Violent Crime Reduction Bill

– in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 17th May 2006.

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Votes in this debate

House again in Committee on Clause 23.

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

moved Amendment No. 117:

Page 26, line 14, after "is" insert "capable of being made"

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

In moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendment No. 150. I am somewhat struck that we have few devotees of the Bill in the Chamber at this time of night. The majority of my colleagues on these Benches are in a much better place, celebrating a special event for my noble friend Lady Thatcher, so I wish them well in their absence. I am sure their good wishes are with me, but not their votes. I am aware that on the other side several colleagues of the noble Lord on the Front Bench are not exactly away from the House, but are upstairs watching an important football match. I understand that the Minister has made sure that we will be kept informed of vital developments, for which I am most grateful.

These probing amendments on Clause 23 have been tabled to ask just how available for use a weapon has to be in order for a person to be guilty of the new offence in this clause. I should make it clear that I support the creation of the new offence of using an accomplice to conceal weapons. We accept that there is evidence that a number of cases are not proceeded with for lack of a weapon, so it is hoped that this provision might assist in the conviction of more criminals. It is certainly always a worry when someone uses a person or a child to mind weapons for him.

Subsection (1) of Clause 23 provides that it is an offence for a person to use someone else to hide or carry a dangerous weapon so as to make the weapon available to the first person for an unlawful purpose. Subsection (2) then sets out circumstances in which a weapon is to be regarded as being available to the first person. The Explanatory Notes state that this is a non-exhaustive list, which is without doubt an understatement. However, in the circumstances I do not object to that. It would be impossible to set out an exhaustive list in primary legislation of this type. But what kind of guidelines will be given to the CPS when it seeks to determine which cases should be prosecuted, and in what way? Further, what guidelines will be given to the police when they are considering making an arrest? Or will the question be left to be decided on a case-by-case basis in the courts? What work have the Government carried out so far on this matter?

I put these questions to the Minister in a basic and practical way. For example, what if a person asks someone else to mind a gun for him and the minder, either at the behest of the first person or on his own initiative, breaks down the gun into separate parts so that it cannot be used until it has been reassembled? Is that weapon still considered to be available within the context of the offence in this clause? Again, what if the minder, either on his own initiative or at the behest of the owner of the weapon, hides the parts of the gun in different places, not close to each other but at some distance? Is that weapon still available under the drafting of this subsection? Lastly, what if the owner breaks down the gun into its component parts and asks different people to mind the weapon? Is that weapon still available under the drafting of this subsection?

What I am trying to do here is to ask probing questions from the standpoint of someone who wants to ensure that this new offence really does bite and that people cannot get around it by using easy and devious means. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

Clause 23(1) makes it an offence for a person to use someone else to look after, hide or transport a dangerous weapon so as to facilitate that weapon being available to the person for an unlawful purpose. The requirement of an "unlawful purpose" means, broadly speaking, that the offence of using someone to mind a weapon is committed by a person in any circumstance where it would be an offence for that person to possess the weapon. Clause 23(2) then sets out circumstances in which a weapon is to be regarded as available for an unlawful purpose. The purpose of this subsection is thus to provide a gloss on and to clarify what is meant by a weapon being available for an unlawful purpose.

The effect of these amendments, as has been explained, would be to make clear when a weapon is available by reference to when it is capable of being made available. The mismatch might well be confusing. Prosecutors and others might well wonder why, if it is enough for the offence to be made out if a weapon is capable of being made available, the offence in Clause 23(1)(b) refers to the weapon as "being available". As the clause is currently drafted, it already covers a wide range of circumstances in which the offence of using someone to mind a weapon can be committed. In particular it should be noted that by virtue of subsection (1)(b), the circumstances need only "facilitate" or be "intended to facilitate" the weapon being available for an unlawful purpose. Therefore the offence can be committed even if the weapon is not in fact available in that way. For example, if person A gives person B a weapon to look after, the offence may be committed even if person A cannot get the weapon back whenever he or she wants. It should also be noted that the use of the word "include" in subsection (2) indicates that the cases set out in that subsection are not exhaustive. I believe that that should cover the point raised by the noble Baroness. It needs to be remembered, particularly in the context of the questions she has asked—where a gun is broken down into its component parts—that that would still, in our view, constitute a firearm.

We think that we have drafted the clause in a way that means that a weapon could be classified as available if broken into components and if held by different people if it could be recovered by the person who used another to mind it. We think that we have drafted the clause in a way that covers the point that the noble Baroness has drawn to our attention.

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

I am grateful for that clarification and for the Minister setting it against the context of the provisions of subsection (1)(b) and the use of the word "include" in subsection (2). We will have an opportunity to look further at the clause in general during the clause stand part debate of my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 117A and 117B not moved.]

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

moved Amendment No. 117C:

Page 26, line 22, after "section" insert "141 or"

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

Amendments Nos. 117C and 117D extend the definition of a dangerous weapon to cover all offensive weapons rather than the more limited definition as currently drafted. In order to make the legislation effective and useful in all circumstances, it is sensible to bring all such weapons within the scope of the provisions. These amendments achieve that aim.

Amendments Nos. 117E and 117F amend the sentencing provisions and are consequential on the extension of the definition of a dangerous weapon in Clause 23 to cover all offensive weapons. These amendments are required to bring the sentencing provisions into line with the extension of the definition of a dangerous weapon. I trust that noble Lords will find it within themselves to support the amendments. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

moved Amendment No. 117D:

Page 26, line 23, after "applies (" insert "specified offensive weapons,"

On Question, amendment agreed to

On Question, Whether Clause 23, as amended, shall stand part of the Bill?

Photo of The Earl of Shrewsbury The Earl of Shrewsbury Conservative

I have given notice that I object to Clause 23 standing part of the Bill. I declare an interest as a former chairman of the Firearms Consultative Committee, chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council and honorary president of the Gun Trade Association.

This is a probing objection proposed on behalf of the British Shooting Sports Council. The council is an umbrella organisation representing the major shooting associations in the United Kingdom. Through direct membership of, or affiliation to, the respective associations, the council represents the interests of some three quarters of a million certificate holders and an even greater number of other people who participate, or are employed in some form or another, in shooting sports.

Firearms legislation has grown up piecemeal over many years. In many areas it is now so complicated that it creates unnecessary difficulty for those who enforce it and is almost beyond the comprehension of those—including the council and those it represents—who must comply with that legislation.

In May 2004, the Home Office commenced a comprehensive review of firearms legislation by publishing a consultation paper. In that paper, the Home Office undertook that,

"specific proposals will be made in the light of comments received in response to this consultation".

There have been some 4,000 comprehensive responses to the consultation paper from individuals and organisations. These have not yet been analysed at the Home Office; there has been no feedback to consultees and no further progress in the process laid down by the Cabinet Office.

In a further consultation paper, Tackling Crime, the Government undertook to consult on various issues relating to the sale and possession of imitation firearms. Part 2 of the Bill has been brought forward but there has been no prior consultation on it. Part 2 should be removed from the Bill so that a consultation process can be properly completed and informed decisions taken on the basis of proper research to identify and target the real problem. Ideally, Part 2 should be considered during the Home Office review of firearms legislation and any changes should form part of a comprehensive and logical review that will produce a body of law which is simpler but no less effective.

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury has given notice that he objects to Clause 23 standing part of the Bill within the proper context of wanting to raise a debate about the failure of the consultation process. Already in Part 1, much of what I have been saying has been to emphasise the importance of consultation working effectively and engaging with all those who will be affected by the legislation, so that they feel the outcome is fair and equitable and will want to take the measures forward.

I understand my noble friend's difficulties with Part 2 and his frustration with the way in which the Government have gone ahead on this matter. As he said, the consultation was launched in May 2004 and we know that there have been in excess of 4,000 responses. He said that, as he understood it, the results had not yet been analysed, but I seem to recall that at Second Reading the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said the responses had now all been read and analysed and that the Government were considering how to proceed. When the Minister comes to respond, I would be grateful if he could say whether he understands that those responses have now been analysed.

I was concerned that the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, went on to say:

"A summary of the responses will be published in due course".

She did not even dangle in front of us that carrot of "soon" or "very soon", although "very soon" would be expecting an awful lot from the Home Office. No, I will not be nasty tonight. Or perhaps I will be later on—who knows?

Of course I understand and sympathise with the noble Baroness's view expressed on Second Reading that the Government have,

"a duty to act immediately when it becomes apparent that steps are needed to protect public safety".—[Hansard, 29/3/06; col. 847.]

I know that my noble friend agrees with that. He is not trying to undermine public safety, but it is right to ask the Government to justify their actions in the Bill against the background of the less than persuasive statistics that have been highlighted throughout our debates and those in another place, and the Government's failure to publish any summary of the consultation responses before reaching Committee in this House. After all, they have had 24 weeks since First Reading in this House in which to make that progress.

I hope that the Minister will today announce a timetable which will give us access to the analysis of the Home Office responses. I also hope that he will confirm that what the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said on Second Reading has taken place and that there has been an analysis. We need to see that before the Bill leaves this House. At the moment, Part 2 does not resolve any confusions that arose when the consultation was going ahead—in many ways, it exacerbates them.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip 8:45 pm, 17th May 2006

I am grateful to the noble Earl for his contribution and to the noble Baroness for her questions. The noble Earl did not actually argue against the specifics of the clause; this debate is more a convenient point at which to air his understandable concerns and frustrations at the fruits of the consultation.

It is true that we received a very large response to the consultation. There were around 4,500 submissions, many of which were very comprehensive. I can confirm that they have all been read and analysed. I can also confirm that we are giving very careful consideration to how to proceed and that we intend to produce a summary of responses.

The clue to the difficulty, if difficulty there be, is that we received 4,500 submissions. There is a great deal of interest in this, and pulling together a summary and conducting the analysis has been very complex. I make no apology for the fact that we are taking our time over it, although it is regrettable that we have had to move on and address some of the lacunae that exist in firearms legislation before we have been able to produce an analysis and summary of the points that were produced by the consultation.

I take it as axiomatic that we have a duty as a Government to act when there is an apparent problem. It is always better, neater and more convenient to do these things in one space, at one point, but we must recognise that there are current and live issues that need to be dealt with. In particular, the increased use of imitation firearms for the purposes of criminal activity, on which we have statistics, means that we need to place restrictions generally on their availability.

One can always criticise consultation. It is never perfect, but we have tried to be honest and open in the way in which we have approached this. We have also tried to ensure that there was the maximum opportunity for people to make responses. The noble Baroness asked for a timetable. I cannot give her one across the Dispatch Box but I will talk to our officials and try to get a clearer idea so that we can provide some sort of timetable if at all possible. I will happily write to the noble Baroness and others who are involved in this debate, particularly the noble Earl, to ensure that they are kept informed of how we intend to proceed regarding the outcome of the review.

Photo of The Earl of Shrewsbury The Earl of Shrewsbury Conservative

I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful reply.

Clause 23, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 24 [Penalties etc. for offence under s. 23]:

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

moved Amendments Nos. 117E and 117F:

Page 26, line 30, after "section" insert "141 or"

Page 26, line 30, after "1988 (" insert "specified offensive weapons,"

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Photo of Baroness Turner of Camden Baroness Turner of Camden Labour

If Amendment No. 117G is agreed to I cannot call Amendment No. 117H by reason of pre-emption.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Spokesperson in the Lords (Shadow Attorney General), Home Affairs, Advisory Team On Legal Matters, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

I indicated to the Committee that we supported the new offence of using someone to mind a weapon, but we cannot support the mandatory minimum sentences in Clause 24. It is a matter of very serious principle. Mandatory minimum sentences prevent the court taking full account of the individual circumstances of a case. They can result in disproportionate sentences in contravention of Article 49.3 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, which provides that the severity of penalties must not be disproportionate to the criminal offence. They distort the sentencing process.

It is a tragedy that, over the nine years of the new Labour Government, a tendency has been shown to mistrust the judges. It has now got to the point where the Prime Minister has criticised a judge in the case involving Afghan refugees—in which I declare an interest because I was involved—which the Government intend to appeal. That is an absolutely disgraceful state of affairs.

This is just another reflection of the lack of trust shown in judges. The reality is that the independent judiciary does not lack any motivation in passing sentences. It pays heed to the Sentencing Guidelines Council that was set up by the Government to give guidance and direction about the appropriate sentence in a particular case. The Sentencing Guidelines Council has the job of looking at sentences across the board, so that an offence of a particular gravity will be punished by a sentence which is the same as for another offence of the same gravity. Here we have a situation where it is perfectly possible to imagine that an under-18 year-old, for example, will be handed a firearm by some criminal just as the premises are raided by the police and find that they are caught by this clause. A minimum sentence of three years would then be passed under subsection (5). If they were over 18, the minimum sentence would be five years. It is quite unnecessary. The arbitrary nature of the sentence is only qualified at all by the use of the words,

"unless it is of the opinion that there are exceptional circumstances relating to the offence or to the offender which justify", passing a lesser sentence.

That phrase, which is the same as in Section 51 of the Firearms Act 1968, was considered in the case of Rehman recently. The Court of Appeal held that exceptional circumstances exist if to impose five years' imprisonment would result in an arbitrary and disproportionate sentence. For a sentence to be called arbitrary and disproportionate requires a high threshold indeed. I fail to understand why this Government, having introduced the Sentencing Guidelines Council and endeavoured to reach parity of sentencing across the board, should mistrust their judges not to carry out the recommendations of the Sentencing Guidelines Council. It is quite unnecessary. It is for those reasons that I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

In considering penalties for new offences, existing penalties for related offences were used as guidance. This includes, in the case of unlawful possession of a prohibited firearm, a minimum sentence of five years. Amendment No. 117G would remove the provision of a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in the case of a prohibited firearm being given to another person to mind and when the offender is an adult in England and Wales.

In robustly tackling gun crime, we must take tough measures and avoid creating additional anomalies in the sentencing regimes. The penalties for this new offence were looked at in the light of existing offences and are in line with those applicable for offences of possession of weapons. This includes the five-year minimum sentence for possession of a prohibited firearm. These penalties are not disproportionate when you take into account the serious nature of the offence. I am sure that the noble Lord would not dismiss that point.

By diluting the penalties, we would create a measure that maintained the advantage for the offender of using someone else, who in some cases may well be a child—that is undoubtedly likely to be the case—to look after their gun. It is essential that we remove that anomaly, and the inclusion of the five-year minimum meets that need. Subsections (4) and (5) provide for not imposing the minimum sentence in exceptional circumstances, so there is that scope. It is worth pointing out that before the introduction of the minimum sentence, the average sentence for possession of prohibited firearms was 18 months. We need that important context.

We cannot accept the noble Lord's amendment. We do not support it, because of the need to remove the anomaly, and it is for that reason that we included the five-year minimum sentence.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Spokesperson in the Lords (Shadow Attorney General), Home Affairs, Advisory Team On Legal Matters, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

I am never going to persuade the Government on this matter, I am sure, so I shall consider my position. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

moved Amendment No. 117H:

Page 27, line 5, at end insert—

"( ) In relation to times before the commencement of paragraph 180 of Schedule 7 to the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 (c. 43), the reference in subsection (4) to a sentence of imprisonment, in relation to an offender aged under 21 at the time of conviction, is to be read as a reference to a sentence of detention in a young offender institution."

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

Amendment No. 117H has become desirable following a recent Court of Appeal judgment concerning minimum sentence provisions introduced into the Firearms Act 1968 by the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Clause 24 closely follows those provisions and is affected in the same way.

The minimum sentence is a tough measure aimed at combating gun crime. Unless there are exceptional circumstances, courts must impose a minimum sentence of three years' detention for 16 to 17 year-olds or five years' imprisonment for offenders aged 18 and above. In the recent Court of Appeal case, the court judged that the minimum sentence of five years' imprisonment cannot be imposed on 18 to 20 year-olds as to do so would conflict with other general sentencing provisions requiring that offenders aged under 21 should not receive sentences of imprisonment.

The Home Office view, and the government view for that matter, is that this situation is already catered for by Section 96 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000, which converts sentences of imprisonment into sentences of detention in the case of 18 to 20 year-olds. We are currently exploring the options for challenging the court's decision through a future case and, if necessary, we can amend the existing provisions in the Firearms Act through an order-making power contained in Section 333 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Unfortunately, that order-making power cannot be used to amend the provisions in this Bill, so we have concluded that it would be helpful to make this amendment now to put the matter beyond doubt. The situation will be resolved completely when the relevant parts of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 are implemented to abolish detention in young offender institutions, but no firm timescale has been set for this as yet.

Amendment No. 118 corrects a mistake in Clause 24, which sets out the penalties for the offence of using someone to mind a weapon in Clause 23. We have identified that there was a minor drafting defect in subsection (10)(a), and as a consequence we are making a technical amendment so that the legislation refers to "an offence under Section 23" rather than "an offence under this Section". That is necessary because it is Clause 23 that contains the offence of using someone to mind a weapon, while Clause 24 only sets out the penalties for that offence. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip 9:00 pm, 17th May 2006

moved Amendment No. 118:

Page 27, line 42, leave out "this section" and insert "section 23"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 24, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 25 [Minimum sentences for certain firearms offences]:

Photo of Baroness Turner of Camden Baroness Turner of Camden Labour

I have to tell your Lordships that, if this amendment is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 118B by virtue of pre-emption.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Spokesperson in the Lords (Shadow Attorney General), Home Affairs, Advisory Team On Legal Matters, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

I will be very short. This is another statement of principle on our part to abolish the concept of minimum sentences. I do not propose to add anything to that which I have already said. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

I am not going to be quite so short, because while of course we object to the point of principle that the noble Lord has enunciated, it is worth putting on the record why we feel it is right and necessary to introduce the measure that we have.

Although gun crime is low overall—it accounts for something like 0.4 per cent of all recorded crime—it has been rising. In 2001–02, handguns were used in 5,871 crimes, an increase of 46 per cent on the previous year. Handguns were used in 58 per cent of armed crime. There were 97 fatalities and 558 serious injuries resulting from crimes involving firearms. Some of this, as we all readily acknowledge, is associated with gang culture, which itself is much linked to the illegal drug trade. The Government are determined to tackle this serious problem. We want to deter criminals from using firearms and ensure that they receive appropriately tough sentences on conviction.

That is worth saying, because it is important that people understand that we have made progress. In 2004–05, as I explained earlier, there was a 5 per cent decrease in the number of crimes in which firearms were used. Handgun offences fell by 15 per cent and the number of firearm crimes resulting in serious or fatal injury fell by 5 per cent. The most recent statistics, for the year ending December 2005, show that firearm offences excluding air weapons were down 3 per cent and that fatal injuries, thankfully, were down 30 per cent.

We contend that our strategy on tackling gun crime is working and we feel that the minimum sentence has played a part in that. But there is more to do. We cannot rest on our laurels. Gun crime is still a serious problem and we need to maintain our efforts to combat it. If we were to accept the noble Lord's amendment at this point, it would be sending exactly the wrong message. We need to maintain our commitment and demonstrate to those who seek to conduct their lives in a world of criminality that we are serious about putting them out of circulation and taking appropriate measures to tackle something that, while it is a diminishing problem for the moment, is a problem that we need to be vigilant in tackling.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Spokesperson in the Lords (Shadow Attorney General), Home Affairs, Advisory Team On Legal Matters, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

I am perfectly certain that Her Majesty's judges are quite capable of giving a message to those who wish to carry guns. I do not think that the Government are right to interfere with the independence of the judges, and in particular their sentencing powers, in the way that they do. The guidelines on firearms offences could have been issued by the Sentencing Guidelines Council—and almost certainly have been issued by it—which the judges would faithfully follow. I do not think it is the imposition of minimum sentences that makes the difference; it is the fact that Her Majesty's judges are alive to the problem within our society of a rise in gun crime and, as has happened in so many fields, would have dealt with it without the necessity for this interference with their independence. For the moment I shall seek leave to withdraw the amendment but I will come back to the principle on many occasions. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

moved Amendment No. 118B:

Page 28, line 42, at end insert—

"( ) After subsection (2) insert—

"(2A) In the case of an offender who is a foreign national, the Secretary of State shall give directions for such an offender to be deported immediately following his release from custody.

(2B) The Secretary of State shall lay annually before each House of Parliament a report on deportations carried out under subsection (2A).""

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

In moving the amendment, the temptation to criticise the Home Office overcomes me.

The purpose of my amendment is to ensure that foreign nationals who are imprisoned for firearms offences should be deported immediately at the end of their sentence. By confining the scope to those who have committed firearms offences, this amendment is properly permissible within the scope of the Bill. It would also put a duty on the Secretary of State to make an annual report to Parliament on the deportations that happen as a result.

I tabled this amendment on 27 April when it became clear that the Home Office was in a shambles over the release into the community since 1999 of 1,023 foreign prisoners without the prior consideration of deportation that should have taken place. I gave notice during our first day in Committee on 26 April that I would take this step.

The following week the Government made a Statement which revealed that the position was even worse than anticipated—288 more foreign criminals were released after August 2005; that is, after the then Home Secretary explicitly knew that there was a problem. The rate of release therefore accelerated while Mr Clarke was Home Secretary. When he made his Statement to Parliament on 3 May, giving details of the number of serious foreign criminals who had been released without consideration of deportation, he said that the number was about 90. On Monday 8 May, his replacement as Home Secretary, the right honourable John Reid said:

"The number of released prisoners who fall into the category of having committed the most serious offences is not 90; it could be as high as 150 and, indeed, depending on what definition you use, if you were to include in that armed robbery, it could be several hundred".

At Prime Minister's Question Time on 3 May the Prime Minister made a clear promise:

"I think that it is now time that anybody who is convicted of an imprisonable offence and who is a foreign national is deported".—[Hansard, Commons, 3/5/06; col. 960.]

Not to be outdone, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, popped up later on BBC's "Question Time" and repeated the commitment. On the afternoon of 3 May the then Home Secretary, Mr Charles Clarke, stated:

"The guiding principle will be that foreign nationals guilty of criminality should expect to be deported".—[Hansard, Commons, 3/5/06; col. 971.]

The story continues in the same vein. The Prime Minister at his weekly briefing of journalists on Monday 8 May repeated the pledge that he had made at Prime Minister's Question Time on Wednesday 3 May:

"If somebody commits a serious enough criminal offence to go to jail in this country and they are not a British citizen, I think it is perfectly reasonable for the country to say at the conclusion of that sentence, you leave the country".

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor then threw doubt on whether Mr Blair knew what he was doing, by saying that he doubted whether all foreign prisoners could be deported automatically. But after the noble and learned Lord had said that, the Prime Minister rebutted it and said,

"I am absolutely sure we can deliver on this".

The Prime Minister said that he would consider introducing new laws to override the criminals' human rights and enable them to be deported. He said that the rights of British citizens should be more balanced with those of foreign criminals or terror suspects.

Throughout the past two weeks, the Prime Minister's commitment has remained the same in all his comments, including, I understand, those made today. During our dinner break I checked the BBC news, and confirmed that the Prime Minister was clear in his commitment to deport criminals. There was a fascinating rider that stated that Downing Street later issued a communiqué to "clarify" the position; in other words, Downing Street thought that the Prime Minister had got it wrong.

In this amendment, I am simply trying to help the Government to carry out the Prime Minister's commitment. As I said, my amendment covers only those who are subject to imprisonment for firearms offences, but they are exactly the kind of people that the Prime Minister wants to deport. The Government should put up or shut up. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for tabling the amendment, because I recognise that she has raised an important issue: how can we most effectively deal with foreign nationals who have completed their custodial term? The amendment is tied to some narrow but specific offences, but the principle applies to many other criminal convictions. We have said clearly that we recognise that improvements need to be made in this area and, on 3 May, the former Home Secretary set out the Government's initial views on revised policies and procedures for handling foreign national prisoners. I was grateful on that occasion for the encouraging comments from the noble Baroness that the opposition Front Bench would support any necessary legislation—and she has tabled an amendment which, I suppose, she could argue gives effect to that commitment. More recently, on Monday, the new Home Secretary provided an update on the progress being made in the operation to deal with the 1,023 prisoners released from prison without the consideration for deportation that they should have received.

We support the view that the expectation should be that those foreign nationals committing serious crimes are deported as soon as possible after the completion of their sentence—ideally, immediately after it, as the amendment envisages. Indeed, we have already announced that we will consult on broadening the criteria to ensure that many more foreign national criminals would face deportation. We believe that a range of issues must be tackled to tighten up the removal of foreign national prisoners and the need for a holistic, end-to-end approach will underpin the consultation paper.

For example, we need to be better at identifying whether those arrested, charged and convicted of crimes are foreign nationals. Those questions are already asked and in many cases foreign nationals are correctly identified, especially once a person reaches a prison. But we will look to devoting more effort and more resources to ensure that foreign nationals cannot avoid detection by being untruthful or unco-operative and that they are identified earlier in the criminal justice process. As has been mentioned, we intend to put in place a clearer and more robust approach as to which crimes trigger consideration for deportation. For those committing relevant crimes, we will change the mindset so that deportation becomes the norm and, I repeat, the guiding principle must be that foreign national criminals should expect to be deported.

However, we cannot discount the fact that there will be some cases—for example, where removal is not possible for the time being, due to practical obstacles such as the need for redocumentation by the home country or international obligations—where deportation is prevented. Because of such occasional cases, the Government would not support the automatic link between conviction and deportation provided for in the amendment, but we support the principle that deportation should be the norm in such cases.

Other relevant cases include the referral mechanisms between criminal justice agencies and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate to ensure that when a foreign national is in custody there is good notice of their release date. This will enable consideration of deportation to happen in advance of their release and for any appeal against deportation to start during that time. We will also be looking at ways other than deportation to remove foreign national prisoners from our shores—for example, by seeing whether we can make more of existing prisoner transfer arrangements under which foreign nationals are sent back to their own country to serve their time.

As I said, we intend to consult on these and other measures. In the mean time, we will continue to tighten up existing procedures to ensure that the serious shortcomings identified do not recur and that we build our capacity to remove all foreign national prisoners for whom deportation is exactly the right course. I also assure the Committee that the Government will continue to keep both Houses updated on issues relating to the deportation and removal of foreign national prisoners.

Again, I thank the noble Baroness for raising the issue. I accept that it has been raised in an entirely constructive light. I think that the amendment is inappropriate in that, as the noble Baroness herself acknowledged, it is rather narrow in what it captures. I repeat that we are committed to tackling the issue of foreign national prisoners and we intend to be robust in fulfilling that commitment. I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment because I have no doubt that the issues to which it draws attention will be a part of the Government's consultation.

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Shadow Minister, Home Affairs 9:15 pm, 17th May 2006

The word "consultation" drives fear into my heart when I consider the outcome of the consultation on Part 2 of the Bill and the lack of constructive response in that regard. The Minister is always very constructive in the way that he responds to amendments, and I appreciate the way in which he has carefully set out what the Government will be doing. The difficulty is that what he has tried to set out in a very straightforward way contrasts dramatically—how can I put this in parliamentary language?—with the clear commitments given by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister should know very well that he has absolutely no hope in this world of carrying out those commitments because of our commitments to the Human Rights Act and the ECHR, which this Government espoused. I find that hypocrisy—it is nothing less than hypocrisy—from another Minister, as against the honesty of this Minister in setting out what the Home Office hopes it will be able to do, very difficult to take.

The Minister was right: when we had the Statement, I made it clear that if appropriate legislation came forward, I would accept it within the context of proper consideration and examination. At the time that I made that commitment, which was made in all honesty, as is always the case, I was disappointed but not too surprised to hear one of the Minister's noble friends—I will name him, although he is not in his place at the moment—the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, express disbelief that I gave that commitment and that I was telling the truth. He not only stated it but looked astonished at his colleagues and obviously thought that I would do no such thing. I keep to my word and if the Government ever bring forward their own legislation, I shall be astonished that they do but I shall consider it in a proper way.

I am also aware that we have been admonished by another of the Minister's noble friends, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, who has said that if we intend to vote on something, we should not put it off just because there is no one about. As I mentioned earlier, I am aware that all my colleagues, bar some wonderful supporters here—quality not quantity—are at another place having a very well earned break, celebrating at a special dinner with my noble friend Lady Thatcher. I am aware that it is an understatement to say that we are thin on the ground but I feel that it is time for the Government to put up or shut up. They have said that they are going to do what my amendment does. Can they be believed? Do they want to vote for what their Prime Minister has said? My amendment would fulfil the Prime Minister's commitment, so I wish to test the opinion of the Committee. Should the Prime Minister be believed or not?

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 118B) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 12; Not-Contents, 51.

Division number 2 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Violent Crime Reduction Bill

Aye: 10 Members of the House of Lords

No: 49 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

Clause 25 agreed to.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.