HC Deb 11 June 1999 vol 332 cc936-42
Mr. Forth

I beg to move amendment No. 16, in page 4, leave out lines 19 to 25.

This is the amendment that I have been waiting for, although I will try not to make a meal of it. I well remember an impassioned speech on Second Reading by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), who expressed grave reservations about this aspect of the Bill. I am only sorry that he is not with us today. I would have liked to hear the speech again, it was so good. I will try to make up for his absence by my own modest contribution.

I share my hon. Friend's reservations about the surrendering of passports. I know that we can get very misty-eyed about passports. There are those who believe that the British passport—in its excellent old form, as opposed to the dreadful little maroon thing that we are all now stuck with—goes back a long way into our history, but I do not think that it does. The Minister may correct me, but I think that the British passport in its magnificent previous form dated back only to about the 1920s. Be that as it may, the passport was and remains a powerful symbol of a number of different things.

1.15 pm

A passport is not merely something that we possess and are able to show—many authorities, of course, require it to be shown for various purposes—but is an expression of our sense of national pride and identity, which are very important to us. In the context of the Bill and the amendment, however, a passport is the symbol and statement of one's inalienable—at least I thought that it was inalienable—right to travel freely and untrammelled.

Part of our consideration of the Bill should include the extent to which it is necessary to hold and produce a British passport to travel across the European Union. I should like to hear the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and of the Minister on whether the compulsory surrender of one's passport would prevent one from travelling across the European Union. Although, in a sense, the point deals with an argument that is the reverse of the one that I want to make, it is relevant to our consideration.

I have heard it argued that one can and should be able to—I have done it myself on one or two occasions—travel throughout the European Union without having to show a passport, and that any other method of identity should be adequate. Are my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford and Ministers sure that, if someone's passport were to be confiscated, that person would be prevented from travelling? It is one important aspect of the argument, although, strictly, not germane to the amendment.

I am much more worried—this is why I tabled amendment No. 16—that the authorities will be able to march in and compulsorily take away one's passport. As I said, I am no great fan of the European convention on human rights, but I know that there are those—not least Liberty—who argue that temporary removal of one's passport may well be a contravention of article 1 of the convention's first protocol. Allowing the authorities to take someone's passport may well be a worry for those who are fans of the convention.

As interestingly, Liberty is also arguing that to require surrender of a passport might conflict directly with our international obligations to guarantee freedom of movement under article 12 of the international covenant on civil and political rights. I never thought that I would hear myself arguing that, as I am not a great fan of the covenant. I always regard that type of thing as international verbiage. I could use a much ruder word, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but you probably would not allow me, and the House will get the sense of what I mean. Nevertheless, hon. Members will need reassurances that, in so far as we think that those guarantees are important, the Bill will not contravene them.

I am really interested in a much more fundamental and British point. How content are we that our authorities should be in the business of taking away our passport and saying that what we always thought was one of our fundamental rights—the freedom of travel—is to be removed? Around the world, people take the view that their right to leave their country is one of their most important freedoms.

I am sure that, internationally, over many decades, if not centuries, we have rather pompously taken that view, and said to people, "We are very proud that our citizens are free to escape from the authorities if they think that they are being unreasonable." Almost the entire United States is populated by the successors of those who sought freedom and escaped not only from countries on the continent—many of whom came to the United Kingdom for their freedom—but from the United Kingdom. Therefore, let us not underestimate the importance of the issue.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

I am surprised that my right hon. Friend has not alluded to the remarkable statistic that only 12 per cent. of Americans carry passports—which demonstrates that, having got there, they have no desire to return.

Mr. Forth

Indeed. As someone who has recently returned from the United States—voluntarily, I should add—I appreciate exactly what my right hon. Friend is saying. Nevertheless, the fact remains—it is part of the case that I am trying to make—that, for a very long time, we have argued that the ability to leave the country freely and untrammelled is a very important element of individual and political freedoms and of civil liberties. The proposal in this case is that, as part of a penalty and as a guarantee that people will not travel abroad possibly to do things of which we disapprove, we will make them surrender their passports. That is a serious step to take.

The point was made on Second Reading that there is a precedent for such a move. My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) also made the argument, saying, "Don't worry, we've done it before, so it's all right now." I am not sure that it is all right now. The fact that, in a moment of weakness, the Government of whom I was apparently a member allowed the removal of passports does not mean that I can rest easy that we are to do it again. The fact that we have mistakenly done something before does not mean that we should compound the mistake by doing it again.

I am not convinced that as serious a measure is the right step in the context of this Bill. It may be justifiable for offences such as treason or murder, although I would like to hear the arguments and I would not accept them readily. I do not know whether the offences we are contemplating, however awful they appear, justify the power to remove passports. We should not forget that the Bill is called the Football (Offences and Disorder) Bill, and yet we are talking about taking people's passports away. What is the world coming to? Have we lost all reason? Are we out of our minds? Are we suggesting that offences related to football should be dealt with through the compulsory removal of people's passports, which will mean the removal of one of our most sacred rights?

I sense that the Minister will tell me that I should not worry because we can already remove people's passports for many other reasons. I am not convinced by that argument. It seems to me that people are not aware that their passports could be removed. It is time that they were. Perhaps this debate will assist in the process and I can expect the streets to be filled tomorrow with angry people saying, "We didn't realise that this country had come to this." Perhaps this is the point at which we should start to reverse the process and say, "This is something up with which we will not put." We should say that we do not believe that the authorities are justified in taking passports away that easily and readily and denying people their freedom to travel and to leave the country, especially if we believe that the authorities are acting unreasonably.

I have been surprised, just in our little debate this morning, by the extent to which the Bill has pushed out the frontiers of the powers of the authorities to encroach yet further on the freedom of individuals. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border will tell me that we have already done it, so we can do it again. That argument is wearing increasingly thin with me and, I suspect, with others.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman and, on occasions, he repeats his case. He makes his points effectively, but it is against the rules of the House to make the case twice in the same go.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The argument has obviously lost its effectiveness, so I had better not pursue it any further. I want to hear a positive and comprehensive case made for these provisions, because if it is not, we should remove them.

Mr. Burns

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, this is a serious matter. His amendment would mean that the courts would not have the power to impose passport surrender as a condition of an international banning order. That goes to the heart of the purpose of this part of the Bill.

I urge my right hon. Friend to think again. The amendment would destroy the Bill's purpose of tightening up international banning orders. My right hon. Friend is right to say that taking away people's right to travel abroad is a serious step, but we must see it in context. The people involved will have been convicted of serious crimes. On the authority of a court, banning orders are imposed to prevent people from travelling abroad, during limited periods, when there is reason to believe that they might repeat the trouble overseas that brought about their conviction in the first place.

Current practice shows that there is no point in imposing a banning order if there is no effective way to enforce it. The only effective enforcement of international banning orders is the withdrawal of passports, albeit for a brief period. Although such orders may be imposed for a number of years, people are not prevented from going abroad on holiday or in pursuit of their personal business. The effect is simply that they are not allowed to have their passports for five days before a match is played abroad.

Mr. Forth

Does my hon. Friend agree that the requirement to report to a police station is equally effective in preventing someone from travelling? In any case, may not a person want to travel abroad legitimately, for urgent family or even business reasons that are quite separate from football?

Mr. Burns

On the first point, in theory my right hon. Friend may have a case. However, current practice does not work, as people do not turn up at police stations when football matches take place. That is why we must tighten the law.

On my right hon. Friend's second point—that genuine family or business reasons may exist that require travel abroad—my response is to say, "Tough." The decision to issue a person with an international banning order preventing him from going to a football match is not taken lightly, but follows a conviction in a court.

It is odd that my right hon. Friend should argue, in effect, that the system should fit in with an individual's personal arrangements. Taking away a passport is a punishment as well as a way of preventing a repetition abroad of acts of violence. We should not roll over like little dogs wanting their tummies tickled to fit in with the arrangements of a person who has committed an offence but who then wants the state to bend over backwards to make it easier for him to travel abroad, even if the purpose is not to attend a football match.

My right hon. Friend is, like me, a member of the party of law and order. I know that he has a genuine desire to protect the vast majority of people who are innocent. He has talked skilfully and reasonably about civil liberties, but I have heard nothing about the civil liberties of the vast majority of innocent people who go to football matches for an afternoon or evening of entertainment but who inadvertently get caught up in the behaviour of the mindless minority that causes so much misery.

We must stiffen our resolve and take the actions that all responsible people, in football and the law, are urging us to take. They want us to give the authorities more powers to prevent the activities of the violent minority.

Finally, I want to reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst about the legality of the proposals within European human rights legislation—a matter that came up on Second Reading. Like the Minister, I have sought advice from the Home Office, and can assure my right hon. Friend that the Bill is entirely compatible with European obligations and human rights considerations. I hope that he will be able to withdraw his amendment.

1.30 pm
Mr. Brooke

I have one question to put to the Minister, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) omitted to ask. I share my right hon. Friend's pride in holding a British passport. My first passport said that Ernest Bevin, His Britannic Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, "requests and requires" in the name of His Majesty, et cetera, and I was able to go bravely abroad holding that passport. I am out of date on the statistics relating to the issuing of passports but one felt greater pride having acquired one's passport from Peterborough, from which it took 40 days to arrive, than one did if it had come from Belfast, where the process took only four days.

My question to the Minister is important. I do not wish to intrude on the Minister's private grief, but inner London Members have been communicating over the past six months with the Home Office about the passports of constituents that the Home Office has lost. Some 80 per cent. of the passports of Thais—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is perhaps discussing business that might be more appropriately raised on another occasion. The loss of passports and difficulties with the Passport Agency are not entirely relevant to the amendment.

Mr. Brooke

I hesitate to allow even a scintilla of controversy to enter into my relationship with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you have always been extremely kind to me. However, the amendment seeks to remove the provision that the passport

"should be returned … as soon as reasonably practicable after the match has taken place."

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst did not ask the Minister for a guarantee that the Home Office—whether through the police or in its own right—will in fact be able to find a passport when its holder comes to ask for its return, and that is the assurance that I seek.

Kate Hoey

I shall respond first to the point made by the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). Clearly we will not be dealing with huge numbers of passports. The right hon. Gentleman may know that there have been only 150 international banning orders over the past two years. A small number of people will have to leave their passports at a police station, and I am confident that the police will not get themselves into the recent difficulties experienced by the Passport Agency.

I strongly oppose the amendment, as must anyone who has sat through the Second Reading and the Committee debates. It relates to the most crucial part of the Bill. The constituents of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) would be the first to tell him that if a court has ordered that someone should be prevented from travelling abroad, that person should be stopped from going. We have not been able to prevent people from travelling, and some of the disgraceful incidents that have occurred in Europe involved people who had been served with international restriction orders.

Prevention has not been possible because of the way in which the orders have operated. The Bill will toughen up the law so that people will have to attend a named police station and hand in their passport five days before a match. If they do not do so, the police will know that they will travel, and something can be done to prevent it. That is the point of the Bill.

Mr. Forth

Can the Minister advise me whether it is possible for someone to travel to other European Union countries without a passport? I am fairly certain that it is possible to move freely in and out of the United Kingdom and among the other countries that are parties to the Schengen agreement without a passport, but with some other satisfactory means of identification. If that were so, it would seriously undermine the effectiveness of the measure that the Minister described.

Kate Hoey

The right hon. Gentleman should be absolutely clear that such people would not be able to get back into the country without a passport. Therefore, they would be choosing to spend the rest of their lives in another country. I understand what he implies, but if we want the law to be upheld, it is important that we find ways to prevent people, as far as is possible, from getting around the law. If this measure is not enacted as drafted, they will be able to do so.

The aim of the measure is not to prevent the individual going about his or her lawful business. That is why the passport must be returned as quickly as possible. Sometimes, it may be returned when the person turns up at the police station to meet the reporting requirement. The location and timing of the match may mean that the person could get the passport back quickly and not have to wait even until the end of the match. We do not envisage that the passport will be retained for any longer than is necessary. That guidance will obviously be issued to police forces.

On the civil liberties aspect, article 12 of the international covenant on civil and political rights protects freedom of movement and the right to leave one's country, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said. However, that article also allows Governments to restrict the right in the interests of public order and a wide range of other things. Clearly, this Bill and measure relate to that provision. The Government are satisfied that the provisions of the Bill comply with all our obligations under the covenant. I therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful, as ever, to the Minister. Her last point simply reinforces the view that most international agreements are not worth the paper they are written on. If we can comply with some high-sounding, high-falutin', verbose international piece of nonsense and still remove people's passports, it does not say much for the protocol, covenant, convention—call it what you will.

I am not sure that it is that impossible to get back into this country without a passport. I am pretty sure that I have done it myself. I think that if one pitches up at immigration control and can satisfy the officers that one is a bona fide Brit, they will tend to let one in—and so they damn well should, as opposed to some of the other people who are allowed into the country. I do not think that what the Minister said was true, but she may want to take advice on it. It is a matter for another occasion.

This is not either the occasion or the opportunity to take this matter as far as it should be taken. It is prime territory for the other place while it is still fully functioning, fit and feisty. I hope that when Members of the other place consider this Bill, and I am sure that it will shortly proceed there, they will study the provision carefully and satisfy themselves that they would want it to remain in that form in the Bill. I can see some of the strength of what the Minister has said, but I am not totally convinced.

This is not a matter on which I should properly divide the House at this stage. It is sufficient to express my reservations, to allow the provision to remain in the Bill for the time being, but to flag up the fact that it is disproportionate to the aims of the Bill and, therefore, should be seriously considered. On the basis of this short debate, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Back to
Forward to