HL Deb 14 March 2005 vol 670 cc1077-93

3.5 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

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

I would be the first to acknowledge that this is a wide-ranging Bill. It is concerned with a number of diverse issues, but there is a common thread running through each and every one of them; namely, to make our communities safer. The Bill will strengthen our ability to tackle criminality at all levels, from the international drug barons and people traffickers to low-level crime and anti-social behaviour.

I am gratified by the wide measure of cross-party support for the large majority of the provisions in the bill, I am sure that that support will be echoed during our proceedings and that the constructive dialogue that started in the other place will be completed in your Lordships' House during the debates that we are no doubt to enjoy.

That is not to say that there are not differences of opinion on some of the key issues, nor that we should not properly discharge our responsibility to scrutinise carefully the legislation that comes before this House. As its Short Title suggests, at its core the Bill is about tackling serious organised crime. There is nothing glamorous about organised crime, as some film-makers would have us believe. Its devastating effects can be seen across the length and breadth of the country. Organised criminal gangs supply the drugs that feed much of the crime at local level and ruin individual lives ravaged by addiction. They supply the illegal migrants who are exploited as modern-day slave labour or as sex workers. And they supply the guns that can cut down innocent victims caught in the cross fire between rival street gangs.

Organised crime costs this country a minimum of £20 billion a year. That is by any reckoning a significant sum. The challenge that we have set ourselves is to make the United Kingdom the most hostile climate for organised criminals to operate in. The White Paper, One Step Ahead, published this time last year, set out our strategy for meeting that challenge and defeating organised crime. We have already achieved significant successes. I pay tribute to the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, Customs and Excise and the Immigration Service for their considerable achievements in helping to put organised criminal gangs out of business.

In the 18 months to the end of 2003, we have disrupted or confiscated 11 tonnes of heroin and 26 tonnes of cocaine. Last year, 2003–04. the joint National Crime Squad and Immigration Service Immigration Crime Team disrupted or dismantled 46 organised immigration crime enterprises and made 115 arrests. In the same year the police, Customs and other agencies recovered £54.5 million in criminal assets.

We must not, however, underestimate the challenges ahead. To stay one step ahead of organised crime we need to ensure that we have the right structures in place and the necessary, but proportionate, powers at the disposal of law enforcement agencies. There is wide acceptance that, if we are to make the necessary step change in the quality of our effort against organised crime, we need to remove existing organisational barriers which are an impediment to success.

It makes no sense for there to be an organisational divide between the gathering and dissemination of intelligence and the operational uses to which such intelligence is put. Nor does it make sense for much of the national effort against serious drug trafficking to be split between Customs and the National Crime Squad.

The establishment of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) will lead to a sea change in our response to organised crime. I should emphasise that in setting up SOCA we are not simply bolting together the whole or part of four existing organisations and putting a new name-plate on the door. If that was the result of Part 1 it would be to miss an opportunity.

SOCA will be more than the sum of its parts. It will need to be if it is successfully to bring together some 1,200 Customs officers, 1,000 police officers, 70 immigration officers and 2,300 other staff from existing agencies. The status of those staff has been one of the running issues of contention in relation to Part 1. Clearly, if we were creating a new national police force it would be appropriate to staff it with police officers. But that is emphatically not what we seek to create. Indeed, we have always shied away from creating a national police force in this country, but that—perhaps I may respectfully say—is the natural consequence of the approach of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition. I can anticipate that that may not be the intention, but it is what we say would be the effect.

In reducing the harm caused by serious organised crime, SOCA will not restrict itself to the traditional investigation and prosecution methods of the police service. Of course, such methods will have a legitimate place in SOCA's armoury, but the agency will want to use all the methods at its disposal to disrupt and defeat organised criminal networks. Such methods will include international action to disrupt the supply of drugs, the confiscation of criminal assets, regulatory action against accountants and others who support criminal enterprises, and preventive action to strengthen the defences of, for example, the financial services industry, against serious fraud. These are not activities which inherently must be undertaken by police officers. What is important is that SOCA staff have the necessary skills and training to undertake their duties in accordance with the high professional standards set by the agency. It is for this reason that we have now included in the Bill a requirement on the director general to satisfy himself that a member of staff has the necessary training before any police, Customs or immigration powers are conferred on that individual. We should value the professionalism and dedication of all the staff who are to join SOCA, whatever their background, not just the status of a minority of staff who currently hold the office of constable.

Some concerns have also been expressed about the powers of the Home Secretary in relation to SOCA. We firmly believe that such concerns are misplaced. Part I confers on the Home Secretary no greater powers than those currently vested in him in relation to the National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service. Indeed, the reverse is the case as we are forgoing existing powers to make regulations governing, for example, the terms and conditions of staff.

The Bill provides for the Home Secretary to appoint the majority of members of the SOCA board. However, four out of 11 will be ex officio members, appointed by the director general without reference to Ministers. Typically, for other non-departmental public bodies all board appointments are made by Ministers.

The Bill also provides for the Home Secretary to set the strategic priorities of the agency. As Sir Stephen Lander, the chairman designate of SOCA, has made clear, determining the overarching priorities for a law enforcement agency, such as SOCA, is essentially a political judgment which properly falls to Ministers to make. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary sets the national policing priorities and the objectives for NCS and NCIS. So, again, we are not breaking any new ground.

As I have made clear, the changes provided for in Part 1 are only one aspect of our wider strategy to defeat organised crime. We need also to equip SOCA and other law enforcement agencies with new, appropriate powers so that they can more effectively target organised criminal enterprises and those that help to sustain them.

The provisions in Part 2 are directed to that end. We have provided for the extended use of the existing powers available to the Serious Fraud Office and others to compel people to co-operate with investigations by producing documents or answering questions. We suggest to the House that if such powers are available in complex fraud cases or for the investigation of offences under the Companies Act, there can be no objection, in principle, to making such powers available to SOCA and to the police for use in the investigation of other serious and organised crimes.

The Government fully accept that any extension of such powers must be subject to the appropriate safeguards. Accordingly, we have provided that the powers will be exercisable only by prosecutors and may be used only in the investigation of a limited number of serious offences that are listed in the Bill. We have also incorporated appropriate safeguards against self-incrimination and to protect privileged information.

Elsewhere in Part 2, we seek to place Queen's evidence on a statutory footing. It is already well established in case law that offenders who plead guilty and co-operate with the prosecution should be eligible to receive some reduction in their sentence. But we want to encourage greater use of Queen's evidence. We believe that by providing for a system of binding agreements between defendants and prosecutors, all those involved will have greater confidence in the process. That will not only help persuade more members of organised criminal gangs to co-operate, but will also strengthen the credibility of the testimony that they provide.

We recognise that informants will want to be satisfied about their own safety before turning Queen's evidence. Accordingly, we have also provided in Part 2 for the existing arrangements for witness protection to be placed on a statutory footing. Chapter 3 of Part 2 provides for the imposition of financial reporting orders as one part of a sentence. Such orders will act as a deterrent to reoffending, but could also provide a valuable source of intelligence where an offender returns to crime.

Finally, this part of the Bill also makes a number of timely amendments to the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. The amendments have two purposes. First, they would enable the faster and more efficient execution of the Assets Recovery Agency's business, particularly in civil recovery cases. Secondly, the changes to the 2002 Act will reduce the regulatory burden on financial and other institutions in making suspicious activity reports to NCIS, and in future to SOCA, where these are of limited intelligence value.

Part 3 concerns the powers of police officers set out in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and of designated staff set out in the Police Reform Act 2002. I want to focus on three elements of that part of the Bill.

The new framework of arrest powers provided for in Clause 106 has attracted considerable comment. I must say that much of that has been based on what we believe to be a misunderstanding of the current law. It is often not appreciated that under the existing provisions in Section 25 of PACE, a police constable may already make an arrest for any offence where one of the general arrest conditions is satisfied. In providing for any offence to be arrestable, subject to a necessity test, we are not therefore breaking wholly new ground. That there is confusion is perhaps not surprising given the complexity of the current law on arrest powers. This reinforces the case for a reform which brings greater clarity and transparency to the law from the perspective of both the police officer and the citizen.

Clauses 116 and 117 provide for the appointment of staff custody officers as an alternative to custody sergeants. I should emphasise that there is nothing in these clauses that would require forces to appoint staff custody officers. The decision will be entirely in the hands of the individual chief officers. That said, a number of forces are keen to go down this path, not least because chief officers have found it difficult to find police sergeants willing to take on this role.

It has been suggested that the position of custody officer is such that only an experienced police sergeant can fulfil the role. I make it plain that we do not accept that argument. The arguments tend to have a familiar ring to them. We have heard them on a number of occasions when a whole host of other specialist functions, previously undertaken by police officers, were passed over to civilians. In those other cases it has been clear that civilians have been able to discharge their duty with propriety and care in a sound way.

I acknowledge the concerns that have been expressed. particularly about the ability of police staff to be in a position to make effective decisions about a person's detention. That is why we are prepared to pilot these provisions. We will discuss the format of the pilots with stakeholders and place particular focus on the practical application at the police station and the decision-making process.

Furthermore, we will ensure that the pilots are independently evaluated and consult on the results of that evaluation before any decision is taken to roll out these provisions across the country as a whole.

Finally, Schedules 8 and 9 extend the powers of community support officers and other designated and accredited staff. The new powers of CSOs include those to search persons for alcohol and tobacco; powers to deal with the night-time economy and alcohol-related anti-social behaviour, and powers to deter begging and to enforce by-laws. These new powers are entirely in keeping with the existing role of the CSOs in tackling anti-social behaviour and a range of other low-level problems which can impact adversely on the quality of life in our communities.

Evidence from local forces shows that CSOs are already making a real difference to public confidence and police effectiveness. For example, the interim report of the national evaluation of CSOs, published in December 2004, showed that in Northumbria public satisfaction with the police has risen by 32 per cent in areas where CSOs patrol. We want further to increase their effectiveness.

Nothing can be more frustrating for community support officers than to be faced with a problem which they know is within their capabilities to address, but which they are powerless to do anything about. This is not about mission creep. but giving CSOs the practical powers they need to deal with low-level anti-social behaviour. CSOs are an additional, complementary resource; they are not a substitute for fully trained police officers. The record number of police officers—up by 13,000 since 1997—is a testament to that.

Part 4 of the Bill and Clauses 142 to 146 in Part 5 raise important issues around the balance between the rights of society as a whole and individual liberties. In a democratic society. everyone has the right to protest and to voice their opinions. But such rights are not absolute, particularly where they infringe the rights of others.

I would like first to accept that there will be those who are passionate in their opposition to any form of animal experimentation. They should be able to campaign vigorously on this issue and seek to persuade others of their point of view. But what they are emphatically not entitled to do is to use campaigns of harassment, intimidation and violence to prevent others going about their lawful business.

Such illegal behaviour cannot be tolerated and we are determined to do all we can to protect the bioscience industry and its suppliers from the vicious campaigns by animal rights extremists. The work of this industry is critical to improving the health of the nation. If we are to make further advances in medical science—for example, a cure for Alzheimer's—it will continue to be necessary for the foreseeable future to use animals in research. We will not permit the extremist element to deflect the Government from their proper and vital work in this area.

The Bill strengthens the protection afforded to the bioscience industry, and those who work in it, in a number of respects. Clauses 121 to 123 tighten the law on harassment including by making it an offence to protest outside a person's home in a way that causes harassment, alarm or distress to the residents of that home.

Clauses 142 to 146 seek to extend greater protection to animal research organisations, including breeding establishments supplying animals for use in animal research. In particular, these clauses will make it an offence to interfere with contractual relationships with the intention of harming an animal research organisation or to intimidate persons connected with such an organisation. These offences will attract a sentence of up to five years' imprisonment.

We have seen that animal rights extremists now commonly target the immediate suppliers of animal research organisations or even the suppliers of those suppliers. These new offences will send a clear message to the extremists that their tactics will not be allowed to succeed.

I come now to what is undoubtedly the most hotly debated of the provisions in the Bill; namely, the offence of inciting hatred against persons on religious grounds. Let me begin by acknowledging the common ground between the parties. All sides of this House will share the Government's abhorrence of those who seek to whip up community tensions by inciting hatred against those who hold a particular religious faith. Today, Muslims are often the target. In the past it has been Jews, but tomorrow it could be Christians, Hindus or indeed those of no faith.

In utterly rejecting the language and activities of far right groups and extremists from within faith communities, there is a broad acceptance of the need for some greater protection for faith groups. The argument is no longer about whether a strengthening of the law is needed, but rather about the form it should take. It is a question with which this House has grappled for some time. It is certainly one that the members of the Select Committee on Religious Offences. chaired by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, considered at length, but on which they could not reach consensus on the way forward.

For our part, we have looked at a number of options, including those put forward by the parties opposite. We have concluded that the most effective means of affording greater protection to faith groups is by extending the existing offences of incitement of hatred against persons on racial grounds so that they also capture incitement of hatred on religious grounds.

As this Bill has progressed it has been interesting to see how the arguments against this provision have shifted. At first, the debate was about whether the offence would have the effect of gagging comedians. As we have explained the nature of the offence, that argument has subsided.

I acknowledge that there are still concerns about the impact of the offence on freedom of speech. There is no denying that there will be some impact: after all, we are seeking to curb the use of vitriolic language designed to incite hatred. But this provision of the Bill will categorically not restrict the ability of any person to proselytise their religious faith or to comment on or criticise the teaching of any faith or the religious practices of any faith group.

There are no fewer than six safeguards to protect religious discussion and debate before a case even reaches court. First, for an offence to be committed a person must use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour. Secondly, there must either be an intention to stir up religious hatred or a likelihood that the words or conduct will do so. Thirdly, the offence is directed at the incitement of hatred; this is a strong emotion which goes beyond contempt or ridicule. Fourthly, the offence is not concerned with hatred of religion. but with hatred of a group of persons defined by their faith or lack of it. Fifthly, the offence does not bite in relation to words uttered by a person in his own home. Sixthly, any prosecution must be sanctioned by the Attorney-General. Taken together, these tests set a high threshold against inappropriate or unwarranted prosecutions and in so doing ensure that freedom of expression is properly protected.

The argument that has now come to the fore is that the new offence would raise expectations among faith groups that cannot and will not be realised. We find this a difficult argument. There must be many instances where this House has passed legislation in the knowledge that at least some of the proponents of the legislation have ill-founded expectations about what it will achieve or is designed to achieve. That should never be an argument against passing new laws, if those new laws are merited. But it is an argument in favour of properly explaining the purpose and effect of any new laws.

Perhaps I may contribute to that process by dispelling the myth that the Muslim Council of Britain believes that the new offence would put a stop to people being rude or insulting about Islam. Iqbal Sacranie has made it perfectly clear that the new law offers no protection for the Muslim faith, but does seek to protect persons who hold that faith.

We suggest that the time for this new offence has come. We have already discussed it at great length in the context of the Government's Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 and again in 2002 in the context of the Religious Offences Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. We also note that in 2001 there was strong support from a number of noble Lords on the Benches opposite, notably from the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, who said: The Minister would have our full support if legislation that was separate from the anti-terrorism Bill was involved".—[Official Report, 27/11/01; col. 211.] As recently as last November, during the debate on the Queen's Speech, the noble Lord said: Legislation to outlaw incitement to religious hatred is welcome".—[Official Report, 29/11/04; col. 279.] In the light of that endorsement, I hope that noble Lords will feel able to support the legislation. We understand how difficult this issue is, but we believe that the time has come.

I want to touch briefly on the other provisions in the Bill; namely, the clauses dealing with demonstrations in the vicinity of Parliament Square. This is an issue on which all Members of the House will have a view, although I am conscious that the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Knight of Collingtree, have taken a particular interest in the matter.

Let me make it clear that Clauses 129 to 135 are not about denying the right of protest. These clauses would require protesters to give prior notice of their protest to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, but he is then obliged—I emphasise the word "obliged"—to authorise the demonstration. It will, however, be open to the commissioner to attach conditions to the authorisation where it is necessary, for example, to safeguard the operation of Parliament or to prevent a security risk in the area.

I am conscious that concerns have been expressed about the requirement to give at least six days' notice of any demonstration. The Government are sympathetic to the view that there should be provision for a shorter notice period in exceptional circumstances and I intend to bring forward appropriate amendments in Committee to provide for this.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. Will she say a little more about the vicinity? If it is up to one kilometre, it will include Trafalgar Square as well as Parliament Square, which is the classical, traditional place for spontaneous demonstration. In the light of the praise which many of us heaped upon Ukraine, for example, for demonstrating about the dubiously elected government, it is a little worrying to see a spontaneous demonstration effectively ruled out in Trafalgar Square.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we are conscious that this issue has been raised and we continue to look at it openly. However, the current view is that that distance is the most appropriate, bearing in mind that it does not rule out demonstrations but that it will allow the commissioner to attach conditions as may be appropriate. Noble Lords will know that what one would allow at the outer rim of that one kilometre may be different from the anxieties we may have closer in. All those issues are bound to be prayed in aid when the commissioner considers them. We will be able to talk about them and I hope that in Committee, or that in my reply today, I shall be able to elaborate on how we believe it can be done. The importance rests on the nature and the conditions of the demonstration, how they will be phrased, and the ability to ensure that the conditions are appropriate for the nature of the demonstration.

Finally, I want to give your Lordships notice of one other amendment I propose to table in Committee. Our latest estimate is that there were 176 British victims of the tsunami tragedy on Boxing Day. Officers from the Metropolitan Police are leading the painstaking work correctly to identify the bodies of the victims. It would assist that task if DNA samples and fingerprints taken from the victims could be crosschecked against the national DNA and fingerprint databases.

As the law stands, such searches may be conducted only for the purposes of the prevention and detection of crime. The proposed amendment would also allow searches against these databases for the purposes of the identification of a body. I am sure that the House will agree with me that we should do all we can to bring closure of this horrendous tragedy for the victims' relatives. I hope therefore that the amendment will be welcomed by all sides of the House.

This Government have a strong record of success in tackling crime. Crime has fallen by 30 per cent since 1997. The risk of being a victim of crime is at a 25 year low. There are record numbers in the police service, including more than 140,000 police officers and 4,600 community support officers. Furthermore, the Government's investment in policing has increased by 39 per cent over the past five years. While much has been achieved, there is still more to do.

The Bill will better equip the law enforcement community to defeat serious organised crime and to tackle the myriad of challenges posed by animal rights extremists through to uninsured drivers and vagrants. I really do commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)

3.39 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, this promises to be an action-packed Bill in what may be the dying days of this Parliament. We support the establishment of the Serious Organised Crime Agency. We have indeed long advocated the creation of an effective agency that should be fundamental to Britain's ability to fight serious and organised crime. I join with the Minister today in paying tribute to the dedication of all those who work in the police, intelligence, immigration and revenue services day after day, seeking to extricate the evil of organised crime groups from our society.

I can understand why the Government want to set up SOCA. It has the potential to perform a valuable service in the detection and prevention of serious crime and arrest of serious criminals who are engaged in profitable and detestable crimes such as trafficking in human beings and drugs. The chair of SOCA, Sir Stephen Lander, calls Part I of this Bill: one of the biggest changes in UK law enforcement since the 1960s". He is right. It is therefore vital that we should properly scrutinise these proposals to ensure that the legislation puts in place an effective and appropriate organisation.

I believe that it is now accepted that SOCA will not be the British FBI that some had at first feared. but we must all be concerned about the rights and powers of those who will work for it. Civilians will be given police, Customs and immigration powers. Traditionally, Parliament has given police, Customs and immigration officers specific, albeit often very intrusive, powers that are required for specific tasks. Now they will he under the direction of one person—the director-general—and, in theory, under his control, any agent can exercise any one of a wide range of powers.

I heard what the Minister said today when she was attempting to be constructive in setting out the Government's proposals and their intentions. She said that this should not be a new national police force. The danger we have to consider is that the Government are creating not an agency but a parallel police force for specific law enforcement purposes.

We share the Police Federation's concerns that SOCA might be considered an elite unit that creams off all the best officers. There is a large number of extremely dedicated and talented people in conventional policing, and portraying them as somehow second class would be damaging to morale. None of us in this House would seek to do that.

We have serious concerns about the provisions of Clause 44(1). Any member of the staff of SOCA can be designated as having the powers of a police constable. At the same time, the Bill is silent on the question of whether or not the designated person will be subject to the duties and obligations of a constable as well as having the powers and privileges. I note that the Select Committee on the Constitution concludes in its third report that it doubts, whether a court would willingly hold that the conferment of a power on an officer of SOCA had the indirect effect of removing limits on that power". Police officers from England and Wales who transfer and become SOCA officers will lose their status as officers of the Crown. As the Police Federation points out in its briefing: This is an issue that goes beyond semantics. It is about irrevocably changing the unique characteristics that have defined a British police officer for over 175 years: political impartiality. proper accountability, a duty to act and report both on and off duty, and a bar on industrial action". Independence and accountability have been the foundation of policing in this country.

In Committee, we shall ask the House to look carefully at these provisions. We shall table amendments that would create a category of front-line officers of SOCA classed as police members. They would have the powers that police officers. Revenue officers, Customs officers and immigration officers currently exercise. The amendments would, we hope, remove the confusion that the mix-and-match designations in Chapter 2 of Part 1 anticipate.

We shall look in detail at the way in which SOCA coordinates its work with the police. In particular, we will look at the impact of the new agency on the autonomy of chief constables, which is vital to the independence of our police forces.

We shall want to explore the relationship that SOCA will have with the counter-intelligence agencies and we will need to be clear about the adequacy of funding. We will need to be satisfied that the drive towards localism—local performance and accountability—will not be damaged by the new structure and that it will not cause any unintended consequences.

As ever throughout this Bill, I will adopt the Bassingthwaighte principle; that is, when scrutinising the parts of the Bill where it seems that we agree very closely with the Government, we must be even more aware to ensure that proposals do not slip through that neither of us intended to happen. The problem with the Bill as a whole is that it goes far wider than its simple title implies. I sympathise with organisations such as the Ramblers' Association which became aware that the trespass provisions might be of relevance to it only after the Bill had left another place. Neither the short nor the long title triggered that realisation. In Committee we will need to seek assurances from the Government on the concerns of those organisations.

The Bill is packed with a vast range of proposals. Some of them are acceptable; others, as the Minister recognised today, are controversial. It gives more power to community support officers. It outsources anti-social behaviour orders. It attempts to stop the breaching of anti-social behaviour orders. It expands police powers; introduces new traffic and insurance offences; provides powers to stop and search for fireworks; introduces an offence of hatred against persons on religious grounds; creates a new criminal offence of trespass on a site designated by the Home Secretary; and clamps down severely on demonstrations in the vicinity of Parliament. On and on it goes.

As the Minister mentioned, the Bill proposes an overhaul of police powers. It moves away from consent-based policing towards policing by discretion. We are concerned about the provisions that extend the power of arrest to all offences, subject to the necessity test to which the Minister has referred. We will need to examine whether this is a proportionate and effective solution to the Home Office's perceived problem that there is currently a complex and often bewildering array of powers and procedures on arrest.

To use the necessity test correctly, the police officer will need to consider whether his interference with the person's rights is legitimate, necessary and proportionate. Essentially, this is a Human Rights Act assessment of the use of powers in each case and whether the interference with the individual's rights under Article 5—the right to freedom from arbitrary detention—and Article 8—the right to privacy—is justified. Expecting officers to make that kind of judgment on the spot is hardly making life easier for them.

One consequence of making all offences arrestable, which is not immediately apparent from the Bill, is the trigger that arrest will have for the use of ancillary powers. As those who suffered through the long days on the Criminal Justice Act 2003 will recall, an extension of powers was made there to take fingerprints without consent on arrest.

The Bill proposes a considerable extension of the role of community supports officers in search, seizure, entry and detention. We recognise the value of CSOs in providing a second pair of eyes for trained police constables, but we do not favour the extension of their powers into realms that are more properly left to the police. Those proposals will need careful examination in Committee.

We welcome the proposals to protect citizens against illegal harassment by animal rights activists. I pay tribute to the work done on this issue over the past four years by my honourable friend Mr Jonathan Djanogly. A good deal of progress was made on this matter in another place. The Government responded constructively and positively to the debates there on this issue. We welcome the government amendments on economic damage that were made at Report. In Committee, the probing that we need to do will be but very gentle—the Minister looks relieved; but it is the only gentle hit as regards this Bill—just to make sure that there are not any remaining loopholes. I believe that there may not be, but I need to be sure.

I now turn to the clauses restricting behaviour in the vicinity of Parliament. On the Conservative Benches we will have a free vote on these matters. I am grateful to Global Women's Strike for its briefing, in which it reminds us all how vital it is for legitimate protest to be available to members of the public in Parliament Square. My desk is at the front of the Palace. I have never yet objected to hearing the voice of the people, be it ever so loud or quiet.

Some progress was made at Report in another place. However, even if the measures find favour with the House, we remain concerned on the following points which we think must be addressed as a bare minimum. I am encouraged by the Minister's response today.

The first is the requirement to give six days' notice. That is too stringent and would prevent the organisation of a demonstration to respond to emerging political events. I look forward to seeing the government amendments, which sound promising.

The second matter has been raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams; that is, that the cordon sanitaire of one kilometre is too blunt and extensive an instrument. That is an issue that we really do need to address. I come now to the most contentious issue in the Bill—the new offence of hatred of persons on religious grounds. I shall outline our concerns now, but my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral will lead on this matter for us during all other stages of the Bill.

We understand and have considerable sympathy with the Government's aims in trying to prevent religious hatred. I deplore incitement to hatred of people on religious grounds, especially as it is so often used as a proxy for incitement to racial hatred as a way of getting round our existing laws. However, we disagree with the Government about the implications of the proposals in the Bill. What appears at first sight to be a simple change to previous legislation will have profound, wide-reaching consequences that could be the opposite of what we all intend.

We are determined to maintain the balance between religious tolerance and freedom of speech, in which our citizens have the right to engage in extremely robust religious disputation. Freedom of speech is simultaneously one of the great virtues and one of the great strengths of our society. The danger is that the Bill will curb that freedom of speech without any benefit being realised from the legislation.

The drafting is so ill defined that it is not even clear what is meant by "religion". The provision is drafted so widely that any sect or cult could be covered by it. Indeed, it even covers those who lack religious belief. The clause and schedule are confusing, will make bad law and will not, at the moment, work.

I therefore agree with the conclusion of the third report of the Select Committee on the Constitution that these sensitive matters merit careful, unhurried and discrete deliberation by both Houses. I am aware that my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, have done considerable work on this issue. I am delighted to see their names on the list of speakers and I look forward to their contributions.

For an action-packed Bill, it is extraordinary that the Government have omitted one important provision that should be here to assist the effective prosecution of crime: measures to make telephone intercept evidence admissible in court proceedings. It is a missed opportunity. I recognise, of course, the authoritative work that has been done on this by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick. I look forward to hearing from him on these issues, I hope today and certainly during the remainder of the Bill.

I pay tribute to the work of my right honourable and honourable friends in another place, who worked so assiduously to ensure that the Bill could complete its passage there within the tight timetable and guillotines imposed by the Government. Most of the major issues were addressed to some extent, but some were necessarily given very scant attention. Indeed, more than 40 per cent of the clauses were not debated at all. I accept that a few of them were not debated because they were repetitious or very much non-contentious. However, many of them should have been debated and will require effective attention in this House; for example. the provisions of Part 2, especially those that put protections from prosecution and sentence reduction on a statutory footing. My noble friend Lord Kingsland will lead for us on those matters in Committee.

I intend to table as many of my amendments as possible this week in order to assist the consideration of the Bill. We should not allow contentious matters to slip onto the statute book without proper consideration and giving the Government the opportunity to think again. That would be a disservice to the House and the country.

3.54 p.m.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

My Lords, there is much to support in the Bill, although I cannot help feeling that it would have been preferable to restrict it to setting up the Serious Organised Crime Agency rather than tagging on a whole multitude of other measures. I shall today specifically exclude Part 4 of the Bill, which deals with public orders and conduct in public places. My noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill has done much work on equality and human rights legislation, as we have heard, and he will set out our position on this part of the Bill, with particular reference to the provision on incitement to religious hatred.

It is important to have a dedicated organisation fighting the most serious criminal gangs. Our local forces have a very difficult job anyway in fighting crime in our communities and responding to local demands, which are often at variance with national directives, without having to stretch their resources to cope with the very worst of criminal activity.

At the outset, I ought to declare my interest in the Bill. I am the former chair of a police authority and a former deputy chair of the Association of Police Authorities; I was a founding member of the National Crime Squad Service Authority and my regional crime squad committee before that; and I have been involved in policing matters, locally and nationally, for more than 20 years.

Having said that it is a good idea to have the Serious Organised Crime Agency, I enter a word of caution. It is evident from discussions—and I am grateful to the director general and the chairman designate of the new organisation as well as to the senior civil servants dealing with the Bill for their help in its interpretation—that it is still very important that there should be good and close working relationships with those local forces. After all, it is in their communities that these criminals live and work— often they are known to the local police—and I would hate to see a heavy-handed SOCA bearing down and making demands on an already overstretched service. It is absolutely vital that there should be good and close working relationships with local police.

In particular, I should like to know how, practically and precisely, the new agency will help hard-pressed police forces such as Nottinghamshire—which is in the national headlines today—which have to deal with shocking crimes and with seemingly few detectives. My concern is that detectives from most forces might want to join the SOCA, leaving local forces denuded of trained officers. The Bill is silent on the detail of how the new agency would actually assist forces. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on that point.

The National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad both become subsumed by the Bill but maintain most of their responsibilities, with additions from both Customs and Excise and the immigration crime side of the Home Office. We are told that this is to be a new organisation, with a new culture, and it is to those areas of policing that I now turn.

I believe that some areas of policing are inviolable. I suggest that one of the most important areas is that of the political direction of the agency. It is proposed that officers who transfer to the SOCA will no longer be politically independent as they will become employees of the agency and thus will lose their officers of the Crown status. I find this a particularly difficult proposal to accept. They will surely want to be in a position to arrest criminals and will thus need police powers.

It is worth repeating what the Police Federation say in its briefing paper. It states: This Bill will change forever the unique characteristics that have defined British policing for over 175 years; political impartiality, proper accountability. a duty to act and report both on and off duty and a bar on industrial action. In a leaflet on the Bill, the Police Federation refers to the issue of officers transferring to SOCA. It states: They will lose political independence and be directly accountable to the Home Secretary, who can dictate policing priorities on the ground. This sets a dangerous precedent for the future of policing in England and Wales and destroys the strength of the current balanced tripartite system". I have been contacted also by the Scottish Police Federation, which is equally concerned on this point. In a letter to me it makes clear its views on the uniqueness of the Scottish situation. It states: in relation to Scotland, the directive powers proposed for the Home Secretary in the Bill have been replaced with similar powers for Scottish Ministers. In effect, this would permit Scottish Ministers to direct that an Agency rather than a police force deal with a serious or organised crime". The letter quotes Lord Denning as follows: No Minister of the Crown can tell him that he must, or must not, keep observation on this place or that; or that he must, or must not, prosecute this man or that one. Nor can any Police Authority tell him so. The responsibility of law enforcement lies on him". They have further comments on the unique position of Scotland. There is no evidence that the performance of the Scottish Drugs Enforcement Agency(SDEA), responsible for serious and organised crime in Scotland, or its linkages with other police organisations at home or abroad, are deficient in any way that would justify the proposed changes. The Scottish Police Federation is satisfied that the present arrangements should continue, where the SDEA is operationally accountable and responsible to the Standing Committee of Chief Constables, comprising all chief constables in Scotland, and accountable to Scottish Ministers for the financial resources allocated to it. That arrangement maintains the constitutionally sound separation of powers between the legislature, the Scottish executive and operational policing.

There is also concern about the training of agency employees not versed in the different Scottish legal system. Perhaps the Minister can again reassure me about those concerns. No doubt we will examine these issues further as we go through the stages of the Bill.

One of the other areas about which I share the concern of the Conservative Benches is the extension of powers to community support officers. When we were debating the Police Reform Bill, I argued that the powers given to CSOs should be minimal. They were intended to be a resource for the hard-pressed police officer, and to give comfort to communities who were complaining that they did not see enough police officers around their areas. They have been a great success, and I am glad of it.

Schedule 8, however, certainly increases their powers. I have serious misgivings about this part of the Bill, not least about the power to be given for a CSO to detain someone who has controlled drugs on their person. I do not believe that a CSO should perform such duties without being given the proper training, skills or equipment. Their lives could be put at risk, and they are nowhere near able, under their present definition, to undertake such tasks. Nor is it the role that the Government envisaged for them, or that we voted for. I am sure we will be looking closely at these powers as we go through the Bill.

The same concerns apply to having custody officers who are not police officers. This is a core policing function, undertaken at present by custody sergeants. They have a wealth of experience in deciding the proper process of a detained person, and to put someone unversed in policing in its generality into a position of such accountability and responsibility is plainly wrong.

There also appears to be some confusion around the exact designation of these officers. In a recent editorial article in Police Review, it was stated that the Home Office had sent out a response suggesting that there were currently no changes proposed in respect of the role played by the custody sergeant, as set out under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, better known as PACE.

Evidently—I have not seen the actual letter from the Home Office, I have only been advised of it—the Home Office concedes that changes are proposed so that chief constables should be able to develop a more flexible approach to the staffing of their custody suites by making use of police staff. Can the Minister explain that to me? I have no problem at all with a chief constable having flexibility in deploying staff, but I do have difficulty with designating staff with police powers if they have not undertaken full police training.

Custody sergeants, I am reliably informed by a friend who is at present toiling away in that role, have to make incredibly important decisions about authorising someone's detention, and deciding whether or not that person should be granted bail. They also have to ensure the safety and welfare of their charges. If they get that wrong, they face full police disciplinary procedures, and rightly so. In a busy custody suite, it is therefore essential to have sufficient numbers of properly trained custody sergeants when the going gets tough.

It was explained to me that, on one day recently, four custody sergeants were needed to deal with the responsibilities of writing and justifying why various unruly people were being detained, while the others were dealing with someone trying to commit suicide; the possibility of a second suicide attempt; and ensuring that the police officers were handling the other prisoners appropriately. Anything could have happened, and everything had to be dealt with within the law. At any time, things could have gone badly wrong.

The custody sergeant is a vitally important role, and must be maintained in its present form. Police staff could certainly take away some of the routine clerical roles that a custody sergeant undertakes, but not the two important roles: that of deciding detention, and that of deciding whether someone should be granted bail.

Some of my noble friends will be examining other areas of the Bill: transfers of staff; protection of witnesses, which we fully support; proceeds of crime and police powers, and so on, not to mention incitement to religious hatred. Many of the add-ons to the Bill could, and perhaps should, have been brought in different places at different times. We on these Benches look forward to being constructive where we can, and helpfully critical where we think the Government should pause and reflect. We will discuss these issues as we move to the next stage of the Bill.