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Lord Lloyd of Berwick: I support the amendment, but for my own part I would go further. The reclassification of cannabis as a class C drug was regarded by many as a move in the right direction. Why, therefore, are the Government changing tack so soon? The Minister says, by way of explanation, that the exercise of the new power will be subject to guidelines and, in any event, will be exercised only very occasionally. I do not, for my part, like that. If the power of arrest is to be there at allalthough I am against that power for class C drugsit ought to be spelt out in the Bill in which circumstances it can be used, and not left to guidance.
The Lord Bishop of Worcester: I hope that this is an appropriate moment at which to say that the whole new clause, and in particular the issues around class C drugs, is for me the focus of a major concern that will appear at a number of points throughout the Bill. I support many of the points made by previous speakers.
The clause, and its earlier subsections, activates a kind of post-September 11th anxiety level in the whole of society and builds upon it. It takes us into an arena where the most creative ways of dealing with criminal offences and offending behaviour generally are submerged under a rhetoric of toughness. The Chamber needs to consider carefully whether that rhetoric of toughness actually contributes to a rise in the level of crime.
If we add to the number of arrestable offences, we add to the number of the people arrested. It may be possible to justify this arrest, that arrest or the next arrest. It may be possible to justify, as the Minister did, particular additions to the list of arrestable offences on
If we increase the number of offences, we increase the number of people arrestedotherwise, there is no point in doing it. If we increase the number of people arrested, we statistically increase the number of people wrongly arrested. If we increase the number of people wrongly arrested, we increase the number of people who are inducted into a criminal culture. I do not know at which specific point and in response to which specific clause the Chamber will rebel against that incremental culture. However, I hope that at some point it does. If it does not, under the guise of a rhetoric driven by articles in the popular press and so forth, we shall believe that we are reducing criminal activity and actually be sowing the seeds by which it is increased.
It is no coincidence that the nub of the debate on the clause relates to cannabis. As other Members of the Committee have said, that is an area in which we can be sure that we shall increase the number of people whom we bring into touch with a criminal culture, and whom we label, arresting them sometimes correctly under the law and sometimes wrongfully. In that process, we shall not be reducing criminal activitywe shall be laying the grounds for its future increase. I beg noble Lords to consider very carefully in relation to each and every clause whether we should not have a presumption of not adding to the number of arrestable people and incarcerated people, all of which inhibits the possibility of rehabilitation and reducing criminal activity.
Lord Waddington: The new policy on cannabis was unveiled some months ago. My noble friend Lord Carlisle made a most spirited speech, pointing out the contradictions in the new policy and the absurdity of saying that possession of cannabis was really pretty unimportant and that the police should not waste their time on it, yet increasing the penalties for dealing in cannabis. Now we have confusion worse confounded. The Bill adds to the confusion by saying that cannabis is not all that dangerous, but that in spite of that fact, and despite the fact that we are downgrading it to class C, its possession should be an offence warranting arrest. That is pretty absurd.
I should have liked things to be left well alone. I do not subscribe to the view that cannabis is unimportant and not really all that dangerous. I have plenty of evidence of the fact that it is extremely dangerous. It is well acknowledged, for instance, that it could precipitate very serious mental illness. I do not subscribe to the nonsense of it being unimportantbut that is a different matter. The fact remains that there is no consistency whatever left in the Government's policy.
The absurdity of the position is best illustrated by the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Hodgson. There are a number of substances in class C, and the Government themselves acknowledge that cannabis is really rather different from the rest of them. Yet in the interests of consistency they are
If the Government really think that there is a case for cannabis possession being an arrestable offence even though it has been downgraded to class C, then it should be dealt with on its own. On that I agree with what has been said. We certainly should not go along with the view that it really does not matter if a whole lot of other offences are created or a whole lot of other circumstances are recognised where arrest would be proper.
Lord Renton: I confess that I am not as knowledgeable of drugs of an illegal kind as those who have already spoken; so I shall not burden the Committee by commenting on them. On arrestable offences, however, I think that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester puts forward a view that should not be ignored. We do not want too many people arrested on a purely prima facie piece of evidence when they may not be deliberately guilty.
I do not think that the Minister mentioned the next issue when she put forward subsection (4). If she did I did not take it in. It is to be an offence under Section 174 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 to make false statements and to withhold material information. Broadly speaking, it is upon the prosecution to establish a case against anyone. Although there are circumstances in which the burden of proof changes, my recollection is that it does not do so here under Section 174. It can be a matter of opinion whether particular information which could even be described as material should give rise to an offence that is punishable and arrestable. I ask the Government to reconsider the exact wording of the subsection. I think that we could be abandoning what has been the usual practice of not arresting people unless they have been deliberately misleading.
Lord Alexander of Weedon: I wish to add to the argument advanced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester. We have heard several times in this House in the past few months the argument that even if something may be an offence on which it would be undesirable to charge many people, it should remain an offence and we should rely on the discretion of the prosecution not to bring such a charge. That was
I feel increasingly uneasy when I hear that argument. I believe that the law should be clear. I believe that that is immensely important when the underlying philosophy of our law is that there is a liberty to do that which is not prohibited. We should regard the law and that underlying principle as a rock on which people can set their feet. It is not good enough for the Government to seek to justify the creation of a criminal offence by saying, "This will be used only in certain limited circumstances. For the most part those who live in anxiety may take consolation in the fact that the discretion will not be used to prosecute". I suspect that that is not much consolation to those who live in anxiety.
Even more importantly, I think that underlying this debate is a very important principle of the philosophy of the criminal law. We should not lightly expose people to prosecution by the seductive argument that the prosecuting authorities are humane, sensitive people who will always exercise their judgment wherever possible in favour of mercy.
Viscount Colville of Culross: If the debate is reverting to the more general topic of the government new clause, I should like to add one point on false documentation. The Minister is dealing with passports and driving licences, which are of course the key that opens the door to many things in this country. However, has she thought of national insurance numbers? I remember a remarkable burglary in which the target turned out to be blank birth certificates. We had little doubt that the improper use for which those were taken was to get national insurance numbers and thereby to be able falsely to claim benefits.
I do not think that that matter falls into any category of which the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, disapproves; nor, I think, does it fall into anything of which the right reverend Prelate would disapprove. It is not at the moment covered. As far as I can see, it is a pretty serious matter. It is causing an enormous drain on national resources. Will the noble Baroness look into it? I have given her no notice of it, but I should be very grateful sometime for an answer.
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