Clause 71 - Importation of indecent or obscene material

Criminal Justice and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 7th March 2001.

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Question Proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The clause adds to the list of serious arrestable offences the importation of indecent or obscene material. To what extent would that allow Customs and Excise to obtain disclosure of material from overseas in respect of the importation of indecent or obscene material? To what extent would it improve or increase the powers available to Customs and Excise as regards interception of communications?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

The additional powers that the clause gives to the police are, first, to enable customs officers to delay notification of an arrest to another party or to a solicitor, thus reducing the likelihood that valuable evidence could be destroyed by associates of the person arrested. Secondly, it will allow those arrested to be questioned for longer periods before charge. Thirdly, it will assist customs officers to obtain search warrants when paedophile material is detected, and enable them to apply for a greater range of material than would otherwise be the case.

The powers are not greater than those given to the police in domestic legislation, but as a matter of policy, customs officers intend to use their additional powers only in the case of the importation of indecent material involving children, or of extremely exploitative and therefore potentially obscene material involving adults.

The powers are not unusual—the child pornography offences under section 1 of the Protection of Children Act 1978 and the obscenity offences under section 2 of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 are already scheduled as serious, arrestable offences in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Extending that to importation offences is consistent with other measures taken to control the circulation of child pornography and other seriously abusive material. I hope that I have answered the hon. Gentleman's question, but I may not have done.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I understood the Minister's points, which are set out in the helpful explanatory notes. However, there were two points on which I sought clarification. We have international agreements with other countries, which enable us to obtain disclosure of information. We discussed that earlier in our proceedings. By classifying the offence as serious and arrestable, will we obtain greater access to information from other friendly countries? What difference will that classification make in matters such as interception and intrusive surveillance?

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I am sorry. I should have answered the second question. The hon. Gentleman asked it before, and I answered it by omission, as it were. I do not think that the classification would make a difference to interception and the issues that arose under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill. Neither do we think that it would make a difference to the disclosure powers of Customs and Excise in relation to overseas forces, although it does give greater powers under PACE. Thus the answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question is also no.

The extension of powers is as I set out. It is not really a matter of disclosure or interception. Nevertheless, I hope that it will be possible to agree that clause 71 should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) and I are happy for the clause to stand part of the Bill: it is not the best possible, but it is not exceptionable. I want, however, to flag up an issue that I presume is being dealt with—although not, apparently, in public. Is it right to continue with, effectively, two different policing agencies: the police service and Customs and Excise? I realise that that is a big question, but I know from constituency and other experience that the involvement of two different bodies, with different general objectives—in the case of the police, catching criminals and seeing them punished and, in the case of Customs and Excise, catching the goods and seeing them impounded—does not always make for consistency.

I speak with some caution because although, like all hon. Members, I represent police officers, I also represent the headquarters of Customs and Excise, just over the river. For reasons that have been explained by the Minister and the Home Secretary, involving the increasingly international nature of the relevant activities, we should think again about which authorities would be the best to detect and deal with offences relating to importation and exportation, and to deal with goods that are evidence of, or related to, offences.

What I am drawing attention to needs to be considered within the realm of the debate about the future of policing. The Government have been holding discussions with police representatives. It would be nonsense for that debate not to include examination of whether in the century ahead the development of one integrated organisation would be more appropriate than maintaining a separate body, called Customs and Excise, to police our shores.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

We have discussed the question at length. It is an important issue involving a wide range of agencies that work together: Customs and Excise, the National Crime Squad, police forces and the security services, MI5 and MI6. I am not sure whether the latter is in the hon. Gentleman's constituency—everything seems to be. The cross-cutting review that was conducted under the comprehensive spending review led us to the conclusion that those organisations should work together closely. Major progress has been made in that respect.

I am not making a party political point when I say that one thing that surprised me when I began my present job was how recently joint work in any of the relevant spheres had begun. For example, the threat assessment produced by the National Criminal Intelligence Service, which is another in the group of agencies working together, is this year at the stage of a third publication—some of it fully public. We have taken the view that a major reorganisation and restructuring is not the best approach at present. I can see a logic to it, but it is best to focus on the intelligence assessment, and to adopt joint tasking and joint approaches, as happens now. That is producing substantial progress in co-operation and I think that it is the right way to proceed.

If the hon. Gentleman talks to representatives of the National Crime Squad about its relationship with Customs and Excise, or, for that matter, to representatives of Customs and Excise about its relationship with the National Crime Squad, he will hear about a positive, collaborative and supportive relationship, which has been reinforced by senior secondments between the services to build joint working. Of the three options—doing nothing, reorganising everything into a global service, and developing better co-operation—we have chosen the third, with the active and enthusiastic support of the services concerned. Co-operation is necessary, but we do not think that expending the bureaucratic energy that would be needed to reorganise the entire process would be the most intelligent course of action.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 11:00 am, 7th March 2001

I am encouraged by the Minister's response. It would be helpful if he could put as much as possible of the conclusions of the review in the public domain. Co-operation, and whether there will be one or more agencies, is a matter of general public interest. It will be a worthwhile subject for consideration in a forum in the House—perhaps a Select Committee. Important structural matters about the delivery of law and order around our shores and internally are worthy of as much discussion across party lines as possible.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

I shall reflect on putting matters in the public arena. We are dealing with significant enemies and how much information is made public is a difficult matter. I am keen to encourage a debate on our strategy for serious organised crime. I should welcome the Home Affairs Committee investigating such matters. I have briefed the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) on the matter, following a visit to his constituency.

I am happy to brief either the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire or the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey on what we are doing. I agree that it would be good to hold a general public debate about such matters. The document CJ 2010 included several references to such matters. In fact, I think that it had a whole chapter on them. If members of the Committee want briefings, I shall be happy to hold them, but I shall think carefully before putting more detailed papers in the public arena, for reasons that I am sure they will understand.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I want to flag up my concern about the suggestion. HM Customs and Excise is a specialist organisation with a particularly valuable ethos. Having prosecuted in the past for Customs and Excise, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police, I know that Customs and Excise is expert in the work that it undertakes. It is well served, and I am not sure that I would want to roll it into the police. I urge a note of caution.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

That is true, which is one of the major reasons why I decided to follow the course that I have outlined. Not only does Customs and Excise have powerful professionalism and expertise, but the other agencies to which I have referred have similar features. The hon. Gentleman is right. He will know that a review is taking place into how prosecutions are carried out by the Crown Prosecution Service and Customs and Excise, and one issue raised in CJ 2010 was to ensure that the criminal justice system is properly addressed. Given his professional experience, he will know that such matters are extremely technical and complicated. I hope that I have not strayed too much from the clause, but I wanted to respond to the points that have been made.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 71 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

My private conversation with the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman was to ascertain the whereabouts of the Opposition Whip who I had hoped would be here to listen to what I have to say. Happily, he is engaged in other business in the House and I should be grateful if the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire would convey my comments to him. The Committee Clerk has pointed out that something that I said earlier was nonsense. Those were not her words, they are mine.

In an endeavour to be helpful, I said that I was willing to convene the Programming Sub-Committee after this sitting. If we were to do that, however, it would have no effect because I had forgotten that this is not a usual sitting day. The Committee has agreed to end proceedings at 1 o'clock and it will not be sitting between 4.30 pm and 7 pm. To implement any change to our sittings, there would have to be a debate. Further consideration may take place only tomorrow morning and during a guillotined sitting tomorrow afternoon. Were we to go down the route that I had, in an attempt to be helpful, implied that I was willing to go down, there would be no possibility of implementing any decision that was taken.

I am not advocating this, but an hon. Member could seek to convene a further meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee only if I formally suspended this sitting for the duration of the sitting of the Sub-Committee. We could then reconvene, debate any decision that had been taken and proceed. I am happy to note, having checked, that all members of the Sub-Committee are present this morning. I am not advocating that course of action. I wish only to clarify the constraints under which we are working.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

On a point of order, Mr. Gale. If I were to move a motion that the Committee suspend, would it be subject to a Division?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

The hon. Gentleman cannot move a motion to suspend the Committee. As I have tried to suggest, my personal view is that the matter should be properly resolved through courteous discussion between the usual channels. If the usual channels say to me that they wish to seek a suspension with a view to reconvening the Sub-Committee, I will consider that at the appropriate time. I am seeking to clarify the position, so that the usual channels may make their noises to each other. Clause 72 Use of video and telephone links for decisions about detention