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Lord Marlesford: There has been a tendency in some parts of the press in recent months to ascribe a rather authoritarian attitude to the Minister's right honourable friend the Home Secretary. I do not share those criticisms. In general I support the Home Secretary in much of what he is trying to do. Indeed, I would sometimes go further than my own party in those respects.
I certainly cannot claim to be a libertarian of the standard that would be required if I were to ask to gain entry to the party on the other end of these Benches. However, I regard this every bit as seriously as my noble friend Lord Cope, and as the Liberal Democratic Party. It is quite extraordinary that these provisions should have been put in, and I doubt very much whether Ministers can really have considered what was involved.
After all, it is not very long ago that we were considering the Bill giving access to the countryside--a Bill which I prefer to describe as the "budgie" Bill. The Minister may not remember it because it was not his Bill, but the noble Baroness will remember because it was partly her Bill. It was a Bill which, partly because of a mistaken transfer of one schedule from one Bill to another, has presented the situation where, if someone keeps a budgerigar and allows it to escape into the wild, he can be sent to prison for two years.
It was the most extraordinary thing. Unfortunately I only discovered it on the day I was asked to speak to an earlier amendment, right at the end just before the Bill needed to become law at the end of the last Session. As a result, the Government were too embarrassed to
As my noble friend Lord Cope said, this is a most serious point of principle and I am worried that the Government do not take these things as seriously as they should. On the 28th October 1999 I put down a Question for Written Answer, which was dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. The Question was: which statutory instruments giving powers of entry to private premises have come into force since May 1997?
The noble Lord's Answer--I do not blame him: I blame his department--was to the effect that this information could only be collated at disproportionate cost. That I regard as a disgraceful answer. It is not one that I shall be prepared to let go, and at an appropriate moment I shall seek to put down a Starred Question when we shall be able perhaps to discuss this whole subject.
I warn the Government that they must not allow their officials to be so easy-going with the personal liberties about which the people of this country care passionately. I recognise that tonight we will not be able to reach a final solution to this problem--perhaps there are not enough of us here to do that--but I hope that if we do not get a satisfactory result at the next stage of this Bill we shall all unite, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said, on this side with many Cross-Benchers. I shall take pleasure in drawing this matter to their attention, and we shall unite in this Chamber to defeat the Government on what is a most extraordinary proposal.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I shall have to take very seriously the admonition of the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, but I cannot fall in with his argument. I do not recognise us as a Government who are careless about civil liberties--far from it--particularly in bringing forward human rights legislation and so on. We have an enviable track record and, certainly as someone who may not be an old-style libertarian but who values his civil liberties greatly, I tread very carefully in this particular policy area.
The noble Lord, Lord Cope, described this as a strong power and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, suggested that it was taking us closer to the sort of approach that might be adopted by a police state. I do not see that in it, but I do see the amendments being fundamental in the attack they would mount against the security industry authority's enforcement powers. They would seriously weaken them. The authority will be an important body discharging significant responsibilities. It is vital that it has sufficient authority and flexibility of operation to allow it adequately to enforce the licensing regime with which it will be charged.
A requirement on the authority's authorised operatives to obtain further approval from a Justice of the Peace would hamper its ability to conduct surprise inspections. It might also compromise the security of an inspection where an element of surprise may be important, thus allowing evidence of offences under
The entry and inspection powers must extend to domestic premises as many people carrying out regulated security activities will have their headquarters or offices in their own homes. That would include freelance door supervisors who operate from their kitchen table with a mobile phone. It would also include a house owner who clamps a vehicle on his private land and charges a release fee. Dentists who operate from domestic premises and clamp vehicles which are parked on their private land, for which they charge a release fee, would also be covered.
While I am as alive as ever to the human rights and privacy concerns which I am sure lie behind the amendments as much as concerns about civil liberties, the limitation on the authority's powers to enforce its licensing regime which the amendments introduce would weaken the authority's enforcement abilities.
I am not insensitive to some of the points that have been made and I am willing to look at the possibility of excluding from the powers premises used solely for domestic residence purposes. I give that undertaking, but it is as far as I can go in giving assurances. However, as ever, we will read Hansard most carefully and reflect on the points which Members have made in the debate. I hope that with that assurance, and the assurance that excesses and abuses of power would be actionable in the normal way, noble Lords will feel able to withdraw their amendment.
Lord Marlesford: The Minister spoke of the need for surprise. Surely there must be many occasions when important raids are made by the police for which they must obtain a warrant. Is he suggesting that in some way the obtaining of a magistrate's warrant makes it impossible to achieve surprise? That is a most astonishing suggestion.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: The noble Lord made the point that I want to make. The police and Customs must obtain warrants for cause whenever they engage in serious operations. Surprise is one of the weapons that they employ. The security of the magistrates who grant warrants is complete.
There is a weakness in the Minister's argument. No doubt the authority has wide-ranging responsibilities and will exercise them responsibly and so forth. It can be imagined that every time an inspector wants to invade the premises of a licenceholder he will go to that authority, which presumably will sit fairly regularly. However, I cannot imagine that he will go to the top and ask for permission every time he wants to do so. In other words, the decision will be made by the front-line troops; by the inspectors on the ground.
These provisions put a huge power into the hands of such people. We do not give that power to the police or to Customs officers. There is no reason whatever why a magistrate should not be involved and oversee the proper exercise of the powers of entry and inspection
Lord Cope of Berkeley: The Minister has given a disappointing reply. However, I am grateful for the indication that he will consider the matter further, in particular his remarks about premises that are solely domestic. I urge the noble Lord to think very hard not only about that matter but the wider aspects. The points made in the past few minutes by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and my noble friend Lord Marlesford are extremely forceful. The Bill proposes that inspectors of the authority, which I agree has an important job to do but not as important as that performed frequently by the police and Customs, should be given greater powers than those available to police officers and Customs officers to wander into any premises whenever they wish.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I greatly respect the comments made by the Committee, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, who, as an eminent lawyer, is very experienced in these matters. It is true that the police and Customs require warrants to enter premises, but it is also right that whenever inspection regimes are set up some powers of entry do not depend on warrants. I have in mind environmental health officers and factory inspectors who operate in this way. That said, obviously I am duty bound to listen carefully to what has been said. I am sure that the Committee does not want to impose restrictions that unnecessarily inhibit the effectiveness of this important inspectorate. There will be occasions on which the inspectorate needs to move swiftly and flexibly, particularly where perhaps a corrupt firm or operator is at work and there is a suspicion that it has been involved in serious crime; for example, drugs offences and so on. One needs to take a balanced view of this matter. As ever, I shall pay careful attention to the comments made in Committee.
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