Second Reading

Part of Crime and Security Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:43 pm on 29th March 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism) 5:43 pm, 29th March 2010

My Lords, we live in a country where crime is falling, and I glad to say that perception is slowly beginning to reflect that reality. Since 1997, overall crime as measured by the British Crime Survey has fallen by 36 per cent, including a 41 per cent fall in overall violence and a 54 per cent fall in domestic burglary. Confidence in the police at local level is rising, with half of people saying that the police and local councils are dealing with the anti-social behaviour and crime issues that matter in their area.

This is testament to the significant achievements that this Government have made in tackling crime since 1997: an overhaul of the youth justice system, the adoption of a multi-agency approach to crime and a specific emphasis on anti-social behaviour where there was none before. We have provided record levels of funding, more police and a comprehensive approach to violent crime, drugs and the reduction of reoffending. It is in this context that I ask noble Lords to consider the Crime and Security Bill. This is a wide-ranging Bill with one area of particular controversy, DNA retention, at its centre.

I am proud to serve in a Government who have consistently provided the police with the tools and support that they need to protect our communities. British policing is the envy of the world, and nowhere is this more apparent than in our use of DNA in investigations. Pioneered in Britain, DNA profiling is one of the breakthroughs of modern policing. It not only provides crucial leads on many crimes, it also eliminates individuals from inquiries. In a world without DNA evidence, thousands of crimes would go unsolved, more dangerous criminals would be walking our streets and victims would be denied the justice that they deserve.

The retention of an individual's DNA profile is not a punishment. Being on the database does not mean that someone is a criminal. Indeed, the fact that your DNA is on the database is effectively not known by anyone. A profile on the DNA database, derived from a DNA sample, consists of 10 pairs of numbers and a genetic sex marker. It does not contain any other personal information.

The DNA database exists to provide justice for victims of crime. That is why we have placed the rights of victims at the heart of the DNA proposals in the Crime and Security Bill. Of course, we must be careful to strike the right balance between collective security and personal rights to privacy. I think that all sides of this House agree that we should retain the DNA profiles of those who have been convicted of a recordable offence. That is why the Bill includes powers to take DNA from those convicted of the most serious offences in the days before DNA was routinely taken in inquiries. These powers will apply to those convicted in the United Kingdom or overseas, but will be available only where a senior police officer judges that the taking of DNA is necessary to assist in the prevention or detection of crime.

While we all want to ensure that the convicted are all on the database, I do not think that a universal database would be proportionate or practical. That leaves us with three questions. First, should we retain the DNA profiles of individuals who are arrested but not convicted? Secondly, if we do retain such profiles, should we differentiate between those arrested for serious and less serious offences? Thirdly, how long should we retain these profiles on the database? The answer to these questions is, ultimately, a matter of judgment, but that judgment must be informed by evidence. One should not simply pluck an answer out of the air because it sounds about right, yet this appears to be some people's approach.

Those on the opposite Benches-although I am a little confused about the exact Lib Dem position-would have us adopt the Scottish DNA retention model, which was based on no research whatever. Indeed, the Scottish police do not agree with their own retention model; I refer noble Lords to the statement from ACPOS Scotland of 23 February 2008. The evidence base that we have now developed did not exist when our colleagues in Scotland were setting retention periods. Evidence, not assumptions, should be our guide on an issue of such importance to public protection.

The Opposition's proposals, like ours, recognise that those who are arrested for an offence, even if they are not convicted, pose a higher risk of offending in future, but in other areas I am afraid that they have simply got it wrong. The Opposition would retain the DNA profiles of those arrested but not convicted only where that arrest was for a serious crime, yet the evidence shows that the seriousness of the offence for which someone is initially arrested has no bearing on the likelihood of re-arrest or the seriousness of any subsequent offence.

The Opposition would retain the DNA of those arrested for serious crimes but not convicted only for an initial period of three years, yet the evidence shows that six years is more appropriate. Those who have been arrested but not convicted have a higher risk of offending, as measured by re-arrest, than the general population for six years following the first arrest.

I am aware that the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House and the Joint Committee on Human Rights are concerned that our proposal to retain the DNA profiles of those arrested but not convicted for six years is liable to be ruled disproportionate when this issue returns to the courts. The Information Commissioner expressed similar concerns in an appendix to the Constitution Committee's report on the Bill. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary wrote to the Information Commissioner on 19 February setting out our response to those concerns, and I am happy to place a copy of that letter in the Library of the House if it would assist your Lordships' consideration of the Bill.

The concerns of these various bodies can be boiled down to a single sentence: our proposals are not compatible with the European convention, and a retention period of six years is too long. Noble Lords will be unsurprised to learn that neither I nor the Home Secretary agrees, and that is why we have both made statements of compatibility under Section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act. In his letter the Home Secretary said,

"Our research suggests that we would expect most of the benefits of DNA retention to occur in the first two or three years following an initial arrest. But there are still benefits to be gained from retention beyond that point, to six years and possibly significantly longer. If there is still a greater risk of offending within that time period, I could not justify a murder or rape case not being brought to justice because an offender had had his DNA removed earlier. Our approach ensures that DNA profiles are only retained where evidence indicates it will have an added value".

There has been some discussion in the press of late about the overuse of cautions. I do not intend to get into that debate this afternoon, except to point out to your Lordships that all individuals who are given an official police caution in lieu of court proceedings have admitted that they have broken the law. Yet the DNA retention model proposed by the Opposition would put those who have been cautioned in the same position as those who are innocent of all charges. Such a policy, I believe, is fundamentally misguided.

An appalling recent example shows us why. During 1989, two women in their mid-thirties were raped in south London, some five months and a couple of miles apart. In both cases, the victims went on to suffer emotional breakdowns soon after the attacks. Tragically, the second victim committed suicide. Forensic samples taken from both the victims provided the DNA profile which linked the attacks but no suspect could be identified. With no other witnesses or leads the trail went cold and the investigations were brought to a close.

Some 12 years later, Andrew Thompson was arrested and subsequently cautioned for a minor drugs offence. His DNA was taken when he was arrested and retained on the National DNA Database. In 2008, the rape files were reviewed by the Metropolitan Police Sapphire Cold Case team. The forensic samples were upgraded and searched on the National DNA Database where they matched Thompson's profile. Thompson was arrested on 18 May 2009, charged with both rapes which he denied. However on 5 November, four days before the scheduled start of his trial, he pleaded guilty to both rapes and was sentenced to 11 years on each count of rape. His name was placed on the sex offenders register for life.

Under the Opposition's proposals Thompson's DNA would have been destroyed as soon as he was cautioned. Without this crucial DNA match, Thompson, who had already escaped justice for more than 20 years, would still be free while his victims and their families live with the horror of the events of 1989. Surely that cannot be right?

So what would the Opposition's proposals mean in practice? Put simply, if we adopt the Opposition's proposals we would be failing victims of serious crime. Under their model, at least 23 victims of the most serious crimes could have been denied justice in the last year alone, and that is 23 victims too many. We are not prepared to expose the public to that kind of risk.

However, we recognise the concerns expressed in the other place and elsewhere when DNA profiles have been retained on the database in clearly inappropriate circumstances. My honourable friend Diane Abbott MP spoke in Westminster Hall last December about a constituent who had been arrested for shop lifting when she was just trying to return a jumper she had bought the day before. That is why Clause 14 of the Bill includes some objective circumstances where the police will be required to destroy DNA profiles without the need for an application. Clause 23 will put in place binding guidance to ensure that all police forces deal with applications to destroy profiles in a consistent manner. From that the bar for destruction will be lowered significantly from the current exceptional-circumstances test.

I am aware that DNA retention is a contentious issue and I suspect that, regrettably, some of you may not be persuaded by my arguments. However, I would remind your Lordships that the proposals in the Bill on DNA retention are designed to comply with the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in December 2008. The Government brought forward proposals in the Policing and Crime Bill last Session, which we withdrew when your Lordships expressed reservations over our proposed use of secondary legislation. If the Government's proposals are rejected again, we would have to legislate early in the next Parliament to comply with the European Court's judgment. Pragmatically it is very unlikely to reach the statute books until December and I believe that will cause us some problems with Europe.

Our proposals are proportionate and strike the right balance between the rights of the individual and collective security. Indeed, we are going further than required by the Court in proposing the destruction of all DNA samples within six months of a sample being taken. But this Bill is not just about DNA. It is about protecting our communities, preventing crime and providing justice for victims.

There are other measures in the Crime and Security Bill that deserve your consideration and, I hope, your support. It is a sad fact that many women in this country have experienced the devastating effects of domestic violence. Although domestic violence rates are falling, we believe there is more that can be done to help. That's why this Bill will enable the police to apply for a Domestic Violence Protection Order. DVPOs-I hate acronyms but that is the one for this-will enable the victim and their children to stay in the family home rather than seek help from a refuge. It will give them the breathing space and support they need to consider their options. DVPOs have received widespread support from leading women's groups such as Refuge as well as the Home Affairs Select Committee.

During debate in the other place, some Members raised concerns about the practicality of an application for a DVPO being heard by the magistrates' court within 48 hours. The Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty's Court Service have consulted magistrates' courts across the country and are confident that the courts will be able to hear applications within this period. DVPOs would be used like other emergency protection orders, where it is already common practice to seek an urgent magistrates' hearing. Furthermore, the 48-hour period would exclude all Sundays and public holidays.

Unscrupulous individuals and businesses are always looking for ways to exploit our hard-working citizens. The economic downturn has served to amplify the effects of this exploitation. One area of particular concern to the public is the often exorbitant fines imposed by many wheel-clamping businesses. This Bill will introduce compulsory licensing to regulate the practices of wheel-clamping businesses on private land, including a code of practice with criminal penalties for breach, and a fair and independent appeals process for motorists.

I turn now to a topic which I know is of particular interest to this House. I am sure your Lordships will be aware of the very good work of my noble friend Lord Brennan in highlighting the plight of British victims of overseas terrorism. It is sadly the case that in recent years there have been a number of terrorist attacks abroad where British citizens and other westerners have been targeted simply because of their nationality.

Terrorist acts are intended as a political statement and an attack on society as a whole. I believe it is right that as a tangible expression of sympathy, society should compensate the victims of terrorist attacks abroad in recognition of the injuries suffered. By introducing a new Victims of Overseas Terrorism Compensation scheme, this Bill will help the innocent victims of these despicable acts to rebuild their lives. I sincerely hope that all sides of this House will unite behind this important measure.

Some noble Lords are concerned that the Bill has revisited legislation that has been recently enacted, but we have a very good reason for doing this. The majority of violent gang members are over 18, and that is why we brought forward provisions in the Policing and Crime Act 2008 to create a new civil power to manage violent adult gang members. Unfortunately, it is a sad fact that under-18s can perpetrate the same horrendous gang violence as their adult peers, and the news is full of such an event as I speak. It has always been our intention to apply gang injunctions to under-18s but we wanted to be absolutely sure that we created a tool with the necessary safeguards for youth justice. To that end we have worked closely with the Ministry of Justice, the Youth Justice Board and the Department for Children, Schools and Families to create the new power in this Bill; a power which contains those necessary safeguards.

Independent evidence shows that anti-social behaviour orders are effective when used appropriately. That means making well-informed decisions. Parenting-needs assessments help target the root causes of a young person's bad behaviour. This means that if the court issues an ASBO, agencies can ensure that the right support package is in place to nip that anti-social behaviour in the bud. We think that parenting needs assessments should not be optional. This Bill will ensure that all agencies thoroughly investigate a young person's family circumstances when considering them for an ASBO.

Parenting orders direct parents who lack the skills to control their child's behaviour to parenting programmes. They are an effective tool in tackling anti-social behaviour, but are not being used often enough. Mandatory parenting orders when a child breaches an ASBO will ensure that parents are fully engaged with the authorities in the actions to stop their child reoffending.

We made it clear when we introduced 24-hour licensing in 2003 that we would keep the new licensing regime under careful review. In many places, the new licensing regime has been successful, but the position is not the same everywhere. Evidence has shown that there has been an increase in alcohol-related violence in the early hours of the morning. That is why we have introduced provisions in this Bill which will empower licensing authorities to restrict the sale of alcohol in problem areas between 3 am and 6 am.

The Government are committed to cutting police bureaucracy so they can spend more time driving down crime. We have removed police targets and replaced them with a single top-down target on public confidence. We have invested in mobile data devices for the police to send and receive information on the beat, and we have removed the lengthy stop and account form. This Bill will further reduce police time spent on paperwork by reducing the information requirements when the police carry out a stop and search. When used with mobile devices, officers will only need to manually record two pieces of information.

The Bill will also make it an offence not to keep an air weapon under lock and key and well out of the reach of children. It will also make it an offence to possess a mobile phone in prison without authorisation. Currently, only taking a mobile phone into a prison is an offence.

This is the Bill of a Government, I believe, with a strong track record on crime. The Crime and Security Bill will bring greater protection and peace of mind to the public and make our streets safer. I beg to move.