Standing Committee F
Wednesday 7 March 2001
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I welcome you back to the Chair. You may not have spotted from reading the Hansard report that yesterday, at least in theory, the Committee considered 24 clauses, 41 Opposition amendments, 27 Government amendments, 13 new clauses and nine Government new clauses that covered 13 pages of closely printed script. Today we are due to consider 16 clauses, 36 amendments and four Government amendments, and tomorrow, amazingly, we have 53 clauses and schedules to consider, including six Government amendments.
This week's programming is bringing our proceedings into disrepute, because the Opposition are being given no opportunity to consider the Bill. The nation will be watching us, because we are dealing with important matters, on many of which there is broad cross-party agreement, but we are not being given the opportunity to consider them.
Is it possible to reconvene the Programming Sub-Committee once again, so that it can consider asking the House for an extension of the out date to 13 March, not least because an early election now seems less likely?
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Further to that point of order, Mr. Gale. I join the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) in requesting you to reconvene the Programming Sub-Committee. He used the word ``considered'', but the truth is that little was considered yesterday: many changes were made at the guillotine, without debate. Given the extreme unlikelihood of an early dissolution, we now have the opportunity to rethink the timetable so that we can consider the rest of the Bill in an orderly fashion and without delay. Indeed, completion within the next fortnight seems entirely possible.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Further to that point of order, Mr. Gale. Has the Minister approached you to give an estimate of how many clauses he expects not to be debated today? Yesterday, 25 clauses and 44 amendments, all on important matters, were not discussed. If he has not approached you, would you consider using your power to reconvene the Programming Sub-Committee, so that the matter can be reflected on and the date put back?
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): Further to that point of order, Mr. Gale. The Committee will recall that, at the most recent meeting of Programming Sub-Committee, the Government offered not to impose a guillotine last night at 10 pm or today at 1 pm, on an understanding about the clauses that we should have reachedwe would have had to sit through the night yesterday and this eveningbut no such agreement was made.
The Committee will also recall that there was no Division on the clauses that were agreed to at the end of yesterday's sitting. The Committee will further recall that a substantial amount of party political badinage took place yesterday, which was not encouraged by Labour Members. Finally, the Committee will recall that, as I said yesterday evening, although some Opposition new clauses were in order, they were designed to make various party political points prior to the election. We believe that the Committee has had adequate time to consider the Bill, and we shall carry it through. That is the Government's position.
The Chairman: I do not propose to allow the Committee to get into a prolonged debate, because the matters that concern the Chairmanthat is what points of order are aboutare clear. The sittings of the Committee and the guillotines within those sittings were a matter for decision by the Committee, following a second meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee. For the moment, therefore, they are set in concrete, and the Chairman has no power or right to interfere. I have made it abundantly plain, and I know that Mr. Hood, my co-Chairman, shares this view, that if the Committee wants a further sitting of the Programming Sub-Committee, the Chairman is here to serve.
If, this morning, the usual channels agreethat would be the most courteous way forwardto hold a further sitting of the Programming Sub-Committee, I am prepared to convene one immediately after the guillotine falls this morning. That is not a matter for me. It is entirely a matter for agreement between the usual channels and the parties. If there is no agreement, and one party formally requests a meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee, I shall have to exercise my judgment. I would prefer to think that, as is custom and practice, the usual channels will manage to hammer this out in the Corridor outside.
I shall make one other point, as these issues have been raised, and as there has been reference to matters of record. I have not had the opportunity to read the Hansard reports of yesterday's proceedings in Committee, to which I was not privy. I have, however, had drawn to my attention exchanges that took place on the Floor of the House while I was absent on parliamentary business yesterday. I note that a reference was madealthough not by a member of this Committeeto filibustering in this Committee. I wish to place it plainly on record that Mr. Hood and I, as Chairmen, and all the members of the Chairmen's Panel, both deprecate acrimonyalthough we cannot altogether control itand, more importantly, will not tolerate filibustering.
So far as I am concerned, there has been no filibusteringat least, up until yesterday, for which I cannot speak, but I am sure that Mr. Hood would not have tolerated it. We should now move to the business of the day before we waste any further time.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Heald: The clause makes two additions to the list of arrestable offences: kerb crawling and failing to stop after an accident. However, the Police Federation has long argued that the offence of failing to stop when requested by a constableI believe, in uniformshould also be added. Clearly, it should be possible immediately to apprehend someone who fails to stop when requested to do so by the police. What is the Minister's view? In a letter to me, Fred Broughton, chairman of the Police Federation, said:
``Power of Arrest: non-stop injury accidentsWe do not believe these proposals extend far enough and are seeking through the `Review of Road Traffic Penalties' an amendment to include a power of arrest in relation to `Fail to Stop for a police officer in uniform' including a mandatory period of disqualification for 6 months. We have yet to receive acknowledgement of our concern in this area by the Home Office.''
It is for the Committee to consider whether it is right to add these offences. I believe that it is. Kerb crawling is a serious and worrying matter to residents in particular areas, and a difficult offence to deal with, as is failure to stop after an accident.
Failing to stop when requested to do so by a constable is also a matter of importance. How would the Minister respond to the concerns expressed by the Police Federation?
Mr. Charles Clarke: The two key issues are kerb crawlingI will not repeat the arguments about that, which were implied in what the hon. Gentleman saidand failure to stop after an accident. The Police Federation was right to raise the potential offence that it mentioned in the context of the road traffic penalties review. I am sorry that it has not had an acknowledgement. Consultation is still taking place. I believe that the initial consultation period ended at the end of February. The review is carefully examining all the relevant issues, and will certainly take the Police Federation's view seriously. There is broad consensus, including cross-party consensus in the House, for reform in those areas, but the precise form that it should take will depend on the consultations.
Mr. Heald: This is a similar situation to that which occurred yesterday. The Government are choosing to make it an offence to fail to stop after an accident, so they are anticipating the review in that case. Given that failing to stop when requested to do so by a constable is also a very important matter, would it not be possible to fast-track that as well, rather than having to wait until goodness knows when for a complete readjustment of the relevant law?
Mr. Clarke: The kerb crawling offence is obviously not related to the issue of road traffic penalties, although I agree that one can argue that failing to stop after an accident is. I will consider the possibility of tabling an amendment on Report about the matter that the hon. Gentleman raised. The Police Federation was correct to highlight the subject through the review of penalties. I hope that we will have Government proposals for legislation in due course.
Our approach will be to try to work on a consensual basis across Parliament. Some Conservative Members have been involved in relevant debates. For example, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) thinks that the Bill does not go far enough on such issues. We are keen to adopt a cross-party approach, as there is wide concern in the country about some of the terrible implications of road accidents as a result of excessive speed. I hope that the Committee will allow the clause to stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Simon Hughes: We have no objection to the clause standing part of the Bill, but if I ask the Minister some questions about it, I shall not need to ask them on the next clause, which, like this one, brings into legislation certain offences that currently have a different definition.
Why are three offences alone being brought into the new definitions under clauses 70 and 71 and characterised as arrestable? I can think of many other offences that could arguably be so classed. We are not considering sentencing, but a sentencing review is due to report in two months' time, so it seems odd to have plucked three offences from the cupboard and made them arrestable.
Why are we doing this now, when a review of the law of sexual offences is being considered by the Government and others? The Home Office has managed the consideration of a range of such offences for a long time. If we are deciding which offences should continue to exist, which should be repealed, which added to, which made arrestable, and what the penalties should be, we ought to consider sexual offences at the same time. We have had a review of sexual offences and are to have a review of sentencing, so I object to the Government's Christmas tree approach, in which they pick out a little bit of an agenda.
The same question applies in the context of road traffic legislation. I share the view held by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), having always thought that we must be tougher on some road traffic offences. That is true in relation to excess speeding, failure to report an accident and other actions that sometimes appear relatively minor but can cause serious or fatal accidents. For example, if people turn incorrectly at a junctionnormally left when traffic is not allowed to turn leftand catch someone lawfully crossing under a green light, that sometimes has terrible consequences.
Announcements have been reported from the Home Secretary and other Ministers in recent days about a new consideration of road traffic law, weighing up the alternatives in terms of penalties, sentencing and so on. We should be doing the job coherently, not plucking one offence and making it arrestable, when it was not so designated under the most recent legislation, which was 12 years ago.
Although the proposals are unsatisfactory, it is not possible to object to them, but why could we not have done away with these provisions of part IV and waited until we had an intelligent approach to the issues? This is exactly the worst sort of legislation, as we do not have broad consideration of offences, where they come in the league table or the sentencing options. I understand that civil servants may say that the opportunity should be taken, and that there is public concern about kerb crawling, failure to stop and report an accident and the importation of indecent or obscene material, but there is public concern about another 68 things, and I do not understand why we have plucked three and not considered them all together.