Criminal Justice Bill

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John Mann (Bassetlaw): I do not have the benefit of the hon. Gentleman's 20 years in the House, but he is making a lot of assertions. I am still recovering from the fact that he was stopped and searched so often in his short pre-parliamentary lifetime. I worked in his constituency for eight years, and I was never stopped and searched once. [Hon. Members: ''Shame.''] The 20 photos were perhaps different.

The point that I wish to make is that 95 per cent. of acquisitive crimes committed in my constituency are committed by drug addicts who maintain that their lifestyle requires intervention at every level. Much of that acquisitive crime is shoplifting. It takes place six or seven times a day, every day, other than Sunday when the shops are not open and burglary goes up. How does that fit in with the hon. Gentleman's concept of the victim and the non-victim? Secondly, those young people who are stopped repeatedly are also hassled by those same drug addicts for money. How does that equate with his concept of liberty and police intervention?

Simon Hughes: I guess that we will come back to that elsewhere. Here we are dealing with the powers given to the police, which is a different issue. I understand the hon. Gentleman's question. We are dealing with the powers that are given to people whose job is to protect people. That is what the Police and Criminal Evidence Act is about. The clause is about that issue. He raises a linked issue, which is about people's liberty to go about their business without being harassed by other people. I am sympathetic to that.

People being harassed and intimidated by other citizens is equally unacceptable. It is a crime in many cases, and it needs to be dealt with. We need to ensure that our law and order agencies are more effective in dealing with that, but those are different issues. This is about what powers we give the police to stop people who are either committing an offence or going to commit an offence. I was keen that we do it on the basis of their reasonable suspicion that an offence is being committed or is about to be committed.

Mr. Allen: This is quite an important point. I tried to get it over to the Conservative spokesman and I will try again to get it over to the Liberal Democrat

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spokesman. The ''Gorblimey, Bill Sykes is a bit of a lad but he's one of us'' attitude is finished, certainly where I come from. We are not talking about someone who is in a bit of trouble here and there. We are talking about persistent, continuous offending that destroys people's lives. The hon. Gentleman talks about balance, but he does not talk about the other side of the equation. He talks about a person who might be an offender one week but a victim another. I do not recognise that picture. The picture I recognise is one in which more 90 per cent. of people are law-abiding and need the support of the criminal law. I admit that 10 per cent. may often perpetrate crimes on one another, but I do not mean it as a criticism when I implore him to help us find a way forward for the remaining 90 per cent. The rights of the 10 per cent. must also be safeguarded—I hope that what I said earlier shows that to be my belief—but we must start to consider what law-abiding people need from the criminal justice system.

My hon. Friend the Minister must provide clarity and cross-referencing, otherwise the Bill will simply be another irrelevance to those law-abiding people who will feel that all the parties in Parliament have let them down once again.

Simon Hughes: We touched on these broad-ranging matters on Second Reading and before. They relate not only to legislation but to the use of existing powers, what the police do, whether they are efficient, what support they need and so on. Of course the law-abiding citizen needs to have the maximum protection against those who break the law. The hon. Gentleman and every other member of the Committee, including me, will have had surgery visits and correspondence from people who are concerned about the subject. I, too, have been stopped in the street by people expressing similar concerns.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield rightly made the point that not a single constituency, whatever its average income or ethnic make-up, is unaffected by the issue. I am no different from any of my colleagues, and claim no greater understanding of it. However, the real issues are what powers should be given to the police, and the basis of those powers. I understand the reasons for tabling amendment No. 1, but if they are answered by the traditional definition of theft, that is sufficient. I must say, however, that this is one case where it might be better to be explicit.

Amendment No. 27, too, would amend a complicated piece of legislation, so unfortunately, in some ways, we have started with something that is technical as well as substantive. That is no one's fault—it is simply the first issue to have been raised in the Committee. However, I am keen that the police officer carrying out a stop and search does not arrest people for possessing articles unless there is a reasonable suspicion, rather than a hunch, that those articles are obviously intended or adapted for use in a crime. That is important, and we are seeking to find a way of ensuring that the element of intention is included in the Bill. The drafting is not clear, but if the Minister can reassure us that the point about intention is covered, we will take the view that the law need not be amended.

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I hope that members of the Committee realise that the point about liberty is important for the good of community relations, about which the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) is as concerned as the rest of us. If we get the balance wrong, we risk the possibility of community relations becoming worse. That is why these difficult issues need sensitive consideration. I want a community in which my constituents, whatever their age or colour, believe that the police will take powers only when they need them and that they will treat all people equally. When that happens, we will have made huge progress.

Mr. Malins: The hon. Member for Nottingham, North has done the Committee a great service in opening the debate.

Some people believe that criminal damage caused by graffiti is a low-level crime. I take the contrary view that it is a very serious crime. It breeds an atmosphere of criminality in estates and fear in communities. It also creates a fertile ground for other, more serious crimes to thrive. It blights many communities, and changes them from areas where one would want to live into areas not only where one would not want to live but where one would be frightened to live. It is an important issue, and a good starting point for our discussion of the Bill.

12 noon

The Metropolitan police service is one of several organisations that welcome the extension in the clause and strongly support the inclusion of the power to search for items that could cause criminal damage. It believes that that has been an obvious omission from the search powers for many years, and that its inclusion will assist in the prevention of criminal damage and associated antisocial behaviour that blights so many communities. I say, ''Hear, hear'' to that.

Amendments Nos. 27 and 1 are probing amendments. I share the view expressed today by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North that it has been the devil's own job to match up the sections and subsections of the Acts to which one needs to refer. More than once, I have felt myself to be entirely ignorant when I looked up a section of an Act referred to in the Bill and could not find a section with that number. Presumably, I needed to refer to other documents, but I have not had time to do that, and have had to do my best with what I have to hand.

I understand the basic point to be that a constable may search a person for anything that is a prohibited article. In section 1(7) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, an article is prohibited if it is an offensive weapon, but also if it is an article

    ''made or adapted for use in the course of or in connection with an offence . . . or intended by the person having it with him for such use by him or by some other person.''

My first difficulty is that subsection (8) refers to the offences to which subsection (7)(b)(i) applies, but does not refer to subsection (7)(b)(ii). Will the Minister clarify that?

An article is prohibited if it is an article

    ''made or adapted for use in the course of or in connection with an offence''

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such as burglary or theft under section 12 of the Theft Act. Subsection (7)(b)(ii), however, refers to an article being

    ''intended by the person having it with him for such use.''

There is no link between that intention and the offences mentioned in subsection (8), and I wonder whether there should be such a link. That is the reason for the probing amendment No. 27. The question of what the articles might be that could be made or adapted for the purposes of criminal damage should also be examined carefully.

When the Minister spoke about amendment No. 1, he said that the offence of going equipped to steal was included under theft. Will he be more specific about that? Subsection (8) discusses the offences to which subsection (7)(b)(i) applies but to which subsection (7)(b)(ii) does not. The first offence that it refers to is burglary. The second one is theft. Theft is defined under the Theft Act 1968 as appropriating property belonging to another with the intention of depriving the other of it permanently and behaving dishonestly. When one is charged with theft in the Crown court, the indictment sets out the section and charges one with theft, and theft alone. Paragraph (c) deals with offences under section 12 of the Theft Act, which covers taking a motor vehicle without consent, commonly called TWOC, for the purposes not of stealing it but of joyriding.

Paragraph (d) refers to offences under section 15, which deals with obtaining property by deception. In reality, the offence of going equipped to steal is an offence under section 25 of the 1968 Act. That is a different offence. Where a person is not at his place of abode and has with him any article for use in the course of, or in connection with any burglary, theft or cheat, that person is subject to a charge under section 25 of the Theft Act. I hope that the Minister will say something about the issues surrounding going equipped to steal. Typically, someone goes equipped to steal from a car or from a motorbike, not from a property, because that would be burglary. A person who goes equipped to do that would, typically, have about their person, more keys than they should have, or a piece of wire. Hon. Members have no idea how many people appear in court for going equipped to steal with a piece of stiff wire or a coathanger. Those who know what they are doing can open 90 per cent. of cars with a wire coathanger in seconds. The Committee should ponder the relevance of those items in people's possession. I find it easier to say that someone who has 36 keys in his pocket, no vehicle and no front door may be about to commit the crime of going equipped to steal, although people also carry coathangers from dry cleaners.

We need to be clear about this. If someone is walking down the street with an aerosol can and a policeman thinks that he is about to commit an offence with it, can the policeman simply stop and search that person? Where is the requirement, if there is one, for some intention on the part of the person with the aerosol can to use it in connection with criminal damage? Ditto the person carrying the other

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items that I mentioned. We must bear it in mind that the charge of going equipped to steal is entirely separate from theft, so it is hard to see how it can be included under the generic definition of theft. If it could be, the rest of the clause would not refer to other offences under the Theft Act.

I move on to robbery. I do not want to move into a fanciful world, but people can have all sorts of items with them for use in connection with robbery, which is not defined here. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield said so tellingly, all sorts of items can be carried about with the intention of committing all sorts of offences. The subject is slightly difficult.

All that I have tried to do is to point out to the Minister the question marks in my mind. I think that the Committee would appreciate a little clarification on the issue of intent. However, I would do less than my duty if I did not say how right the hon. Member for Nottingham, North was to recognise that the use of graffiti is becoming a terrible scourge. Any powers that we can sensibly give to the police to stop it would be well worth taking.

 
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