HC Deb 20 June 1988 vol 135 cc879-83

`(1) A police constable may search any person whom he suspects of possessing a prohibited or offensive weapon, if that officer fears that the use of such a weapon will endanger his personal safety or that of any other person;

(2) If a search conducted under subsection (1) of this section leads to the discovery of a prohibited or offensive weapon concealed on the person of the suspect, a Constable may arrest that suspected person without a warrant.'.— [Sir Eldon Griffiths.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I hope that I can be equally brief on this. On Second Reading my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that he was proposing a radical change in the law on the carrying of knives, and that the danger was overwhelmingly the concealed carrying of such weapons. There is no doubt that many crimes are committed with the aid of knives—muggings, assaults, rapes and so on. Therefore, the Government are quite right to tackle that problem as they have. However, they leave the police service with one difficulty, which is that unless one can search for a concealed knife, it is difficult to bring into play the powers that the Bill will now provide, including the reversing of the burden of proof.

I make it clear that neither I nor the Police Federation have any wish to return to sus. That is not my objective. However, I wish to raise with the Government the narrower point of the code of guidance that is set out in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which is too restrictive and makes for some difficulties. It says that a reasonable suspicion is needed to justify a search and it must be founded on fact. There must be some concrete basis for the officer's belief, related to the individual concerned, which can be considered and evaluated by an objective third person. The difficulty is that in many cases it is a one-to-one situation and it is extremely difficult for a police officer, faced with someone whom he suspects may be carrying a concealed knife, to establish the degree of fact that will justify the search on reasonable suspicion.

My design in moving the new clause is not to take us back in time. It is simply to ask the Government whether they will examine the code of practice, and if they find that the police case—that it is not working satisfactorily—is a good one, they will take steps to revise it.

Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

When I first looked at the new clause, I was inclined to look for a motive behind it. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) has made it clear that his intention is not to increase the powers of the police, although he referred to the restrictions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Nevertheless, I hope that hon. Members will emphatically reject the new clause, because it is inevitably bound to be regressive. In particular, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can believe what he has written here.

The hon. Gentleman has a great reputation, and hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise that during his time as parliamentary representative of the Police Federation he has carried out his duties in an energetic way. Sometimes we have been annoyed at the way in which he has done it, because he has been so persistent, but I cannot believe that he wants the House to introduce such legislation.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

To ease the hon. Gentleman's anxieties, I assure him that I have no intention of pressing this matter to a vote. I simply want to explore the statutory code of guidance in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, and this is the only way to do it. The hon. Gentleman need not worry about asking his hon. Friends to repudiate what I am doing—I shall do so myself by withdrawing the new clause.

Mr. Randall

The hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to withdraw the new clause if he felt that he could not accept it. He did not say clearly that he could not accept the new clause. As he has said that he wants to use new clause 8 to debate the existing powers, it is worth hon. Members on both sides of the House talking about parts of the new clause, in particular subsection (1), which says: A police constable may search any person whom he suspects". That could be construed as a return to sus. We would then be returning to 1824 and the passing of the Vagrancy Act.

Mr. Bermingham

As the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) has said that in view of my hon. Friend's powerful oratory he will withdraw the new clause, would it not be better if he did so as soon as possible?

Mr. Randall

That is a matter for the business managers. Like the horse in "Animal Farm", I plod away and do the job that is needed of me.

6.30 pm

Under the terms of the 1824 Act, sus was an offence. The scope of that Act was extraordinary. I refer the House to page 103 of the report of the Home Affairs Sub-Committee on Race Relations and Immigration, dated 13 March 1980. The relevant passage reads: Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, includes an offence (known colloquially as 'sus') which prohibits 'every suspected person or reputed thief from … frequenting or loitering about in any river, canal or navigable stream, dock or basin, or any quay, wharf or warehouse near or adjoining thereto, or any street, highway or avenue leading thereto, or any place of public resort, or any avenue leading thereto, or any street or highway, or any place adjacent to a street or a highway, with intent to commit an arrestable offence. The Act was intrusive. It impinged very much upon the liberty of the citizen. Until section 4 of the Act was repealed in 1981, police forces in various parts of the country used the sus offence. The consequences were serious.

The Select Committee on Home Affairs repudiated sus in 1980 and stated that it had been bad for race relations. I think that we were all pleased with the Criminal Attempts Act 1981, which repealed the sus provisions. The strength of feeling of the members of that Committee was profound. The Committee stated that if the Government failed to produce the required legislation, it would promote it.

I am a strong supporter of the police force. I believe that it is fundamental to our democracy. The throwing of grenades—metaphorically—at the police is to be deplored. I accept, however, that the police are not perfect. Members of the police force are a cross-section of the community, as we are in this place. My main concern—it was shared by many others—was that imperfect people were free to exercise wide-ranging provisions.

There was a feeling that some police officers abused the law. There are many blacks and Asian people in our inner cities, and strong feelings were aroused in them because of the abuses that took place. There were "fishing expeditions". Those were bad at times. The police had a power that led to much damage being committed, especially in our inner cities and areas of deprivation generally. We heard stories of police officers entering Indian restaurants, placing people against the wall and telling them to put up their hands. There were horrific stories and, irrespective of whether they were true, strong feelings were aroused within the community. All that was detrimental to race and community relations.

We believe that stop-and-search powers should be exerciseable only if there is reasonable suspicion. The powers of stop and search were defined in section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Subsection (3) states: This section does not give a constable power to search a person or vehicle or anything in or on a vehicle unless he has reasonable grounds for suspecting that he will find stolen or prohibited articles. The definition of those articles includes offensive weapons, and subsection (9) defines offensive weapons.

The second part of the new clause refers to the discovery of knives as a result of a search. We arc all for finding and dealing with those who carry knives and other offensive weapons. That does not need to be said, because it is obvious. We all want the provisions in our legislation that allow that to happen to be as effective as possible. We are concerned, however, about increasing the powers of the police where there is merely a suspicion. The concept that that is a ground for taking action is anathema to the notion of liberty. We are entirely opposed to it.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds has been assiduous in his service to the Police Federation, and we respect him for that. I have read that when the Royal Commission met before the new legislation was introduced it was aware that the police had asked for the retention of the sus powers. The House decided in its wisdom that it would have the section 1 powers of the 1984 Act, which introduced reasonable suspicion rather than giving the police wide powers that would enable them to proceed merely on suspecting someone.

The new clause should be taken seriously. I see it as a desperate measure. We have the highest crime figures in Britain's history and we have a Government whose crime policy is failing miserably. If we consider all classes of crime, it is clear that crime generally is on the increase. There have been massive increases in crime rates in certain categories and I suggest that the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds is clutching at straws. He knows that the Government's crime policy is in a mess. A serious manifestation of that is the football hooligans and their awful activities in Frankfurt, Stuttgart and other German cities. The Government's policies have led to a society that lacks decency. Consequently, we have a selfish and greedy society. Nasty things are coming home to roost. When contemplation is given to this sort of new clause at a time when crime figures are so serious, it is clear that the hon. Gentleman is clutching at straws.

Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South)

How does the hon. Gentleman explain the paradox that, when unemployment was rising, the Labour party blamed it on Government policies, but now that unemployment is declining and the Government's policies are working he is blaming wealth creation?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. The new clause concerns powers of search. I ask hon. Members to stay with that.

Mr. Randall

The powers of stop and search, known as sus, were used in inner cities, or what I prefer to refer to as areas of deprivation. There is a strong correlation between crime and deprivation. When those powers were available, people were discriminated against. Blacks and Asians, who are already deprived by income, by unemployment, by inadequate housing and by inadequate hospital services, were the victims of stop and search. They would be affected again if new clause 8 were agreed to. It is important to put that on the record.

As the Select Committee report said, those people do not have equal rights before the law. They do not have equal representation in court, they do not enjoy the same legal aid as others and they tend to be given custodial sentences.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds understands the police force well. Knowing what sort of man he is, I cannot believe that he would want to damage community relations, and it is therefore inconceivable that the new clause will be agreed to. I shall therefore not present any more arguments against it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths) focused on the code, so I shall concentrate exclusively on it. He articulated his concern that the code as drafted contains too strict a definition and interpretation of the concept of reasonable suspicion. In that, he reflects the anxiety of the police service.

I understand the force of my hon. Friend's arguments —that is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has commissioned a review of the code. We hope to have comments in by the end of October, which will enable us to decide whether we should redraft the code to give a different interpretation of the concept of reasonable suspicion. The points made by my hon. Friend and by the police service will be kept fully in mind during the review. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for the way in which he moved the new clause.

Sir Eldon Griffiths

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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