Home Affairs and Justice

Part of Bills Presented — Business Rate Supplements Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 4th December 2008.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice 4:45 pm, 4th December 2008

Of course I acknowledge that and I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer raised a number of important issues. One was her concern about what she described as a cottage industry in certification that those seeking British citizenship had sufficient facility in the English language. I have discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and we will of course follow it up.

My hon. Friend made an interesting point about madrassahs. I am sure she accepts that the vast majority of people of Asian heritage—certainly in my constituency—are concerned about having proper facility in the English language. They do not want bogus certificates, because they recognise that the English language is an important precondition for proper integration. Just because people can speak English does not mean that their community will be fully integrated, but I am in no doubt at all that there must be that facility and that they want that facility and the proper availability of classes in English as a second language. I have a number of madrassahs in my constituency, and the vast majority of them are properly moderated, properly checked and work satisfactorily, but I will follow up with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the issue that my hon. Friend raises about whether there is, in general, a proper requirement for the same kind of Criminal Records Bureau check that she referred to in respect of herself.

My hon. Friends the Members for Keighley and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) both referred to concerns about electoral registration and the need for it to be improved, and the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend Mr. Wills is actively considering that matter in the context of the Political Parties and Elections Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough also raised concerns about visa fees. I am afraid to say that I do not quite share her view, but, again, I will draw that to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

My hon. Friend Mr. Drew raised the issue of justice week and the concerns of trade unions about what they say are cuts in criminal justice budgets. There is some irony, because it was only in the summer that the Policy Exchange, in a report endorsed by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield issued an attack on the Government for spending too much on criminal justice and the law and order system, saying that we now spend more as a proportion of our GDP on that than any other OECD country does. We spend a great deal; we spend more on legal aid and policing—I am very glad that we do—and as a part of that, there has been a 67 per cent. real-terms increase for probation. Where those people got the idea that there would be a 25 per cent. cut in probation funding I just do not know, because it is completely and utterly untrue. However, because of the impact that the world economic downturn has on Government revenues, spending on all public services will not rise in the near future as it has done in the past. So we must search more vigorously for efficiencies in the probation service, the Prison Service and the Court Service. I happen to know from my rather lengthy service as a Minister that it is surprising how efficiencies can be found if someone starts to search them out.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock raised the issue of Zimbabwean refugees, and whether they should be allowed to work—I will pass that on to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—as well as commenting on the chair of the Electoral Commission. The appointment of the chair of the commission is made by Mr. Speaker, on the advice of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission. I happen to be a member of that Committee, but in a minority. It is an appointment entirely within the purview of the House, unlike, for example, that of the Information Commissioner, which required the endorsement of the House—at my behest, as it were, in this case.

Let me deal with the Marper judgment in respect of DNA. As my right hon. and hon. Friends will have seen from the wires, the European Court of Human Rights said about the holding of DNA, fingerprint and other samples by the criminal justice system in England and Wales that it was

"struck by the blanket and indiscriminate nature of the power of retention in England and Wales."

It therefore declared that retention outwith article 8 of the European convention on human rights.

I make first a preliminary point, which is germane to the issue of Bills of Rights and responsibilities—a subject to which I shall return later. [Interruption.] The Conservatives have asked a lot of questions, and I am trying to answer them. This matter was considered under the Human Rights Act 1998 by the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Law Lords. On each occasion, the British courts found in our favour, so the Human Rights Act was not to blame—in fact, it provided important evidence about the margin of appreciation. The decision was made by the European Court of Human Rights.

The hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield knows that if convention rights are incorporated into domestic law, as they are across Europe, the highest domestic court will sometimes be overturned by the Strasbourg Court, but that does not undermine the case for incorporation. My point is that we do better, where there is no margin of appreciation, if there is no incorporation. The one point on which there is agreement across both parties is that we remain committed to the convention itself. Of course, the hon. and learned Gentleman is in favour of the Human Rights Act.

The judgment, which I have read in full today, is interesting. I recommend in particular paragraph 119, which draws out what the Court means by the

"indiscriminate nature of the power of retention in England and Wales".

It goes on to suggest that distinctions should be made between the nature of offences for which samples have been taken, and discusses whether they should be time-limited and whether there should be an independent review. Those matters will be considered by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in consultation across Government. We have an obligation to report initially to the Council of Ministers and the Council of Europe by March.

It was I who introduced, in section 82 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, the change that DNA samples could be retained even when there was a subsequent acquittal. I did that for a straightforward reason, because of a case involving a man who was charged with burglary. Before his trial for that burglary, a rape was committed, and the police matched a DNA sample that had been taken from him when he was arrested for burglary with a sample found on the person who alleged the rape. He was convicted of the rape, but was subsequently acquitted of the burglary. He appealed all the way up to the Law Lords, who said, on a construction of the law as it then stood, that the DNA sample had been retained unlawfully, and that the rape conviction, which was otherwise entirely proper, therefore had to be struck down.

I thought that unjust to the victim—indeed, I am clear that it was—and so I introduced that measure. My recollection is that the measure had all-party support at the time, but I will check the record. The judgment might mean justice for those whose data is being held, but there is a much more important issue to consider: justice for the victims of the most serious and egregious offences, and ensuring that the offenders who commit such crimes are convicted.

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