Clause 78

Serious Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 10 July 2007.

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Power to search for firearms

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I beg to move amendment No. 160, in clause 78, page 43, line 10, after first ‘may’, insert

‘, without lawful authority or reasonable excuse,’.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 161, in clause 78, page 43, line 10, after ‘firearms’, insert ‘, explosives or any noxious substance’.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I am conscious, Mr. Benton, that if we were to debate the amendments in some detail it might preclude a stand part debate. For myself, I am content that we should debate the substance of the clause on the amendments, but it is, of course, a matter for you. I intend to deal briefly with the question of firearms through the amendments.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

It is perfectly in order.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I am grateful, Mr. Benton.

Having looked at the legislation that touches on firearms, I doubt whether the amendments are necessary—and I rather doubt whether clause 78 is necessary. However, the amendments at least enable us to explore that conclusion, and perhaps the Minister will give some reassurance.

Amendment No. 160 would ensure that the officer could not exercise the powers conferred on him by clause 78 unless he had reasonable grounds to suspect that firearms were present. That is intended to provide some additional safeguards for the citizen. At the same time, I would extend the power to search and seal to include noxious substances and explosives. The object is to cover the current situation with terrorism.

One needs to ask—I made my opening observation for this reason—what clause 78 brings to the party. What new powers does it confer on the constabulary? It is possible that it confers one—the power to seal off—but I am not sure that it extends the powers of the constabulary beyond that.

I am troubled by the fact that their lordships spent a lot of time on this in the other place. I know Lord Marlesford well, and have a great deal of respect for his judgment. I notice that he tabled this amendment, or something like it, on some three occasions and rallied to his cause a lot of noble Lords, who supported it and incorporated it in the Bill. Therefore, I approach the matter with some diffidence. However, I do have difficulty in understanding why they did that. Section 47 of the Firearms Act 1997 enables a constable, as now is, to stop a person whom he has reasonable grounds for believing to have a firearm, search him, detain him and, if necessary, search his vehicle as well. If I ask what section 78 of the Bill brings to the party, the answer is the sealing-off power, but I am not sure what is meant by sealing off that is not already provided by section 47.

Lord Marlesford attached considerable importance to the use of metal detectors, sensibly making the point that one can use metal detectors without carrying out a  physical search, by running them up and down somebody’s clothing. I should have thought that the use of metal detectors already came within the power of search. I do not think that search necessarily means putting one’s hands in people’s pockets, but it could involve a metal detector if one wanted to use one.

Although it is not offensive in any way, I rather doubt that we need section 78. I should be grateful if the Minister would reassure the Committee on that point. Would he also be good enough to address my amendments? I have not checked this, but I suspect that there is already—in terrorism legislation and perhaps also in firearms legislation—a power to search where the officer has reasonable grounds to suppose that noxious substances or explosives are present. If that power does not exist, it should do, and in the absence of that power I would strongly recommend my amendments. However, I might have to support clause 78 in order to incorporate them into law.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The clause touches on the apparent need to strengthen the powers of the police to seal off areas in which they suspect that a person or persons may be carrying firearms, and to undertake certain searches.

I know that the Minister takes a close personal interest in the matter. He and I have attended various events at which the families of those affected by gun crime have been present. I am sure that he would agree that we cannot overstate the tragedy of such incidents for the people involved. He was moved, as I was, by an event that we attended recently at City Hall. The testimony of some of the mothers and other close relatives showed the devastating impact of that terrible crime on many families in this country. Last year, 50 people lost their lives through gun crime. I am sure that the Committee will agree that that is 50 people too many.

I am on record as having said that we need to be careful in examining the issue and considering whether further stop-and-search powers are required. I stand by that. However, we are prepared to support measures if there is an identified gap in the law, or if it can be demonstrated that the measures are appropriate and necessary and would make a significant impact in terms of dealing with this appalling crime.

Clearly the culture of carrying weapons needs to be changed. It can be either for the protection, or perceived protection, of the person involved, or as part of asserting some sort of status within a criminal gang culture. Getting guns off the streets must be an essential part of the strategy to deal with serious violent crime. We must also do all that we can to prevent weapons getting into this country in the first place, which is why we support the establishment of a border police force to strengthen our borders. We would also support measures to examine more closely items coming into this country using the postal or courier services to ensure that weapons are not being smuggled in.

There is also the cultural issue that I have talked about. We have to challenge the guns and gangs culture, strengthen communities and the family unit and undermine the criminal gangs. These gangs seek to recruit more vulnerable members of the community into a pattern of crime, which, once they are engaged  within it, is extremely hard although not impossible to break. They also seek to disrupt the traditional bonds of kinship and family and other linkages within society that might prevent that type of activity.

My right hon. and learned Friend’s amendment is about effective law enforcement and ensuring that the police have appropriate powers to address this problem. Lord Marlesford, in moving his amendment which is now incorporated into the Bill as clause 78, said:

“The purpose of the amendment is very simple: it is to help to get guns off Britain’s streets, and thus to reduce gun crime, which is causing misery not just to those who tragically get caught up in it but to the far greater number whose anxiety has been growing over recent years. Whether they are right or wrong, they perceive themselves as vulnerable. The amendment would give the police a simple and over-riding power which would enable them to make it far more risky for anyone to carry an illegal firearm.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 April 2007; Vol. 691, c. 917.]

The Minister will no doubt say in response to that point that the police have not asked for these powers, that the Association of Chief Police Officers says it is not necessary and that there is no gap in the law. However, their lordships felt that there was a shortcoming. My right hon. and learned Friend has identified a number of potential issues that need to be examined closely to see whether there is a gap in the law. As currently drafted the clause appears to have a very wide ambit. For example, it can designate an area within which a search for firearms can be conducted. The meaning and scope of that need to be examined carefully. This provision would therefore need to be amended and refined in some way and it is certainly something that must be looked at actively if the clause is included in the Bill.

I note that my right hon. and learned Friend seeks to extend the ambit of the clause by including explosives and noxious substances. I would prefer to consider those aspects as part of the Privy Council review of terrorism, given that it touches on those sorts of issues. It might be more appropriate to consider the way forward in the light of how the Privy Council committee reports back on the serious issue of terrorism more generally. We hope it will come forward with constructive solutions and proposals that can gain cross-party support.

We understand that concerns have been raised in relation to the clause and its scope. However, the noble Lord makes the more general point that we need to consider carefully whether we need enhanced powers. We are prepared to work with the Minister to discuss any measures that might be appropriate, and if he is minded to table an amendment on Report or to consider other proposals, then, subject to that discussion, he would have our support if appropriate measures are deemed to be necessary and are brought forward.

In that context, therefore, although I note that the Minister will no doubt seek the wholesale deletion of this clause, I would ask him to reflect carefully on the points that my right hon. and learned Friend made about the issues that might arise from this clause, which is why he tabled his amendments. Before discounting this clause out of hand, the Minister should also examine whether a clause of some form should be  retained in the Bill that might address certain issues that have obviously been of concern to their lordships and which may be required to ensure that our law enforcement agencies have the power and authority to intervene appropriately to combat this appalling crime, which claims too many lives in this country each year.

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 11:00, 10 July 2007

Thank you very much, Mr. Benton, for giving me the opportunity to speak to clause 78 and amendments Nos. 160 and 161.

I start with an understanding of what their lordships were trying to achieve, because if one looks at the backdrop to this clause there is a great deal of cause for concern. Last year, for example, there were 46 homicides involving firearms in the UK. In 2005-06, there were 4,036 robberies involving firearms, a 10 per cent. increase on the previous year. Handguns were used in 4,652 offences during 2005-06, an increase of 7 per cent. on the previous year. Finally, shotguns were used in 639 offences during 2005-06, a 7 per cent. increase on the previous year.

We now have in this country a serious and escalating gun crime problem; it is not necessarily escalating in every category, but the overall trend is clearly upwards. The police have responded to that problem. Fifty-five per cent. of firearms offences occur in the areas covered by just three metropolitan forces: the Metropolitan police here in London, the force in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands police. They have all put in place specific programmes and initiatives to try to deal with gun crime. Of course, the temptation for us as legislators is always to think that the solution to problems of this sort is additional legislation. It may be, in part, the solution on some occasions, but the solution is also, of course, partly about the operational initiatives undertaken by the police.

So we have this problem and that was no doubt the reason for the new clause being introduced in the first place, and also for the House of Lords deciding to support it. However, having said all of that, when one reads the clause there are many reasons for concern. I note that the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said, during his contribution a few moments ago, that he did not regard the clause as being “offensive in any way”. Well, I was quite surprised that he said that, because there are reasons why people who are concerned about civil liberties—I know that he is one of them—would have reservations about the drafting of this clause.

For example, it gives any officer, even the lowest ranked officer, the power to seal off an area—that area is not defined—by any means necessary, which is an extremely wide remit, if he has “reason to believe”, which again is an extremely wide remit, that something is being done that is untoward involving a firearm.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Of course, the hon. Gentleman will also remember that one of my amendments would require the officer to have reasonable grounds to believe.

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I take the point. The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s amendments would improve the clause, but he said that he might not wish to move them because he might see merit in removing the clause altogether. My view is that, although the motivation  behind the clause is honourable, the provisions of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 give the police the powers that they require to deal with the problem. What is more, they are more tightly drafted than the clause and more likely to ensure a balance between giving the police the rightful ability to exercise their power to protect the public and reassuring the public that their liberties are safeguarded.

The existing legislation is more practical in its application than this widely drafted clause. For those reasons, subject to what the Minister says, I suspect that there will be a consensus that, although politicians must repeatedly turn to this issue to try to deal with the problems, the clause is not the best way to do so.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I thank the Opposition Members who have contributed to this important debate, which is of concern to everybody throughout the country. Everybody wants to see gun crime and firearms-related offences fall. Notwithstanding the points that the hon. Member for Taunton made about the number of homicides, the overall number of firearms offences in the year to December 2006 fell by 16 per cent. Although there are issues to be resolved, there are also some good points worth mentioning.

To the right hon. and learned Member for—

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

Yes, we will get there in the end. Sleaford at five to one.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

We all have problems with what our constituencies are called.

I agree with much of what the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said and I agree with the purpose of his amendments. The Government will vote against the inclusion in the Bill of clause 78, which will account for one of his amendments. With respect to his other point, I understand that the power to search for explosives and so on is contained in other terrorism-related legislation. Such points might be subject to the review to which his hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch alluded. From those comments, I hope that it will be clear that the amendments are unnecessary. The Government will vote against the clause; the other amendment is covered in other legislation.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch mentioned the various events that we have been to together. He made a point about the force of argument that the families of victims bring to the debate. I know such families in Nottingham and I have become friends with some of them. In one case, I was friends with a family before their son became a victim of gun crime. I find it remarkable that those families often turn their grief to the pursuit of a way to reduce gun crime in the future. Those people, whose lives have been devastated by an appalling murder, have the power and strength to turn their grief towards something positive. One cannot fail to be moved by those families, as were the hon. Gentleman and I and many hundreds of other people at City Hall.

With all due humility, I say that I am not often accused of saying that it is important to protect the subject’s civil liberties. It am often accused of quite the opposite—of riding roughshod over centuries of tradition and the civil liberties of individuals. In this case, although no one can doubt that the intention of those who tabled the clause is to reduce gun crime, we have to be proportionate and sensible about it, and the power proposed in the clause is draconian. Do we really want a police constable who suspects that there might be a gun in an area to be able to seal off that area, with no specification as to its size, with no limit or safeguard in respect of the length of time that should be allowed for, and without any reference to a senior officer? That leaves aside the practicality of such an operation, which would involve hundreds of police, blue tape and goodness knows what else.

We have debated in this and many other Bills the need to limit arbitrary powers, and I, and many other hon. Members, find it strange that notwithstanding their good intent their lordships have introduced a proposal that does something that they most often rail against us for doing. In many respects, it is a role-reversal; we are saying that the clause pushes too far and that we cannot just ride roughshod over subjects’ civil liberties.

The public want as much as possible to be done to combat crime, and especially gun crime, but if people understood the powers that would be given to an individual police officer in these circumstances the vast majority would not find it acceptable. I therefore ask the Committee to vote against clause stand part.

Clause 78 introduces additional powers for the police to seal off areas to search for firearms, but there is already sufficient legislation, as the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said. Section 47 of the Firearms Act 1968 gives the police powers to detain and search, and a constable may enter any place to exercise those powers. Powers to stop and search without reasonable suspicion within a specified area are provided by section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, but under strict and appropriate safeguards. ACPO has strongly confirmed that it is fully satisfied with its powers in that respect, and that it is concerned about the wide and unnecessary extension of powers provided by the clause. Liberty has also expressed its concerns, and agrees with our position on the complete lack of safeguards in the provision, which shows that we do listen to Liberty.

Under the proposed power, any constable can decide to seal off an area with no requirement to inform a senior officer, no indication of the extent of the area and with no specified time limit. It is a disproportionate provision, which could affect certain communities.

Photo of Margaret Moran Margaret Moran Labour, Luton South

I commend the Minister’s remarks. Will he join me in commending the family of Police Constable John Henry who was shot in Luton in my constituency a few weeks ago, and the work they are doing to bring communities together? I am aware from the Minister’s remarks that the provisions could damage community relations in Luton, because they would be wide open to complaints about abuse by the police should they be enacted. That is a strong reason why the clause should be removed.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction) 11:15, 10 July 2007

I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. I support what she said about PC John Henry and the work that his family are doing to try to reduce gun crime, and to get something out of that tragedy by ensuring that such awful events do not take place. My hon. Friend makes the important point that if we are not careful with legislation, we damage community relations and contribute to disorder. We must be careful. Although we want to tackle gun crime, we must ensure that the legislation that we pass is proportionate.

Appropriate, proportionate, intelligence-led policing such as that conducted by the Metropolitan police through Operation Trident has proved to be successful in tackling gun crime. Stigmatising certain communities by cordoning off areas, which could happen under this clause, as my hon. Friend pointed out, would not achieve that goal or help to develop community cohesion. Our view is that the clause is both unnecessary and potentially harmful. I ask the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham to withdraw his amendments, and I ask hon. Members to oppose the clause.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I shall not put my amendments to a vote. I am satisfied that the provisions of section 47 of the 1968 Act cover the situation adequately. I am also persuaded by what the Minister has said on the ambit of the powers contained in clause 78. They go too far. I shall not vote to retain the clause in the Bill. I also take the opportunity to say to you, Mr. Benton, and through you to their noble lordships in the other place, that I hope they will not try to reinsert the clause in the Bill. If they send it back to this House, I will not support it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 78 disagreed to.