Criminal Justice Bill

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Mr. Malins: I take the Minister's point, but under existing law, the person charged with theft of £1 million could be held in custody for an extended period of up to 36 hours. Is it not right that, under the clause, the person charged with theft of £50 could also be detained for that length of time?

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Hilary Benn: Yes, but it would depend on the circumstances. The vast majority of cases will be dealt with in the 24-hour period, for which the law currently provides. Perhaps, during the stand part debate, we will have an opportunity to discuss the sort of issues that can arise, creating difficulties with the 24-hour time limit.

Less serious road traffic offences, which is the majority of them, will not be arrestable offences, and will not, therefore, qualify for extended detention. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North rightly pointed out, some road traffic offences, such as causing death by dangerous driving, are extremely serious. In such cases, police investigations can be complicated and time-consuming, and there may be circumstances in which detention beyond 24 hours could be justified. That is why I would resist exempting road traffic offences from the clause.

Mr. Malins: Will the Minister deal specifically with the issue of whether a breathalyser offence is an offence for which the sentence is fixed by law? There seems to be no doubt about that, but I would welcome complete clarification. I asked him to give the Committee a list of the offences for which sentences are fixed by law, because we know that those offences are covered by the clause. I also asked about cannabis.

Hilary Benn: I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point, but rather than mislead him in Committee, I would prefer to write to him with a definitive list. I undertake to do that, if it would be helpful.

Mr. Malins: I still find myself disappointed with the Minister's response, because he has not made the case for widening the power. He has not given us specific examples of the sort of case in which it has been

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necessary, but impossible, to detain someone for longer to achieve an effective result under the law. He has not persuaded us of the need to change the law to permit detention for up to 36 hours in a whole raft of cases. He is stuck with the position whereby, under the proposal, the draconian power of detention will apply to petty theft. It is all very well for him to say that it is ridiculous of me to think that such a power would be used in a case of petty theft; the point is that the power exists and he wants the police to be able to use it. I see Labour Members nodding, but they are wrong to do so, because the power should not be used in such cases.

Ian Lucas: Is it not the case that the majority of offences of petty theft are committed by individuals with drug problems under the influence of drugs? The amendment would prevent the discretionary extension of the time for which such a person could be detained from 24 to 36 hours. Such a person could well be under the influence of drugs, and it would be entirely appropriate for the discretion to be exercised in such a case to make a suitable investigation possible.

Mr. Malins: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but he opens the debate even wider by suggesting that those under the influence of drugs when taken into the police station should routinely, if the officer in question thinks it appropriate, be detained for the extended period of up to 36 hours. When one considers that, anecdotally, it is thought that between 60 and 70 per cent. of acquisitive crime in urban areas takes place to fund a drug habit, huge numbers of people must have some drugs in their bodies when arrested. The number of those so spaced out—I am not entirely sure whether that is the right phrase—that they are good to neither man nor beast for the first 24 hours is very small, so I do not think that he need be too concerned.

The Minister has not dealt with another matter. I asked him to confirm specifically that, if clause 9 stands part of the Bill, possession of cannabis will become an arrestable offence under clause 5. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere rightly drew attention to that important matter. That would make it plain to us all that the power to detain for up to 36 hours will exist for an offence for which, I understand, the police do not normally even bother to arrest.

Mr. Stinchcombe: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the possession of cannabis should be an arrestable offence?

Mr. Malins: That is what is called a straight and fast ball. Yes, I think that it should be.

Mr. Clappison: In reflecting on the fair question that was bluntly put to my hon. Friend, would he care to reflect on the fact that possession of cannabis as the law stands is an arrestable offence? The clause will extend the period of detention for questioning someone in possession of cannabis from 24 to 36 hours, but under a later clause, cannabis will be reclassified down from a class B drug to a class C drug. Does he think that those messages are entirely consistent?

Mr. Malins: My hon. Friend is right. The messages are mixed and inconsistent, and send out vastly

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different signals. That is a problem that we face, but we shall come on to that under clause 9 in due course.

Hilary Benn: I apologise for not having responded to the specific point that the hon. Gentleman is dealing with. In confirming that possession of cannabis falls within the criteria for extended detention under clause 5, I want to say that the police must justify an extension of detention beyond 24 hours in all circumstances. A sense of perspective is required when thinking about the example that he has given.

Mr. Malins: I understand that point only too well. Equally, the Minister will understand the Opposition's concern that we must respect the concept of someone's individual liberty, and not extend the power to detain unless it is regarded as absolutely essential. By highlighting the fact that the power has been widened to include a variety of offences not hitherto included, we have drawn the attention of the Committee, and of those outside it who read the reports of our proceedings, to our concerns about the power to detain being widened. That is a road that we should not tread other than with very persuasive arguments in its favour.

This has been a useful if brief debate, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and I seek to persuade the Committee to delete the clause. When PACE was introduced, one of its purposes was to bring detention within the control of legislation. It was to enable people to know that there was a rule about the likely duration of any detention. The motivating force of the Philips Commission, which examined police powers, was to ensure that detention was for as short a period as possible. I hope that the Committee agrees with the principle that people should not be deprived of their liberty for long periods without charge. I start from the presumption that, until and unless a person has been charged with an offence, once he is within the second phase of the system—when the courts have taken control, bail may have been applied for and he may have been remanded in custody—initial periods of detention should be as short as possible.

Since PACE was introduced nearly 20 years ago, there have been reviews of what has happened in relation to the power. From the beginning, there was an assumption that longer detention would be allowed for some offences, even though that was not a recommendation of the Philips Commission. Parliament's view was that for serious offences the power should be for 36 hours, on the authority of a senior police officer—superintendent or above. That was controversial at the time. As we know, both from the explanatory notes and from debates over the years, the trigger was the phrase, ''serious arrestable offence''. I was not suggesting that all people necessarily know the definition of that phrase. However, it clearly refers to something in the top league of offences, not a minor one. People understood

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that they might be held for longer for serious offences—that is a straightforward principle.

There can already be 36-hour detention for a list of offences including murder, rape, hijacking and torture, and also for second-tier offences that have led to or are likely to lead to serious harm to the security of the state or to public order; to serious interference with the investigation of an offence or with the course of justice; to death or serious injury; or to substantial gain or loss to any person. In debating the clause we must be aware of that: we do not need to change the law to allow for it.

There were no problems during the 1980s and early 1990s in relation to the powers; there was no revolt. In 1998, the Home Office undertook a survey of the outcome of arrests and detentions—I have figures from its most recent report, completed last month. Four years ago, research showed that the average time for which people were held without charge was six hours and 40 minutes. The average time in custody before charge or release was much longer in the case of serious offences, but still less than 24 hours. The average time for murder, rape and other such offences was 22 hours, but of course there was already a power allowing for 36-hour detention in such cases. For moderately serious offences the figure was just over seven hours; for less serious offences the average was just under four hours.

A breakdown of the figures was provided in relation, for example, to mentally disordered suspects—for which the average time was five and a half hours, because of the need for a doctor. The average for young people, who need someone to be called to be with them, was seven hours. Obviously, if people sought legal advice they would be in the police station for longer than if they did not. Figures are available for those cases too. The average time for people who sought legal advice was nine hours; for those who did not it was five and a half hours.

The average length of detention, taking all those categories together, was five and a quarter hours. That was when there was sufficient evidence to charge a person. The police said that, when they did not have sufficient evidence to bring a charge in the first place, but had to go looking for it—the knife, the clothes, or whatever—the average was eight and a half hours. However, in each case, except for the most serious offences, for which an extended power already existed, the average time was under 10 hours.

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