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Most of the offences in the preamble to the Bill tend to be committed by under-18s. The real problem is with under-18s behaving in that way, wasting police time with phone calls and so on. But am I not right in thinking that the Bill does not apply to under-18s; that the penalties are only for over-18s; and that a great section of our youngsters are excluded from its provisions?
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman has caught an infection from his right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald. He asks a question, wants an explanation and then offers me the answer before I have got it out. As drafted, the Bill's provisions on fixed-penalty notices--not other matters--apply to those who are over 18. We are happy to hear opinions from hon. Members on both sides of the House on that matter.
A balanced judgment was taken as to whether we should have fixed-penalty notices for 16 and 17-year-olds. However, the reforms to the youth justice system introduced under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 are already on the statute book and working well, as I can testify. Until now, the opinion that we have received is that, on balance--I am not suggesting that this is a unanimous view--it is better to stick with those provisions, which are working well, rather than extend fixed-penalty notices down. However, I am open to argument and am happy to listen to the views of the hon. Member for Woking.
We have already heard about the Crime and Disorder Act, which established a wide range of measures and reforms primarily for dealing with low-level criminality, including ASBOs. Those orders are intended for use against those who are severely disruptive to their communities, and who do not heed repeated warnings unless they are backed by the threat of criminal charges. As I said, ASBOs have been very successful, with 150 granted already and many more applications in the pipeline. Conservative Members who disagree should look at the areas in which ASBOs have been successful. I should be interested to learn whether at the election--whenever that takes place--they will abolish that key tool, which helps to deal with a matter that they never dealt with in power.
By definition, those targeted by ASBOs will also be likely to resort to intimidation if there is a prospect of members of the public giving evidence against them in court proceedings or providing information for use in those proceedings. The Bill therefore extends to witnesses in other court proceedings, such as civil proceedings, the existing protection afforded by statute law to witnesses in criminal proceedings. It will make it a criminal offence to intimidate those giving evidence in civil proceedings, including a hearing on an ASBO.
As I have explained, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 set in motion radical reform of the youth justice system, featuring youth offending teams and a series of new orders that have been rolled out over the past two years. These measures are working extremely well overall: to date, some 7,814 orders under the Crime and Disorder Act and directly in respect of juveniles have been issued. That includes more than 200 parenting orders, about which there was scepticism when they were introduced, but which have worked well.
In addition to those orders, which have been successful, the 1998 Act introduced local child curfew schemes. At the time when that Act was debated, there was a view that those schemes would be more effective if extended to those under the age of 16, instead of to those under the age of 10, as the Act provides. Clause 43 of the Bill does just that, allowing curfews to be imposed on children up to the age of 15. It also enables police, as well as local authorities, to impose curfew schemes. We believe that these changes will increase the flexibility and use of curfew schemes, thereby helping to curb antisocial behaviour by children and young people.
A similar scheme in Scotland, the Hamilton child safety initiative in respect of children up to the age of 16, has operated successfully. Under the scheme, the police removed children from the "street environment" in what were perceived to be potentially harmful situations. Following the introduction of the scheme, 87 per cent. of parents of children returned home by police approved of the initiative. Crime and disorder complaints fell by 23 per cent. and crime associated with juveniles, including theft and vandalism, fell by 49 per cent. We have studied the experience in Hamilton to see how the scheme for England and Wales can be improved.
In the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 we took powers in respect of truants, and proposed a similar, although not the same, power for what have come to be called truancy sweeps, allowing the police and the local education
The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), and I have received many representations urging us to make two serious acts of criminality--kerb crawling and hit and run--arrestable offences. Kerb crawling is a crime already. The practice of kerb crawling can seriously disrupt and disfigure communities, but the police lack the power to arrest offenders and therefore lack the power to take DNA samples from them. In respect of hit-and-run drivers, the police do not have a general power to arrest them, which can often lead to drivers who have committed quite serious offences fleeing successfully from the scene of crime and not being susceptible to immediate apprehension.
Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. The inclusion of the measure to make kerb crawling an arrestable offence has been warmly welcomed by the police and by local residents in my constituency. Both groups have said that it is an excellent example of the Government responding to the needs of people in an area where kerb crawling is a big problem. The only concern that has been raised relates to the strength of the penalties, particularly for persistent kerb crawlers. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the range of penalties that will be available to the courts?
Mr. Straw: I am glad to hear that the change has been welcomed by my hon. Friend's constituents. On penalties, I do not have the answer immediately to hand, but I am happy to examine the adequacy of the penalties.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I wanted to catch the Home Secretary before he left the subject of child curfews and other general responses. Given that, by my calculation, we had 19 crime or police Bills during 18 years of Tory rule, and this is the seventh such Bill under almost four years of Labour rule, I do not take the simplistic view of the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) that a bit of legislation suddenly produces a reduction in crime. The situation is much more complex than that.
Fixed-penalty notices, child curfews and the proposals for extending the right to hold DNA samples are extremely controversial, and arguably not likely to be effective. Instead of setting out countrywide powers, as the Bill proposes, would it not have been better for the Government to pilot some of the proposals to see whether they work, and to present Parliament with measures that are not just ideas that sound good but ideas that might do good?
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman raised three different issues. First, curfews do not need to be piloted because it is for individual local authorities to decide whether to use them. They are based on a discretionary power, so one would have assumed that they would appeal to the
Secondly, there is an argument for the piloting of fixed-penalty notices. After undertaking a consultation process, we came down on one side of that argument and decided not to introduce such pilots. However, we are not saying that the arguments favour only one view: we remain open minded.
Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman mentioned DNA. When suspects' rights are being dealt with, a single system must apply throughout the country. I do not see any basis for pilots. It would be different if the technology was not quite right, but it clearly works no matter where it is used.
The provisions that I have outlined so far deal primarily with relatively low-level crime. None the less, they deal with activities that can disfigure communities. Such behaviour can be profoundly disruptive and distressing and can lead to more serious offending if it is not checked.
The Bill's other provisions are aimed at more serious and organised crime. For example, it gives the courts power to confiscate the passports of convicted drug traffickers, which will restrict them from travelling overseas to continue their illegal trade after they have been released from custody--if such was the sentence that they received.
Part VII contains an important provision on the granting of bail. Like other hon. Members, I have received many representations from police officers who are concerned about bail. Sometimes, they have spent weeks bringing prolific offenders to court only for them to be granted bail and return to the streets to reoffend. It is not only magistrates' right, but their duty, to grant bail where they think it appropriate. Equally, however, it is their duty not to do so where all the evidence favours a remand in custody. The Bill seeks to encourage a responsible approach to the granting of bail by amending the Bail Act 1976 to require courts to give reasons for granting bail where the prosecutor makes representations against doing so.
Parts II and III include measures to strengthen the powers of law enforcement agencies. Part II deals with the disclosure of confidential information for the purposes of criminal investigations and procedures. It tidies up disclosure provisions in the 74 measures set out in schedule 1, which are diverse enough to include the National Savings Bank Act 1971 and the Diseases of Fish Act 1983. Part II also provides a statutory power for the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise to disclose information to other law enforcement agencies. That will allow a reciprocal flow of information between those bodies, the police and the National Criminal Intelligence Service.
Part III will further bolster the powers of law enforcement agencies by modernising powers of seizure. The Bill gives the police and other law enforcement agencies powers to seize material and remove it for sifting elsewhere. The new measures address two separate issues. They deal with the problems identified in the Bramley judgment, which brought into focus the difficulties faced by the police and other investigators when the material that they are entitled to seize is mixed with a collection of material to which that entitlement does not apply.
In part IV, significant changes are made to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. One of the most important types of evidence used by the police in a wide range of criminal cases today comes from DNA samples. We have extended, in practice, this scope and use of DNA by substantial investment in the forensic science service and in the availability of scenes-of-crime officers. The police, in turn, are using DNA testing not only for very serious crimes but as a way of identifying prolific offenders such as burglars and car criminals.
In almost every criminal case, the first and overwhelming question before the police and the courts is the identity of the person who committed the offence. Who was it? Before the turn of the last century, when the first fingerprint standard was agreed by New Scotland Yard, identity could be established only through the testimony of witnesses or through the accused's confession. Over the past 100 years, science and technology has come to the aid of justice, moving in fingerprinting from visual comparisons of images on paper to digital capture and searching, with the ability to make more than 1 million fingerprint comparisons every second. However, the use of DNA profiling--first developed in 1985 and, happily, in this country--offered the most important forensic advance of the late 20th century.
DNA profiling is a very powerful tool--an objective form of evidence. Its values lies as much, if not more, in its ability to exclude the innocent as in its ability to convict the guilty. When the police investigate a case, if they do not proceed with a prosecution or the suspect is acquitted, they routinely retain all the records of the investigation, including the notes of interviews with suspects and other interviews. That has always been the case. The police would not dream of throwing away their memory on the offchance that the offender may or may not commit a further offence. Yet the law requires that the most objective and powerful forms of evidence--fingerprints and DNA--have to be destroyed if a conviction does not follow from the taking of the sample in question.
This has already led to serious miscarriages of justice. In two recent cases, R v. B and R v. Weir, compelling DNA evidence that linked one suspect to a rape and the other to a murder could not be used, and neither suspect could be convicted, because it turned out that at the time when the matches were made, the defendants had either been acquitted of another crime, or a decision had been made not to proceed with the offences for which the DNA profiles were originally taken. Under the existing provisions, the profiles should have been destroyed.
Those who believe that we should leave the law as it is, following the decision of the Law Lords in the case of R v. B, should, I suggest, look at the narrative of Lord Steyn in that case. Their lordships sought to bring the law as near as possible to common sense without actually
As the law stands, to deal with such situations, when someone is convicted of an offence and a sample that could have been taken is not taken and he is arrested in respect of another offence, the police have powers to take a sample at that stage and retain it for ever. That should have happened in this case. If it had, there would subsequently have been a conviction for rape. However, the police did not know--and could not have known--of the original conviction because the defendant gave a false name, which put them off the trail for some time.
I accept that the use of DNA and fingerprinting must be carefully controlled, precisely because they are powerful tools. However, anyone who has visited a forensic service science laboratory, as I have, and seen the huge care that is taken, will know that it is virtually impossible for any scientist to know whether a sample is to be used to identify a suspect or a victim, and will appreciate the substantial safeguards that are in place. Furthermore, an important role is played by defence counsel in challenging the integrity of the lifting of samples at a scene of crime--by definition, a less controlled environment--and such issues sometimes have to be challenged by the courts.
Taking all those arguments together, I believe that the current state of the law is wholly unsatisfactory. We cannot continue to have cases such as that in which a man commits an act of violence--an affray--then a burglary, and then--as compelling evidence suggests--a rape. Such people cannot be allowed to continue to play games with the technicalities of the law, while rape victims go in fear of further crimes being committed by the person against whom compelling evidence exists to show that they committed a rape. The other case in question was a murder case--the most serious crime in the criminal calendar.
I say to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) that the Bill is far from controversial. I notice that the briefing submitted by Liberty is very sotto voce and without a great deal of conviction on the issue. The public are ready for this change, as are the police and the victims' organisations.
We propose that, when a DNA sample is taken lawfully from a suspect--not under conditions of false imprisonment--it should remain available to the police, whatever happens at a later date in terms of a conviction or otherwise. We also propose separate changes in respect of the volunteering of DNA samples. The Law Society's briefing on this proposal was rather muddled. In many cases--in which innocent people have been eliminated
In one such case, the present law caused immense problems. A serial rapist was operating and the police could not catch him as a result of their first investigation, so they had to destroy all the samples that they had collected. The man struck again, and the police had to go back to the volunteers to obtain further samples. They did not catch him that time either, so those samples also had to be destroyed, and further ones subsequently collected. In my judgment, and that of the police, that is ridiculous. Yes, the volunteers should have an absolute right to say, "You can use this sample only for this inquiry. You must destroy it afterwards." That should be the end of the matter. However, if the volunteers want to say, "Keep it," as I think most of them would, the law should allow that to happen, as we propose.