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Clause 108 - Fingerprints

Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 18th January 2005.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 4:00 pm, 18th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 188, in clause 108, page 74, line 31, after 'fingerprints', insert

'for the purpose of establishing identity'.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 304, in clause 108, page 75, leave out lines 3 and 4.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am not sure whether I am supposed to pretend I did not hear the previous debate. I cannot do so, as the premature interjection by the hon. Member for Huntingdon means that we have already had some helpful assurances from the Minister.

The purpose of my amendment is to make the clause read:

''a constable may take a person's fingerprints'' for the purpose of establishing identity

''without the appropriate consent'', and so on. The only reason for doing so, which might be self-evident, is to establish the purpose referred to later, in subsection (7), which says

''fingerprints taken from a person by virtue of section 61(6A) above must be destroyed as soon as they have fulfilled the purpose for which they were taken''.

The amendment is a safeguard to ensure that the purpose for which they are taken is immediate identification of that person, and not in order to create a databank of fingerprints or for any other purpose.   The event that will trigger the fingerprints' destruction is the identification having been made, so there will be no question of establishing a back-door fingerprint bank of people who have not been convicted of any offence, or even charged with one.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I take the view that the hon. Gentleman's amendment might be otiose, because new subsection (6C) makes pretty clear the purposes for which the fingerprints may be taken. The reason for my probing amendment was that I wanted to know a bit more about the system for taking a fingerprint other than at the police station. I, too, was involved with the Constitutional Reform Bill yesterday and had no opportunity of viewing the technology, so I note the Minister's reassurance on that point.

There is something slightly odd about the provision. I can never remember who served on which Committee, so the Minister might not recollect that some time ago we departed from the old rule that one's fingerprint could be retained for police identification purposes only if one had been convicted of an offence. We changed, for reasons that have always caused me some slight concern, to the principle that if one were arrested and fingerprinted at a police station and charged, one's fingerprints could be retained even if one was subsequently acquitted or the proceedings were discontinued. The current position is, I think, that they can be retained if one is arrested and taken to a police station.

That is gradually contributing towards the state building up a databank of fingerprints that will include the prints of individuals who have never been convicted of any criminal offence. What strikes me as quite surprising, in view of the Government's past record in this matter, is that, having made provision for fingerprints being taken for identification purposes at a place other than a police station and without arrest taking place, the Minister has felt sufficiently squeamish to say that fingerprints thus taken will not be retained. I said to whichever Minister it was who took through the last Bill in respect of which we considered fingerprints—the Criminal Justice Act 2003, I think—that the arbitrary nature of fingerprint-taking had got to such a point that there ought to be a special ceremony at the age of 16 where one had to present oneself at a police station and hand over one's fingerprints and DNA for the common good.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

Precisely what my hon. Friend is now railing against is being introduced in the Committee next door: it is called an national identity card. Not only fingerprints, but biometric details will be stored on a central register held by the state.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

My hon. Friend is, of course, quite right. That is why I highlight the slight oddity of a circumstance in which the state lays its hands on one's fingerprints by the roadside when checking your identity, but the Government, in their wisdom, have decided that those fingerprints should not be retained. I find that quite surprising. I suppose I should welcome   it, because I do not want the powers of the state to be extended further, but I am interested in ascertaining the Government's reasoning on the issue.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

However, before I find out the Minister's reasoning, I will find out the reasoning of the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead.

Photo of Mr Tony McWalter Mr Tony McWalter Labour/Co-operative, Hemel Hempstead 4:15 pm, 18th January 2005

In the absence of the universal taking of fingerprints, retaining prints is particularly odious and invidious when people have been falsely accused. That happened to one of my constituents, who suffered the trauma of being arrested, followed only later by a letter of apology from the bonkers lady who had made the accusation. My constituent's prints remain on file. She would not mind if everyone's prints were on file, but she objects very strongly to her prints being a record of that terrible and traumatic event. Perhaps we should think about what we should do in the next phase of the process.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I hope that he will not take it amiss if I say that I am all the more grateful because I have not previously received much support from Labour Members when I have made such representations. The Government's approach has been that it is right to expand the national database, that that database helps in the prevention of crime and that it is therefore appropriate to retain the fingerprints of those who have not been convicted. That view causes me considerable anxiety. I suspect that there is quite a large and growing number of cases such as the hon. Gentleman cited. The victims of the process—that is what they are—will feel very unhappy that they are being treated as second-class citizens without justification.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman: if the necessity for such a system is so great, it would be better—without necessarily introducing identity cards, about which I have some serious reservations—to be honest and say that everyone has to supply their fingerprints so that they can be checked in the event of their being suspected of having committed a criminal offence. I am not sure that I would be happy with that situation, but I would be more comfortable with it than I am with the current one. I am fascinated to hear the hon. Gentleman's story, because it chimes exactly with other stories that I have heard about people who feel that they have been victimised by the process. That is why, as I said at the start, I am interested to hear the Minister's reasons why if people are stopped at the roadside and the opportunity arises to get their prints, their prints will be excluded from the process. Why should they be treated differently from someone who is arrested but never charged?

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

I am sorry that we are re-rehearsing all these arguments, but it has given the Minister time to think and obtain all the answers. In that sense, the Committee will benefit from the rehearsal of the arguments and the debate.

The amendment relates to the need to restrict CSOs in their ability to take fingerprints and impressions of footwear. Such restrictions should be applied on civil liberty grounds and on the ground that a CSO is less experienced to make judgements when taking fingerprints and impressions of footwear, which could provoke offence from the innocent victim, especially when the CSO is dealing with people from ethnic minorities, children or other vulnerable sensitive groups. Such criticism and related damage to police-community relations could increase if CSOs used the powers in an unreasonable fashion. Perhaps the Minister can give us some answers as to how she expects the powers to be used, particularly in relation to CSOs.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The primary purpose of clause 108 is to try to provide a quick way to help the police to establish a suspect's identity, but amendment No. 188 would restrict the use of fingerprints taken away from a police station, and the police would lose the chance of detecting more crime. When the technology is fully developed, when the police go into the NAFIS—national automated fingerprint identification system—database, any new fingerprints will be subject to a speculative search against the database of fingerprint information recovered from crime scenes. We are not at that stage yet, but we envisage that that could be done in future. Where a match is found it might lead to a suspect being arrested for another, earlier offence that might not otherwise have been detected.

The aim is to ensure that we get the balance right between giving the police the power to take fingerprints using technology, trying to match those fingerprints to enable them to detect as much crime as they can and taking account of concern about protecting the civil liberties of the individuals involved, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield.

I was asked about an apparent inconsistency. When people who are arrested, taken to a police station and charged with an offence are subsequently acquitted, their fingerprints are retained. He wanted to know why we do not propose to retain the fingerprints acquired in relation to the provisions before us. The answer is that we have exercised a judgment; fingerprints will be   taken earlier in the criminal chain of events, when the constable has reasonable grounds for suspecting that someone might be involved in an offence. On that basis, we made the fine judgment that we would not seek to retain the fingerprints because the intervention comes earlier than if the power of arrest had been exercised, the person taken to a police station and charged and the charge proceeded with.

Photo of Mr Tony McWalter Mr Tony McWalter Labour/Co-operative, Hemel Hempstead

As we are all concerned about those who are victims of malicious and nefarious practices, I wish to emphasise to my hon. Friend that false accusation is one of the most maleficent ways of destroying someone's life. It is vital that a false accusation is put clearly into the system as such, and that all trace of such an accusation is withdrawn. In the case I mentioned to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, I naturally sought from the area commander of police an apology for my constituent's wrongful arrest, but the fingerprint still lies on file for far too long as a register of what was a very traumatic event for my constituent. I urge my hon. Friend to give proper weight in her deliberations to false accusation.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I understand the important issue that my hon. Friend raises. I have absolutely no doubt that the matter to which he refers caused a huge amount of anguish and distress to his constituent. I am aware of similar cases, and I am also aware that the fingerprints are retained at the chief constable's discretion. Therefore, there is the possibility that my hon. Friend's constituent, no doubt ably assisted by him, could make representations to the chief constable that in the circumstances, it is appropriate that the fingerprints be disposed of.

There are many cases in which people who are acquitted go on to commit further crimes. It is a matter of getting the balance right. There are a number of examples of people in such circumstances who have had their fingerprints taken to try to identify them, and when those fingerprints have been compared with the NAFIS database, crime of the most serious kind has been solved. For example, a man arrested for a relatively minor assault in Lewisham gave false particulars. His fingerprints were taken at the police station using live scan technology, which showed that he was wanted in connection with an incident in Brixton in which a young woman was enticed into a crack den and subjected to a multiple gang rape. The crime was solved as a result of using the identification evidence.

There are other similar cases. Someone arrested for aggravated burglary was found to be one of three suspects wanted in connection with an operation on a major gun crime in which someone had been shot in the neck and was subsequently in a coma for four months. These are serious matters, and yet again, I do not underestimate the need to get the balance right to ensure that police can use identification evidence to enable them to detect and solve more crime. We currently have 900,000 unmatched items of scenes of crime identification. We could solve an awful lot of those crimes if we tried to carry out identification. The Committee should not support the amendment tabled   by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, which would limit our ability to use the technology and fingerprints in that way and restrict the ability of the police to take the action that I have outlined.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield spoke to amendment No. 304, which would remove the requirement for a constable who takes fingerprints away from the police station to inform the suspect that his fingerprints will be subject to a speculative search and to make a record that the suspect has been informed. The amendment would not remove that obligation when fingerprints were taken at the station, and we feel that the same requirements should apply when a constable exercises those powers in the street.

The provisions do not impose an unduly bureaucratic burden. I understand that people may feel concerned about officers having to record things, but an officer would make a record in his pocket book in any event, and it is perfectly proper that someone should have the safeguard of being informed that it is likely that their records will be used in the way specified. I ask the Committee, for the reasons that I have given, to resist the amendments. I think that the clause is entirely sensible.

The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) asked whether CSOs would be able to take fingerprints. The answer is no. I reassure him that we consider the power to be of a status that should be limited to police constables.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Generally in the course of the Committee's consideration of the Bill, I have been encouraged by what the Minister has said. I have no fundamental disagreement with her on the provision, but she has caused me some concern simply by her reasons for rejecting my amendment. Had she simply said that the words were otiose, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield suggested, I should have been perfectly happy and said, ''Well, I knew that really, but it was an opportunity to get the debate on to the grounds that I wanted.''

The Minister said, however, that the amendment would unnecessarily restrict the use of fingerprints; that the prints could be used for purposes other than establishing identity; and that one of the prime functions of the power would be for a speculative trawling of the scenes of crime database to see whether the person involved had committed an offence of which they would not, by definition, be suspected by the arresting officer.

Although I can understand that that is a good idea in investigatory terms, it is effectively prohibited by the clause. Subsection (7) provides, through proposed new subsection (1BA), that the prints

''must be destroyed as soon as they have fulfilled the purpose for which they were taken.''

The purpose for which they would be taken would not be a speculative trawl of the database of scenes of crime, but establishing the identity of a person reasonably suspected of committing or attempting to commit an offence. Thus, they could not be used to establish the identity of someone who had committed   an offence for which there were no reasonable grounds for suspicion. It would pay to revisit the clause if the Minister's intention is what she said it was.

We have had a useful debate about the national database of various forms of identification material. I very much agree with what the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead says on the matter—and I do not have many occasions to say that in this Committee. He is right: we have either national databases or databases that are firmly founded on the principle that someone has been convicted of an offence. We do not choose the people for whom there will be a database, and set up a partial database founded on the simple fact that they have been accused of something that has not resulted in a charge.

That is a matter for serious concern.I was interested in the exchange about ID cards between the hon. Members for Cotswold and for Beaconsfield. I feel that there is a fifth column in the Conservative party against the party's position on identity cards, which was perhaps evidenced by the fact that, before Christmas, less than half the Opposition came out to vote as their leader required on the subject. Nevertheless, the party's position is clear: it supports identity cards, but there are we are.

What the Minister said raises more questions than it answers, despite the fact that we might have had a satisfactory reply in the pre-emptive debate occasioned by the untimely intervention of the hon. Member for Huntingdon. I will read what the Minister said carefully. We may have entered into a slightly more confusing area of intention and confusion than she suspects, but for now I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 108 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 109 and 110 ordered to stand part of the Bill.