument that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield presented in detail. The figures are worryingly unsupported for three reasons. First, banning orders have not been imposed on a significant number of people whose movements were prevented. They were not allowed to attend a match abroad, but the prohibition was not found to be justified. Secondly, of all those who were stopped, many were permanently in the category that I have just described. Some were told, as soon as they went to court, that no banning order would be imposed.

7.45 pm

Thirdly, I am not aware of any case of a banning order being imposed on anyone who has no relevant previous conviction. That was the subject of my intervention on the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. It has been suggested that there is one such case, and I am sure that the Minister will put the record straight. My colleagues and I believe that we should not include in permanent legislation a restriction on a British passport holder who has been convicted neither of a football-related offence nor of any violent or public disorder offence.

My noble Friend Earl Russell asked a parliamentary question in the House of Lords on 10 July of Home Office Minister, Lord Rooker. He asked:

and how many orders had been made and on what evidence. Lord Rooker replied:

My colleagues and I cannot support amendments Nos. 2 and 3 because we have consistently argued that, without better evidence, we should not ban people with no previous relevant convictions but proceed gradually and incrementally. There is therefore a difference of opinion between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties about what is currently acceptable as a permanent position.

In considering appropriate duration for the measure, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield and I believe that there should be a decent period to collect evidence on which to make a judgment. We have not simply plucked the proposals—for five years in the amendments that we tabled in Committee and for four years in amendment No. 1—off the shelf without thinking them through. Our alternative covers a cycle of football matches that will produce every case that could be used as evidence for a reasonable conclusion. It would cover next year's World cup, a further cycle of domestic and international competition, and the European championships two years later. That competition prompted the measure. We hope that no one will argue that four years is not a reasonable period. As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield implied, it does not require the House to do lots of work regularly, but it gives everyone a chance to ascertain whether the legislation has been effective.

14 Nov 2001 : Column 927

We are not keen on the Bill; we believe that it goes too far. However, the inclusion of our qualifications would improve it. It is bad enough when emergency legislation stays on the statute book for years, let alone measures that are not justified by evidence.

My second point is that, since we last debated this issue in Committee, one of the Minister's colleagues in the Home Office ministerial team was asked what became a topical question in the context of the international alliance's action against the Taliban regime. The question was whether there is a power to stop a British citizen leaving the country, if it is their declared intention—in practice or in theory—to go to fight against British troops. The Minister suggested that that was something that could be considered, and referred to the fact that legislation already exists to stop British citizens going abroad.

I argued elsewhere—perfectly straightforwardly, I hope my colleagues will agree—that it sets a dangerous precedent to have a piece of legislation in one corner marked "Football disorder" and another somewhere else that could, in theory, be marked "Baseball disorder" or "Basketball disorder". It is much better to address the principle: do we, as a country, believe that we should have legislation banning people from travelling and, if so, in what circumstances?

If there is an issue to be addressed in the Home Office of whether people can be prevented from leaving the country on the basis of evidence that they might be going off to become mercenaries or to join in some military action, we ought to have a debate in the round and to debate these issues together. The restriction of liberty to travel is the bigger issue, even though it is being presented at the moment only in the context of football. That is another argument for coming back to this issue in due course.

The third issue is this—the hon. Member for Beaconsfield and I agree that these measures constitute a significant infringement of people's liberty. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), the former deputy leader of the Conservative party, who has assiduously followed this debate, has also made strong speeches on the issue. No one has yet reminded the House of what, in practice, the length or the severity of the penalty might be. Under section 14B, it is possible for a ban to last between two and three years. Its upper limit is three years. Contravention of the conditions of a banning order can attract a penalty of six months imprisonment or a level 5 fine of £5,000.

In relation to banning orders generally, if they are imposed at the same time as a custodial sentence is imposed under the existing legislation, they have to be for at least six years and they can be as long as 10 years. If they are imposed off the back of any other conviction, the period must be at least three years and can be up to five years. Obviously, I do not know what is in the minds of all colleagues on both sides of the House, but we are not talking about a measure that stops someone travelling for two minutes, two days, two months or even two years. In many cases, we are talking about a long-term restriction of liberty.

The measure risks turning someone with no previous conviction of any sort into someone who is defined by law as a hooligan because they have been banned from

14 Nov 2001 : Column 928

travelling on the basis that suspicions about their previous behaviour—for which they have never been convicted—and suggestions about their future activities make it appropriate to say that a restriction of liberty should be imposed.

I am sorry that we cannot put to the House the opportunity of discussing the matter of previous convictions; I accept that that is not possible this evening. In the circumstances, I hope that there will be maximum agreement for the restriction of the life of the measures, as the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives jointly propose. I have a sense that if, down the corridor in the other House, the Liberal Democrat and Conservative peers vote together—even without the independent peers, although they are often supportive—we may be able to persuade the Government by our numbers in a few days' time, even if we have not persuaded them by our argument tonight.

It would be more gracious, and probably save a bit of time, if the Government accepted the amendment this evening. We have given them plenty of notice and plenty of opportunity, and our proposals are eminently reasonable. I hope that I am being fair to the House in saying that I hope that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield and I will be regarded as having put the case reasonably. It is a strong case, and we really must not make this legislation permanent now. There is just not the evidence to do so.

Next Section

IndexHome Page