HL Deb 22 April 1998 vol 588 cc1225-7

7.45 p.m.

Lord Evans of Parkside

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, that the Bill be now read a third time.—(Lord Evans of Parkside.)

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Parkside, on the way in which he has taken this Bill through the House. He has always been most courteous and approachable. As I hope noble Lords will recognise, I have supported from the outset the objective underlying the Bill that innocent chemical manufacturers should not be left to the mercy of administrative indulgence to escape prosecution. But I have expressed concern about the unrestrained power given to police officers.

I determined not to table amendments at Third Reading because I believe that if I had done so it could have been counter-productive to the swift passage of the Bill. All sides of the House want to see it operating as soon as possible. I certainly do not wish to discourage chemical manufacturers from co-operating with the police in identifying suspect customers of precursor chemicals.

However, I wish to take a few moments—I promise not many—to place on record the concerns which are still troubling my conscience as we pass the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, argued in previous discussions that it was important to protect the supplier of precursor chemicals. I agree entirely. But I want to protect the public, too, from the potential consequences of the combination of two factors which lie within the Bill. The first is immunity from prosecution of a manufacturer of precursors, a person who has formed a suspicion about his or her customer. Combined with that, the second factor is the power granted to any police constable to grant consent to the manufacturer to go on making scheduled substances in the knowledge that they are intended by the customer to end up in the illicit drugs trade. That means any police officer of any rank anywhere in the United Kingdom at any time on or off duty; a police constable with experience of the drugs trade or someone totally inexperienced, perhaps even on his first day on the beat.

The Government have argued that the power already exists within the Drug Trafficking Act 1994 and the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989. I would, however, draw some distinction between those Acts and this Bill. The Bill allows the creation of precursors. It kick-starts the whole drug trafficking system, even before any drugs are in the system.

The Government have also said that the consent that is to be granted by a police officer under the Bill is, in practice, likely to require authorisation at ACPO level. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, made that comment in Committee. My point is that we should not be sanguine about that process and simply hope that the authorisation will be made at a high level. We have a right to expect that in each and every case such an authorisation would be granted only after consultation with senior officers and with their knowledge and approval. Indeed, between Committee stage and Third Reading today, I have spoken to the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and have had the opportunity to learn from his expertise and experience of these matters. I believe that we have the right to expect that such an authorisation should be granted only by officers with expert knowledge of the drugs trade. Whatever reassurances the Government seek to give about police exercise of this wide power, the reality remains today that on the face of the Bill there is no safeguard for the public against either the inappropriate or the corrupt use of that power.

I remain concerned about the potential for abuse of the power granted under the Bill. I appreciate that no politician likes to be proved wrong, but in this instance I would be delighted in 10 or 20 years' time to be told that there has never been a case of this power being abused and that my concerns were unfounded.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, the Government are grateful to my noble friend Lord Evans of Parkside for having introduced the Bill. Its length belies its importance in tackling unlawful producers of controlled drugs. The Bill will help us to retain the co-operation and confidence of the chemical industry which the enforcement agencies currently enjoy and which is so important in identifying illicit producers.

In providing that no offence is committed when an otherwise unlawful act is carried out with the express consent of a constable, the Bill follows precedents set in other legislation. The Government believe that this is the best way of achieving the desired aim. Notwithstanding the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St. Johns, today and at earlier stages, and by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, previously, we do not believe that the Bill represents a charter for police officers to act improperly. I should add that it would not have our backing if we thought that it did. It will be clear to your Lordships that the Bill has our full support.

Lord Evans of Parkside

My Lords, I express my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St. Johns, for the way in which she has approached the Bill. She has constantly made it clear that although she supports its aims, she is concerned, as she has said at all stages, that in making the proposed changes we should not introduce unintended and untoward effects. That is a very important part of the functions of this House and we should be especially on our guard when proposals enjoy a broad measure of support. The noble Baroness has expressed both her concerns and her support at every stage.

The Bill is modest in both its length and its aim. It will provide assurances to those reputable chemical companies which help the police to catch unlawful producers of controlled drugs. If the Bill helps to do that just once, I would regard it as a worthwhile measure.

As for the fears that have been expressed that the Bill will somehow open the door to improper police actions, I remain confident that it will not and that the existing safeguards which apply to the conduct of all police operations meet those concerns. I join the noble Baroness in hoping that in years to come we shall be able to meet and agree that she was wrong on this occasion. I certainly hope that she will not be able to look me in the eye and say that she has been proved right.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for all the effort that she has put into the Bill. I am grateful also to all noble Lords who contributed to our discussions at earlier stages, particularly my noble friend the Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office and my noble friend Lord Hoyle for their helpful contributions. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.