Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I agree with the generality of the arguments adduced by those who say that police officers should not be armed, save for one thing. I am tempted to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle. I ask my noble friend what would happen if a

3 Mar 2003 : Column 658

foreign officer were obliged to join a gang, having no alternative but to do so, and found himself in a difficult position, having had to surrender his weapon. I ask my noble friend whether an exception could be made in those circumstances; otherwise, I believe that he is right in respect of this clause. But I am troubled by the situation revealed by the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I believe I may have indicated in Committee that, of all the interesting amendments tabled to the Bill, this one probably most surprised us. However, as I also said in Committee, we did not believe that, in tabling an amendment which sought to make it possible for foreign officers to carry firearms in the United Kingdom—that is what caused the surprise—the Opposition did so other than for good motives and good reasons.

I shall seek to set out why we believe that the amendment is not right or appropriate. The amendment seeks to create circumstances in which foreign officers would be able to carry their weapons into the UK and use them reasonably and, presumably, in self-defence if the occasion arose. Our position remains the same as in Committee. We are clear that foreign officers will not be able to bring firearms into the UK while conducting cross-border surveillance operations under these provisions. I stress that we are speaking of covert surveillance, not "hot pursuit", whatever that implies in terms of chasing a person to try to arrest them—if they did they would be liable for prosecution. The law at present makes it illegal for anyone to bring a firearm into the UK without the authority of the Home Secretary and an import licence from the DTI.

I accept that the intention behind the amendments is to ensure that officers conducting emergency surveillance are not put at risk by the fact that they will not be armed. I agree that that is an essential consideration, but I do not accept that permitting the carriage of firearms by overseas officers in that way is the best way of protecting either our officers or those from overseas, and I shall explain why.

In circumstances where foreign officers—

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. He referred to bringing firearms into the UK. There is nothing in the amendment about bringing firearms into the UK; it is about carrying them in the UK. I cannot see why an objection to bringing them through Customs should enter into a discussion on the amendment.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I shall not debate semantics with the noble Lord on this point but shall seek to continue my explanation as to why we believe that the thrust of the amendment proposed for good reasons by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, is unnecessary.

In circumstances where foreign officers were following a suspect who was known to be armed, an assessment would need to be made by the relevant UK authorities as to whether the suspect could be

3 Mar 2003 : Column 659

reasonably allowed to continue his journey. When foreign officers become aware that an armed and dangerous suspect they are observing is heading towards the UK, it will be in their interests to notify the UK authorities—that is, the National Criminal Intelligence Service— as soon as possible.

The senior commander in the UK with responsibility for assessing risk and authorising the use of firearms in the UK will decide how to handle the operation. He will weigh up all the risks, including the safety of the public and the officers. That is his responsibility. Where the risks are low the UK would take over the surveillance at the earliest opportunity. But where the risks are perceived to be too high for all concerned—these are difficult judgments but they have to be made—the police will stop the suspect at port.

In the Government's view that is a safer strategy than seeking to make it lawful for an authorisation to be given in a hurry by the Secretary of State or a chief officer of police to permit the foreign officers to bring in their firearms in the hope that they could use them safely to protect themselves and the public from a dangerous suspect. We are reinforced in that view because it is also the view of the National Crime Squad, which consulted ACPO on the issue. It was clear that they did not want foreign officers in the UK carrying firearms. That was not from a position of chauvinism but from trying to control the significant risks that follow. I do not need to go into detail on that. The House knows as well as I do of situations where the police have inadvertently shot an innocent member of the public because they thought there was a serious risk. Those are the most tragic of circumstances. Such judgments are terribly difficult to get right. Our police forces are not comfortable with this being the situation when they are not in a position to quality assure or quality control the training and regimes under which other people operate.

How, then, do we deal with the issue? I shall come to that in a moment. As was also pointed out in Committee, these provisions relate to surveillance which will involve a situation where a person is being watched from a discreet distance, not where there is direct contact between the officer and subject.

The situation would be the same for our own armed officers following suspects abroad. If the country to which they were travelling refused to let them carry their weapons, the commander of the UK operation would assess the situation and decide on the basis of the risks whether to arrest the suspect in this country or to allow the officers to proceed without their firearms or not to pursue. Those are the three options on which they would have to make a judgment.

I accept that that might mean that some surveillance operations might be terminated that would otherwise have been able to continue. But, on balance, we are satisfied that that is the right approach and one which commands public confidence.

As to whether we shall be allowed to maintain that policy by our Schengen partners, Article 40 allows participating states to prohibit the use of firearms by

3 Mar 2003 : Column 660

law enforcement officers from other states. We intend to take advantage of that. Our position will be clearly set out in the Schengen handbook. We consider that a blanket provision rather than a case-by-case consideration is permitted by the convention. That is because the officers conducting the observation must comply with the law of the contracting party. That is covered by Article 40.3(a). It is illegal for anyone, including overseas police officers, to bring a firearm into the United Kingdom, let alone to carry it loaded on their person without the appropriate authority from the Home Secretary, as I have stated.

Furthermore, states that already participate in these provisions of the Schengen convention have made blanket decisions on the type of weapons that may be carried by officers entering their territory that are applied routinely in every case. We understand that Norway has taken a decision that it will permit the carriage of firearms only if they are authorised in advance, in effect ruling them out for the sort of urgent cases that we are discussing.

I turn to the question also raised by the noble Baroness about undercover operations, which are different from covert surveillance. Covert surveillance is where a police officer is seeking to follow someone for the purpose of tracking where he is going because he is suspected of committing a serious offence. An undercover operation is when a police officer has infiltrated a criminal gang and is not known to be a police officer but is seeking to be inside that criminal gang, or a terrorist organisation, for the purpose of finding out what is happening and bringing people to justice.

Article 40 of Schengen is not intended to apply to foreign officers who are undercover and have infiltrated a criminal gang. That is clear from the fact that Article 40 permits the state where the surveillance is to continue to take over the surveillance. Clearly, say, a French officer who has infiltrated a drugs gang could not be replaced by UK officers when he enters the UK. Similarly, many of the conditions in Article 40.3 of the Schengen convention which attach to surveillance simply could not apply to undercover work.

The use of undercover officers in a foreign country is covered by international agreements, which are agreed by the international undercover working group and which set out the framework for operating an undercover officer in another country. The use of a UK undercover officer and vice versa is always agreed in advance with the host country and the laws of the relevant country are always followed. We have never authorised them to carry arms into the United Kingdom, nor vice versa. I stress that the Bill does not deal with undercover work but with covert surveillance.

Finally, have there been discussions with other EU states on firearms? There were discussions when the UK agreed to sign up to the Schengen convention. Further discussions will take place on a law enforcement basis in the next few months when the Bill becomes law. I hope that I have put a substantial

3 Mar 2003 : Column 661

amount on the record and explained why we do not believe that this is a right approach to take to this sensitive issue.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who took part in this debate on what the Minister rightly said is a sensitive issue.

I have always made clear that we on these Benches are not in favour of foreign officers—Customs and police—carrying guns. However, we believed the debates needed to take place in order to tease out how the safety of both the public and the officers was to be maintained. Such safety must be paramount. I was intrigued by the Minister's explanation that persons coming here carrying out covert surveillance would be liable to prosecution if they carried guns into this country. My noble friend Lord Lucas raised the issue that this is not just a case of carrying guns into the country but that once here, a person might pick up a gun. Therefore, it is a matter of carrying guns wherever they come from.

I was intrigued by the explanation given by the Minister that there would then be a discretion as to whether the person would be prosecuted. I understood him to say that it would be considered on a case-by-case basis and that a pragmatic approach would have to be taken as to whether prosecution would take place. I shall carefully read the Minister's words in Hansard. There is much to support him in making the point that there should be a pragmatic opportunity to decide whether someone will be prosecuted. However, one is then faced with the difficulty of a procedure that is opaque; it is not clear either to the public or to the police, here and overseas, whether or not someone could be prosecuted. Of course, we are always keen to try to put on the statute book legislation that has clarity regarding liability for prosecution and ultimate prosecution. One should not be open to an offence and then find that one is not prosecuted for some reason.

That is a sensitive issue. I should like to look carefully at Hansard between now and Third Reading. I do not wish to bring the matter back as an amendment. I hope that that is helpful to the Minister. But we need to look closer at the matter. I do not know whether the Minister wishes to reply at this moment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page