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2 Apr 2003 : Column 933continued
Mr. Grieve: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that that is the case. Moreover, in fairness to the police, from the evidence available it seems that that is what is happening. Some figures were given in Committee. We were told, and I think I have seen these figures
Moreover, the Bill makes new provisions for bail conditions, which will make it easier for the police to interview and release someone and then get them back to the police station successfully if they have insufficient time in which to carry out investigations for relatively minor offences.
Simon Hughes: Again, I must update the hon. Gentleman to ensure that the record is correct. As a result of the correction by Gwent police, the total figure that he just cited693, I thinkis reduced by about a half. The total is much less significant and normal practice is well under the 24 hours, as he rightly suggests.
I ask the Minister, therefore, where the problem is. Where is the justification for doing this? I know that the hon. Gentleman is a liberal-minded man and would consider it desirable that all police investigations should be carried out expeditiously and that people should be detained for a minimum period. My professional experience suggests that the longer a person is detained in custody, the more likely it is that something will go wrong unwittingly. Being detained in a police cell is not a pleasant experience for those who have to go through it. Even though PACE sets out to protect people who are being interviewed and investigated by the police, there can be no doubt that the longer such a period of detention is, the more likely or possible it is that a personwithout coercion by the police, as I am not suggesting any improprietymay be disturbed and distressed by the experience. The quality of the investigation and its truthfulness are likely to suffer as a result. It is enormously desirable that people should not be under stress while an investigation is taking place.
For all those reasons and having reflected carefully on what was said by all parties in Committeealthough at that stage we abstained in the voteit is the official Opposition's view that the clause is unjustified. We will seek the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House to delete it, although I would be even happier to have some words of comfort from the Minister and to hear him say that the matter will be properly reconsidered, which might enable me not to press the amendment to the vote.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I shall be brief and will not repeat all the arguments of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) on the amendment to which my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and I have added our names. As has been said, this matter received our attention in Committee and we have not changed our view that the Government have failed to provide a justification for their proposed change.
We must consider the purpose of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which is protection for the citizen. We must also consider that holding someone in custody prior to charge places a limitation on their liberty for the specific purpose of questioning and investigation of an offence. First, it is incumbent on the police and the judicial authoritiesthe stateto ensure that that period of detention without charge is as limited as is consistent with the interests of justice.
Secondly, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said, the 36-hour period can already be used in serious cases as specified in legislation. The fact is that that power is rarely used. It is not considered necessary in the overwhelming majority of cases. Indeed, we have heard that the average detention time before charge is around the six-hour mark, which is not an unreasonable average. Home Office figures show that there were 1.272 million arrests with only 697 persons held for the 36-hour period. We now know that half of the latter figure came from Gwent and that Gwent police provided incorrect figures, which means that the figure was only 300 to 400, so the power is used sparingly by the police.
I would be more concerned if the police did not already have the ability to seek an extension from a magistrate. That power exists and under extreme circumstances, where new evidence is emerging or the suspect cannot be questioned owing to intoxication or whatever, the police can seek leave of a magistrates court to extend the detention period.
I am in any case wholly unconvinced by the Government's approach. If there is a concern about specific offences, it seems odd to include in clause 5 the catch-all provision of the arrestable offence under section 24 of PACE. For a start, the offences are not identical to those that most normal people would consider serious. As the hon. Gentleman said, offences that fall into that category include some that most people would not consider should require such a provision, while offences that fall outside the category would require it. For example, the charge of affray falls outside it, but that could be an offence for which the additional provision would be of value. Burglary is also a serious point of contention.
Our preferred route is that if the Minister has evidence that the police face problems with the investigationif he has such evidence, he was careful not to provide it in Committee, or in correspondence since thenof certain offences because of the present restrictions, he should say so and we should change the list of offences for which the 36-hour period is appropriate. He has not done so. He has simply introduced this catch-all clause for "an arrestable offence".
Mr. Grieve: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that "an arrestable offence" includes the sale of tickets by unauthorised persons for a designated football match, touting for car hire services and the placing of advertisements relating to prostitution in the immediate vicinity of a public telephone?
Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is right. Putting a postcard in a telephone box does not seem to me to justify 36 hours' detention without charge. The Minister will have some difficulty persuading me of the rightness of that view.
Lady Hermon (North Down): In Northern Ireland, we are very conscious of the fact that, whenever there is an extension of a period of detention without charge, the police officers who carried out the arrest receive an awful lot of criticism. However, clause 5 refers to "conditions"and hon. Members should note the plural
Mr. Heath: Oh dear. The hon. Lady has asked me a question and I do not have the information to answer her. She is an expert in this area and added a great deal to our consideration in Committee. I cannot answer her question but the Minister may be able to help when he replies.
Mr. Bryant: Notwithstanding the points that were made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) about arrestable offences that would be covered by the extension, does the hon. Gentleman accept that most people would think that any offence that could be subject to a five-year term in prison could count as a serious offence that should be covered? That is what the proposed extension would mean.
Mr. Heath: First, that is not what the Government are saying. Secondly, I am not convinced that every person in this country would agree with the hon. Gentleman's contention. He is talking about holding someone for 36 hours without charge for the sort of offences that have been mentioned by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. Does the hon. Gentleman honestly believe that people in the Rhondda are calling for a 36-hour period of detention without charge for people who may have left a postcard in a telephone box or touted for private car hire? I do not believe that that is what the general public believe. In fact, I think that they would be very concerned were Gwent police to be given that power, irrespective of whether they get their figures right in reporting to the Home Office.
Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman's constituency is, of course, in the area covered by South Wales police, but he may have some knowledge of Gwent police, who are not very far away. I do not accept his or the Minister's contention that clause 5 is necessary.