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2 Apr 2003 : Column 960—continued

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We did not table an amendment to the clause on Report because, wishing to select what we thought were key areas, we were mindful of the fact that another place will have an opportunity to consider these issues with a great deal of legal expertise and experience. I would say to the Minister, however, that I am absolutely convinced that this is an issue which, unless the Government reconsider it, will not go unchallenged in the other place. I know that from consultations and discussions that I have had with my colleagues there, who have expressed their concern about this matter. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to give some assurance to the House that the Government will look further at this issue, because I cannot logically see why there should not be a 28-day cut-off point. Equally, if the Government wish to come back and say that another period of time would be appropriate, they could give us an alternative to consider.

The cases in which this provision would be likely to be used are plainly not going to be the most serious in terms of public protection issues. If there really were a key issue about protecting the public in a particular case, it would be a serious matter and the police would doubtless extend the detention period for a long time and try to make it their business to charge whenever possible because they would be concerned about someone being at liberty. On the other hand, the provision might be used in circumstances in which the police had anxieties about protecting the public or witnesses, but simply did not have the necessary evidence. That is a compelling reason for putting a finite limit on the period for which these restrictions can apply. I hope that we shall receive a positive response from the Minister on this issue. My view is that 28 days makes a lot of sense.

Mr. Heath: I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), not only for tabling the amendments but for the work of his Committee on the Bill. In the Standing Committee, we found many opportunities to quote the work of his Committee to good effect, and we are grateful to him and his colleagues.

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I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman on the specific points that he made. The strong argument for conditional bail before charge is that it would be a substitute for detention. I accept that, although I share some of the concerns expressed by the Select Committee that it might be used in circumstances in which there was insufficient evidence to charge. In such cases, the provision would become an onerous imposition on the freedom of an individual if it were used as a replacement for detention which could not be effected simply because there was no evidence. We have, however, had assurances from the Minister on that matter, and, for the moment, let us accept those assurances.

The idea that there should be no time limit on the imposition of conditional bail, however, seems entirely outwith the assertion that this is the more generous and liberal alternative to detention in custody. If a person were to be detained, there would be clearly delineated time limits on the period of detention, so whatever the arguments for conditional bail before charge, there ought to be a time limit on it. Whether 28 days is appropriate is a matter for discussion. It is, to some extent, an arbitrary limit. The advice from Mr. Burbeck was interesting and telling, given its source and the seniority of Mr. Burbeck and his responsibilities in ACPO. There should be a time limit. If the Minister is not prepared to accept the amendment, it is incumbent on him to explain how any time limit might be imposed, and what limit he would find acceptable. If he does not believe that any time limit is appropriate, that calls into question the whole proposition of conditional bail before charge.

The one further argument that I would adduce is that conditional bail lets the prosecuting authorities off the hook to a great extent. If our intention is to ensure that prosecutions are brought speedily and effectively, with the right charge at the right time, to allow an alternative of conditional bail over a prolonged period while the prosecuting services get their act together would be a retrograde step towards achieving the objectives, which I thought the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department shared, of making progress towards the speedier justice system that we would all like to see.

Mr. Garnier: I heartily agree with what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has just said. My views would be different if we were talking about bail imposed by a court, but we are talking about bail imposed by a custody officer, who is not part of the judicial system but a policeman. To allow police officers to restrict the liberty of a citizen for an unlimited amount of time seems a strange thing for the House of Commons—which is, after all, the defender of the liberties of the subject—to want to become engaged in. I am all for administrative efficiency, but there comes a time when Members of Parliament have to work out where they belong.

Are we interested in administrative efficiency over and above the liberty of the subject? In saying that, I am interested not in giving improper protection to guilty people but in ensuring that legislation, particularly in the field of criminal justice, is properly thought about. The Minister is one of the more honourable and thoughtful members of the Government. I am very

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concerned, however, that, for reasons that are administratively convenient and useful for the progress of legislation as a whole, he is allowing himself to whip through the House of Commons—I use the word "whip" with a small "w"— a piece of legislation that is careless of the rights of the innocent citizen.

I do not normally lose much sleep over the rights of people who have committed hideous offences, save that they should be incarcerated in humane conditions following a proper trial, but I am concerned that the clause, if unamended, will give powers to police officers—who, as individuals, might be entirely wonderful people—who are outside the judicial process and not susceptible to immediate judicial control. Cases might involve people being arrested at the dead of night, and in all sorts of conditions. We need to be careful before we dance gaily round the legislative maypole and allow clauses of this kind to go through unamended .

If I understood the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee correctly, he does not intend to press the amendment to a vote.

Mr. Mullin: I did not say that.

Mr. Garnier: I am glad of that. I think that the threat of the Chairman's non-promise not to put the matter to a vote—if I may use as many negatives as I possibly can—is something to which the Government ought to pay attention. I am not in control of the Government—or of the official Opposition, still less of the Liberal Democrat party—on these matters, but I believe that we all need to stop from time to time and to think a little more carefully about what is contained in huge great Bills such as this. Here we have a tiny little clause that has huge implications, and the burden of proof is firmly on the Government to demonstrate that what will happen is good and necessary.

Mr. Cameron: I agree with the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) on whose very good Select Committee I sit. I want to add one point to what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said. He said that having conditional bail without a time limit would improve administrative efficiency, and that that was why the Government were introducing the measure. There is a danger that some of the provisions in the Bill—this is one of them—will not improve administrative efficiency because they will almost make life too easy for the police.

I am a great supporter, indeed a great fan, of the police, and I want to ensure that they can do their job properly. What I heard in Committee and what I have heard today makes me worry about a number of provisions in the Bill, of which this is one. I fear that the police are being sent this message: "Do not worry about charging. You can keep this individual on bail with conditions indefinitely. Even when you are thinking about charging, you can keep him in custody for 36 rather than 24 hours. And when it comes to trial, do not worry about getting all the evidence ready, because previous convictions are now admissible in court." I do not necessarily think that all those changes are wrong,

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but I see no case for conditions on bail without limit. The Select Committee heard compelling evidence in favour of a limit.

Mr. Garnier: I agree, but whether we use my hon. Friend's argument or mine it seems clear that the measure should be examined carefully. May I suggest a solution? If unlimited police bail arrangements are to be introduced, could not the Government, here or in another place, give defendants the right to apply to the courts for limitation of those arrangements, or for them to be brought under the courts' control?

Mr. Cameron: That is one possible answer. The Select Committee came up with four safeguards, the simplest of which is my favoured solution. A four-week limit would enable the police to know the time frame within which they must operate—that is, get on with the job we are talking about, which is getting the charge right. According to the Government, many of their proposals are intended to produce that result. I agree that the charge should be right in the first place, but there should be a time limit. That is why I support the amendment.


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