Standing Committee F
Thursday 8 March 2001
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
The Chairman: Before we start this morning, I have one housekeeping announcement relating to the debate this afternoon. Technically, we are scheduled to sit from 2.30 right through until 7 o'clock. For the convenience, literally and metaphorically, of hon. Members, I intend to suspend the Committee for 15 minutes, from 5 o'clock until 5.15.
Fingerprints and samples
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I beg to move amendment No. 218, in page 63, leave out lines 32 to 41.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 219, in page 63, line 42, leave out subsection (2).
No. 220, in page 64, line 29, leave out subsection (6).
Mr. Hughes: The three amendments relate to clause 77, which is about the circumstances in which fingerprints can be taken and the rank of police officer who can authorise that. There are some far-reaching and controversial proposals relating to fingerprints being taken and kept when someone is arrested, charged and then released because he has been found not guilty or because no further action will be taken, and relating to the wider issue of other samples, such as DNA samples. As we said on the Floor of the House, that has never been the subject of a widespread public debate. It crosses the threshold of a presumption that we have worked under previously, which was either that people could volunteer to give personal information or that, in certain circumstances, personal information could be taken from them without their consent. However, it has never before been the position that personal information could be taken without consent and kept if the person had at all times been innocent. We will deal with some of those wider issues during the debate on the next few clauses and amendments.
The clause will amend the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and will provide that the same regime should apply where people have been given a caution in respect of a recordable offence to which they have admittedfor the authorities, that is an alternative to a convictionor where they have been warned or reprimanded, which is a form of officially recognised punishment that was introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. The purpose of the amendment is to flush out from the Government the exact criteria according to which the police should be allowed to collect and hold fingerprints. I understand that the same rule can be applied to a caution as to a conviction, because both are disposals of the case by way of an acceptance of guilt and a record against the person. That is why this is a probing amendment, rather than one that we intend to press.
I accept that a warning or reprimand under the 1998 Act is also a disposal of a case in that an offence is recorded. The purpose of the amendment is to open up the debate rather than to deal with the central concerns about that section of the Act.
Amendment No. 219 follows the lines of our debate the other day. It relates to the appropriate rank of police officer who can authorise compulsory fingerprinting. At present, it must be a superintendent. The Government said yesterdayit seems a year ago, but it was only yesterdaythat they take a more flexible view about levels of authority. I do not think that there is a theological argument about that, but we need to be clear. In that context, I am interested in their view about the rank at which certain police activities can be carried out. Is the proposal the result of an assessment of police powers following discussions with police representatives? Is this part of a pattern of conclusions, of which we have seen two pieces of evidence, one yesterday and one today? It would be encouraging to know that a comprehensive review had been undertaken, rather than the matter having been considered in a narrower context.
Amendment No. 220 is a probing amendment, relating to the extension of PACE to cautions, warnings and reprimands in the same way as subsection (1B). It is designed to test whether the compulsory fingerprinting provisions will be limited only to those specified or be available to the police at any time, which appears now to be the case. Will the Government contemplate going even further, and applying the provisions to anybody who is taken in and questioned who might not subsequently be arrested? A person may agree, voluntarily, to be questioned, and later be detained and arrested.
My final questions, to which I would have known the answers if I had been a member of the Committee on the Crime and Disorder Bill, are about the period for which warnings and reprimands remain on a person's criminal record. Will cautions remain for the same period as that which applies to the rehabilitation of offenders, or will they be erased earlier? Will the same apply to fingerprints once someone has been rehabilitated, so that the criminal record for warnings and reprimands, and possibly for cautions, will not carry on if no further offences are committed until the end of the rehabilitation of offenders period? Will the slate be wiped clean? The proposal is about the collection of material against people who have had a criminal record.
We seem to be in danger of having a two-tier society. Ministers said during debates on the Football (Disorder) Bill that up to a third of young men end up with a criminal conviction. If a warning, reprimand, caution or conviction remains for all time on a young man's criminal record, and his fingerprints and DNA samples are kept, his whole life may be prejudiced, even when he has grown out of the rebellious and disorderly phase of his late teens and early adulthood and become a perfectly normal individual.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Has the hon. Gentleman thought about the effect on a fixed penalty notice offence? A caution is usually thought to be a less serious disposal than a fixed penalty notice, but in this context, to be given a caution is more serious. It gives people criminal records and forces them to give their fingerprints. However, with a fixed penalty notice, people have only to pay a penalty. Does he agree that the tiers of punishment are rather confused in that case?
Mr. Hughes: I am happy about the trio of disposals that is set out. Conviction is at the top of the league, caution in the middle and warning or reprimand at the bottom.
However, the hon. Gentleman poses a good question. Had he won the election earlier in his life when he tried to become the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondseyas so often happens, the Tories only just reached double figures in percentage of the votehe would have represented the people whom I met last week, from the Southwark pedestrian rights group, who asked the same question. They spoke about fixed penalty notices and parking offences and asked where they come in the league table of punishments.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): As hon. Members will have seen, my right hon. and hon. Friends and I agree with the hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and for Taunton (Jackie Ballard). We also tabled amendment No. 219 together.
I have given the Opposition view before: we do not think that it is appropriate for the Government to downgrade senior management responsibility in the police. I have heard Labour Members over the past nine years, in criminal justice debates in Committee and in the Chamber, talking about the celebrated miscarriages of justice in cases involving matters as serious as terrorism. They expressed concern about fingerprint evidence and forensic scientific analysis of such evidence. It therefore surprises me that a Labour Government are introducing provisions that would lower the level at which police senior management supervision is required in such important cases.
We recognise that there are cost constraints. The Minister will say that many senior police officers support what the Government are doing, but as I said yesterday, senior officers are often aware that they are being kept short of funds. The Government try to have it both ways. They starve the police of resources, especially in shire counties such as Surrey, but then tell them that they hope they will support their policies, which will save money. They are trying to preordain the responses of particular senior police organisations. The Government play both ends against the middle, turning their approach to the police service and criminal law into a vicious, as opposed to a virtuous, circle.
We are worried about the measures and I want to place on record the fact that the Opposition agree with many of the other points made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. He mentioned yesterday that his constituency contains the headquarters of Liberty. The Conservatives do not always agree with Liberty, but on this occasion we do. It is significant, just as it was when we discussed amendments to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 yesterday, that Liberty and the police say that the provisions are backing away from PACE and the protection of the liberty of the subject. It is often forgotten that police organisations are just as keen as groups such as Liberty to protect that liberty, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that.
On this occasion, several concerns are relevant. We have not specifically tabled an amendment on the subject, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman about people who are likely to receive only a caution, reprimand or warning under the new system introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. If what they have done is not regarded as criminal, why should their fingerprints be retained?
I recently visited one of the large police stations that covers parts of my constituency, although it is not based in it. I observed how police custody officers carried out their work. While I was there, police officers told me that they were likely to deal with a particular case under the new system of reprimand, warning or caution. At the same time, however, before it was finally decided what charges would be brought, all the young men involved were fingerprinted. The youths may well have received nothing more than reprimands, so why should their fingerprints remain on file for ever? Would they have been treated differently if, when their fingerprints were taken a few months ago, the Bill had been an Act?
The Bill may not be retrospective, but let us assume that a similar case occurred a couple of days after it becomes law. The young men might be of good character and come from respectable families, but they could be fingerprinted, even though they were given only a reprimand or warning. I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) took the same view as me when we were debating the Crime and Disorder Bill. I have not had time to confirm my recollection, but the Government were trumpeting the fact that, by limiting the response to reprimands and warnings, they were not going to criminalise behaviour that was below the criminal threshold.
I recall Ministers saying that that was the whole point of the Bill. Why do the Government now believe that behaviour below the criminal level, which will result only in a reprimand or warning, should result in fingerprints being kept on file for a substantial period? My hon. Friend's intervention on the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey was to the point: how will the measure fit in with fixed penalties? That is what we want to hear from the Minister.
Our concerns are genuine. We may not vote on amendment No. 219, but it reflects genuine anxieties. We are dealing with serious questions, which the Minister must answer. He has a difficult job to explain the apparent and overt inconsistencies between the Government's objectives in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the debates that preceded it, and what the Government are now trying to do.
No one seriously suggests that the Government intend the country to become a police state, but there are bound to be legitimate concerns, and the watchword has to be constant vigilance to ensure that any draconian powers are not misused. Police officers will want to ensure that all the procedures are properly observed, but we share the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey.