HL Deb 28 February 1997 vol 578 cc1423-7

11.54 a.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill comes about as a result of an issue which came to light during debate on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill 1994 in another place.

I think it true to say that the Bill has modest objectives. Nevertheless, I believe that it is a worthwhile measure, being designed to make better use of public funds.

The main purpose of the Bill is to allow the police to retain particular items of property, instead of having to dispose of them, where the items are of such specific use that it would be more efficient to allow them to be retained for use in the police service.

The Bill extends to all parts of the United Kingdom. Whereas the legislative position is very similar for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is different for Scotland. I shall therefore speak separately about the Bill's provision relating to Scotland.

First, however, I shall speak about the position in England and Wales and in Northern Ireland, where the disposal of unclaimed or forfeited property in the possession of the police is governed by the Police (Property) Act 1897 and regulations made under this Act. At the moment, it is a requirement that the property be either sold or destroyed and the proceeds from all sales paid into a Police Property Fund, which is controlled by the police authority. Payments are made from the fund for charitable purposes.

There have been occasions where costly items of property, such as computer systems, have had to be sold at auction for a substantially reduced amount, when it would have provided far greater value for money to allow the police to retain the item for their own use.

As I have explained, the purpose of this Bill is to change the legislation to make it possible, on an exceptional basis, for items of unclaimed or forfeited property to be retained for use by the police. The decision would not be made by the police, but would remain with the police authority, which controls the Police Property Fund.

The number of occasions when it will make economic sense to do this will be very small and the totality of the sums involved will not be significant in terms of total police budgets. Nor will the income of charities be affected to any noticeable extent.

The Bill makes analogous changes in Northern Ireland where, as I have explained, the law is similar to that in England and Wales. The position is different in Scotland, where the courts already have the power to vest forfeited property in the police.

I would like to give a brief description of the clauses in the Bill. Clause 1 amends the Police (Property) Act 1897 to allow regulations made under the Act to provide that the police authority may decide that property is to be retained. Clause 2 makes consequential changes to the Powers of the Criminal Courts Act 1973 to allow regulations to provide for the retention of forfeited property. Clause 3 makes equivalent changes to the law on forfeiture in Northern Ireland to those made by Clause 2. Clause 4 makes two minor tidying amendments to the Police (Property) Act 1897 in respect of Northern Ireland. Clause 5 is also a tidying amendment which repeals a provision which is inconsistent with the Police (Property) Act 1897. I shall come to Clause 6, but Clause 7 provides the Short Title, commencement provisions and scope of each clause of the Bill.

Clause 6 of the Bill relates to Scotland. It makes provision for a new Part VIIA in the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 to enable the police in Scotland either to dispose of or to retain certain property which is at present excluded from Parts VI and VII of that Act, which respectively relate to lost and abandoned property and to property in the possession of persons taken into police custody.

Under the current terms of the 1982 Act, the police in Scotland may already dispose of any lost or abandoned property to which Part VI applies. For Scotland, therefore, the Bill will extend the provisions of the 1982 Act to allow the police to retain or to dispose of a new class of property.

This new class of property is purely that which has come into the possession of the police in connection with the investigation of a suspected offence, having been found in possession of a person taken into custody, which is reasonably suspected to be in the unlawful possession of that person, or is property which the prosecutor has determined is no longer required as a production in criminal proceedings, or for any other purpose relating to such proceedings.

I suggest that this is a commonsense and practical measure and I commend it to your Lordships.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Viscount Bridgeman.)

11.59 a.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Viscount for his introduction of this valuable little Bill. I hope that he will not mind my saying that it is a little Bill. It performs the function of a 100-year review of the 1897 Act. Perhaps we ought to adopt that procedure as a general custom. Why should we not review all legislation after 100 years instead of, as this Government appear to do, after 100 months at the most, and sometimes only 12 or 18 months.

Although it did not appear in the noble Viscount's speech, I thought there was to be some change also in the procedures whereby the police dispose of property when they wish to do so. The 1897 Act provided for auction and I understood that that had been changed by subsequent legislation. However, I may be wrong, and it is not essential to the Bill.

The Government will recall that in the consideration of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill 1994, in Standing Committee B in another place, the Labour Party proposed a similar change to the Bill in the form of an amendment. The Minister of State at the Home Office, Mr. David Maclean, said that it was inappropriate for it to be included in the legislation then under consideration and that it would have to be put forward in the form of a separate Bill. That is what this Bill achieves and to that extent it is welcomed.

I have only one sour point to make and I shall have to make it more than once today. This is what my honourable friend Dennis Skinner called synthetic Private Member's legislation. Government Back-Benchers who win the ballot for a Private Member's Bill are sent Bills which are already prepared by government departments—in this case the Home Office—and adopt them as Private Member's Bills. That is a distortion of what Private Member's Bills should be for. They should be for genuinely new legislative proposals. If the Government have Bills they should produce them in their own time rather than use the allocation, already severely limited, for Private Member's Bills in the Commons. With that proviso, I welcome the Bill.

12.2 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I welcome the Bill. I have only one point with which I am sure the Minister will deal. It is entirely sensible for the decision to be made by the police authority rather than the police themselves. That is an entirely desirable position. But, of course, London does not have a police authority, although it is hoped that it soon will have. That being so, what is the position in relation to London?

12.3 p.m.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Bridgeman on introducing the Bill today and I am grateful for the support that it has received. Although the Bill appears somewhat complicated, due to its technical nature, its main purpose is clear: to enable the police to deal more efficiently with items of unclaimed or forfeited property. I am sure that that is something we could all support. Indeed, the Bill has received cross-party support so far and I hope to see that continue.

As my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, said, the issue came to attention in 1994 when an amendment was tabled to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill in another place. The amendment sought to enable the police to apply to the courts for the use of computer equipment forfeited by pornographers.

Although the amendment was rejected because it was defective the Government were sympathetic to the underlying aim of the amendment. Indeed the Government said at that time that if it were deemed desirable for the police to make use of forfeited property, the necessary provision should be made by amendment to the Police (Property) Act 1897 and regulations issued under it. I am pleased to see that that is happening with this Bill.

The Government indicated their support for such a measure in the White Paper Protecting the Public, issued in March 1996. By enabling the matter to be taken forward in this Bill my noble friend is seeing that action is taken sooner than would otherwise be possible. I am grateful to him for that.

The Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and of Northern Ireland has been consulted and has confirmed that it would find it useful occasionally to be able to retain particular items of property. Likewise, the Association of Chief Police Officers of Scotland has welcomed the proposed measures. As was mentioned by my noble friend, the legislative position in Scotland differs to that in England and Wales and Northern Ireland, but it makes sense to allow the same sort of arrangements for dealing with property to be available in Scotland. The opportunity is taken in the Bill to make some minor tidying amendments to the legislation for Northern Ireland, and I agree that it is appropriate to do that.

I believe that the Bill's provisions reflect the intention that the option of retaining property is to be exercised on an exceptional rather than a general basis. The police authority, which has responsibility for managing the Police Property Act Fund, will need to satisfy itself that the property has remained in the possession of the police for a year (or for six months in the case of forfeited property); that the police are empowered to sell the property; and that the property can be used for police purposes. The police authority will need to make a determination that a particular item of property is to be retained. Regulations will provide for all such determinations by the police authority to be published. Those are features to reassure anyone who may be concerned that police priorities may become distorted.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, mentioned the situation relating to London. The Receiver for the Metropolitan Police takes the place of the police authority in London.

It will be necessary to ensure that decisions to retain property can be defended on value for money grounds. New regulations will be made and a Home Office circular will be issued explaining the circumstances in which property can be retained rather than sold.

As noble Lords may be aware, the proceeds of property disposed of by the police go to charitable purposes. Lest there be any concern that the Bill will have an adverse effect on charities let me give an assurance that this will not be the case. Given that only particular items of property that are likely to fetch a low price at auction should be affected, the impact of the Bill on charities should not be significant.

Some may wonder about the sort of items of property that might be retained for use by the police. It think it would be difficult to be precise. Computer equipment that has been forfeited is perhaps the most obvious example. That is because, for the moment at least, there is not a very effective second-hand market for computer equipment. Items of jewellery that have come into the hands of the police as stolen property and which have remained unclaimed by the owner would be examples of property that could not be retained.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am shocked by that. What about chief constables' wives?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I greatly enjoy the repartee with the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. I am sure that he is not being serious.

Apart from the fact that jewellery would fetch a reasonable price at auction, it could not be used for police purposes and so would be ruled out. Property consisting of money is also ruled out. Given that the situation with second-hand markets can change, I do not believe it would be sensible for the Bill to define too closely the type of property that might be retained. I believe it is best left to the combined good judgment of the police and the police authority. That is what the Bill will do, and I agree.

I welcome the Bill and I commend it to your Lordships.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, will he respond to the point which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, made about synthetic Private Member's Bills? The problem is not new; nor has it been confined to governments of one party only. If the noble Earl is not in the position to make a pronouncement, will he bring the matter to the notice of the business managers?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has mentioned that in the past. I shall of course bring his comments to the attention of the business managers.

12.8 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for taking part in the debate and for the broad support that the Bill has received. As regards the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, in relation to auction, as I understand it there is not merely an option to offer the property referred to at auction; there is an obligation to do so. I am grateful to all noble Lords, and I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.