My Lords, I rise to speak on the provisions of the gracious Speech relating to home affairs. I welcome new legislation to modernise the law on communications data. We live in a global digital age, and many criminal acts of both serious organised crime and terrorism are prepared, planned and executed by using social media and information technology that was unheard of a few years ago. In extreme cases, in the public interest and to protect the values we cherish, it has always been possible, in certain circumstances and with proper oversight, to read someone’s letter or to intercept their telephone conversation. The difficulty is that modern encryption methods are now so sophisticated that such data are difficult to decipher, and I welcome steps to ensure that they can be understood where doing so is necessary to prevent serious crime or to protect the public. Surely we cannot allow people conspiring to commit mass murder to hide behind encryption, any more than we would prevent the SAS storming a foreign embassy harbouring terrorists who are holding hostages. In times of crisis, when national security is at risk, privacy should take second place to the national interest.
It is also necessary to ensure that communications companies retain data records long enough for the police and security services to discover within a reasonable time who was contacting whom, at what location and at what time. Those are critical tools in a modern democracy and a very dangerous world. As always, of course, there must be a sensible balance between such powers and the right to privacy and liberty, and I have little doubt that this House will play its part in ensuring a proper balance in the public interest. I do not believe it does credit to dub these measures a “snoopers’ charter”, as some describe them. Such reasonable measures are no more than putting necessary investigatory powers in a modern setting for the purpose of disrupting terrorist plots, criminal networks and organised child grooming.
I was interested to read last week that the number of people falling victim to identity theft has risen by almost a third in 12 months. Identity theft allows fraudsters to open bank accounts, obtain credit cards and commit fraud in other people’s names. This amounted to more than 32,000 victims in the first three months of 2015.
Of course, there is a measure which would have helped to stem this attack by professional criminals on hard-working families and that is the introduction of a biometric identity card, which, because of the use of unique foolproof identifiers, would make such crimes that much more difficult to commit. Clearly the chances of this type of fraud have now substantially increased, and that illustrates the need to use modern technology, as we have with DNA, to combat such escalating crime.
Another measure mentioned in the gracious Speech is the proposal to introduce a blanket ban on the new generation of psychoactive drugs. As the former head of the drug squad in my old force in Durham, I have seen young lives destroyed by drugs and I welcome these proposed measures. Those manufacturing and dealing in such destructive substances have been ingenious in always being ahead of the law enforcement agencies by changing very slightly the chemical make-up of these so-called “legal high” substances. It is right that such dealers in death should be visited with substantial sentences of up to seven years in prison.
In conclusion, I want to say a word about the police and the victims of crime. I still believe that we have the most respected police service in the world but, having lost more than 17,000 officers since the recession of 2008, the police representative bodies and some chief officers have understandably warned about the dire consequences of even more cuts to budgets. The Home Secretary recently warned the Police Federation to stop crying wolf, praying in aid the continued fall in reported crime, which incidentally has happened across many countries throughout Europe.
What has to be remembered is that investigating recordable crime represents only about a third of what the police do. As a service of first response, they spend much more of their time assisting the public in other ways: dealing with domestic disputes; handling drunken disorder on the streets; responding to accidents on the roads, in factories and in the home; dealing with fly tipping and litter; dealing with cycling on footpaths and jumping red lights; handling child abuse, people trafficking and drugs; and of course providing an essential reassuring presence in neighbourhoods, which is so important. If police numbers are reduced too far, these are the areas where it is increasingly felt.
Since I was a ground police officer, the number of beat bobbies has reduced dramatically. Why is that? As noble Lords know, we now have cybercrime units, internet child exploitation teams, victim support units and family liaison officers. There has also been an explosion in the number of reported sexual crimes following Savile. All crimes require witnesses to give evidence. The most important witness in any crime, provided they are still alive, is the victim, and I note that one of the measures announced in the gracious Speech is to increase the rights of victims of crime, which I applaud.
Finally, all these matters require men and women to respond in a timely manner, so, at the risk of being accused of crying wolf, I ask the Minister to take the message back to the Government that even the apparently omnipotent police service has its limits and they should not stretch the thin blue line to breaking point.