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Protection of Freedoms Bill

Part of Resource Extraction (Transparency and Reporting) – in the House of Commons at 7:04 pm on 1st March 2011.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Labour, Blackburn 7:04 pm, 1st March 2011

I am grateful for that intervention, which makes my point, because that one representation is balanced by the large number that we receive the other way. I just wonder whether the Government are setting up significant and costly bureaucracy to solve a problem that does not exist.

On criminal record certificates, let me say this. I have been a governor of Blackburn college—a further and higher education college—for the last 20 years. Following the post-Soham measures, each member of the governing body had to fill in a lengthy form and produce their passport, as part of the application process for an enhanced CRB certificate, a process that I regarded as frankly rather tedious. I am pleased to say that it confirmed what I had already told the clerk to the governors, which was that I had no convictions since, as far as I knew, nothing adverse had been recorded by the police. At first blush I thought, “This is going a bit over the top.” I certainly accept that there ought to be a lighter regime for the generality of volunteers, but I would just offer this salutary point to the House.

Just before we were asked to fill in those CRB checks, there was an apparently entirely respectable man on the governing body who, to shorten the story, was convicted of very serious sexual offences against someone who was vulnerable—albeit an adult, and not at the college—and he went to prison. I cannot be certain about this, because I do not have access to the information, but I know enough about that man to know that there was information that could not have led to an earlier arrest but which was on the police database and would almost certainly have been included in a CRB check. I happen to believe that although it was tedious for me and everybody else on the governing body to apply for a CRB check, the balance in terms of public safety—and particularly the safety of young people and children—favours having such checks.

I just think—I know that my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper on the Front Bench believes this too—that this issue has to be examined with the greatest care. We forget too quickly the context in which the measures in question were put in place. The Soham murders were awful. Huntley, like many serious sexual offenders, was brilliant at deception. Indeed, there are no better deceivers—of themselves as well as everybody else—than serious sexually predatory men such as Huntley. If it means a bit more bureaucracy, but also that our children and grandchildren do not become the next victims, we should err on the side of safety.

Finally, let me come to DNA and the taking of other biometric data, including fingerprints. Michael Ellis, who is no longer in his place, asked about the 1 million “innocent” people on the database. That prompts the question whether people who are “innocent” actually mind having their DNA on the database. Again, I do not believe that my constituents are significantly different in character or profile from those elsewhere, but plenty have had their DNA or fingerprints taken when either the case has not proceeded to charge or they have been acquitted, yet I cannot remember a single case of someone complaining to me about it. On two occasions in my life—this was before DNA was available—I have had my fingerprints taken. The first was at school when there was a burglary and it was necessary to eliminate a group of us as potential perpetrators, and I was happy enough to give my fingerprints.

As an adult, when I was a special adviser there was a criminal investigation into the leak of a limited circulation annexe to some Cabinet documents, and a Commander Habershon, with a sergeant who looked like Oddjob out of “Goldfinger”—I should tell the House this was before the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984—came to interview me. I was invited to give my fingerprints; and, looking at Oddjob, I decided that this was probably an invitation I should accept. I gave my fingerprints, not least in the belief—which turned out to be accurate—that doing so would be a means by which I would be eliminated from the police inquiries. They asked me, “What should we do if you are eliminated?”, and I said, “I really don’t mind if you hang on to these.”

As it happens, I have not given my DNA, unlike my right hon. Friend Mr Blunkett, but I would be perfectly happy to do so. Most people believe—I know that some Conservative Members also take this view—that that is sensible for two reasons. One is that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford said from the Front Bench, doing so helps to protect the innocent. Since the introduction of DNA, not only have more guilty people been convicted of serious crimes, but a number of serious miscarriages of justice have at long been last ended, resulting in justice for the innocent person who had ended up in prison.

I would also remind the House why I introduced the change that meant that once there had been an arrest or charge, the samples should be retained indefinitely. There were two cases in 2000—one was called Weir, the other was called R v. B—one of which involved a murder, the other involving a rape. In both cases DNA samples had been taken in respect of offences for which the defendants had been subsequently acquitted, but the courts held that that DNA evidence could not be used to convict them later. In the case of R v. B, there was a rape—an awful rape—in 1997 of an elderly person where DNA swabs were subsequently taken from the victim. In 1998, this man B was arrested and charged with an unrelated burglary and his DNA was taken. He was subsequently acquitted of the burglary; meanwhile, the forensic examination of the DNA taken from the rape victim was proceeding. After that acquittal, that DNA and B’s DNA were matched and he was charged with rape.

The case went to trial, and the trial judge took a submission from the defence that the critical evidence—in fact, the only evidence; but as the trial judge himself said, it was compelling evidence—of the defendant’s guilt, namely the DNA, could not be adduced in evidence because it should have been destroyed.

The matter went to the Court of Appeal, which said that, on a construction of the Act, that was correct. I do not criticise the senior judiciary for that decision, because they have a job to do, and it is to construe the law, not to invent it. We should not criticise them in any circumstances. It was quite inappropriate for the Prime Minister to criticise the judiciary recently. Any decision that they make, including those made by the Supreme Court, can be overturned by this House. It is different in respect of the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, but I shall not tread that particular path just now.

As a result of the Weir case and the R v. B case, someone who was unquestionably guilty of murder and a guilty rapist were found not guilty because of the inadmissibility of the evidence. They were both allowed to go free and, my guess is, to commit further crimes. I then introduced changes in what became the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough then amended the legislation further.

I mention those cases to remind the Home Secretary that, in talking about freedoms, we must strike a balance between the important rights of defendants charged with crimes—which have been strengthened quite profoundly, not least by the Human Rights Act 1998—and the rights of victims and the public. The Law Lords said in their judgment, when they reluctantly had to endorse part of the Court of Appeal’s decision, that there had to be a triangulation—their word, not mine—to balance the three sets of rights.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford spoke of the risks that the Home Secretary is taking by introducing these measures. It is a truth about being Home Secretary that something will go wrong, and that when one thing goes wrong, something else normally does as well. Indeed, when I was Home Secretary, there was one week in which I had to come to the House to make an emergency statement each day. That was exceeded only by the late Lord Whitelaw, who had to make two statements on one day about things that had gone wrong—sometimes very badly wrong.

It is possible that Mrs May will turn out to be the luckiest Home Secretary since 1782, when the post was created, and I wish her well. I do not think that she will be, however. She is the person proposing these dangerous measures that will put freedoms at risk for the vast majority of the British public, and she needs to have a care both for the British public and for her own future. In her speech, she denied that these changes would undermine the detection of crime or lead to fewer guilty criminals being convicted. She said that she would go on to explain how and why she was able to make that statement, but I noticed that the rest of her speech was completely silent on that point. I was not surprised. The changes are bound to lead to some people whom we all know to be guilty and dangerous being allowed to go free.

After the right to life, the next most important right and freedom is the right to security. We were the first Government since the war to preside over a year-by-year reduction in crimes of all kinds, as the Library paper makes clear. There was a 43% reduction, according to the British crime survey. That dramatic reduction made this country safer. I celebrate all the freedoms, including those mentioned by the hon. Member for Gainsborough, but I also celebrate the fact that, although we are a long way from perfection, this country is now safer for people living in their homes, for people out on the streets and for people driving their cars. Those are real freedoms, and some of the changes in the Bill will put them at grave risk.