Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 13th January 2005.
I beg to move amendment No. 183, in clause 86, page 49, line 42, at end insert—
'(d) they have such a relationship to that person that their safety can reasonably be regarded to be at risk'.
The interpretation is significant, because the clause contains quite a narrow definition of a person associated with another person for the purposes of providing protection. Subsection (4) says:
''A person is associate with another person if any of the following apply . . . they are members of the same family . . . they live in the same household . . . they have lived in the same household.''
That raises the question of what happens to, say, the fiancé of a protected person, who does not live in the same household, however unfashionable that might seem, who has never lived in the same household and is not a member of the same family but who might be considered to share the same risk, if only as a way of putting pressure on the person in the first instance. A business partner of the protected person might also be considered to share the same risk, but would certainly not be a member of the same family and would not live in the same household or fall into any of the categories that have been mentioned. There is a gaping hole in the provisions in relation to people who are closely associated. I am not in the business of extending the protection measures to large groups of people; that is not appropriate. However, I want to ensure that we provide properly for people who are closely connected with a person who is at risk and who share that risk. That is the intention of the amendment, which I think is self-explanatory. I do not believe that the category of person that I have mentioned is identified within the clause as it stands.
The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. Countless people could, in one way or another, be held to have a close association with an individual to whom witness protection arrangements apply. Wherever we draw the line, it will be difficult. That is why we felt that, in the context of the statutory duty in relation to witness protection, the category that we have identified—members of the same family who live in the same household or who have lived in the same household—was as wide as we could draw it. Our provisions limit to those whom we feel to be at most obvious or immediate risk the circle of people whom the police can by default include in protection arrangements. We acknowledge that others with a relationship to the protected person might in some circumstances reasonably be regarded as at risk. However, there are other ways in which the needs of such people can be dealt with by the police outside the statutory scheme, consideration being given on a case-by-case basis to the degree of risk that they face.
The statutory scheme as outlined in the Bill is broad. We need to think about the limits that we set to it, which do not necessarily mean that the examples that the hon. Gentleman has given could not be dealt with. The issue is sensitive and it is difficult to know where to draw the line. However, we feel that we have drawn it as wide as possible while leaving some flexibility to consider other individuals, either in their own right or in terms of their association with a protected person. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.
Can I assume from the way in which the Bill is drafted that it would not cover people who are protected or living under new identities not because they are witnesses but because they have been defendants?
My understanding is that if somebody has been a defendant and—going back to our earlier discussion—has provided evidence that has helped to convict other criminals, there might be issues about his future protection. If I have not understood my hon. Friend correctly, she might like to ask the question again. If she is talking about a defendant having rights to protection under the scheme, we might have to protect individuals who have been involved in crime. For example, if they have given Queen's evidence or have immunity and have helped to convict others, there could be issues about their protection.
I can understand the circumstances that the Minister describes. For example, Maxine Carr is a defendant, convicted, and now under police protection with a new identity. She might well have been a witness in relation to Ian Huntley or in other circumstances. In a case such as that, I would assume that no protection would apply. Can the Minister confirm my interpretation?
I can assure my hon. Friend that the provisions would not apply to released convicted offenders such as Maxine Carr or Thompson and Venables, whose case was also widely publicly discussed. They are meant to protect witnesses of crimes and other individuals who are assisting the criminal justice system, not offenders. Our principal aim is to encourage members of the public to come forward and to support them. It is inevitable that some witnesses will have been involved in criminal activity, but they and the other categories of people to be covered will be at risk from the criminals against whom the case is made. That is entirely different from the cases of Maxine Carr or Thompson and Venables, and no one should see the provision as something that would encompass those individuals.
I am grateful to the Minister for her reply. She takes these matters extremely seriously, as do I. I understand that we need to draw a line somewhere, but I do not think that the definition is right at the moment. It does not seem sensible that under the scheme, statutory protection could be given to someone who, 20 years ago, was a flatmate of the principal in the case but not to the person whom the principal intends to marry in three weeks' time.
I want to clarify one of the issues about people who have lived in the same household. We placed that in the Bill not so much to cover flatmates from 20 years ago, but ex-husbands and wives—for example, the ex-wife of a protected person who may be living with the children from that relationship at another address but had shared a household with the protected person. We were trying to identify close relationships. I hasten to add that we did not want to identify only relationships based on marriage or, for that matter, only heterosexual relationships, which is why the provision refers to sharing a household.
I understand that. However, I still find it odd that an estranged husband or wife seems to have a higher level of protection under the clause than a current fiancé or fiancée. That does not seem to make sense. The provision still contains a lacuna.
I had taken the assumption—although perhaps I am wrong—that the category of person described by the hon. Gentleman would still be eligible for police protection if it were thought that he or she might be subject to any sort of crime of any kind. That would apply irrespective of clause 74. That was why I was fairly relaxed about the matter. If I am wrong about that, the Minister will doubtless intervene and tell me or the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Gentleman is clearly right. There is nothing to stop the police from providing protection. The point is that that protection will not have the support of the ancillary clauses in the Bill that provide for it to be an offence to reveal identities and the various measures that would provide statutory support for that protection. I am suggesting only that anyone who is in a close relationship, whatever it may be, with the individual who is the principal person protected is entitled to consideration for statutory protection rather than for the police protection that would, I am sure, be available in those circumstances. It seems a rather arbitrary cut-off point that specifically excludes the people I have mentioned. I do not think that that is the Government's intention. I think that they have simply found an appropriate stop point and gone no further. They could have considered the depth of the relationship that might incur additional risk to another individual.
Another small point that the Minister might like to consider is that if people are not given statutory protection, but need to be protected under the sort of arrangements that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield has mentioned, the relevant police force would not be encouraged to give them protection, because witness protection tends to be expensive.
The whole point of the protection provisions—people are given police protection and new identities now—is that various things flow from them to create stronger protection. That should be made available to those whom the police or the other services believe to be genuinely at risk—at a similar level of risk to the principal person who is to be protected under the scheme. At the moment such people are excluded by the specific references in the clause.
The debate has highlighted the complexity of human relationships; it is difficult when we must draw a line, because people will always fall on either side of it. Issues have been raised that I shall consider and we shall return to the matter later. However, I ask hon. Members to bear in mind that we are dealing with statutory provision, and it is always difficult to know where to draw a line. We live in a complicated world of complicated relationships and extended families. I agree with the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that the clause does not provide that other people should not be protected.
Vera Baird rose—
The Minister was intervening on me, so I shall resume, but first I should love to take an intervention from the hon. and learned Lady.
My intervention is really directed to the Minister. Granted that the power in clause 74 is permissive—it allows protection providers to provide protection if they consider it appropriate—is there any real need for an associated person to be further defined? Could we not just leave the provisions so that a person associated with the person specified is entitled to be considered for protection, and leave it to the discretion of the authorities to decide whether the association is close enough to put them in danger?
I think that the hon. and learned Lady is right. Had I not been trying to amend what the Government have proposed, I should simply have used the formula in my amendment, of someone with
''such a relationship to that person that their safety can reasonably be regarded to be at risk''.
That is the discretion that needs to be applied by the investigating and protecting authorities. They will not use their budgets for that purpose lightly and it seems odd to exclude anyone who might need that protection from consideration.
The Minister has said that she will consider the matter again, and I do not want to prolong the debate. We have had a good exposition of some of the issues and I am grateful to the Minister for at least listening to what I have to say. On that basis, at this stage I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment made: No. 33, in clause 86, page 50, line 20, at end insert—
'(7A) A reference to a person who is or has been a member of staff of an organisation includes a reference to a person who is or has been seconded to the organisation to serve as a member of its staff.'.—[Caroline Flint.]
Clause 86, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 87 ordered to stand part of the Bill.