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Commons Chamber

Volume 227: debated on Friday 2 July 1993

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House Of Commons

Friday 2 July 1993

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock

Prayers

[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

Petition

Maastricht Treaty

9.34 am

I present an instalment of a petition for a referendum on the Maastricht treaty. It represents the wishes of many millions of citizens of the United Kingdom, as shown by 73 per cent. of the population in the latest MORI opinion poll, the 90 per cent. of those requested who agreed to sign the petition and the 88 per cent. pro-referendum response for the Dial for Democracy.

The petition, with its hundreds of thousands of names, comes from throughout the United Kingdom—from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland—and more names are flowing in and will continue to flow in. Our own citizens should have the same opportunity for a referendum as other citizens of the European Community. As the implications of the treaty unfold, so the case for a referendum strengthens.

The petition says:
To the honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled. The Humble Petition of Electors of the United Kingdom sheweth
That the Maastricht Treaty would bring about a European Union.
That the people of the United Kingdom have been given no right to determine, for themselves, in a democratic vote whether or not they wish these constitutional changes to be made;
Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your honourable House: Will ensure that before the Maastricht Treaty, or any modification or amendment of it, is approved by Parliament, or ratified by Her Majesty's Government, the electors of the United Kingdom shall be given that right to vote for or against that Treaty, in a National Referendum.
And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray.

To lie upon the Table.

Orders Of The Day

Local Government (Overseas Assistance) Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Clause 1

Power To Provide Advice And Assistance

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 1, line 16, at end insert—

("() Before giving any general authorisation under section (3) above, the Secretary of State shall consult with such persons appearing to him to represent local authorities as he thinks appropriate.")

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

We have now reached the final stages of the passage of the Bill. I am particularly grateful that their Lordships' House has made a contribution to it. I should like particularly to record my thanks to Baroness Flather, who took the Bill through the House of Lords, and to Lord Graham, who spoke for the Opposition in the same constructive and helpful spirit that we have witnessed throughout the Bill's stages hitherto.

The amendments complete the Bill. They seek to reinforce the basis on which the Bill was drafted. Local authorities, perhaps with some justification, were rather suspicious of the Bill's requirement for the Secretary of State's approval. In fact, none of us who support the Bill intended to restrict the existing powers of local authorities to have cultural exchanges and to promote the best interests of their members, but the Bill clearly defined new powers.

In a changing world, all democratically elected bodies have a part to play. As I said, local authorities were concerned about the requirement in the Bill for the Secretary of State's approval. That was always a fall-back position and was never intended to be anything else. In Committee, we had wide discussions on how best to promote and remove the dead hand of bureaucracy from the various measures that we hope will flow from the Bill. It was decided that we could do so through a general authorisation, which has been drafted for two reasons.

First, I would not have been associated with the Bill unless it really achieved greater links between local authorities world wide and especially the transfer of needed help and advice to the developing world. Indeed, the whole purpose of the know-how funds, which were established to help eastern and central Europe, would have failed if we were not able to give local authorities the clearly defined power to play their full part.

Secondly, I know from my experience of working with the Department of the Environment that it has more than enough to do without trying to police the many different links that the Bill will encourage. The last thing that it would want is to be inundated with inquiries, and the last thing that local authorities want is to suffer from the dead hand of bureaucracy because that is not the way to water what I believe will be a new and flowering garden.

The amendments make it clear that the general authorisation is an important element in setting out the parameters whereby local authorities can operate. Basically, the general authorisation as discussed so far gives powers to go ahead with schemes that have been funded by the know-how funds and which, clearly, the Foreign Office have already approved. It gives the powers to go ahead where there is no cost to the local charge payers because a local authority or another body in the other country can fully fund the advice that it is seeking. Perhaps most important, the general authorisation gives the freedom to spend a certain amount of money even before the schemes reach fruition.

The figures discussed in the original authorisation draft were based on population. Without staff-related costs, which are an important component, the suggestion is that a local authority of 250,000 to 400,000 people would spend £80,000 independently and freely. That would be sufficient for the authority to make a worthwhile contribution even before it entered any bigger schemes. The same applies up and down the scale.

We want to reassure local authorities that we are on their side. The amendments would ensure that local authorities were consulted about the general authorisation before it is produced, to ensure that the greatest possible agreement is reached. One cannot be more helpful than that. I am prepared to recognise that previous Administrations have not always been famous for consulting or working with the grain—if I may use that expression—of the rest of society. In this case, however, we are including in the Bill something which Opposition parties often demand. The fact that the Department of the Environment will consult local authorities about the general authorisation before it is published will ensure that it is drafted in such a way as to command the widest possible agreement.

After consultation, the Department of the Environment will issue general guidance to local authorities on how they can utilise the new right and power.

Will the general authorisation clarify the position? What happens if, for example, Edinburgh, which happens to be twinned with Kiev, or if another town twinned with an eastern Europe town, wants to send a group of special advisers there for some years at a cost of several hundreds of thousands of pounds? Will the guidance note ensure that we are not inadvertently getting involved in huge extra public expenditure?

There is no possibility of our allowing huge extra expenditure, for the simple reason that the amount covered by the general authorisation is not sufficient to do so. Equally, I cannot imagine any local authority wanting to move in that direction at charge payers' expense because it is prohibited. If it were to take place—and my hon. Friend paints a very alarming picture—it would have to be through the know-how fund, which means that the Foreign Office would have had to approve it because it would be paying. Alternatively, it could happen if Kiev, for example, suddenly found "gold in them thar hills", asked Edinburgh or some other city to send its officials and said that it would fund the project.

If my hon. Friends have any suspicion that the intention is to create junketing or the usual things that we hear about, I beg them to put it from their mind. As the Bill states, it is intended to enable local authorities in Great Britain
"to provide advice and assistance as respects matters in which they have skill and experience"
to bodies engaged in local government anywhere in the world.

9.45 am

The transfers that took place both ways, before we discovered that they were illegal, involved relatively small numbers of people. The example that I cited on Second Reading was that of my own county council in Nottinghamshire, which is linked under the know-how fund with a city in Czechoslovakia where it helped to establish the fire brigade, mainly because the city had none but was surrounded by incredible potential risks due to its industrial production. As a result of that initiative, the Czech lands government have adopted the procedures taught to that town for the whole of Czechoslovakia. Firemen there have received a British training, which has meant great overall improvements.

On Third Reading, I said that the growth in the number of people involved in transfers means that we also benefit. Local authority officials who have had the opportunity to widen their horizons and interests come back as better men and women because they have acquired a much wider understanding of what the world is about.

Under Lords amendment No. 2 the guidance will mean an increase in the number of local authorities wanting to play a part in the exchange of advice, assistance, skill and experience. Because of the way in which they operate, if local authorities are issued with guidance they will be more likely to understand what is on offer and be willing to play a part. The two amendments improve the Bill's acceptance and scope and will encourage more local authorities to participate.

It may be of interest to my colleagues and all those interested in the international concept of Britain's role if I say a little about what happened at the recent International Union of Local Authorities' conference in Toronto. Those who recall my Third Reading speech will know that it was the International Union of Local Authorities' conference, which I attended in 1970, which partly inspired me to take on the Bill, so it is ironic that we are talking about the subsequent conference, which was held in the same place.

I had already suggested the idea that one way in which to proceed was for the Commonwealth to give an example. In the Commonwealth, there are local authorities on every continent, the gap between the rich and the poor, and a common link. It would be useful if the Commonwealth could give a lead in showing eastern and central Europe how the scheme could work. I am pleased to say that at the conference Commonwealth delegates from all over the world came together and the idea received widespread support.

The suggestion now before the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth is that we form a Commonwealth local government forum which would have as its tasks encouraging and developing democracy at local level, facilitating the exchange of experience among local government practitioners within the Commonwealth, promoting a programme of worshops specifically designed to strengthen the practice and institutions of local government and assisting with capacity building in countries where the strategic development of local government is a high priority. Our local authority organisations could give such guidance and the Government could join in.

It is lucky that the head of the International Union of Local Authorities in Africa is the mayor of Kampala. He is very much seized with the idea that the Commonwealth countries of Africa should come together and facilitate the exchange of ideas. Before anyone tells me that we should beware of such a development, I shall read part of the letter that the Local Government International Bureau has written to the head of the Commonwealth secretariat. It says that the scheme is intended to be a practical development which will be
"a business-like mechanism for doing essentially practical work."
I am delighted to say that the Canadian Federation of Municipalities. which already has a worthwhile scheme, is very encouraged and is working with its own parliamentarians, some of whom have been here recently, to help and to promote the idea. I remember telling the chairman of the CPA that when our delegation goes to Cyprus this year it should raise the matter at the conference and should give it a push forward.

I have given a small example of how the Bill can produce a reaction from many people who can release their energies to help to develop all the ideals for which the House stands. I hope that we all realise that the Bill has been a worthwhile project. It is generally supported. We now want to release the energies of a new sector of people in places far and wide to the benefit of all.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate and to support my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester). The Bill is one of the most worth while that I have heard debated on a Friday for a long time. I am happy to have the chance to support it. I pay tribute to the Bill's promoter in the other place, Baroness Flather, who suffered a personal tragedy and so had to defer her promotion of the Bill. It was wonderful to see her back recently in her usual sparkling form. She tabled the amendments in the other place that we are now discussing.

I beg your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I have to go to my constituency this morning. Our adopted son is unwell and I need to go home to see that he is all right. My absence will not be a result of any lack of desire to hear the totality of the speeches. The Bill is close to my heart and to the heart of my constituency. That will please the Minister because he has family links in my constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe has pointed out the benefits that will be achieved in widening the scope of the know-how fund. I have had the opportunity to see how excellent the know-how fund has been in operation. Immediately the fund began, I visited Poland where I was invited to meet excellent and eminent members of the United Kingdom world of financial management and to discuss the way in which they were offering their services to emergent local and central Governments. As I drove to the dinner party, I was given the guest list and I saw that all the names were Polish.

When I arrived, I asked where the people from the City of London and from local and central Government were. My host said that they had given me the guest list. It turned out that all the Polish names were the names of sons and daughters of people who came to the United Kingdom between 1937 and 1939. They worked for the merchant banks, for local government and for central Government. All their names ended in "ski" and they told me that in London they have a club called the Ski Club which is for the sons and daughters of the Polish emigrés, who are now fully fledged members of the know-how fund and who are working out ways in which our organisations can assist Governments overseas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe has already covered the know-how fund. I intend to talk about local government initiatives that are already up and running. Their effectiveness will be enhanced and underwritten by the swift and successful passage of the Lords amendments. The Minister knows that I have two district councils in my constituency. The one in the north is Torridge district council and it has a technical twinning arrangement with Gaborone in Botswana. It is a model of the work that my hon. Friend has described to the House.

I shall describe how such arrangements have been working quietly and effectively in recent years. The relationship led to the opportunity for written advice and guidance to be given on a number of topics. The district council has been able to offer practical placements within the authority in connection with university courses being undertaken by Botswanan students in the United Kingdom. That is the first triumph of the relationship which was created by the chief executive, Mr. Richard Brasington, as a result of his experience of Africa before he became chief executive. Students already at universities here have been able to learn hands on about the district council's work in my constituency.

The relationship would be more meaningful and would be strengthened if the Bill were passed. Torridge district council has participated in numerous forums to discuss the Bill especially at the Local Government International Bureau. The carefully worded clauses will be most helpful for our district council in its efforts to provide proper guidance and assistance to emerging local governments in the developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where our systems of local government are held in the highest regard and are seen as the example to copy.

I applaud wholeheartedly what my hon. Friend's local authority is doing. It is exactly what is intended under the Bill and deserves as such to be highly commended. I should appreciate my hon. Friend's thoughts on one slight worry. Lords amendment No. 1 imposes an obligation and a duty on the Secretary of State to consult. Would that not cause a local authority additional delay in providing the vital assistance which it has provided in the past? Would it not add another hurdle for that local authority to overcome which would make it even more difficult for it to assist people than was previously the case?

Perhaps I should refer my hon. Friend to the comments of Baroness Flather when she moved the amendments that we are discussing. She explained to Lord Graham that the amendments would strengthen the process of consultation and she said:

"By putting it on the face of the Bill the Government want to flag the consultation process and make sure that the final outcome is achieved in fullest consultation rather than in any kind of one-sided way."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 June 1993; Vol. 546, c. 1286.]
That is the important point.

10 am

The point about the consultation is that it will be with the Local Government International Bureau. Once the general authorisation is completed following that consultation, the freedom for Torridge and any other authority to operate will be enhanced. The consultation is important at a national level in the drafting of the general authorisation. Local authorities will then operate under that general authorisation much more freely.

I welcome that explanation from my hon. Friend. I want to expand, from personal experience, on points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe and those by my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington) about consultation being hampering and not helpful.

I had the honour to be the official observer from this House in the multi-party elections in Zambia. The former high commissioner to the United Kingdom from Bangladesh and I were given northern province to look after. For three weeks we hauled ourselves all over northern province which is half the size of England, but has considerably fewer roads.

If you recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Government of Zambia thought that they were going to win. I do not want to heighten the hopes of Her Majesty's Official Opposition by that rather challenging statement because it is clear that the Opposition are not going to win here. However, the Zambian Government thought that they were going to win. They were so optimistic that they committed the folly of inviting outside observers. As a result, they lost profoundly because the Zambian people and the Zambian local authorities knew how they should behave.

When I entered a very important local authority head office in Zambia, I saw Government electoral material fiercely displayed all over that office. I could say only that that was not correct. I told the people there that that was not how local authorities are meant to behave. I said, "As you are aware from your links with local authorities in the United Kingdom, local authorities are meant to be strictly neutral."

Against all the odds and with no power, I was able to have posters of that kind taken down in many local authority headquarters. I would not have been able to do that if I did not have the example of local authority behaviour in this country.

I do not believe that consultation will do anything other than strengthen and enhance the process. I am glad to report to the House and to my hon. Friend the Minister that Torridge district council's links with Gaborone and Botswana have led to tentative first steps towards a link between the Association of District Councils in England and Wales and the Botswana Association of Local Authorities. Those burgeoning links would, in the view of our chief executive, be assisted by the clarifications implicit in the Bill.

I hope that, before too long, there will be multi-party elections in Malawi. Broad brush approaches to democracy are wonderful as banner-headline statements.

However, it is the detailed work on the ground that implements democracy. We have already seen that the life President of Malawi, despite an overwhelming vote against——

Order. The hon. Lady really cannot tour the world in respect of democratic elections in relation to the Lords amendments that we are considering.

Perhaps I can complete that point within your terms of reference, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The guidance required under the amendments in respect of local authority work internationally is of critical importance in terms of foreign policy. How can local authorities be expected to know the full details of the overwhelming majority against the life President and the way in which the elections will have to be carried out?

The last time that I was in Malawi, the mayor of Blantyre was the most important person that I met. His power is very great. He operates his local authority powers in such a way that the people in his large district will be able to adopt the full democratic process. That is perhaps more important than whether he can immediately be recognised from the face of the Bill. That is an example of Torridge district council's work and it shows why the issue is so important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe rightly dwelt on the ways in which the know-how fund experience will be enlarged at ground floor level. He referred to sub-Saharan Africa and I hope that I have enlarged and strengthened his point. However, the Bill refers to countries outside the United Kingdom. Therefore, there is no need to focus solely on eastern Europe or on sub-Saharan Africa.

As hon. Members are aware of this, I want to refer to the common economic development strategy which Torridge district council has set up with the Finistere conseil general. That is a link with a county outside the United Kingdom. It is a link with a fellow European Community member. It is a regional link between Torridge district council and a part of northern France. Finistere conseil general and Torridge district council have now set up superb links. The social twinning links already existed and that is not the purpose of the Bill. Nor is it the purpose of the guidance in respect of the amendments. Indeed, Baroness Flather referred to that in the other place.

Agricultural and tourism diversification plans and other forms of economic diversification are being established. Such links and common economic development strategies between members of the European Community would be greatly enhanced as a result of the Bill.

Torridge district council also established links following a visit by a party from Pays de Landivisiau and the Pays du Haut Leon in 1991. It was wonderful to watch the agreement being signed. Such links are fully within the EC's policy and they are strengthened and enhanced by the Bill. I have a copy of the development strategy with me and I should be glad to show it to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe because I am sure that he would be pleased to see it.

Torridge district council also links with a German town and the department of economic promotion in Landratsamt Bergen. That is another economic twinning opportunity arid it will also be enhanced and strengthened by the Bill.

It is critical that proper guidance and consultation are obtained between the Department of the Environment and the Foreign Office in all matters affecting such links. There has to be some overall undertaking of the political, diplomatic and economic problems of the countries with which such relationships are being set up. The Foreign Office, particularly now that it has strengthened the economic side of our embassies and high commissions, has unrivalled knowledge of the countries that will receive assistance. Therefore, I most strongly support the two amendments. Once again, I congratulate the sponsor of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, in the largest possible terms, on his wonderful initiative in bringing the Bill forward in the first place.

The House will know that I am a strong supporter of the Bill. Indeed, I spoke about it on Third Reading and on the various amendments. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) on having piloted the Bill so far and on ensuring its successful passage through the other place. I add my congratulations to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson). I am sure that the whole House hopes that her adopted son makes a full recovery and that he is in fine fettle when she arrives home.

I have one or two concerns about the amendments. They are concerns about detail and they raise questions which I hope will elicit explanations about the way in which the amendments are proposed to be operated. I worry about our passion for consultation. Consultation is a wonderful thing. It is important in ensuring that everyone who is to take a decision or be involved in an activity is on side, that everyone understands the implications of what is happening, that they are talking to the same agenda, and that all the wonderful phrases in business talk are implemented and produce the desired result. However, consultation is also an opportunity for people to sit around a table and waste inordinate amounts of time trying to consult and sort out the final vestige of dispute and to reach consensus when what is actually needed is a decision. Often, what is needed is someone who will cut through the red tape, examine a certain activity or proposal and say that it is correct or incorrect.

I worry that Lords amendment No. 1 will tie down my hon. Friend the Minister and make him spend endless hours talking to people to try to get the right result. I understand that the consultation is with the generality of local authorities, whether through a local authority association or through other bodies representing local authorities. However, I will give an example which is close to my heart in that it affected my borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

Some years ago, the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham was a leader in local authority finance. The borough was a major participant in the financial markets—to such an extent, indeed, that it was the major player in the swap markets for some years—to the extent of gambling £6,000 million of the then ratepayers' funds on the swap markets. The London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, in its wisdom, thought that it understood the swap markets and that it would exercise its ability to manipulate those markets to the general benefit of ratepayers in the borough and make a substantial return. Unfortunately, as history relates, the borough lost a very considerable amount of money on the swap markets. That money did not have to be paid by the ratepayers, because we eventually ended up with a very protracted series of court actions which ruled that those financial transactions were ultra vires.

The London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham demonstrated for all to see that it was financially incompetent in the swap markets. However, other boroughs entered into activities in the swap markets in an extremely efficient, competent and correct manner. They used the swap markets in the way in which the swap markets are intended to be used—that is, for hedging the interest rate risk that local authorities have to undertake in the normal course of their business. There was no doubt that some financial activities that were undertaken by other local authorities were correctly undertaken.

Immediately, in one example, we have a conflict between local authorities that are competent in financial management and those which are incompetent in financial management. One can readily see that, as a result of that, if there were to be genuine consultation with the bodies representing local authorities in the generality, there might be a conflict in those bodies over whether they believe that local authorities should be able to give advice to local authorities overseas on how to management their investments and how to manage their activities on the world capital markets, if that were appropriate in the particular case.

10.15 am

I am concerned that we might end up with a very protracted, inconclusive negotiation which would delay the whole process of resolving what general permissions and consents my hon. Friend the Minister would give to local authorities and would ensure that the wonderful activities that are undertaken, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West, by Torridge council are delayed. I am sure that that council is very well managed, is highly competent and employs highly professional staff. Those staff would not be able to offer their financial expertise to councils overseas because of my hon. Friend the Minister's understandable worries about other local authorities such as my own borough of Hammersmith and Fulham wishing to enter into the same activities. That might cause difficulties in drawing up general consents, and I would be concerned about that. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would explain how he proposes to ensure that unreasonable delays do not occur as a result of the amendment.

I am also worried because the amendment lays down a statutory duty to consult. I am not a lawyer, and I do not pretend to understand the finer points of judicial review, but it seems that where a statutory duty is laid down on a Minister and is written on the face of a Bill, in cases of dispute it opens up the opportunity to challenge whether the Minister consulted in the right way, consulted all the people whom he should have consulted, and took proper notice of the advice that he was given in that consultation process.

I am a little concerned about whether some of the activities that the amendment imposes on the process to enable the beneficial effects of this legislation to come into effect somewhat over-egg the process and make it overly complicated, and whether on balance it might have been better to leave it to the common sense and good will of the Minister and the people in the local authorities and local authority organisations in deciding what activities should be undertaken.

The amendment also raises questions about how long the consultation process can take, because one can imagine that such a consultation process could be protracted. One does not have to take account simply of my example about financial management to see that there may be many disputes about the appropriate activities of local authorities and which local authorities should be able to engage in certain sorts of advice and activities.

If the consultation process takes too long, I can imagine a situation in which a local authority will be on the point of entering into what would be fundamentally a commercial transaction. It will be a local authority going to, say, eastern Europe under the aegis of the know-how funds and it will get paid for its expertise and the work that it does. One hopes that it will make a profit on the work—it will not do it simply at cost. It will certainly not make a loss.

The local authority may well be in competition for the contract to advise the overseas body, so time may be of the essence in terms of whether it can sign the contract to get the business. If the negotiations to provide the general authorisation become too protracted, the general authorisation might not be available to be issued because of the statutory requirements of this amendment and might not be able to be issued sufficiently speedily to enable the local authority to sign the contract that it wishes to enter into in the time frame set up by the other people trying to get the contract as well.

I am worried that the whole process may be too protracted and delayed. However, it is absolutely right that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be required, under amendment No. 2, to give guidance to local authorities throughout the exercise of powers that he thinks appropriate. It is important that specific guidance will be given to local authorities as some of them may think that it is a wonderful opportunity not to be bogged down in the boring minutiae of local government in the United Kingdom and that what they will be doing is foreign travel, staying in fancy hotels and dealing with glamorous international life in giving international advice to foreign local authorities. Some officers in local government may be attracted to that, to the detriment of their local council taxpayers.

One can imagine that the leader of a council might well decide that his or her real objective in life is not to run the council that he or she was elected to run but to assist the development of eastern Europe and that he or she might spend too much time on that. I hope that the guidance given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will ensure that the activities undertaken by local authorities will be commensurate with their ability to undertake those activities and that no activities undertaken will be to the detriment of council taxpayers who, after all, have first call on the expertise and skill of the officers and councillors elected to represent them and to look after their interests.

The criticisms that have been made about the amendments are small compared with the enormous benefits that the Bill will produce and I certainly would not wish to throw out the Bill for the sake of concerns about the amendments. I hope that the problems that I foresee—the administrative problems, the problem of delay and the problem of getting into too much detail and spreading the consultation too wide, to the detriment of decision-taking—can be addressed and that we can be reassured that my fears are not real.

I am sure that the House will join me in wishing my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) a safe and speedy journey. We all hope that her son is returned to good health as soon as possible.

Before I address the Lords amendments, I should like to congratulate Baroness Flather and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester). For many years, my hon. Friend has taken an interest in overseas assistance to lesser developed nations and I have no doubt whatever that he will be remembered for this Bill in years to come.

The political and economic regeneration of the former communist countries in eastern Europe will be helped considerably by the Bill. However, as my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe and for Torridge and Devon, West suggested, the Bill should not concentrate solely on eastern Europe. It should enable local authorities to provide assistance to countries throughout the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

The absence of legal clarity and authority has necessitated the Bill. For many years, local authorities have been involved in ensuring that assistance is given to lesser developed countries. However, until today and this Bill, there has not been the opportunity for clarity, which I hope that the amendments will provide. The amendments will facilitate a better working of overseas assistance and a check against some of the excesses, which amendment No. 3 will tackle.

Amendment No. 1 will strengthen the position of local authorities in undertaking much needed and desired overseas assistance as a whole. I welcome such activities by local authorities. Many schemes—my hon. Friends have already drawn attention to some of them—are currently being undertaken under the general discretionary powers available at present. Unfortunately, those general discretionary powers do not have anything other than fairly questionable legal backing. The amendment gives local authorities greater autonomy in providing assistance through the concept of general authorisation. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington) on some of the points that he raised a few moments ago.

The Bill provide a watertight legal framework in which local authorities can operate. It is an excellent addition to the current arrangements and will prevent costly and bureaucratic delays because local authorities will no longer have to approach the Secretary of State before proceeding. While it is important that there will be a consultation process initially to ensure appropriate general guidance, when that general guidance is laid down there will be a broad watertight framework in which local authorities can operate. Consent is not needed for schemes that have already been approved by the European Community, Government Departments and other international organisations.

I represent a constituency which is part of the borough of Sefton. My hon. Friends have already alluded to the activities of their local authorities. While my local authority has been twinned with a number of areas in Europe for many years, since the fall of the Berlin wall my local authority has taken steps to twin with Gdansk in Poland. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take note of the importance that I attach to the general guidance ensuring that those local authorities that undertake overseas assistance do so in a way that will have a direct benefit for the countries, as well as possibly for the local authority officers who may travel abroad for an extended period, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe suggested. That is vital because otherwise overseas assistance may simply become nothing more than a set of civic duties in which the major of a borough goes overseas without any consequent benefit for the overseas countries.

10.30 am

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already approved several educational exchanges and cultural links. I hope that when the general guidance is in operation it will ensure that his duties are less onerous in this respect and that it will be clear what local authorities can do without seeking his guidance. Local authority associations saw no need in principle for the Secretary of State to give his consent to individual schemes because, as they said in a briefing, local authorities are
"responsible, democratically elected bodies acting within the law and accountable to the electorate."
However, the local authority associations welcome the general authorisation to proceed without recourse to the Secretary of State.

I commend Lords amendment No. 1 for introducing consultation. It will lead to greater co-operation between local government and central Government. It would be good to see such development across the board. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister could clarify exactly to whom the wording in the amendments refers. Amendment No. 1 says:
"the Secretary of State shall consult with such persons appearing to him to represent local authorities as he thinks appropriate."
Does the amendment refer to local authority associations alone or to other groups? Why are parish and community councils not included?

The amendment says, "as he thinks appropriate." In what circumstances would my hon. Friend the Minister consider it inappropriate to consult local authorities? Greater definition and assurance needs to be provided in that respect, but otherwise the amendment is most worthy and has my full support.

Lords amendment No. 2 is crucial for the protection of local authorities. I hope that it will prevent them from being drawn, perhaps unwittingly, into potentially compromising, dangerous or corrupt alliances especially if they considered specifically granting money for particular schemes of overseas assistance, which, of course, they will not be allowed to do. For example, a local authority such as Lambeth or any other council might be involved in a project that breached national security and provided access to information that could be dangerous in the wrong hands.

In mentioning Lambeth, my hon. Friend raises another troubling possibility that he might wish to consider. Lambeth might win a contract overseas to advise a local authority in, say, an innocent country such as Poland or Czechoslovakia on how to avoid fraud and corruption in local government. If Lambeth won such a contract, my hon. Friend the Minister would be worried. But if Sefton, the local authority of my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks), won such a contract, that would be perfectly acceptable. There should be clear guidance on which local authorities can give assistance on what.

My hon. Friend makes his point in his own way. It is particularly important to have an extended process of consultation with local authorities to ensure that the general guidance is watertight. To take an example from the past, it would have been inappropriate for a local authority to seek to establish links with a Romanian council when not necessarily the Government but perhaps Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom wished to see the back of Mr. Ceausescu. It would also have been inappropriate for Merseyside police to teach Serbian city riot police urban warfare tactics when the United Kingdom Government and Members of Parliament were seeking to end relations as civil war brewed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham is entirely right to wish to ensure that the general guidance is watertight. The Secretary of State will be able to provide advice on the pros and cons of a certain project. I hope that when the general guidance has been agreed and is in print he will be happy so to do. That would be less onerous than the present arrangements. We must be assured that the general guidance prevents abuses of the current arrangements.

In recent years, I have been involved in overseas assistance to sub-Saharan Africa. My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham was right to pursue the argument because I am sure that if watertight arrangements preventing the expenditure of large sums were not established, money which went overseas might not necessarily be spent as wisely as we would wish. Indeed, it would be dangerous for any local authority to be given the opportunity to spend money in certain countries in sub-Saharan Africa where money disappears and where the Overseas Development Administration provides tangible aid rather than cash handouts.

I have tried to cover the two Lords amendments briefly. The Bill will be widely welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Overseas assistance can be provided by not only Her Majesty's Government but by local authorities. I hope that the Bill will be an important enabling measure.

It is a great pleasure to see the Bill back in the House. I shall be brief because I know that other hon. Members are keen to speak. I had the opportunity to attend all the debates on the Bill except the Second Reading. It would be foolish of the House to underestimate the value of the Bill. When it becomes an Act, it will lay for a considerable time the groundwork of our co-operation in a technical sense between local authorities.

The Bill came about because there was uncertainty in the law, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) lucidly explained. Such is the importance of the work that will be undertaken by the know-how funds that I was pleased that the Government agreed to authorise some of the schemes even before the Bill was enshrined in law. By the time of the Second Reading, 20 schemes had been approved. In May, 15 additional schemes were approved in anticipation of the Bill's becoming law.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Southport, I have noticed many of the schemes and much of the activity that takes place in eastern Europe and I look forward to seeing many more schemes being established in the developing world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

There is a growing trend in local government to co-operate globally. Local government officers who entered the service a few years ago would not have dreamt that such co-operation could exist even among relatively small authorities. In my constituency, I have two local authorities—Brentwood and Epping Forest district councils. Both those authorities have considerable experience of dealing with other authorities in all parts of Europe. Recently the Brentwood borough returning officer went to Cambodia to help supervise part of its election.

The Bill is best described as one which clarifies technical twinning. It builds on the twinning arrangements that have existed between local authorities for a number of years. It provides for a modern twinning, which offers practical assistance and help to local authorities that share similar problems.

Some of my hon. Friends have expressed worries that mayors may jet-set around the world on junkets. I respectfully point out that that kind of behaviour is already lawful and that lord mayors can engage in that kind of activity. I will be brave enough to predict, however, that the Bill will make it extremely unlikely that we will see any junketing.

The Bill is about offering practical assistance. Many countries, particularly those in central and eastern Europe, are starting a process to try to find a way to establish representative democracy within their communities. They also must tackle the difficult problem of dismantling much of the existing burdensome bureaucracy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington) expressed worries about unknowing overseas councils being advised by councils such as Lambeth or Hammersmith and Fulham. I suspect that such is their infamy that it is extremely unlikely that any community in the world would be gullible enough to take advice from them. I read recently that a hitherto unknown tribe had been discovered in Borneo, I believe, that was clothed in tree bark and carried a stone round as a god. Clearly, those are the only kind of people gullible enough to listen to Lambeth council. I hope that my hon. Friend, in his winding-up speech, will undertake to ensure that a copy of Hansard is sent immediately to those unfortunate people.

What is particularly good about the two amendments is that they demonstrate a willingness by the Government to consult and listen to local government. I do not share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham about delays. The general consents are meant to speed up the process, not slow it down. The fact that consultation is, to use the words of my noble Friend Baronesss Flather, "flagged up" in the Bill is an important statement about the partnership between local and central Government.

That partnership has been subject to strains and stresses in recent years; too often, it has been an unequal partnership, conducted with all the reason and care of a lobotomy being performed by a chain saw. We have good reason to see the Bill as establishing and codifying that relationship, and I hope that it will be built upon.

Lords amendment No. 1 relates to consultation before the general consent is given, and what is pleasing about it is that it will take place between the local authority associations and the Government, at the strategic stage, before the ideas are fully codified. From discussions with representatives of the various local government associations, I know how pleased they are about the level of co-operation between themselves and the Government.

The idea behind the consultation is not to cut through red tape, as my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham suggested, but to avoid red tape being placed in the way of the local authorities and their schemes. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make it clear that, under that process, it is intended that few applications will have to be made through Whitehall.

10.45 am

Lords amendment No. 2 seems very reasonable. We must bear in mind that most of the schemes will be ones that we come across jointly, in both central and local government. The Local Government International Bureau has a fund of expertise because of experience that it has gained from a number of years of overseas co-operation. It would be unfortunate if the Department of the Environment, which has expertise in local government but not in overseas assistance, were to try to second-guess or shadow the work of the Local Government International Bureau.

I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to assure the House that the kind of consultation and co-operation suggested in the Bill will take place, and that the advice offered to overseas local authorities will be joint advice, given by local government associations and central Government.

There must be a degree of certainty about such local government activity. For the reasons already eloquently expressed by my hon. Friends, however, local authorities are accountable to their charge payers. Those authorities must be able to demonstrate that what they are doing is reasonable and worthwhile.

I commend the two amendments to the House and have much pleasure in supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe on this valuable and important Bill.

I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words in support of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester). He has done the House a service by introducing the Bill, and I am pleased that it is close to gaining its Royal Assent.

As a number of my hon. Friends have already said, the Bill is most useful. I see nothing wrong in encouraging links between local authorities in this country and those elsewhere in the world. It is clear from the debate that not only eastern Europe but many other parts of the world will benefit from the experience that we have gained from decades, if not centuries, of local government. That experience enables us to provide the technical know-how that is so important to various nations across the world, especially in eastern Europe.

I must admit that I had not thought of councils such as Lambeth advising anybody. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) dealt very well with such a possibility. When one looks at some of our local councils, one sees that we must be careful to ensure that our reputation for local government is not damaged. For example, if certain of the inner-London councils were to give advice to eastern Europe, that would be damaging to everybody.

It is important, in respect of both the amendments, that we have consultation and guidance between central Government, in the form of the Department of the Environment, and local government, to ensure that we get the best advice about how to proceed. I have been impressed by the range of activities that are already undertaken across the globe, and the range of links between our local government authorities and those in many other parts of the world.

I hope that, as a result of Lords amendment No. 1, the consultation process will include much of the information and knowledge that we have built up over the years. I note that the councils of Strathclyde and Birmingham are already extensively involved in overseas schemes. I hope that that experience can he brought to bear in the consultation process.

The guidance offered must be of a fairly general nature. It should not he too prescriptive. For example, on the Traffic Calming Bill, which I introduced a year and a half ago, there was considerable discussion about how much guidance the Department of Transport should give local councils in coming up with various traffic calming schemes. After much discussion, it was felt that the guidance in that case should be of a general nature to allow individual authorities to come up with their own ideas within that general framework, allowing them maximum opportunity for developing those ideas.

I should like to have similar guidance under this Bill. It is important that local authorities are given enough discretion to come up with their own ideas, provided that those fit into an overall general model.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington) mentioned the speed with which the guidance and consultation exercise takes place. That is a bit of a worry. Although the Traffic Calming Bill was enacted two months after Royal Assent, the guidance on it took another 12 months to be issued. I hope that it will not take as long in this case and that the consultation exercise, at least initially, will be relatively brief so that councils can get on with the matters that will be so useful, particularly in eastern Europe.

In that respect, I have more confidence than my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham appears to have about co-operation between central Government and local government. We always see where it has not worked well, but we do not always see the majority of cases in which co-operation is effective between chief executives, individuals at the Department of the Environment, and individual councils. That co-operation is working all the time and, generally, it is highly successful.

I am reasonably confident, therefore, that, provided that the consultation and guidance exercise is carried out reasonably quickly, it will act as a spur to local authorities, give them the necessary background information, and result in this initiative getting off the ground quickly.

I am therefore very much in favour of both the amendments and hope that they go through relatively quickly.

Like other hon. Members I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) on introducing the Bill. It is a timely and appropriate measure and I support the Lords amendments before us.

It is appropriate that I should briefly intervene in this debate as I was, for many years, a member of the board of the Local Government International Bureau as well as being chairman of the Association of District Councils. I was, therefore, much involved in early consideration of issues relevant to the Bill. I was extremely concerned at the initial lack of responsiveness shown by Ministers' reluctance to consent to schemes that involved local government talking to eastern Europe, in particular. With other colleagues from the world of local government, I often lobbied Ministers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of the Environment to press on them the good work that it was possible for local government to do in disseminating best practices and encouraging local democracy in eastern Europe and other parts of the world.

It was, therefore, with great delight that I noted that Ministers listened to representations made by local government. They have given every encouragement to the development of schemes disseminating best practice and information. I was worried that, initially, other Governments were encouraging their local councils to establish contacts and I felt that it was important that British local government should work with foreign Governments because we have something special to offer.

There is much criticism of the relationship between central Government and local government in this country, and of how local government operates, but we should be proud of the work undertaken by men and women who sit on councils throughout the country and of their achievements. We should be proud of their contribution to community life over the years. Naturally, bad examples exist and my hon. Friends have rightly referred to those. Nevertheless, the majority of those who serve in local government undertake a difficult task very well. It is important that other nations are made aware of our experiences.

I welcome the amendment proposing consultation, which is the essence of the thinking behind the Bill. The Government listened to local government in working out schemes and went on to listen to their concern about limiting powers. They have, therefore, supported my hon. Friend's measure and consulted, throughout the Bill's passage, with local government associations and the Local Government International Bureau. I pay tribute to Ministers' work in that respect.

It is important that the general authorisation will be wide enough to avoid excessive scrutiny, because we do not want every scheme to be placed on a Minister's desk and studied in detail. I hope that, as a matter of course, it will include all know-how fund schemes and that de minimis rules will apply so that small schemes can be proceeded with without undue delay or the bureaucracy of formal consideration at departmental level.

I hope that, within certain limitations, local government staffing costs will be excluded in calculating the value of schemes, because it is difficult to quantify the work that may be done in committee and clerking time in considering such measures, and the assistance that is given within an authority in working out and progressing a scheme. I accept that it should not be seen as an excuse for some authorities to engage considerable numbers of staff devoted specifically to developing international work.

I welcomed approaches made in the late 1980s by members of local government in eastern Europe, a number of whom I met. They were seeking ways of understanding the development of their role. I met councillors who did not understand the basics of democratic principles; how they should open a dialogue with their electors; or what sort of relationship they should have with the management of local government. All those concepts were strange to them. They had no idea how they operated.

We need not only to disseminate information on the operation of democracy at ground floor level but to help with the development of local government associations so that they can establish the dialogue to which I referred earlier, which allows local and central Government to talk together. Councillors also need assistance in management to ensure that democracy is not discredited by inefficient management. I hope that the schemes will assist in that way, too.

I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to say that the guidance issued under amendment No. 2 will be clear and will encourage the development of the important links already being established.

First, I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) on taking the Bill through the House. We have had a full and considered debate and he and other hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), have explained the benefits of the Bill and the contribution that it can make. The tearing down of the Berlin wall and the disintegration of the Warsaw pact led to greater opportunities for local authorities here to share their experiences with countries in eastern Europe and elsewhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West gave an account of what the chief executive of Torridge district council, Mr. Brasington, is doing. That shows that a contribution is being made not just in eastern Europe but throughout the developing world.

My hon. Friends the Members for Fulham (Mr. Carrington), for Southport (Mr. Banks), for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), for Wyre (Mr. Mans) and for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) made useful contributions to the debate. I hope that I shall be able to deal with them before I am interrupted by the traditional Friday morning 11 o'clock point of order sound bite.

Amendment No. 1 requires the Secretary of State to consult local government representatives before giving a general authorisation. In practice, that will mean consultation with local authority associations.

11 am

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister was right for once. As you are probably aware from reading this morning's newspapers, there has been a further disclosure. The Minister of State Home Office, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd), has been referred to as the fourth Minister making representations on behalf of Asil Nadir. A day or two ago the Attorney-General refused to give us additional information. Does the Attorney-General intend to come to the House today to tell us exactly how many other Ministers, perhaps Treasury Ministers, are involved in making representations on behalf of Asil Nadir in return for the money that he has given to the Tory party? Will a statement be made?

The Chair has had no request from any Minister to make a statement on anything.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has raised that matter on his own behalf and not on behalf of a national newspaper. May we have—

Order. There cannot be anythng further to that point of order because I have ruled that there have been no requests for statements on anything.

Order. I make it clear that I will not accept any further points of order asking whether I have had any requests for a statement, because there have been none on any issue.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I crave your indulgence. The Scotsman has today leaked in detail the Government's White Paper on local government reform for Scotland. We await that White Paper with interest and it is highly controversial. Have you been informed about the leak and, in view of it, do the Government intend to advance the publication of the White Paper so that hon. Members may have a chance to see what The Scotsman has already seen?

Madam Speaker has made it quite clear that official documents should first be presented to the House and has deprecated the leaking from any source of any form of documentation that should first be presented in this Chamber.

Before we were interrupted by English and Scottish sound bites, I was dealing with the amendment which requires the Secretary of State to provide local authorities with guidance about the exercise of the Bill's powers.

We have made it clear throughout that we intend to consult local government on the content of the general authorisation and issue guidance on the working of the Bill. Some of my hon. Friends asked for assurances and undertakings that there would be common sense guidance and consultation. I am happy to give that undertaking. The guidance and consultation will be with all local authority associations, including the National Association of Local Councils which represents parish and town councils as well.

The relationship that has developed during the passage of the Bill clearly demonstrates the generally close working relationship between central and local government. The debate has been full and detailed. My hon. Friends have raised some pertinent issues and the amendments have been properly balanced and examined. I commend them to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 agreed to.

Bail (Amendment) Bill

Lords Amendments considered.

Clause 1

Prosecution Right Of Appeal

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 1, line 12, leave out ("High court or").

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

This amendment and the others before the House today are the result of a constructive dialogue in another place with which I have had the honour to be associated as the originator and sponsor of the Bill and which has resulted in a much improved Bill, I shall be brief because there are other matters for debate this morning.

The amendment relates to the judge to whom the prosecution may appeal. When the Bill left this House, the prosecution would have had a right of appeal to a judge of the Crown court or the High Court. That was because I wanted the largest possible number of senior judges to be available to hear appeals, because it is obviously of great importance that an arrested person should have his appeal determined as quickly as possible.

However, it has been drawn to my attention that if the prosecution were able to appeal to a judge of the High Court it might involve an application for civil legal aid, which can take rather longer to grant than criminal legal aid. That might result in the arrested person not securing legal representation until a late stage in the 48 hours allowed for the appeal to come on. I was, therefore, content to accept the amendment and I commend it to the House.

I think that hon. Members will welcome the Bill, which has been widely welcomed in the other place. The outrage felt by the general public about the events that led to the necessary introduction of the Bill is widely understood. However, I am concerned about the amendment and about some other aspects of what has happened to the Bill since it left the House without a full Second Reading. That concern stems from the fact that we seem to be steadily narrowing the scope of the Bill to which the House gave an unopposed and undebated Second Reading. I particularly question why we think it necessary further to narrow the scope of the Bill by excluding the possibility of a prosecution application to a High Court judge. I fear that, in the absence of a Second Reading debate, their Lordships have not had sufficient guidance about how the House felt about the Bill. Had they been guided by that debate, they might have understood our real sense of outrage.

Is the whole Bill and not just the amendment broadly drawn? I refer especially to instances that have occurred recently in my constituency. As I understand it, amendment No. I will bring no comfort to the police in West Mercia, where a driver was recently convicted of driving while disqualified and for a number of related offences. He was granted bail and subsequently committed eight further similar offences for which he was also granted bail. The Crown court judge criticised that, and I believe that he would have been concerned that the Bill would not help the police or the prosecuting authorities in that case.

Only on Thursday this week, in my police force area an individual was arrested at 4 am for burglary from a public house. He was already on bail for an identical offence. By 4 pm on the day of his arrest, 12 hours later, he was on bail again. Nothing, either in the Bill or in the amendment, remedies such a problem.

I understand that the problem is even worse than that. Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the police are obliged to release people on police bail if certain conditions are not met. The seriousness of the offence provides no ground for resisting bail. Therefore, even those charged with murder, if the conditions are not met, can and must be released on bail.

The scope of the Bill has nevertheless been narrowed time and again. I understand that in the Standing Committee of this place the clause relating to the presumption of the right to bail was dropped from the Bill to enable it to make progress. I fear that this amendment is yet another example of dropping something difficult from the Bill to enable it to make progress. Is my hon. Friend absolutely sure, in his heart of hearts, that this amendment, which narrows the scope of the Bill still further, is essential to enable the Bill to reach the statute book rapidly, as we wish it to do?

From what I have read of the debates in another place, and also from my hon. Friend's remarks, I understand that we are being obliged to make this amendment to the Bill because of concern that the legal aid system is unable to respond quickly enough to requests for new legal aid certificates. The view that High Court judges should be included in the scope of the Bill is, I believe, widely shared in all parts of the House. We are, therefore, being invited to make bad legislation because of bad administration. It is unsatisfactory that the House should find itself in this position. I am sure that all of us regard it in principle to be just as important that High Court judges should he included in the scope of the Bill. However, because of the different legal aid requirements relating to Crown court judges and concern about the speed of issuing legal aid certificates, we are dropping that provision from the Bill.

I ask my hon. Friend for particular guidance on the type of offender who is likely to gain the bail now, without the right of a prosecution appeal, as a result of this House accepting the amendment. I suspect that, sadly, the House will have to accept the amendment, if only to ensure that the Bill makes the progress that we wish it to make.

As I have repeatedly said, I am concerned that even before the Bill began its passage through Parliament its scope was too narrow. The scope of offences that it included could have been widened, to the great satisfaction of the people outside the House who are so concerned about the increase in the number of offences committed while offenders are on bail. Despite that concern, we are restricting the scope of the Bill.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to reassure me that my constituents need not be concerned if acceptance of the amendment leads to a particular class of offender being more likely to be released on bail than would otherwise have been the case. If I receive such an assurance, I suspect that, reluctantly, I shall be able to support the amendment. Nevertheless, I must register my real concern that a Bill which was already too narrowly drawn has been virtually emasculated. I am most concerned that we should do nothing to weaken its strength even further.

I warmly welcome the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) has reflected the great anxiety of the public about this issue and has responded to it in a way that is widely welcomed both in this House and outside.

I agree with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff), who regretted that we did not have a Second Reading debate on this most important Bill.

I welcome the amendment, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester pointed out, there is danger when the High Court is excluded, for reasons related to the terms on which criminal and civil legal aid is granted. The right of appeal must be fast; it must also be accessible. Sufficient Crown court judges must be available at all times. An alleged offender could, for example, be held over a weekend. Custody for him will continue unless the matter is dealt with properly, Therefore, it is appropriate that Crown court judges should be available at all hours, even at weekends. Justice must be seen to be properly done.

11.15 am

The principle of the right of appeal is important. The fact that so many persistent offenders get off scot free when let out on bail must be addressed. There is so much public frustration about it. It is appropriate that we should respond to newspaper headlines. One of these reads:
"Uproar as deaths case joyrider is jailed."
That headline refers to Christoper Lewin, aged 19, who was already on bail for two other driving offences when he killed two small children, Adele Thompson, aged 12, and Daniel Davies, aged nine. Adele was flung 90 ft and Daniel 50 ft. Their crime was collecting pennies for the guy.

It is tragic that the magistrates were not sufficiently alert when Lewin appeared in court six weeks earlier on other joyriding offences. I believe that we should rewrite the English language. We should refer not to joyriding but to deathriding. What is done kills and maims and is destructive. The expression "joyriding" is, I fear, deeply offensive to all those who have been so badly injured and to the relatives of those who have been killed.

When Lewin appeared in court—this is a good example of why the amendment is so important—the police had objected with some vehemence on two previous occasions to his being freed, because he had already been charged with reckless driving and other offences. I wonder whether the magistrates had full access to his previous record. Furthermore, do magistrates have access to the full records of all the people who appear in front of them?

The reason for the deep offence caused to the public and for their strong feelings about the amendment is that car-related crime is a curse. In my Sutton constituency, which I have made something of a landmark—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—there is as much car crime as anywhere else in the country. It is what I would describe as a textbook example of the sheer scale of the problem that we face.

When arguing about the need to keep persistent offenders in custody, we should bear in mind that we are referring not just to those who have committed murder or rape. In their way, car-related offences are deeply serious, because of their sheer scale, and reinforce the need for the amendment.

I do not want to underestimate the seriousness of charges of violence—for instance, the horrific case of Anna McGurk of Gloucester who was raped and murdered by a man on bail. Bail had been granted, despite strong police objections. Again, such a case justifies the amendment. The details of how that offender came to be freed are terrifying. He had been arrested for the brutal rape of a 20-year-old woman just 24 days before he murdered Anna. Had the amendment been in force, the police appeal against releasing that man on bail would have succeeded and Anna would still be alive.

In February, there was the case of the murder of Cathy Ainsworth. She would not have died had her boyfriend, Adrian Black, not been released on bail. The amendment would have kept him in custody and he would never have been able to shoot Cathy.

The Association of Chief Police Officers has long been aware of the seriousness of the problem. In February 1992 the Home Office produced a paper, "Offending on Bail: Survey of Recent Studies", which suggested that, on average, reoffending crimes increased by 26,000 between 1985 and 1990.

My experience in my textbook example of Sutton is of a demoralised police force. In their professionalism, the police find it frustrating and have almost given up opposing bail. They know that most criminals who appear in court will be released, despite their criminal history and convictions. The police are right. Those young men are temporarily getting off scot free—and in the present climate, they will do so almost for ever. They swagger off and commit more offences.

If offenders are remanded in custody quickly enough, that can have a sobering effect on young, would-be criminals—especially those in their young teens. There is a lot to be said for catching them young and giving them a clear understanding of what offending can really mean, especially in cases where a caution is not suitable.

Magistrates should be schooled more, and be more in tune with appropriate courses of action. Recently, there have been many cases of magistrates misreading the situation. I am glad that the Bill will apply not only to murder and rape but to car-related offences. It may be argued that keeping more people in custody will produce an extra cost for the taxpayer. I maintain that the sheer scale of reoffending more than justifies the taxpayer paying for more custodial accommodation.

Does my hon. Friend agree that magistrates have been discouraged in recent years from committing offenders to gaol in certain circumstances? Some have become demoralised and have left the Bench because they felt that they were not encouraged to take the steps that my hon. Friend advocates.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In some cases, magistrates do not have the power to commit a persistent juvenile offender to a secure unit, because that decision must be referred back to the local authority to make. I hope that the amendment, or perhaps another Criminal Justice Bill, will introduce for magistrates the right to extend their powers. We should listen to magistrates who say that they are being held back from their course of duty.

I heard from members of the juvenile Bench in Sutton that their frustration is supreme, and that the arrogance and rudeness of young offenders appearing in court is beyond belief. They behave almost as though they are making a fingers-up gesture to the judiciary. One boy and girl were so determined to turn the hearing into a circus that they insisted on making a long and affectionate farewell in full view of the court. Nobody could do anything about it. There is insolence beyond belief.

The right of appeal to a Crown court will certainly help to tighten up a difficult situation. There is public support for such a measure. The public are beginning to buck. There are 33 different pressure groups campaigning on behalf of criminals, but only one, impoverished, victim support scheme. It may be impoverished, but it has the support of the public at large. The silent majority are saying, "We have had enough, and now we shall have the last word."

I have great faith in public opinion. More often than not, the public have their fingers on the pulse and know when things are going wrong long before bureaucracy understands and responds. In the west country in February, 2,000 people took to the streets of Plymouth. The local newspaper ran the banner headline:
"City march against rising crime. Enough is enough."
A campaign, "Citizens against Crime," was launched.

All of that emphasises the amendment's importance. My hon. Friend the Minister is looking at me with an eagle eye, but I am becoming used to that. The amendment is totally justified in reflecting public concern.

I join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) on introducing the Bill and guiding it through the House thus far. It is a great tribute to the influence of the Back Bencher in producing legislation that responds to public concern.

I have every sympathy with the Bill's provisions and with amendment No. 1, but perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can help to overcome one or two of my concerns. I am alarmed that Crown court judges may not always be as available as their High Court counterparts to deal with matters of urgency. I trust that my hon. Friend the Minister can assure me that Crown court judges will be available within the 48 hours required by the measure.

Can my hon. Friend confirm also that the appeal procedure will be subject to some standardisation in respect of the yardsticks used to determine whether it is appropriate to grant bail? As one who practised occasionally as a junior solicitor in magistrates courts before the Bail Act 1976, I recall that there were often wide variations between the standards that different courts applied in granting or not granting bail and in the conditions that they imposed. Will the appeal procedures facilitate the setting of standards that will provide guidance to magistrates on when they should or should not grant bail and on conditions that they might want to

Is it my hon. Friend's experience, as it has been mine, that the availability of High Court judges makes them much more accessible than Crown court judges? We are debating the availability of judicial time at short notice.

That is the point. I trust that it will be possible to establish a procedure to ensure that Crown court judges are made available for the purposes of the Bill when it is enacted.

I understand the purpose of amendment No. 1 and the need to address the question of legal aid because of the delays that might arise should an application have to be made to a High Court judge through the civil system, which might lead to an accused person being held in custody longer than is envisaged by my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham. Nevertheless, we need clear assurances about the judicial availability of Crown court judges.

11.30 am

May I return to the point that I was making a moment ago and invite my hon. Friend the Minister to confirm that information will be disseminated to magistrates to assist them in determining yardsticks for appeals? It is important that this measure is seen as part of the overall Government drive to deal with the problems of law and order. I trust that we shall see it as an important brick of the wall to protect the community against the increasing threats of disorder and the alarming cases to which my hon. friends have referred.

I invite the Minister to confirm that sufficient accommodation is available to hold accused persons, which there was not a few years ago, in the prison and police services to ensure that excessive overcrowding will not arise in the fairly limited number of cases to which the Bill is likely to apply.

I should like to follow the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason), because I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the genuine concern that the amendment might be interpreted as a signal that prosecution appeals are not being given the highest judicial consideration that those who are concerned about the principle of a prosecution right of appeal should like.

Hon. Members are a little concerned that the amendment would restrict the hearing of appeals to Crown court judges. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would address that point.

Some of my hon. Friends may wish to say a few further words on the amendment, but it might be helpful if I were to give the Government's view now.

I listened carefully to the valid points made by my hon. Friends and to the appalling, tragic cases that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) mentioned. The amendment would prevent prosecution appeals from being heard by judges of the High Court, restricting the hearing of appeals to Crown court judges.

Some of my hon. Friends expressed concern that the Bill had not been given a Second Reading in the House, but it has returned from another place in a slightly different state from that in which we dispatched it. The Bill has benefited from the scrutiny of the other place and there has been an opportunity to reflect on the implications of what a prosecution right of appeal might mean to our criminal justice system.

I say "our system" and I am sorry that the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) has departed because he would have confirmed that under Scottish law the prosecution has had the right of appeal against bail decisions of the lower courts for a long time. Indeed, without wanting to detract from the drafting skills of my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen), I detect some similarity between the Bill and the prosecution right of appeal that operates in Scotland.

That is all to the good. Those who are concerned about the rights of the individual in law and the fact that the Bill will, if enacted, give the prosecution the right to appeal against a court's decision to grant bail might draw some comfort from the fact that the system has been shown to work well in a part of the United Kingdom.

I make no apology for spelling out what powers the Bill and the amendment would endow on the prosecution. The defendant will be held in custody while the prosecution and defence prepare their arguments for the appeal hearing. There are strict limits on the time that the accused will be in prison pending the appeal. We should recognise, however, that the Bill will, in principle, deprive someone of his liberty who has already been granted bail by a court. I believe that from the outset the House has accepted the consequence, which was evidenced by the support for early-day motion 1134, which was tabled on Wednesday 13 January and signed by more than 100 hon. Members. That support is a measure of the concern throughout society about the problems of offending on bail. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam vividly drew our attention to some horrendous incidents.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham on introducing a Bill which addresses an element of that concern—the need for a safeguard against decisions to grant bail that, in the past, have had serious and, at times, tragic consequences. That is not to say, I hasten to add to my hon. Friends, that the 500,000 bail decisions that are made each year in magistrates court are under suspicion: they are not. The Government have great respect for members of the community who are willing to play a part in the administration of justice by becoming magistrates. They are called on to make many judicial decisions, of which bail is perhaps the most difficult. At that stage of the proceedings, they will know little of the offence, the circumstances under which it was committed or the person alleged to have committed it.

The public have expressed concern that the granting of bail in inappropriate circumstances has brought bail and the courts into disrepute. That point was put to me by the hon. Member for Cardiff. South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) two days ago. I replied that, if bail was abused, it should not be granted, and I hope that he agrees with that.

The Bill provides a safeguard that will ensure that where the prosecution has objected to bail, but it is granted by magistrates, the prosecution will be able to apply, in certain circumstances, to a Crown court judge to rehear the arguments for and against bail. I listened to my hon. Friends' concern that High Court judges are removed from the face of the Bill by the amendment. The initial inclusion of High Court judges was a genuine attempt to provide as large a pool as possible of appellate judges so that appeals should never be delayed for want of a judge to hear them.

It was pointed out in another place that if an appeal over bail is made to the High Court and legal aid is applied for, it has to be on the basis that it is civil, not criminal, legal aid that is made available. Criminal legal aid can be granted by the courts whereas civil legal aid is available only from the Legal Aid Board. Assurances were offered on behalf of the Legal Aid Board that if an application is made for civil legal aid for the defendant to be properly represented before a High Court judge hearing an appeal, it will be granted over the telephone and, if necessary, retrospectively. But those assurances were not enough to satisfy the concerns that were voiced in another place about whether such legal aid would be made available in sufficient time.

As, in practice, the vast majority of such appeals would have been heard before a Crown court judge anyway, and in the light of concerns about legal aid, it seems right that the issue has been resolved by removing the words "High court or" from the Bill. It means not that the High Court will not continue to take a close interest in the operation of all aspects of the bail process, but rather that the appeals will be best brought on quickly and efficiently before a judge of the Crown court. Judges will, I am sure, be able to hear such appeals before the start of the day's court business and will want to do so in order to reduce as far as possible the time spent in custody by the defendant.

In this context, it may be right to refer to the views expressed by the Lord Chief Justice—I assure the House that he has been consulted, although with less time for deliberation than we would have wished—on the introduction of a prosecution right of appeal via the Bill. He came back to the Government on one point in particular: to ask that everything possible is done to ensure that defendants spend as little time as possible in prison, pending the hearing of the appeal.

To that end, the Lord Chancellor's Department proposes to consult the judiciary with a view to providing guidance to the effect that, in cases where the time limit would, but for the formula provided in the Bill as it now stands, expire on a Saturday or a public holiday, everything possible should be done to expedite the hearing. If that proves impossible, consideration will be given to the possibility of making special local arrangements to bring on the appeal on a Saturday or public holiday. That encompasses the desire expressed by the Lord Chief Justice, on being consulted about the prosecution right of appeal, that everything should be done to avoid the necessity of defendants being held in custody for long periods. Lord Taylor said that if the appeal is launched just before a weekend or bank holiday he would expect it to be heard wherever possible on the same day.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) asked about the criteria for granting bail. The Bail Acts already set out the criteria to be applied when considering the granting of bail. The bail process projects which were set up last November are considering ways of ensuring that feedback of decisions made in higher courts reaches magistrates. In addition, the Judicial Studies Board review of training, commenced in 1992 by the previous Home Secretary, should lead to much greater standardisation of those decisions.

My hon. Friend, the Member for Bromsgrove also asked about prison accommodation. The right of appeal will of course be used only in rare cases. The Government are satisfied that the increase in the number of remands in custody will be small and can be accommodated within the present prison system.

We may deal with the question of guidance when debating a later amendment, but I can say now that we intend that there shall be guidance for Crown prosecutors so that they may know the special circumstances in which they would raise the right of appeal. That may reassure hon. Members who may be concerned that the right of appeal will be raised in frivolous or unnecessary cases.

In the light of my comments, I hope that my hon. Friends will be satisfied that my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) has not only introduced a good Bill but that this amendment is eminently sensible and should be supported.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 2, in page 1, line 13, at end insert—

("(1A) Subsection (1) above applies only where the prosecution is conducted—
  • (a) by or on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions; or
  • (b) by a person who falls within such class or description of person as may be prescribed for the purposes of this section by order made by Secretary of State.")
  • I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment No. 7.

    These two amendments are taken together because they deal with the question of who should he allowed to appeal on behalf of the prosecution. When the Bill left this House, it would have been possible for a private prosecutor to appeal and possibly—although it would have been rare—for the right of appeal to be used vindictively—and that a defendant could have been held in prison for a maximum of 48 hours. That was clearly not desirable and was not intended. I am, therefore, happy to accept an amendment to restrict the right to appeal to a public prosecutor.

    Lords amendment No. 2 defines a public prosecutor as a prosecutor who acts on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions or
    "a person who falls within such class or description of person as may he prescribed for the purposes of this section by order made by the Secretary of State."
    The reason why paragraph (b) of the amendment is in its current form is that it is not possible in primary legislation to define all the classes of person who may from time to time be prosecutors acting on behalf of the public. At present, one can think of prosecutors who prosecute on behalf of Customs and Excise, the Inland Revenue, the Serious Fraud Office, the Department of Trade and Industry and many others. As Governments change over the years, those agencies may also change and it is, therefore, necessary to provide power by statutory instrument to prescribe who shall be a public prosecutor for the purposes of the Bill. That is covered by Lords amendment No. 7.

    I have no difficulty in accepting the amendments, and I commend them both to the House.

    11.45 am

    It would be helpful if the Minister could tell the House which bodies he would consider appropriate to be included within paragraph (b). For example, will that well-known body the Serious Fraud Office, which seems to command the headlines at the moment, be one of those which should properly be included? Will the income tax authorities also be appropriate, or does the Minister believe that, initially, inclusion should be restricted to the Director of Public Prosecutions as mentioned in paragraph (a) and perhaps the Crown Prosecution Service which, by implication, is presumably included in paragraph (a)?

    I wish to make it clear that I in no way oppose the amendments, both of which appear to be entirely appropriate and reasonable. It is clearly essential that no vendetta should be pursued in terms of someone seeking to incarcerate an accused person unnecessarily by virtue of a private prosecution.

    I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to confirm that, in a wider sphere, the Government will take action to discourage persons from reoffending while on bail. It would be helpful for us to know that the Government are examining various issues of similar nature and perhaps we could be given guidance to help us to determine our response to the amendments.

    I welcome the amendment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thompson) rightly said, it is extremely important that when a man's liberty is at stake he does not become the victim of a vendetta. It should be clearly specified that it is for the Crown Prosecution Service to pursue an appeal.

    It must be said that in Committee the reference to the prosecution was rather woolly, and it is appropriate that it should be clarified.

    The difficulty with private prosecutions is that a tremendous amount of emotion is involved. I am thinking of the people who come to my surgeries and who are outraged about a small car accident—two bumpers can cause more anguish than anything else. If people get to the stage where they feel that a custodial remand is appropriate, the matter could spin out of control, so it is proper that we should be clear in our own minds that it is the Crown Prosecution Service which controls this aspect.

    I rather wish that the right of appeal by the Crown Prosecution Service already existed. I will tell the House of an incident which happened only on Monday. A juvenile offender, a member of my Sutton burglary posse, was put into a Glasgow secure unit, well away from his family and Friends. He managed to wriggle out of the unit by claiming that he had been sexually harassed. His lawyers pleaded that it was unfair for him to remain up there. With the assistance of social workers, he was transferred to another unit further south and nearer his home, and—surprise, surprise—he absconded en route. We must have strict controls of custody and we must ensure that they are safe.

    It is, therefore, appropriate that the Crown Prosecution Service should follow the matter through. It should not be up to private individuals to bring prosecutions which could spin out of control and turn into a vendetta. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister is coming to my constituency to meet the police and the community and to hear about their grave concerns at first hand.

    I shall make a comparatively narrow point. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would address this point when he winds up. About £3 billion to £4 billion worth of property is lost annually through shoplifting. I do not know the exact proportion, but I know that a very substantial proportion of cases are handled through private prosecutions. It is not a question of private vendettas being pursued by rich individuals bringing private prosecutions. The prosecutions are brought by well-known stores such as Marks and Spencer and C and A in Oxford street. Many hon. Members know about such cases.

    The stores pursue cases involving great values. The important point is that they remove a grave burden from the Crown Prosecution Service by bringing private prosecutions. Are those private prosecutors, who bring a series of cases to court, to be unable to benefit from the Bill? I hope that the use of statutory instruments under Lords amendment No. 7 will address that point. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell me that the issue will be addressed. Some £3 billion to £4 billion worth of property is involved. The cost of prosecuting is currently borne by the private sector. We do not want that burden to be shifted to the taxpayer as a result of lack of consideration of the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend will address that issue.

    I am not used to catching the Chair's eye as rapidly as I did on the first occasion on which I spoke this morning and I should like to correct a discourteous omission. I did not pay a sufficiently fulsome tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) for introducing the Bill. My slightly churlish remarks about narrowing the scope of the Bill were not intended to be a criticism of him. I pay tribute to the way he has responded so pragmatically to the concerns expressed so that his Bill can make rapid progress. Casting my eye across the Chamber, I express the hope that that pragmatism may be mirrored later to enable us to make rapid progress on another important Bill.

    I find it my duty, once again, to play the role of devil's advocate. I suspect that I shall not bring my devil's advocacy to its logical conclusion by voting against the amendments. However, I am once again concerned that we seem to be narrowing the scope of the Bill so that it can make progress. To summarise, here we go again.

    I have two reservations about the amendments, which deal with the question of who can appeal against the granting of bail. I am concerned about whom the statutory instrument will define and the method by which we choose to define who may appeal against the granting of bail. I shall deal first with the question of the legal persons who will be able to make the appeal. We should go back to the fundamentals of the Bill.

    I understand that those who are rightly concerned about civil liberties have four principle anxieties about granting anyone the right to appeal against bail. The first is the civil rights implication of holding an unconvicted person in custody by an order of the Executive against a judicial decision. We can all imagine people's worries about that. The amendment would confer almost exclusively on the Executive the right to appeal against a judicial decision, so the concern is not addressed in it.

    The second matter, which the House should be sure it is incorporating into legislation, is the time limits for appeal. We have all agreed that the limits must be long enough to allow adequate time for a rehearing to be arranged and prepared, but that they must limit the time in which the defendant is held in custody. The amendment does not address that anxiety, so the House need not concern itself.

    The third concern about the prosecution right of appeal, which is relevant to the amendment, is that the power might be used for offenders who do not represent a risk of serious harm to the public. I have heard what my hon. Friends have said about the nature of the offences that might be involved, such as neighbourly disputes, which led to the anxiety in another place that the right under the Bill could be used capriciously by individuals. I do not share that anxiety, because the offences covered by the Bill are so tightly drawn—too tightly drawn, I submit—that that concern is not relevant. The charges that could be brought capriciously against individuals for whom bail could be refused would relate to more modest offences which are not covered by the Bill.

    Does my hon. Friend agree that there may be cases where a neighbour discovers, for example, that the person living next door has a history of crime? He might make serious allegations that would be covered by the Bill. He might seek for reasons of retribution the incarceration of that person under the Bill by making an application. We all know how bitter neighbourly disputes can be. Someone could seek to use the provisions. Will my hon. Friend reconsider his point? It is surely appropriate that private prosecutions should be excluded from the Bill.

    My hon. Friend anticipates my speech. I shall deal with the matter later and if my hon. Friend feels that I have not dealt with it sufficiently, he will, I am sure, intervene.

    The fourth concern that the civil rights lobby might have about the prosecution right of appeal is that an extra hearing would increase delays in criminal proceedings. I understand that point, which reflects the point which my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) expressed. As he said, people might be incarcerated unreasonably because the criminal proceedings are protracted. We must satisfy ourselves that the amendments are appropriate to address that concern.

    I do not believe that we should be unduly concerned on two and half of those counts about who is given the right to appeal against the granting of bail, but we must be concerned on the fourth count, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove has suggested. We should satisfy ourselves that we are granting the right people the right to appeal. The risk is that deliberate delays may be created by individuals who hold grudges against others. However, is that a real concern? I have already used the word "capricious" to describe the fears of their Lordships. I believe that there are two grounds on which we should consider the possibility of reintroducing private prosecutions into the Bill.

    I have already given my first reason for such a reintroduction. It relates to the relatively narrow offences that would generally concern neighbourly disputes. The second is a rather broader concern, which has been expressed in the media recently, about the reduction in the number of prosecutions being brought by the police.

    We have seen reports about the growing number of cautions which the police are issuing against alleged offenders. In those circumstances, private individuals may increasingly wish to bring serious prosecutions, on good public order and safety grounds, against people who have committed the kind of offences described by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland).

    12 noon

    Because of the concern about the rising tide of cautions and the falling number of prosecutions, individuals may wish to bring more serious charges than has hitherto been the case and against people who may be in danger of causing serious harm to the general public if they are not held in custody. We must satisfy ourselves about the amendment to exclude the right of private appeal.

    Is not my hon. Friend making the point that I made earlier? If the number of private prosecutions increases, which he believes might occur in view of the difficulties to which he has referred, it follows that the opportunities for abuse are, therefore, that much greater. If more people seek private prosecutions, there is a greater possibility that the mechanisms available in the Bill will be abused by people seeking to pursue personal vendettas. Does not my hon. Friend believe that the limitations that the Bill imposes on private prosecutions are very appropriate?

    My hon. Friend is right. Once again, he has anticipated the flow of my argument. If we are to grant the denial of the right of a private individual to pursue an appeal against the granting of bail, the general public must be satisfied that their safety is not being put at risk by that perceived increase in the number of cautions rather than prosecutions being brought by the police. The public must feel that they have no need to bring such prosecutions. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will assure me that we can feel comfortable with granting that right of appeal, in the light of that very understandable concern that the public are likely to have in the light of media reports.

    With regard to who has the right of appeal, as opposed to how we define who has the right of appeal, how close does the amendment mirror practice in Scotland? Who is defined in Scottish law as having the right to appeal? I fully accept that there is no need for total convergence between Scottish and English law. Such a task is probably beyond the intellectual capacity of the House and the current position reflects traditions dating back many hundreds of years. However, it would be a perceived injustice if such a right for a private individual to appeal existed in Scottish law, but not in English or Welsh law.

    With regard to amendment No. 7, I am concerned about the mechanism by which individuals or legal bodies, which are given the right to appeal, are defined. Must we proceed by way of a statutory instrument? Would it not be better to insert in the Bill a simple provision along the lines, "such persons as the Secretary of State may. from time to time, determine"?

    Conservative Members believe very strongly in the principle of deregulation. Wherever possible, deregulation should apply to the law as much as to the business of government or commerce. Would it not be an easier and more flexible mechanism to allow the Secretary of State simply to determine, on a pragmatic and day-to-day basis, who should have the right to appeal? That would save parliamentary time, which is a precious commodity.

    That idea may commend itself to the spirits on the Conservative Benches who do not favour the ever-encroaching jungle of regulation in matters of law and in business and commerce. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to reassure me on those points.

    Like my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff), I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) on introducing the Bill. I would particularly like to take this opportunity to congratulate him on his flexible approach. He was right to believe that he should be as flexible as he was in Committee to ensure that the Bill reached the statute book.

    I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to the latter part of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester. We are discussing these amendments because far too many young offenders reoffend while on bail. It is significant that research undertaken by the Northumbrian police shows that an overwhelming number of offences of burglary and car theft have been carried out by a very high percentage of young offenders while on bail. It is, therefore, entirely right that powers should be available to appeal against the granting of bail.

    However, that right should be strictly controlled and not abused. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) said, effectively to deprive someone of his liberty, contrary to the judgment of a magistrate, is a significant step. However, bearing in mind the current situation, such legislation and provision is absolutely essential.

    Amendment No. 2 restricts the right of appeal to prosecutors acting on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions. I believe that that means the prosecutors of the Crown Prosecution Service. However, other people may prosecute serious cases in which a right of appeal against decisions to grant bail might be appropriate. For example, it might occur in cases brought by Customs and Excise or the Serious Fraud Office.

    Amendment No. 7 will allow the Secretary of State to prescribe by statutory instrument which other prosecutors should have a right of appeal. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester referred to deregulation. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to make it quite clear that the means by which the amendment seeks to list such prosecutors will work satisfactorily and effectively. That list of prosecutors must be capable of being readily amended. I hope that the Minister will make it clear how, if he wants to amend that list, he proposes to do that. I hope that he will make it clear that such amendment could be scrutinised by Parliament.

    It is vital that the amendments are incorporated in the Bill. As I said earlier, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to ensure, following on from the excellent pilot schemes—five of which I am aware of—in relation to investigations into the way in which decisions are taken on the granting of bail, that we can use the Bill to crack down on people who are granted bail too readily and, sadly, given the opportunity to reoffend very quickly.

    I did not intend to speak on this matter, but, following the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) about amendment No. 7 and whether a statutory instrument is an appropriate way to define the list of prosecutors, I join my hon. Friends in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) on bringing this important Bill before the House.

    Instinctively, I support any suggestion of moving towards deregulation—it is sensible and I am politically committed to it—but I recognise that many regulations represent the very fabric of a civilised society. They reflect the way in which an individual is taken care of and protected by the state. However, this important Bill takes liberties from the citizen. We have heard of the dreadful cases that caused the Bill to be brought forward, but there is another side to the matter where, an offender having been granted bail, the prosecution decides to appeal.

    We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) some very persuasive reasons about why the list should not be available to everyone. The list is important, and we must guard it. If we have a duty, it is to protect the rights of the citizen. We should not allow the rights of the House to scrutinise who should be on the list to be given over lightly.

    No matter how benign, good-natured, diligent or vigilant the Secretary of State is with regard to the protection of the rights of the citizen, the rights of the citizen should be protected by the House. We should have an opportunity to object to the kind of prosecutor who would be on the prescribed list. I hope that, no matter how persuasive and coherent the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove, the Minister will resist the suggestion that the House should not decide who should be on the list.

    This has been an important debate on a very important amendment. One of the concerns expressed about the prosecution right of appeal as contained in the Bill is that it offered no limitation on the sort of prosecutor able to launch the appeal or the circumstances in which the appeal might be brought. It has never been the Government's intention—nor has it been that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove—to see all sorts of petty offenders swept up under this right of appeal. I should, therefore, like to link the limitation on the type of prosecutor, which has been addressed by the amendment tabled by Lord Bethell in another place, with reassurances about the limits on the types and circumstance of offence that will see this right of appeal brought into action.

    The amendment specifically addresses the limit on the type of prosecutor who has the power to bring those appeals. The point of the amendment addresses other concerns, in particular about the circumstances in which the appeal is brought and the time limits of the appeal. The amendment makes it clear on the face of the statute that the right of appeal against a decision by a magistrate to grant bail is limited, and rightly limited, to certain types of prosecutor, principally those of the Crown Prosecution Service. That will ensure control and supervision over the bringing of those appeals, which I am sure all hon. Members will welcome.

    Not only will the launching of appeals be controlled but, because there exist in the Crown Prosecution Service degrees of experience and seniority, appeals will be vetted to ensure that those which are eventually brought before the courts are well founded. Any that are not well founded and yet still brought before the courts will very quickly become the object of the judicial displeasure of the circuit judge hearing the appeal. The high standards that the Crown prosecution sets itself will ensure that that is guarded against.

    Will my hon. Friend confirm that decisions about appeals will be made at a relatively senior although local level within the Crown Prosecution Service? I am concerned that there is a danger of delegation to relatively junior prosecutors who might not have the experience or the wisdom of some more senior members who might take a wider view.

    On the face of the Bill, the decision to appeal needs to be made orally on the spot. It is not possible to refer it upwards to a very senior prosecutor. But the Crown Prosecution Service has made it clear that it would want to look at that decision as soon as possible and, where practicable, make sure that, before the appeal is confirmed, it has been looked at by as senior a figure as possible.

    However, I would not like any suggestion—I am sure that my hon. Friend did not mean this—that Crown prosecutors are not capable of making that important judgment. There is always a temptation to want such decisions to be made by the person at the very top. That is not administratively possible; nor is it necessary. I take the rather tough view that if someone is good enough to be a Crown prosecutor and if that person is good enough to decide to drop appeals, he or she should be good enough to decide to prosecute or proceed with an appeal. Of course, there will be guidance to help prosecutors to come to the right decision on making an appeal in the appropriate circumstances.

    The amendment gives, on the face of the statute, the power of appeal to the day-to-day prosecutors of the Crown Prosecution Service. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove was concerned that other organisations might be included as well as the Crown Prosecution Service itself. We intend that there shall be some other organisations included, and I assure the House that we will carry out with the authorities concerned full consultation on which other bodies should be prescribed.

    12.15 pm

    At present, the likely bodies are the ones that my hon. Friend suggested—for example, Customs and Excise. My hon. Friend will agree that it is terribly important for such an organisation to be included, because it prosecutes some of the most dangerous classes of criminal it is possible to imagine—for example, those involved in international drug-trafficking. Those who are brought before the courts often have links with other countries and often have resources salted away overseas and are a pretty nasty, violent bunch of people. Such people have a tendency to intimidate their associates, they have an attachment to violence, and the House would agree that, when Customs and Excise officers fear that a defendant might abscond or obstruct the course of justice, it would be right for them to have that right of appeal. Other organisations that could be considered are, of course, the Inland Revenue and the Serious Fraud Office, which deal with major fraud cases. Of course, we would want to consult on the list before coming to the House with it.

    It is important that Parliament has the proper opportunity to scrutinise the list and examine all those potential prosecutors, and object if necessary. There is also the advantage that should the list of prosecutors need changing from time to time, primary legislation would not need to be changed; we would propose to do that by statutory instrument.

    The powers contained in the Bill have brought some unease to some quarters. I do not consider that unease to be well founded, for the Bill offers a safeguard against the sort of decisions which, in the past, have brought tragic consequences and about which there is grave public concern. The amendment limits the prosecutors who will have the power of appeal against bail decisions to those whom I have described and over whom there is proper control. On that basis, I consider it an improvement in the Bill.

    I am sorry that I have to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff), who made a very well-argued speech and said that private prosecutors should be reinserted. The Bill does not allow appeal by any prosecutor, other than the CPS or those prosecutors who will be designated by the Secretary of State. That is an important safeguard to ensure that the power is not exercised lightly and is properly regulated.

    I apologise unreservedly to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove for my appalling memory lapse—I could not remember his excellent constituency of Bromsgrove a few minutes ago. I said that we will have guidelines for the Crown Prosecution Service. My hon. Friend was worried that even the Crown prosecutors might not be senior enough to have the responsibility to deal with such matters.

    I shall give way in a moment. It is important, therefore, that we do not lightly extend the right of private prosecution to other individuals, even to the most respectable and best shops in the country.

    Would my hon. Friend at least consider the nub of my point, which is not necessarily that private prosecutors—even those for grand stores such as Marks and Spencer—would have the right of appeal in the circumstances of the Bill? In the light of the gravity of the shoplifting situation in Britain, would private prosecutors be allowed, at the point at which the appeal has been refused, to be associated with the Crown prosecutor who is on duty in the magistrates court or to bring forward their own police evidence which is always associated with such private prosecutions? Would the Department consider whether the police could be associated with an application?

    That matter needs some consideration. I have not formulated a solution in precise detail, but the issue needs to be addressed because it is important for a number of major stores. I remind the Minister that this often relates to a long series of offences, not simply the trivial theft of a packet of cigarettes.

    I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said. I am not clear about what he means when he asks whether I will allow the Crown prosecutor to be associated with the appeal. I assume that he means that we would permit a system whereby the private prosecutor could go to the Crown Prosecution Service and say, "Will you take up this case for us and will you use your right of appeal against a case where we think it should be done?" My hon. Friend rightly said that some consideration would be required before we could contemplate making that move.

    We must also bear in mind that we want the right of appeal to be exercised in serious cases. The Crown prosecutor would need to be careful about over-exercising his right of appeal in shoplifting cases, regardless of how aggravating or annoying they may be or how much theft is involved. The magistrates courts and the Crown court need to consider carefully whether they wish to keep people in prison in shoplifting cases as opposed to more serious cases involving violence against the person. I am not suggesting that shoplifting is not serious.

    Giving private prosecutors the right to appeal will not necessarily mean that more people who are charged with shoplifting will be kept in prison over night. I will certainly consider what my hon. Friend said. Perhaps he will agree to write to me, or the organisations involved will flesh out their concerns and ideas so that we can consider them properly.

    It might be appropriate for the Secretary of State to designate prosecutors acting on behalf of bodies or organisations. Any proposals to extend the power to other bodies would need to be subject to close parliamentary scrutiny. The House would want and expect to scrutinise any list of alternative prosecutors.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester asked about the Scottish legal system—who the prosecutors were and whether private prosecutions were allowed. Of course, the Scottish legal system is different from our system south of the border. In Scotland, all prosecutions are conducted by the procurators fiscal and they alone have the right of appeal.

    My hon. Friends the Members for Worcester and for Southport (Mr. Banks) said that the Secretary of State should decide who should have the right to appeal. I have already covered that matter, but I emphasise that the power of appeal is a significant one which can result in a defendant being granted bail by magistrates and being held in custody at the instigation of the prosecution. It is a serious matter when someone who has been granted bail is then denied his right to liberty at the instigation of the Executive. Therefore, it is important that Parliament should have the opportunity to consider those to whom the power should be extended. We envisage an order subject to negative resolution. We all know that if Parliament is content with the Secretary of State's proposals, we do not need to waste parliamentary time. However, if any hon. Member is concerned, there is an opportunity for debate.

    I wish to deal with the limitations that will be set on this power of appeal—the limitation on who will have the power to bring the appeal and the limitation on the circumstances in which it can be brought. We all agree that appeals against the grant of bail should be brought only in the most exceptional cases, not simply when the prosecutor disagrees with the magistrate's decision. Mere satisfaction should certainly not be enough. It is intended that this power will be used only in rare cases in which there is a serious public interest. My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley may say that shoplifting is a matter of serious public interest.

    There have been attempts to draft an amendment that sets a test higher than that in the Bail Act and yet is comprehensible to the courts. We have not found a satisfactory amendment to date and, if the Scottish experience is anything to go by, I do not think that we shall find one. For the Crown Prosecution Service, we plan to follow the formula that provides that the procurator fiscal must abide by guidelines giving detailed advice on the circumstances in which an appeal may be brought.

    It is important for hon. Members to understand why the decision has been taken not to accept on the face of the statute a test of, say, serious risk to the public. That ground was debated in Committee between my predecessor—my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack)—and Labour Members. The same arguments apply now as then. We must have a right of appeal that will apply when a person has been charged with serious offences and the prosecutor believes that there is good reason to suppose that the defendant will abscond. We must have a right of appeal that will allow serious threats to property to be guarded against.

    The guidelines intended to be used by the Crown Prosecution Service will in the first place make it clear that the Crown Prosecution service foresees that the number of places in which it will exercise the right of appeal is small. The broad effect of the guidelines is that the right of appeal will be used only in cases of greatest concern where there are substantial grounds under the Bail Act on which the court could refuse bail.

    Prosecutors will apply an over-arching test of whether there is a serious risk of harm to members of the public or other significant public interest grounds. The public interest grounds will not be used to justify appeals in minor cases. In making their assessment, prosecutors will take into account the seriousness of the offence. Examples of such cases might include offences of violence where weapons are used, serious sexual offences where there is an element of violence and serious arson cases.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove asked me what action will be taken to stop people from offending while on bail. That is a serious matter. The Government share the justified anxiety about offending on bail and they are committed to action. Our aim is both to prevent such behaviour and to punish those who disregard the law and abuse the trust placed in them by the courts by offending when they are let out on bail.

    12.30 pm

    In addition to introducing legislation that will make offending on bail an aggravating factor for the purposes of sentencing, in the past 18 months we have introduced a package of practical measures to combat the problem. An additional £8 million over the next three years has been provided to fund bail hostels and bail support schemes, the better to supervise those on bail and to improve the training given to magistrates on bail decisions. We will ensure that bail notices make clear the penalties that people will face if they offend on bail.

    One of the most important of the recent initiatives is the establishment of five action research projects tasked with finding ways of improving the bail process. The hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) told me only two days ago that that was exactly what was needed. I have news for him. One of the projects set up last autumn operates in Newport.

    Accurate and up-to-date information is crucial to every bail decision. Therefore, we have asked that the projects should focus on the quality and quantity of information. The action research is intended to result in best practice guidelines for those involved at every stage of the bail decision and in particular to highlight ways of helping the court to make the necessary risk assessment for each defendant.

    My last point in response to the anxiety of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove about those who re-offend on bail is that a national bail issue steering group has been established to bring together senior representatives of justice agencies and other organisations with an interest, including the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Bar Council, the Law Society, the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, the Justices Clerks Society and the Magistrates Association to encourage inter-agency work. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend will be satisfied that a programme of action has been established to deal with those who offend on bail.

    I hope that I have satisfied my hon. Friends that the amendment is sensible and should be accepted.

    I am grateful for the constructive and positive speeches that have been made by hon. Members in the debate on this group of amendments. My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth) was worried about private prosecutions. However, private prosecutions are not normally brought for the serious cases to which the Bill is intended to apply. I have never intended the Bill to apply to small thefts and other minor offences, even though they may come within the category of offences set out in clause 1(1).

    Nevertheless, there may well be circumstances in which, by reason of the persistence of the shoplifting or other circumstances, it is inappropriate for the person to be released on bail. In those circumstances, I hope that, perhaps prior to the hearing, the retailer or other private prosecutor would speak to the Crown Prosecution Service to enlist its support, and that if necessary the CPS would take over the case and itself appeal against the granting of bail. I hope that that will satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) drew attention for the second time to the narrow scope of the Bill. I share his concern that the Bill had to be so narrowly drawn, and I hope that he will understand that in a private Member's Bill and especially a ten-minute Bill, if one seeks to achieve too much, one will achieve nothing.

    I am particularly sorry that I had to drop clause 2 of my Bill which, while it did not shift the burden of proof in bail cases generally, would have focused on people who had previously committed offences while on bail. It would have let such people know that if, in future, bail, was considered, it would be for them to prove that they should have bail, rather than, as now, for the prosecution to prove that they should not have bail.

    I give notice to my hon. Friend the Minister now that if those provisions or something similar are not included in the Government's Bill which I hope will be introduced in the autumn, I and other hon. Members will move amendments to ensure that the matter is taken into account. We want to make it more difficult for persistent bail offenders to obtain bail in the first place.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester also mentioned civil rights. He was right to do so. But we must consider the civil rights not only of the person who is arrested but of all those people who are the victims of crime committed by people on bail. I have sought to strike a fair balance in the Bill between the civil rights of the arrested person and those of the public.

    My hon. Friend was right to draw attention to the increasing use of cautioning instead of prosecution. That also causes me anxiety. If the reason for it is that it is thought that there is an insufficiency of prison places, that is not a good reason for proceeding by way of caution. There may well be good reasons for giving a caution, but that is not one of them. We could easily decrease the prison population by repealing the Theft Act 1968, but no one would wish to do that. I believe that it is the first duty of any Government to protect their citizens against internal as well as external attack, and if prison places have to be made available to accommodate those who are a danger to society, such places must be made available.

    The cost to the taxpayer has been referred to. Of course it is costly to the taxpayer to keep someone in prison. I am appalled by some of the costs of keeping people in prison that we have read about recently. I understand that it can cost up to £2,000 per night to keep someone in prison or in police cells, whereas I understand one can stay in the Ritz hotel for £130 per night. I believe that the public is being ripped off, and that the Home Office should look seriously into the cost of accommodating people in prison.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester also mentioned his concern about whether the list of designated prosecutors should be drawn up by a Minister or subject to parliamentary scrutiny. I disagree with him on this point. We have a duty to consider any extension or proposed extension to the list of designated prosecutors for the purpose of the Bill, and I would ask him to support amendment No. 7.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) mentioned the report of the Northumbria police, which is a valuable piece of research into offending while on bail. It concluded that nearly 50 per cent. of detected crime was committed by persons while on bail. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that that is a horrifying statistic.

    The Home Office has published its own report and its figures suggest that the problem is less serious. However, I doubt whether that is the case, because the Home Office figures do not include those persons who were cautioned rather than prosecuted, or those offences to which persons have admitted while in prison for other offences.

    My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned that only circuit judges would hear the appeals. Notwithstanding Lords amendment No. 1, to which we have already agreed, I do not think that such will be the case. As I understand it, every person who is appointed a justice of the High Court is, ex officio, a judge of the Crown court. Therefore, the same individual could be made available, if necessary, to serve in the Crown court to hear appeals of this kind. Lords amendment No. 1 would not reduce the number of judicial personnel available to deal with those cases; all it means is that, under the Bill, one would not be able to appeal to a justice of the High Court sitting as such.

    I was glad to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister said about the Government's commitment to bail research projects, bail information schemes and the like. We can all agree that it is far better that magistrates should get the bail decison right in the first place than that there should be an appeal under my Bill.

    Having listened carefully to all the contributions that hon. Members have made, I consider nevertheless that it is right to restrict the right of appeal under the Bill to a public prosecutor, and I would therefore invite the House to accept amendments Nos. 2 and 7.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Lords amendment: No. 3, in page 1, line 15, leave out from ("prosecution") to ("granted") and insert

    ("made representations that bail should not be")

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment No. 4.

    I can deal with this amendment briefly: it is purely a matter of semantics. In all my years at the Bar, I have always heard of the prosecution "objecting" to bail, and I have never heard anyone object to the use of the word "object". However, one of their lordships felt that that was unduly confrontational and, as it makes no difference to the substance of the Bill, I am happy to accept the amendment that he wished to press.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) said that this was a matter of semantics. I am always wary of semantics because sometimes an issue that is considered to be merely superficial covers something more significant. I wish briefly to seek an assurance on those matters.

    My constituents, like those of many other hon. Members, are worried about law and order. They are alarmed at persistent offenders and anxious about juvenile offenders. We want to know that changes in the Bill will not weaken its provisions, that the Government are firmly behind law and order and that those issues are being dealt with. They are the worries of the people whom we represent, so it is right that we give them proper attention. It is, therefore, essential that we do not simply nod through a change in this important legislation which, it may subsequently transpire, weakens it significantly. I do not see that it is likely to be so weakened, but I seek an assurance on that.

    Will my hon. Friend the Minister also assure me that police bail will not be used more than at present as a result of the Bill's introduction? How does he see the role of police bail developing?

    Order. I hope that the Minister will not go down that road because it would be out of order.

    I wish to echo some of the thoughts of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) and to be absolutely clear that that change of words, which their lordships describe as "more felicitous", will not be some kind of lawyers' paradise and open up the loopholes that concern my hon. Friends. I am worried about it. Superficially, it seems plausible and acceptable. It verges on political correctness rather than anything else. Will the Minister assure me that there is no diminution in the effectiveness of the Bill as a result of the amendment?

    I take issue with a couple of comments made by my hon. Friends. The word "objected" would have created no ambiguity whatever. I seek clarification from the Minister that he is happy with the amendment. The word "objected" would be far better than

    "made representations that bail should not be"
    granted.

    There is a precedent for using the word "representations" in paragraph 9(a) of schedule 1 to the Bail Act 1976. My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned that Act. Without wishing to move too far away from the amendments, may I contrast them with what my hon. Friend referred to? The word "objected" is far better because it is not ambiguous. Although this is a matter of semantics, it is important.

    It was suggested earlier that powers to object to the granting of bail and the right of appeal may not necessarily be used in many cases. If so, that also worries me. Allowing the prosecution right of appeal against granting bail was originally put forward as a response to tragedies such as the Hagan's case where, despite the prosecution's objections, a defendant was granted bail with serious and fatal consequences.

    The provision would effectively give the prosecution a second opinion on bail in a higher court where it was felt that bail had been granted without satisfactory regard to exceptions to the right to bail—that is, that the defendant was likely to abscond or commit further offences.

    My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned, under previous amendments, the Scottish legal system. North of the border, the prosecution already has a right of appeal against bail decisions. The possibility of introducing a similar provision in England and Wales was under consideration before my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) introduced his Bill in November 1992. The measure for north of the border had considerable support and it is entirely right that there should be similar legislation south of the border. I appreciate that there are civil liberty implications, but my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham was entirely right when he suggested that we should remember the victims of crime and their rights, rather than concentrating far too much on defendants.

    The amendments and the Bill strike the right balance. Of course I want to see time limits for such an appeal, because it is vital to allow sufficient time for an adequate rehearing to be prepared, but it is also vital to minimise the time that a defendant is held in custody.

    12.45 pm

    Order. I advise the House and the hon. Gentleman that the amendment's only effect is to substitute the word "representations" for "objected" and the debate is limited to that. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind.

    I am grateful for your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

    I hope that when the Minister responds he will make it quite clear to the House that, in view of his comments on earlier amendments, he will take action to amend the Bail Act 1976 to reverse the presumption in favour of bail for certain categories of defendants. I hope that he will satisfy me and my hon. Friends that the wording of the amendments will ensure that there is no ambiguity whatever. If the Crown Prosecution Service, on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions, wishes to object to the granting of bail the objection must be quite clear and there should be no mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy wording.

    I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) about semantics as to whether the word "representations" or "objected" is used. The public do not want wishy-washy words. [Interruption.] They certainly do not get them from me. People will not be reassured if words such as "representations" are slipped into the Bill, because it will look as if our resolve is weakening. I trust that the Minister will make sure that our resolve is not weakened and will reassure the House about that. After so much work, public representations and the initiative and enterprise of my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen), it would be devastating if the legislation were derailed by semantics in the other place.

    I assure my hon. Friends that I would never be associated with mealy-mouthed or wishy-washy words. I expected them to know that. I have been exonerated from that potential crime and I have positive proof, because, after I replied to an Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans), he congratulated me and was completely satisfied with all my responses to his robust speech. My hon. Friends will appreciate that, as I was able to satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield on the Government's law and order policy, I could not have been using mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy words.

    The Government do not oppose the removal of the word "objected". That does not alter the original meaning of the Bill, but renders it more consistent with the terms of the Bail Act 1976. The use of the phrase
    "representations that bail should not be granted"
    makes it clear that the prosecution is exercising no more than its right in law to influence the decision of the court about whether bail should be granted.

    The phrase "objected to bail" is in common usage and is not in itself open to ambiguity, but I suggest that it has been improved on. Notwithstanding the fact that the Bill is about the possibility of the prosecution appealing against the bail decision, the fact remains that the decision to grant bail is a judicial one. Any review of bail decisions belongs to the court.

    I hope that I have satisfied my hon. Friends the Members for Worcester (Mr. Luff) and for Southport (Mr. Banks) that there is no ambiguity. I can also assure my hon. Friend the Member for Southport that I want to look at the Bail Act 1976, but I am sure that he would not expect me to give the firm promise that he demanded of me. I hope, therefore, that he will not consider me wishy-washy if I do not instantly accept his suggestions.

    I agree so much with the short but passionate speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason)—that this amendment is part of the Government's package for cracking down hard on crime. I am sure that he was here for yesterday's debate on law and order, though he was not called to speak in it. I hope that he realises from yesterdary's debate that the Government announced tough measures.

    Furthermore, it was in this chamber only on Tuesday that we took immediate steps to replace the unit fines system and restore the full power of magistrates to impose the sentences that they think just, in order to take into account the previous convicions of offenders, including those who have offended while on bail. In their case, we took the opportunity to make it an aggravated offence. We shall include other tough measures in the next Criminal Justice Bill to ensure that what this amendment seeks to do is done: that we have a proper crackdown on those who deserve to be cracked down against.

    I have listened carefully to what has been said about this amendment. I could not agree more that the House and the Government must act, and be seen to act, resolutely against those who offend against our laws. Nevertheless, I remain of the opinion that Lords amendments Nos. 3 and 4 make no substantial difference to the Bill and will have no adverse effect on it. Therefore, I invite the House to accept them.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Lords amendment No. 4 agreed to.

    Lords amendment: No. 5, in page 1, line 23, leave out ("one hour") and insert ("two hours").

    I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

    In dealing with this final group of amendments, may I crave the indulgence of the House for one moment to pay tribute to the spirit of co-operation in both this House and another place which has made it possible for my Bill to reach this stage. It is a great honour for me, as a new Member, that both Houses of the United Kingdom Parliament have seen fit to approve this, my first private Member's Bill, particularly since it was only a ten-minute Bill. In particular, I offer my thanks to the Minister of State, Home Office, and his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), the Home Office officials, the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) and the 116 right hon. and hon. Members who supported my Bill by signing early-day motion 1134. Support came from positions as far apart in the political spectrum as the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman).

    Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 relate to an issue which we debated in Committee: whether the written notice of appeal which has to be served by the prosecutor should be confirmatory only, or whether failure to serve that notice would bring the appeal process to an end. We took the view in Committee that it should be confirmatory only, but, after further debate and discussion in another place, I am persuaded that it should be an integral part of the appeal process.

    I have, therefore, been prepared to accept that if the written notice is not served within the prescribed time limit, that should in effect bring the appeal to an end. In agreeing to that, I was concerned that there should be sufficient time for busy members of the Crown Prosecution Service to prepare and to serve the written notice of appeal on the magistrates court and on the person concerned. I therefore insisted that the original one-hour time limit should be extended to two hours, and I shall be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that that limit is considered by the Crown Prosecution Service to be practicable. If the written notice of appeal is not served within the extended two-hour period, the appeal would be deemed to be disposed of and, by virtue of clause 1(5), the person concerned would be released from custody.

    In view of my earlier remarks about the way in which an admirably robust Bill that was not wishy washy in any way has been weakened by its progress through bath Houses, it would be churlish of me not to welcome the one group of amendments that reverses that process and redresses the balance between the victim and the alleged perpetrator in the way that the whole Bill sought to do.

    It is entirely right that we should agree with their lordships in these amendments, which strengthen the Bill and make the clause more robust. I welcome them unreservedly for that reason. However, I emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) that where the Bill has been weakened in order that it may reach the statute book speedily, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will examine the possibility of Government legislation in Government time in the next Session, to restore all the Bill's original intentions. Otherwise, I have no hesitation in supporting the amendments.

    Earlier, I was permitted to intervene on minor matters on several occasions, and until now I have refrained from congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen). I do so now, and having heard him address the House this morning, I appreciate his skill and acumen—as I am sure other hon. Members do—in presenting his Bill. I am proud to be associated with it as a sponsor, because it addresses an issue which is long overdue for reform. It is only sad that it is not a Government Bill but comes from the Back Benches—but it is not in any way diluted for that. At least the Government have given it a fair wind.

    From my little experience, of many years ago, as a prosecutor, I may say that the amendment is at the nub of the balance between the exercise of liberty and the practicalities of the workings of magistrates courts. The question whether the time allowed for an appeal should be two hours or longer should be addressed. I am fearful that the practicalities of magistrates courts may mean that two hours is not quite long enough—but only by a short while. I shall explain why.

    The Bill is admirable, though it should be noted that such legislation was not necessary in the past. I recall being able, as a prosecutor, to call police witnesses who had to say only that they objected to bail on the ground of the gravity of the series of offences, that the defendant had previous convictions, or whatever, for bail to be invariably refused. That is not the case today. In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) spoke of the revolving door—the vast number of defendants who leave the docks of magistrates courts and immediately commit further offences.

    1 pm

    The chief superintendent who is responsible for my constituency tells me that a vast number of offences in my part of London are committed by people who are on bail. So, on the one hand, the Bill's provisions to tackle that problem are thoroughly welcome but, on the other, I am concerned about the amendment. Those who have practised in the magistrates courts know that a trial may last two or three hours during a morning or afternoon and that the court clerk may be loth to interrupt it. If bail is refused, the prosecution may decide within minutes of the court adjourning that it wishes to appeal. However, a new case may have been called and the court clerk may not want to interrupt it—nor may it be in the best interests of the subsequent defendant to do so. If a case were adjourned for example just before half-past ten o'clock, the resumed application for bail might not be heard until one o'clock. I do not believe that two hours is long enough. Similarly, a typical afternoon sitting of a magistrates court is two and a half hours. I contend, therefore, that the amendment should provide for two and a half hours. Concern for the victim, which all hon. Members have expressed, demands that we reconsider the amendment and provide for two and a half hours rather than two hours.

    I do not want to hold up the business because I know that there are more matters to consider today, so may I briefly say that I accept the amendment, but with some reservations? I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth) said about the period being two and a half hours.

    I have an awful feeling that there may be a loophole, whereby an appeal may fail on purely administrative grounds. As I understand it, an appeal is valid only if it is confirmed in writing within the time specified. It is academic whether it is two hours, two and a half hours or four hours. What worries me is that it somehow or other invalidates the first application for an appeal, which is made orally in court. That is the moment from which the appeal should be valid, and its confirmation in writing should be merely an administrative factor. If, however, it is the judgment of the House and of the Minister that this is the way to proceed, I trust that the two-hour limit will be sufficient.

    I trust also that we shall understand the problems that are experienced by the Crown Prosecution Service, which works extremely hard and is responsible for many cases each day. It would be most unfortunate if, because of a slip up, someone who should be detained in custody were released.

    It is in general, however, an excellent Bill. I support the spirit behind it and very much appreciate the support given by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) because, without it, I doubt whether we should have been able to proceed as satisfactorily. I also appreciate the Government's enormous interest in the increasing concern about crime and their backing for my right hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen).

    There is, however, one matter with which the Minister still needs to deal—the tricky and difficult problem of persistent juvenile offenders under the age of 15. He is well aware of public concern, and it would be reassuring to hear his thoughts. Many persistent juvenile offenders get off scot free and are not held in custody when they should be, but society has a right to be protected from them.

    I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) and, although I applauded his flexible approach in Committee in ensuring that the Bill was dealt with expeditiously and will become law, I am very worried about this amendment.

    Following the remarks made by my hon. Friends the Members for Finchley (Mr. Booth) and for Worcester (Mr. Luff), I must say that the amendment, which seeks to increase one hour to two hours, is not as acceptable as it should be. I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester who said that it is one of the amendments that seek to redress the balance.

    The fact is that nearly 500,000 people are granted bail each year by the courts. I do not have the figures for 1992 or 1993, but in 1991 about 52,000 people were remanded in custody. Research suggests that 10 per cent. of those granted bail are convicted of an offence while on bail or that they reoffend while on bail. That proportion has stayed the same since 1978. If we are to give the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service the opportunity to take advantage of the Bill's provisions, it is vital that we give those responsible at the magistrates court the maximum possible, sensible time to ensure that written notice of appeal can be served. I am not entirely satisfied that increasing one hour to two hours is the right way to proceed.

    I urge the Minister to take on board my concerns and those of my other hon. Friends. Many of those who are, or will be, involved in serving written notice of appeal are busy people with heavy work loads and, like conscientious Back Benchers, working under a great deal of stress. They might find that increasing one hour to two hours is not appropriate.

    It would be cold comfort if one of my constituents—for example, a widow living on her own in Southport—suffered a burglary or other aggravation when a crime was committed, simply because someone had been released on bail because those involved in serving written notice of appeal had had insufficient time to serve that notice.

    Earlier, the Minister said that, of necessity, decisions about appeals would have to be made by prosecutors on the ground, the people who are handling the files for the day and who are engaged in a series of cases. It may be difficult, if they are going straight on to another hearing, for them to deal with an appeal notice within the time limit. Does my hon. Friend agree that that adds to his point?

    I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He makes a pertinent point about the difficulties of work load that may mean that somebody who should be the subject of an appeal may not become the subject because there is insufficient time for officials to serve a written notice of appeal at the magistrates court. I am concerned about that and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will address that concern. I am not satisfied that increasing the time limit from one to two hours, as the amendment proposes, is satisfactory.

    This is an important amendment and my hon. Friends have rightly touched on some crucial points. The amendment will ensure that if written notice of appeal is not served within the period specified, the appeal will fail. The written notice serves the purpose of recording for all concerned the fact that an appeal has been launched and the grounds of the appeal, which the defence will want to be confirmed, so that work on the arguments that will be presented to the judge can begin straight away at the appeal hearing. If the notes have been arranged, they will contain the time and place of the appeal hearing. It is, therefore, a document of record that the defence may wish to have to consider how to respond to the appeal.

    The Government accept the importance of ensuring that such a written record is provided as quickly as possible. Although we accept that a two-hour time limit is more realistic than one hour, we realise that prosecutors may often go straight from one case to another, which might make it difficult to meet a one-hour target. Those hon. Members who have experienced a busy magistrates court room, in whatever capacity, will agree that, in a two-hour period, it is realistic to expect some break in the proceedings, allowing the prosecutor to wrote out and lodge a notice.

    I shall give a little more detail to my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth) on how we envisage that that method might work in practice. The Crown prosecutor arrives in court to face a mountain of case papers, some of which will have been perused already. Other papers that relate to defendants who have been arrested by the police and detained in custody overnight will be known to the prosecutor.

    Where the prosecutor, having argued against bail being granted to a defendant, then sees it granted by the magistrates, as is their judicial right, and wants to launch an appeal, he must immediately inform the court by way of an oral announcement. The written notice will take him a little time to prepare—not long, but he will need to gather his thoughts. After one hour, the courts will still be working through their case load. Two hours, I am assured by the CPS, will provide an opportunity for the prosecutor to break off from his duties to fill in the form.

    I must say to my hon. Friends the Members for Finchley and for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) that we considered the issue carefully. The judgment had to be based largely on what the Crown Prosecution Service saw as the minimum amount of time that it will find not just convenient, but practical in most circumstances, to complete the form. Of course, it will also give attention to how to make the form simple and easy to complete. One does not envisage that prosecutors will have to spend hours writing reams of notes on the reasons why they believe the appeal ought not to be granted. I anticipate that they will use a rather simplistic form in which they will record reasons why they object—the reasons why they wish to make representations that bail ought not to be granted. We envisage that being a relatively simple procedure.

    My hon. Friend has just said that he was advised that one hour or two hours is the minimum time. If that is the case, does he recognise that that is why my colleagues and I are so concerned about this matter?

    I would not want to mislead the House. Perhaps I did not use the best choice of words. When I discussed this matter with CPS representatives, they said that a two-hour limit would be satisfactory and would not cause them difficulties. Having explored all the options and time limits, I believe that it would be inappropriate for me, with my inexpert judgment on the matter, to suggest a different time limit. If the CPS believes that it can operate in the two-hour period, I advise my hon. Friends, who have considerable experience of these matters—and I note the plea for a two-and-a-half hour period—to accept the judgment of the CPS in this case.

    1.15 pm

    Does my hon. Friend accept that the basis on which he has explained his point is very different from the point that I was trying to make? I was not making a point about a prosecutor who was in charge of his own pile of briefs or about an able prosecutor who can juggle five minutes here and there. I was proposing a different situation which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister has considered in the advice that he has taken. What if a prosecutor cannot get back into court because another case is going on in that court?

    I understand my hon. Friend's point. However, the CPS does not see any great difficulty.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Finchley also suggested that the court might have to adjourn its other business to receive the written notice, but the notice can simply be passed to the clerk of the court.

    The CPS envisages, and their lordships with whom this was also discussed expected, anticipated—I do not wish to put words in their mouths—and I believe would accept the concept, that the written notice should be in a very simple, tick-the-box form for the reasons of appeal. In those circumstances, I do not envisage a great deal of time having to be spent on the written notice itself.

    I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam has been reassured by my advice to her and to the House that the two-and-a-half hour time limit which she suggested is not necessary in view of the opinion of the CPS.

    The wording in the amendment is consistent with the wording of subsection (6). It avoids any suggestion that might be capable of being read into other forms of words, such as the appeal being "null and void", that the original decision to appeal was in some way "unlawful". That aspect of the time within which the appeal is confirmed in writing is linked with the assurances that were sought during the Bill's passage in another place about the level of prosecutor allowed to launch an appeal against a bail decision.

    It could be argued that if prosecutors are entrusted with all the other responsibilities of prosecuting a case, they should be trusted as the people on the spot—and this is the point that I made earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr.Thomason)—

    I eventually managed to get my hon. Friend's constituency right.

    As I was saying, as the people on the spot, prosecutors should be trusted to use their discretion whether they should launch an appeal. I believe that the prosecutors in the court, who are appraised of the facts, will be best placed to make a decision on whether to appeal. They will be aware of the risks that a defendant might pose if released on appeal and of the arguments put by the defence in support of bail.

    The alternative of requiring senior lawyers to be available to take through all decisions to launch prosecution appeals, would vastly and unacceptably increase the costs of the CPS because it would be impossible to ensure that a prosecutor of such rank was present at all magistrates courts or contactable by telephone at any time to give authority to appeal.

    In discussions about this part of the Bill and this amendment, the Government have recognised concerns implicit in the desire to see authorisation given at a senior level. In order to meet those concerns, the Government propose to ensure that there are proper procedures within the Crown Prosecution Service by which senior prosecutors will be able to vet and, if necessary, discontinue appeals.

    I shall go into a little more detail on the important point—which was raised earlier and is relevant to this amendment—about senior prosecutors being able to vet appeals. The guidance that will be issued by the Crown Prosecution Service will indicate that appeals should not be made by junior prosecutors without seeking approval from more senior lawyers. In any case where Crown prosecutors consider that it might be appropriate to use the right of appeal, they will, wherever possible, obtain prior authority to do so. If, at the hearing when they have heard all that the defence has to say, that view is confirmed, they will have authority to launch the appeal. If, in exceptional circumstances, it is not possible to obtain prior authority, Crown prosecutors will seek a subsequent review of the decision to appeal by a more senior lawyer. That will be done within the time limit for giving written notice of appeal if possible, but, if not, within 24 hours at the latest.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam raised a very important point on powers to deal with persistent juvenile offenders. Of course, it is important that when juvenile offenders appear before a court, and if the prosecutor wishes to exercise the right of appeal, the minimum time should elapse before alleged young offenders remain in custody. The whole House will agree that that is important and that it is of particular relevance, therefore, in consideration of the two-hour time limit, that we look at the situation in regard to persistent juvenile offenders.

    To answer my hon. Friend's point briefly, the Criminal Justice Act 1991 reformed and strengthened juvenile remand arrangements. It gave courts a new power to attach conditions when juveniles are remanded in local authority accommodation, and it placed the decision to remand 15 and 16-year-old boys squarely with the courts. We are all concerned about persistent offenders. The trend towards that small hard core of offenders committing a disproportionate amount of crime which destroys the quality of life for the law-abiding majority of our citizens cannot be tolerated.

    We must be particularly concerned that, as studies consistently show, repeat offenders are often young men and boys who have the potential to carry on offending for years to come. We believe that their habit of offending must be broken. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam rightly pointed out, some persistent offenders seem to have become either careless of the consequences of their actions or arrogant when they appear before the courts. As my hon. Friend said, they make a gesture towards the courts' authority. That is why we are considering ways of tackling offending at its roots—by influencing individual attitudes and behaviour, particularly among the young; and persistent offenders must be made, while in custody, to confront their offending behaviour and its consequences.

    Juveniles who persist in anti-social criminal behaviour must, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary made clear in the House last night, be brought to fear the strength of the law. We attach a high priority to the matter and shall soon introduce legislation to establish secure training orders to deal with the hard core of persistent juvenile offenders aged under 15—exactly what my hon. Friend asked me.

    I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his remarks. I welcome them, and they will be a great reassurance to the public at large. Will he clarify that the area that I—

    Order. I must inform the hon. Lady that that point must not be pursued any further under these amendments.

    I cannot go further, because I would be outside the relevance of the two-hour limit in this amendment.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) was also very concerned about the two-hour limit in the amendment and the conditions attached to bail. Courts already have the power to attach tough conditions to bail where they are appropriate. They can and do require defendants to keep off the streets at certain times, to keep away from certain places, and to keep away from certain people. The availability of bail conditions is very important in increasing the range of options available to the court in considering how best to deal with a defendant before trial. Those conditions must be effectively policed and enforced, and magistrates must be fully aware of the possibilities open to them.

    The work of the local projects has highlighted the importance of bail conditions at the remand stage. We will be examining carefully how to make the best use of the option of conditional bail to prevent offending while on bail. In those circumstances, the court might feel that it is appropriate to grant bail and not allow a prosecution right of appeal if the person can be kept in reasonably sensible conditions, but short of being remanded in custody.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Southport was concerned about whether there would be increased pressure on prison places if we reduced the number of people who are remanded on bail. The Bail Act makes clear a general presumption in favour of bail in line with the fundamental principle of our criminal justice system—presumed innocent until found guilty. Therefore, it is not our intention—I am afraid that I must disappoint my hon. Friend—that bail shall be refused in the majority of cases. The emphasis must be targeting to improve the chances that those who are most likely to offend on bail or abscond will be identified by the courts and to increase the likelihood of identifying some who are currently remanded in custody who could safely be released on bail.

    Evidence suggests that the majority of defendants do not offend while on bail and, therefore, locking them up in those circumstances would serve no purpose. That is why the Bill makes such a sensible contribution to improving the range of powers to deal with bail. Of course, the amendment is also appropriate to those purposes.

    My hon. Friend referred to the extent of the problem of people offending while on bail. In 1991, 480,000 people were granted bail by the courts and 52,000 were remanded in custody. Research suggests that 10 per cent. of those who are granted bail are convicted of an offence while on bail and that the proportion has stayed the same since 1978. Many of the offences are not ones that would result in a custodial sentence. Undoubtedly, there is a hard core of offenders—burglars, car thieves and the Sutton posse—who do not respect the courts. Those offenders must be taught a lesson.

    Some hon. Members will be aware that police research shows that the figure of those offending while on bail is much higher—17 per cent. in one study and a third in another. I welcome those police studies as shedding more light on the problem. We are trying to ensure that there is an agreed method of measuring offending on bail. Whatever the figures—let us not disagree about them—clearly there is too much offending while on bail.

    I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) on the progress that the Bill has made. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House who have made thoughtful and valuable contributions to the Bill's progress. I especially thank my hon. Friends who are present today who have made such excellent speeches—my hon. Friends the Members for Worcester (Mr. Luff), for Sutton and Cheam, for Bromsgrove, for Southport, for Finchley, and others. I have been told that the Bill has the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). I studied the Bill carefully. I was surprised that she supported it because I could see nothing dealing with castration. Nevertheless, I am glad that she supports it.

    The amendment is important and sensible. I commend it to the House, together with the Bill, which the Government treat with sympathy. We believe that it is broadly in line with the need to provide some safeguard against the sort of bail decisions that have resulted in tragic consequences in the past. The principle has been welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House and I hope that the Bill passes through all stages today.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Lords amendments Nos. 6 and 7 agreed to.

    Right To Know Bill

    As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

    [MR. GEOFFREY LOFTHOUSE in the Chair]

    New Clause 2

    Presumption In Favour Of Access

    '.—(1) Where, in any proceedings before the Tribunal, a person claims access to a record, then, subject to subsection (2) below, it shall be for the authority holding the record to show that access to the record should not be given.

    (2) Subsection (1) above does not apply where access to the record is being resisted on the ground that it contains information exempt by virtue of section 25 above.'.— [Mr.Thomason.]
    Brought up, and read the First time.

    I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

    With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments:

    • No. 69, in clause 42, page 24, leave out lines 7 to 30.
    • No. 70, in clause 43, page 24, leave out lines 32 to 43.
    • No. 71, in clause 44, page 25, leave out lines 1 to 29.
    • No. 72, in clause 45, page 25, line 30, leave out from beginning to end of line 5 on page 26.
    • No. 73, in clause 46, page 26, leave out lines 6 to 33.
    • No. 74, in clause 47, page 26, line 34, leave out from the beginning of line 34 to the end of line 9 on page 27.
    • No. 75, in clause 48, page 27, leave out lines 10 to 16.
    • No. 76, in clause 49, page 27, leave out lines 17 to 30.
    • No. 77, in clause 50, page 27, line 31, leave out from the beginning to the end of line 4 on page 28.
    • No. 78, in clause 51, page 28, leave out lines 5 to 19.
    • No. 79, in clause 52, page 28, leave out lines 20 to 23.
    • No. 80, in clause 53, page 28, leave out lines 24 to 29.
    • No. 81, in clause 54, page 28, line 30, leave out from the beginning to the end of line 11 on page 29.
    • No. 82, in clause 55, page 29, leave out lines 12 to 33.
    • No. 83, in clause 56, page 29, leave out lines 34 to 40.
    • No. 42, in clause 57, page 29, leave out lines 41 to 45.
    • No. 85, in clause 58, page 30, leave out lines 1 to 9.
    • No. 86, in clause 59, page 30, leave out lines 10 to 26.

    1.30 pm

    I am obliged to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me. I rise to speak in support of new clause 2 and amendment No. 42. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) on his enormous work in producing the Bill. It is never easy for any Member of Parliament to produce a private Member's Bill, and one who produces a Bill of the complexity and size of the Right to Know Bill deserves special congratulation. The House is obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his efforts.

    In that spirit, I inform the hon. Gentleman that new clause 2 is not intended to be a wrecking amendment. Far from it—it aims to be constructive and to ensure that the Bill can operate effectively once it is implemented. It deals with a particular problem which, on reflection, many hon. Members will feel should require attention.

    The Bill suggests that a third party should have the burden of proof against him in establishing that information should not be made available to a tribunal. For example, if a public body is approached by company A which asks for information on the public body, that information should be provided if possible. The public body must have the burden of proof against it if it refuses to produce that information. That is the position under the proposals of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central. It is also the position under new clause 2.

    If the information sought by company A relates to company B, burden of proof will still be on company B to resist making that information available, so it will be a difficult hurdle for the third party to overcome to resist the disclosure of information held by a public body and requested by a third party. Where information is requested by the third party, the burden of proof should rest against the person who makes the application, because that person seeks to obtain information which may be used against another person or body.

    In the spirit of the debate, can my hon. Friend tell me whether company A or company B made any donations to any political party?

    Company A or B or, indeed, trade union A or B may well have made contributions, but that would be irrelevant to obtaining justice before the tribunal.

    I am surprised that several amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) have been taken with new clause 2 and amendment No. 42. His series of amendments seek to delete the provisions on the establishment of the tribunal. That does not seem entirely in the spirit of the proposal in new clause 2, which seeks to add to the provisions in the Bill, not to destroy the tribunal arrangements entirely. I shall need some persuasion by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester that I should support his amendments. So there is a discrepancy between the objectives of the amendments in the group. It is wholly proper and appropriate that some mechanism should be created for testing whether information should be disclosed.

    New clause 2 goes a long way towards achieving those arrangements for disclosure without imposing an undue burden on those who seek information from or about someone else. The associated amendments, however, appear to destroy the ability to provide an appropriate mechanism to deal with deciding whether a public body should disclose information in the first place. I wait to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester will say to justify his amendments.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) need not hold his breath for too long. I assure the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) that my amendments are designed to probe the need for the existence of the commissioner and the tribunal. It is not my intention to press them to a vote, so he, too, can breath easy.

    The means of establishing the commissioner and tribunal deserves to be scrutinised and alternative enforcement mechanisms must be considered. I am sure that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has spotted that I have not proposed any such alternatives, however, so it would be foolish to push my amendments to a vote, because we would then be left with a toothless Bill. That is not what I desire.

    I also believe that my amendment No. 54 relates closely to the same issue and, therefore, it is no longer my intention to move it.

    I am extremely concerned about the cumbersome mechanisms for enforcement set out in the Bill. I seek reassurance from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central that those elaborate procedures are essential to secure the objectives of his Bill. I must make it clear that I am in sympathy with much of the principle behind the Bill—I know that the hon. Gentleman will think that I am being disingenuous, but I am not—but my reservations tend to mount as we consider its later clauses. We all support the principle of freedom of information. The Government share that commitment, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will make clear when he speaks.

    It is right that we should pause and reflect on whether the mechanisms for enforcement are right and the scope of the Bill is appropriate. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central drew on several examples on Second Reading to support his argument, but his choice of the poison apple scare was infelicitous. That is like a red rag to a bull to an hon. Member who represents the county of Hereford and Worcester. The lessons that he drew from that example were different from my own. The House and the Government had to devote an enormous amount of time to dealing with utterly false scare stories, that could have had serious implications for farmers in my constituency. I am saddened that he chose to draw attention to that particular example, because it caused me to question many of the Bill's early clauses.

    My amendments refer to part IV. If I understand it correctly, the Standing Committee did not consider the clauses in that part, but passed them on the nod. We must, therefore, spend a little time on Report considering the merits of the framework that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central seeks to erect.

    We should pass legislation only if we believe that it will assist to alter attitudes as well as the legal framework. If we believe that a particular part of a Bill may have an adverse effect on attitudes and the way in which people conduct themselves, we should pause and think long and hard before passing that legislation. Its enactment may make us all feel better, but it may make things worse in the real world outside.

    The first two clauses in part IV deal with the internal review and I have no argument with them. I am concerned, however, that the other clauses will create a siege mentality in the institutions from which we are trying to gain information. I fear that the threat of overly officious enforcement may not foster the right attitude of openness.

    I worked in government for two years and I strongly believe that the need to create openness in our society relies on attitude rather than the law. Some ingenious officials working in government may feel that they can circumvent provisions should they need to. It is much better that they should be encouraged to regard openness in government as desirable in itself and so develop a natural climate of openness. My amendments provide an opportunity to consider whether alternative enforcement mechanisms would not have an overly officious effect on civil servants and would therefore create that climate of openness.

    Why does my hon. Friend feel that a legal framework would stifle rather than help to bring about a change in attitude or approach? I can think of some circumstances in which a change of attitude might be stifled by a draconian measure, but in the present case a change of law may encourage and accelerate—as seems to have happened in other parts of the English-speaking world—a move towards greater freedom of information, which most hon. Members favour.

    I understand and have some sympathy with my hon. Friend's concerns, but a more flexible framework to enforce the law might not only produce less of a siege mentality in those whose attitudes we seek to alter, but might also lead to a speedier resolution of the issue. I shall return to that matter with an alternative suggestion.

    Even if my hon. Friend disagrees that an excessively legal, regulated framework is the wrong approach, he may at least join me in considering the possibility of a speedier way of resolving disputes about access to information. I am concerned not to force people to adopt increasingly imaginative ways of avoiding the provisions of the Bill. If individuals know that their recorded words, actions, thoughts and deeds will be subject to intense public scrutiny, the records may become less frank and therefore of less value. We see that at work in many areas of life, particularly in an employer's fear, when he writes a reference for an employee, that his employee may see it. The euphemisms which enter references are legion.

    If we do not create the right climate for enforcing the Bill, it could lead to less good decision taking because less information will circulate in writing in the organisations concerned. That could lead to less good government and commercial decision taking. We might rely instead on a framework of nods and winks, of verbal agreements, and no written records. That would be unhealthy.

    I note in particular what the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central said when he introduced the Bill:
    "The minds of Ministers, civil servants, local government officials and leaders would he wonderfully concentrated by the thought that the public had access to the information and records on which they made their decisions.—[ Official Report, 19 February 1993: Vol. 219, c. 588.]
    The stick with which the hon. Gentleman proposes to beat people in this clause is what he proposes would concentrate their minds. I prefer the carrot approach, providing those individuals with the intellectual arguments which would make them wish to conduct their business more openly.

    The clauses that the amendment seeks to delete add to that pressure. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Mr. Trend) that an alternative mechanism would better be modelled on the ombudsman procedure, which works in other areas of public life. It is less cumbersome, more flexible and sometimes—althought I must admit not always—speedier.

    Is my hon. Friend aware that the ombudsman's judgments are not enforceable in law—in Scotland it is different from south of the border—and that many public bodies have sought simply to ignore those decisions? In trying to change people's attitudes through a more flexible approach, what does my hon. Friend suggest that we do when we come up against an organisation or institution whose mind does not want to be moved?

    My view of the ombudsman is slightly more rosy than that of my hon. Friend. I do not know why solicitors in my constituency are working so hard to get the ombudsman to produce favourable outcomes for their clients if they do not share that view. My local authority recently used an ombudsman's judgment to deny compensation to one of my constituents because it felt that as the ombudsman had said that no fault rested on the authority, the Audit Commission would have been extremely critical if compensation had been paid. Ombudsmen are more effective than my hon. Friend suggests.

    1.45 pm

    Is my hon. Friend aware that despite criticisms from the district auditor and the Audit Commission, councils such as Wakefield and Manchester have persistently ignored ombudsmen's decisions? Despite the work of solicitors in his constituency and the reasonable nature of most institutions, what happens when somebody will not co-operate?

    I am prepared to be persuaded on the issue. I have said that I do not intend to divide the House on the amendments and I hope that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central will be able to assure me that the adverse consequences which I fear will not flow from the legislation and that my proposal of an ombudsman is inadequate. I do not wish to become bogged down in debate with my hon. Friends because that prevents the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central from telling us how the Bill will work in practice.

    I am not opposed to the early parts of the Bill, but I am worried about the way it seems to work. The Bill on Sunday trading presented by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) had my entire and robust sympathy, but the way the Bill developed in Committee made it too bureaucratic and difficult to administer. That is precisely my concern about the section of the Bill that we are debating. To make speedier progress, I shall restrict my remarks to that aspect.

    On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said:
    "It shows a profound truth: whatever we do in legislation, nothing ultimately changes, unless the culture of organisations genuinely changes. It is always possible to find a way round rules if those working within them really want to. That is a fair point, whatever approach we take to the matter."—[Official Report, 19 February 1993; Vol. 219, c. 596.]
    In that spirit, I urge the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central to reassure me that the central mechanisms in his Bill are necessary. For example, is it not possible to find a better way to operate our system of parliamentary questions to procure the necessary information? I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman's comment on Second Reading that hon. Members are too often fobbed off with inadequate answers. He said that hon. Members had noticed the increasing use of answers
    "such as 'This information is not available,' or 'This information is too expensive to compile,' or 'This information is no longer centrally collected'. Usually, the questions are reasonable, and the answers would be of assistance to the quality of understanding and public debate. But Ministers and civil servants decide what is good for us—not our needs or rights."—[Official Report, 19 February 1993; Vol. 219, c. 584.]
    Is that not perhaps an alternative enforcement mechanism in the making and one which we should consider rather than an elaborate and expensive method of enforcing desirable legislation?

    Part IV of the Bill seems too draconian. My amendments give the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central an opportunity to justify the edifice that he seeks to create to achieve the noble ends that we all share.

    I am surprised that the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) who moved the new clause is not in his place. If he were here, I would tell him that he either does not fully understand the brief that he has been given for his new clause or has not read the Bill. I see that he has just returned to his place. He seemed to be under the misapprehension that the tribunal would enforce requests from one company to another. The wording of the new clause is almost identical to that in clause 57 of the Bill and it is therefore difficult to see exactly what the hon. Gentleman seeks to achieve that would not be achieved by clause 57, which is about establishing a burden of proof on an authority that seeks not to disclose information that is covered by the Bill.

    The point relates to the burden of proof on a third party. The burden of proof will remain exactly the same as in the Bill.

    The hon. Gentleman has not read his own new clause, which states that where

    "a person claims access to a record…it shall be for the authority"—
    there he is referring to the authorities covered by the scope of the Bill, which are all public bodies—
    "holding the record to show that access to the record should not be given."
    It would be a courtsey to the House if the hon. Gentleman who tabled the new clause had even a rudimentary knowledge of what he was moving. It illustrates what has happened this morning. Every hon. Member who is in the Chamber knows exactly what has happened. However, members of the public may not. As we are accountable to the public, I believe that I ought to explain what has been happening and how it is that a highly intelligent and capable Member of Parliament finds himself moving a new clause that he has not read and does not even begin to understand.

    Tory Members have been wheeled in to spend four hours of the time of the House speaking to six sets of Lords amendments, none of which is opposed. The amendments are agreed by both sides of the House and by every single Member who has spoken this morning. They have the approval of the House and of the other place. It has been a time-wasting exercise. The reason for it should be explained to the public.

    The Government are determined to prevent the Right to Know Bill from completing its Report stage and being given a Third Reading.

    I really must protest at the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we have been involved in a time-wasting exercise. It has escaped his notice, it seems, that the whole country wants to know how we intend to deal with persistent offenders. It is their right to know that that Bill was properly and adequately debated.

    I am sure that the hon. Lady is right about the will of the country. She will also be aware that the will of the House is not opposed by any opposition party or by any of her hon. Friends. She knows very well that what has gone on this morning is something to which she has been a party, Friday after Friday. There have been the same usual suspects—the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), for Worcester (Mr. Luff) and for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason). Week after week, they have come here to—

    On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you guide me? I think that the hon. Gentleman is coming perilously close to impugning the honour of hon. Members. I have severe reservations about some of the Lords amendments to the Bail (Amendment) Bill. I wanted to explain what they were to the House.

    The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) is entitled to make his own speech.

    I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

    Everybody knows what has gone on here this morning and what has gone on here when other Bills have been before the House, such as the Bill that was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) relating to disabled persons, both in the previous Parliament and in this, and also the Bill that was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) concerning medical information. It is no mystery to Members of Parliament. They know what goes on here when private Member's Bills are debated, but it is important for the public to understand the actions of this House.

    I had hoped that we would hear the hon. Gentleman's views on this Bill. I have been here on every occasion that the Local Government (Overseas Assistance) Bill has been debated. I was here last on a Friday on 26 March. That hardly qualifies me as a regular attender on Fridays. The hon. Gentleman may consider himself to be a machine politician and he may believe that what the Opposition Front Bench tells him must be right. Just because there may be a cosy agreement between the two Front Benches does not mean that I do not want to come here to defend the rights of local government.

    I will not enter into that debate with the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Gentleman knows the purpose behind his tabling, with other Conservative Members, 86 amendments to my Bill—which received an unopposed Second Reading, when there was plenty of time either to vote against it with a closure motion or to speak against it. The Bill also received 15 hours of scrutiny in Committee, where it was not substantially amended. Suddenly, the hon. Gentleman is taking an interest in the right to know and has tabled 86 amendments—many of which, despite his remarks, are deliberate wrecking amendments that seek to knock out whole sections of a Bill that received an unopposed Second Reading and detailed scrutiny in Committee.

    Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the amendments that I am discussing were not debated in Committee and deserve detailed scrutiny? Will he accept also that I did not attend the Bill's Second Reading and vote against it—which I might have done, if I had given the matter some thought—because I thought that it was worth while for the Bill to be considered in Committee and for the issues to be debated, as a preparatory move to the Government bringing forward their own White Paper? Later, I shall seek assurances from my hon. Friend the Minister that a White Paper will be published before the summer recess, as was promised by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State some months ago.

    If the hon. Gentleman had done any homework and read the proceedings in Committee, he would know that the tribunal and the commissioner were discussed at great length.

    It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman read the amendment properly rather than accuse others of not understanding it. Clause 57 places the burden on the third party, whereas new clause 2 places it on the public authority. New clause 2 is quite different, although it follows the Bill's general form. Is not the hon. Gentleman mistaken in his allegations, and will he withdraw them?

    No. Before the hon. Gentleman gets hot under the collar, he should read clause 57:

    "In any proceedings before the Tribunal, the burden of establishing that access to a record or part of a record should not be given shall be on the authority which holds the record".
    The hon. Gentleman's new clause says exactly that. The hon. Gentleman has not followed the debate and he does not understand the Bill.

    Before the hon. Gentleman makes a greater fool of himself, he should resume his seat. I will not give way again. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman goes outside and quietly reads the Bill. It would be for his better information if he were to do so, before trying to move new clauses.

    On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman suggested that I am a fool, and I strongly object. Some hon. Members may agree with him, but I ask whether the hon. Gentleman was using proper parliamentary language.

    The hon. Gentleman's language has been in order. That matter is for the Chair.

    The hon. Gentleman seems to be accusing himself out of his own mouth. I am convinced that he would have been better informed if he read the Bill and the proceedings in Committee before seeking to table new clauses. He might then have thought better of his new clause. There is nothing in it to which I object, because it repeats almost word for word clause 57. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's attempt to repeat clause 57, but that is a strange way of supporting it. His support would have been better expressed in a different way.

    Today's proceedings relate very much to what the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) seeks to do with amendment No. 54 and his support for the new clause. The Government's position was made clear by the Secretary of State and by the Under-Secretary of State in Committee. They verbally support the principle of greater access to freedom of information and are to produce a White Paper. Their view is that the matter can safely be left to a more liberal attitude by Government Departments. It is sad that the Chancellor of the Duchy has not got his White Paper through the other Government Departments. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister when it will be published.

    I understand that the White Paper, which has been in draft form for some time, has gone to other Departments and has been subjected to a great sheaf of objections by almost every Department. The Chancellor, his junior Minister and his civil servants, who I am convinced believe passionately in the subject and the importance of it, understand the significance of the Bill. Their good will has not been matched by other Secretaries of State and I hope that the Minister will be candid enough to recognise that and will tell us something about the difficulties and objections of other Departments.

    2 pm

    The Government are led by a Prime Minister who, for the first time in the history of this country, has said that there is too much secrecy in government, which is greatly to his credit. He appointed the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to get on with the job and I accept that the Chancellor of the Duchy and his former and present junior Ministers are sincere and wish to make progress. However, that verbal support does not lead them to support the Bill. Although they have not voted against it, they have criticised it on the grounds that it is legislation and it is too cumbersome, but the background of their objection—this applies to the point that the hon. Member for Worcester is seeking to address in deleting the tribunal and commissioner—is that it takes out of the hands of Ministers the power to adjudicate on whether information should be in the public domain and gives it to an independent tribunal and comissioner.

    The Government, while seeking slightly to open the flow of information, do not want the Bill and do not want to lose the control of information because it is enormously powerful and enormously effective and useful for Government and civil servants. The Minister and the hon. Members who have tabled the 86 amendments know that. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar whose experience in local government is considerable, understands the help, especially at moments of political embarrassment, that controlling the flow of information can give.

    Interestingly, almost every local authority and all the local authority associations support the Bill, even though they know that it will cause inconvenience and difficulty. They will not be able to keep some information from the public, as they have in the past, but, to their credit, local government and councillors of all political parties have seen that the game is up and that local authorities and officials cannot control information against the public's will. Only the Government seek to hold on the power of controlling information.

    Every political party in the House now wants freedom of information legislation. A growing number of Conservative Back Benchers support large tracts of the Bill and only a few Ministers and civil servants do not want to lose control of information. That is why the Bill has been obstructed this morning and that is why it will not become law.

    The Government cling to the embattled and unsustainable position that Ministers and civil servants should control information. That is not the view of the Governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and most European countries. The Governments who have changed things in those countries are of all polical parties. Indeed, Conservative Governments, trying to defend the rights of the individual against the overbearing power of the state, have often pushed through freedom of information legislation. People outside the House are amazed and appalled by the Government who are led by a Prime Minister who says that he believes that there is too much secrecy but who still seeks to hold on to power. The Government will speak the language of greater openness. I believe that the Chancellor of the Duchy, if he had his way with the White Paper, would encourage—the very word that the hon. Member for Worcester used—his Departments to open up more. However, there is a world of difference between voluntary disclosure and making disclosure compulsory for the Government, local government and other public bodies. That fundamental difference is the real test on which freedom of information hinges.

    I wish to put two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, does he agree that there is a finely tuned balance between the right to know and the right to privacy? The right to privacy is enshrined in modern democracy. Secondly, how does he equate his pursuit of freedom of information and the right know with his party's reluctance to allow schools to publish their examination results?

    I agree with the hon. Lady's first point, but, if she had read the Bill, she would realise that clause 22 makes an exemption of matters of personal privacy. The Bill, which has been modelled on legislation from other countries, contains five or six key exemptions. No country in the world has complete licence and freedom of information. Personal privacy is certainly very important and is covered by the Bill, as it is by freedom of information legislation in other countries.

    The hon. Lady is wrong on her second and party political point. The Labour party is in favour of the full disclosure of all school records. Indeed, the Bill ensures that the records of all schools and colleges are in the public domain. What we object to is partial selection, which the Government favour. If the Government really supported freedom of information in education, and believed that all information should be in the public domain, they would support the Bill that would make education information available to parents, students and all those interested in education. Instead, the Government favour making public only a selective range of indicators which they hope will prove their own points. That is not freedom of information. If the hon. Lady believed in freedom of information, she would support the Bill and ensure that all education records were in the public domain.

    If we had a freedom of information Act, would not schoolteachers and headmasters be able to release the letters that they have sent to the Secretary of State saying why they thought exam results would be grossly misleading to parents and children alike, without being threatened with action by the Secretary of State if they release that information?

    My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but the information that would be released under the Bill would include not only what he has identified but all other education statistics. If the Government were seriously interested in the public knowing all about our schools, colleges and universities, they would support what on Second Reading they called "blockbuster legislation" such as this. Such legislation would reveal all information and it would then be up to the public, with the help of journalists, to decide what it amounted to.

    The hon. Gentleman referred to blockbuster legislation. Some of us believe that there is a difference between rights-based legislation such as he is proposing and the discretion of the Government to allow certain matters to be opened to public scrutiny. There is, however, much common ground between the two. It appears that the hon. Gentleman and the Government agree on a mixed approach. The measures that the Government are so proud of having introduced, including those on local government and access to personal files and medical records, were introduced at their discretion, but they have established a rights-based approach for the public. It is not hard to arrive at the logical conclusion and to have a general, rights-based approach.

    I agree that tentative steps have been made, but I disagree in that it is not the Government who have introduced such legislation; rather, it has been pushed through by means of private Member's Bills which the Government have eventually allowed into the legislative programme.

    The Government initially supported the Medicines Information Bill and agreed with Sir William Assner when he said that section 118 of the Medicines Act 1968 was thoroughly dangerous. That section makes it a criminal offence for someone such as Sir William to disclose information about the safety of drugs that he knows are unsafe and prevents the release of that information; if he released it, he would be sent to prison for two years. The Government initially supported the Bill in Committee, but, under pressure, I suspect, from outside commercial interests, they have backed off and blocked the Bill which now sits in the queue behind the Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley).

    Such action is not to the credit of the Department of Health and it makes a mockery of the Government and their support for freedom of information, because everybody in the country, apart from the pharmaceutical companies, knows that the Medicines Information Bill is a thoroughly sensible, modest, but important measure which would correct something thoroughly wrong with the 1968 Act, which was passed by a Labour Government. Section 118 of that Act is idiotic and dangerous for the understanding of drugs and the health of the nation.

    Why was such a good Bill blocked by the Government? That question goes to the nub of what the hon. Member for Worcester is seeking to do in questioning the tribunal and the commissioner. The reason, as I was saying earlier, concerns taking the power out of the hands of Ministers. The public and hon. Members may understand the Government's position more clearly when they consider the events of the past year. There has been a succession of public events: Matrix Churchill, the Scott inquiry, the closure of the pits, the patulin affair—which so offends constituents of the hon. Member for Worcester which, from a constituency point of view, I can understand—the question of the criteria on which Group 4 are running a privatised prison service, the whole nature of their contracts and how they can be enforced, the channel tunnel rail link, the question of Mr. Asil Nadir and the Tory party funds, the Maastricht legal advice and the Medicines Information Bill. Almost every month this year there has been a key political crisis that has hinged around information. The crux of each of those crises has been whether the Government have the right to withhold information or whether, in a mature democracy, the public and the press should have the same access to information.

    The Government are almost alone in thinking that they should control information rather than share it with the public as a matter not of voluntary means, but of right. The Government should take note of the surprising sheaf of tens of thousands of post cards that arrived at the beginning of the year addressed to my hon. Friends and to Ministers. Perhaps, more acutely, the Government should take note of the way in which every single major national newspaper, that had formerly always supported the Tory party ran leader columns in February in support of the Right to Know Bill and freedom of information.

    The Government chose not to listen to the advice of its usual supporters in the press: The Times, the Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph and others. All those newspapers said that the game was up on the Government keeping information to themselves, not just because of a desire for a balance of power, but because it is only by sharing information with the public that one improves the understanding, involvement, credibility and quality of public debate and the public scrutiny and accountability of politicians.

    All hon. Members should recognise that the political process and politicians have never been held in such low esteem as they are at the moment. Regardless of party, the public are fed up with politicians and many of the things that happen in the House. The public do not trust or believe us and one reflection of that is the uniquely low standing of the Prime Minister. He is a perfectly honourable individual, but he has a lower standing in the polls than any Prime Minister has had before. The news today is that the Prime Minister has the lowest rating since opinion polls were introduced.

    However, that low opinion of the public is not confined to the Prime Minister. I suspect that if there were an opinion poll about the credibility of Parliament and politicians, it would show a similar very low level. One of the reasons for that is the arrogance of the House, at the behest of the Government, in holding information to itself and saying to the public, "We don't care whether you understand: We don't have to justify what we are doing to legislation in this country. We will assert what we believe. We will tell you as much as we believe you have a right to know and you will have to be satisfied with that because you have no rights to know." That is the current position.

    2.15 pm

    Has the hon. Gentleman considered the point that if a Government were to introduce right-to-know legislation, they would be very popular? In the run up to a general election, and having introduced such legislation, they would receive popular—not populist—support. In many respects, although not in respect of reforming the Official Secrets Act 1911, the hon. Gentleman's Right to Know Bill conforms to basic Conservative principles of empowering the individual.

    Yes. One of the extraordinary things about freedom of information and the right to know is that they cross all political barriers. They can be supported by the libertarian far right, in the form of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and others, on the basis that it gives the individual power against institutions and the state. They can also be supported by liberals and socialists—

    Yes, and libertarians. They can be supported by people of all political parties for slightly different motives. However, they can sympathise with the principle and that is why freedom of information legislation across the world has been introduced by Governments of all political persuasions. That makes it all the more baffling that this Conservative Government, almost alone in Europe, in the English-speaking world and in the Commonwealth, stand out against such legislation.

    In their heart of hearts, the Government know that they cannot stand out against such legislation for very much longer. I suspect that in its next general election manifesto, if such legislation is not passed in the interim, the Conservative party will bow the knee to public opinion and join every other political party in making a commitment to freedom of information legislation.

    We must then consider what kind of legislation will be introduced and how it will be enforced. Will it be enforced by a strong method or a weak method? I agree with the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar that an ombudsman is not the way to proceed. It is interesting to note that Canada has a much weaker form of enforcement through its commissioner. By general consent, the Canadian system does not work as well as the stronger form, 6n which we have modelled the tribunal and commissioner, to be found in Australia.

    Having spent years in local government and in this place, and in spite of the integrity and hard work of the different ombudsmen, my confidence in them to deliver decisions that are constrained by the criteria and rules under which they must work, is not great. In addition, the speed with which they reach decisions is appalling. I am sure that when the hon. Member for Worcester takes cases to ombudsmen on behalf of his constituents, he finds that they take months to resolve.

    Information covered by my Bill must be released within 30 days. I believe that the public have a right to that kind of response. If we leave the enforcement of their rights to an ombudsman and not to a tribunal or commissioner, that enforcement will take six months, nine months or perhaps even longer. The relevance of information will therefore be lost. When the hon. Member for Worcester considers that, I am sure that he will reconsider and agree with his hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar that an ombudsman is not the best way to enforce these matters.

    The tribunal and commissioner are quick and they are not expensive methods of resolving problems. They would achieve a result in respect of whether information is covered by the Bill within a very few days. The speed and accessibility of information is often as important as the information itself. If information is sensitive enough for a local authority or a Department to want to suppress and to argue the toss under the legislation, it is probably because it is active in the public domain at the time. Speed of response is extremely important.

    In view of the time, it appears that the hon. Gentleman will remain on his feet for whatever time is left to debate the amendments. Therefore, will he touch not so much on the global issues? As an hon. Member who has not spoken before on a Friday—as a conscientious constituency Member, I am usually in Southport on Fridays, and I have no interest other than in pursuing the principle that the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve with the Bill—I ask the hon. Gentleman briefly to mention accessibility to employment records.

    I am particularly concerned that industry and the Confederation of British Industry fear that this Bill is not the right way to proceed. There might be a threat to a future employer's confidential reference. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on concern that has been expressed by employers that they should be free, as long as they do not act unlawfully, to provide to and receive from organisations information which might help them in assessing the suitability of employees for certain jobs and the suitability of future or current employees to assist the business for which they work?

    The method that the hon. Gentleman seeks to impose with his Bill will bring to an end the possibility of maintaining any confidential employers' references.

    I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is wrong. The CBI is concerned about clause 80, which is about amendments to the Companies Act 1985, and how it would work. But on employers records, it does not have strong reservations, not least because many employers—in fact, the best employers in the country—share with their employees what is on record about them, just as the medical profession is increasingly sharing its records with patients. The Bill seeks to extend that practice in respect of before 1991 and give all individuals access to their medical records.

    Most good employers and most parts of the public sector, such as the armed services, are increasingly encouraging open access to employees' files. It is important that individuals should be able to see what is written about them by an employer so that they can correct factual inaccuracies. If they do not, they lose control over perhaps the most important part of their life—their sense of indentity in their work. There might be material on their records which is misinformed, out of date, partial, biased or applying to some other person and which prejudices the career development and opportunities of an individual. It might even prejudice their work.

    I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman because I want the Minister to reply to what, sadly, has been a brief debate. It is important that the Government's views are on the record as well.

    It is very sad and democratically wrong, when legislation has had an unopposed Second Reading and full scrutiny in Committee, that the Government have the power through Back-Bench Members—

    My party shares the hon. Gentleman's sadness that the Bill will clearly not make further progress. On Second Reading, I said that freedom of information should be at the heart of a modern democracy, that freedom of information should exist as of right, and that freedom of information should be the norm and secrecy the exception. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those are the three key principles which we must hear from the Government today and that we must hope that they will include them in future legislation?

    I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I pay tribute to his work in Committee and to the support of his party, and indeed that of all minority parties. The marked feature is that every political party, apart from the Conservative party, formally supports freedom of information legislation. I am grateful to other political parties in that united front.

    There is a wider point about the handling of private Members' Bills. Cynical blocking or use of parliamentary time is wrong because it frustrates the will of Parliament when Bills receive unopposed Second Readings and full scrutiny in Committee.

    I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe is in his place because the way that he has worked for disabled people in society and his Bill will have support throughout the country and the House. However, his Bill has been blocked time and again by the Government. There are other examples of Bills being blocked—the Medicines Information Bill is but one.

    That is not the way to defeat private Members' Bills. They should stand or fall on the quality of the arguments. We need to reform the whole process of how we organise the time for private Members' Bills during the parliamentary year so that they can either succeed or fall not on manipulation of time but on the success or otherwise of the arguments. Unless we do that, we arc frustrating our democratic principles. I will resume my seat so that the Minister can speak for the last five minutes and let us know the latest position with regard to the White Paper.

    Freedom of information legislation will not go away. Britain will have a Right to Know Bill in the next few years because everyone, apart from a small beleaguered handful of Ministers, know that that is the way in which the Government can be opened to scrutiny and accountability. In a modern democracy, we need the right to know.

    I have little time and I want to allow one more speaker, so I will be brief. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) will appreciate, I am a late arrival on this Bill. Although the Government do not support it, the hon. Gentleman has done a public service in taking it through the Committee and airing many issues. Many matters have arisen from the Committee stage that have helped in thinking through the important methods of developing a right to know. I commend the hon. Gentleman on that.

    My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster promised that a White Paper would be published before the recess and that will be the case. The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to preview the White Paper today and I am sure that he will understand if I do not follow him down that road. I simply commend my hon. Friends the Members for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) and for Worcester (Mr. Luff) for raising important issues. Frankly, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central was a little harsh on my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove. I simply read clause 57:
    "In any proceedings before the Tribunal, the burden of establishing that access to a record or part of a record should not be given shall be on the authority which holds the record, except where the proceedings relate to information which is claimed to be exempt under section 25 above when the burden shall be on the third party."
    The point raised by new clause 2, where it attempts to redress the balance, is simply that of altering that provision to ensure that, in a commercial situation, the burden falls on the applicant, not the third party

    There are many circumstances that I could air at length, but, unfortunately, we are out of time today. I will try to give another hon. Member the chance to make a point today, but I am sure that I will return to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central many times during debates on the White Paper, and I look forward to that.

    I am appalled by that short response from the Minister. He knows that he could have spoken longer if the Government Whips had not chosen to talk these Bills out—not simply this Bill but the previous ones as well.

    As I have said before, the Government's attempts to talk out Bills means that they devalue democracy in the House. It has always been the principle of the House that private Members' Bill should be decided on their merits. Unfortunately, in recent years—I suppose that we must go back 30 or 40 years—it has become the normal practice for Government Whips to organise against private Members' Bills. It has happened on both sides, but it has become so institutionalised that the present Government Whips are in a position to tell Back-Bench Members when they will be able to speak. We are in the absurd position that a private Member's Bill can complete its passage through the House only if it has the stamp of Government approval. That is why I and some other Back-Benchers, including Conservative Members, have written to the Procedure Committee asking that the position be changed.

    The way in which to change the position is obvious. All private Members who are drawn high in the ballot should be timetabled so that their Bill cannot be talked out. They could then be either voted for or voted against. We could not talk out the Bill that introduced the poll tax; we could not talk out the Maastricht Bill. People tried all sorts of tricks. So if the Government can have a timetable, why cannot Back-Bench Members have a timetable? Alternatively, if we can talk out private Member's Bill, let us be able to talk out Government Bills. That would give us an opportunity to exercise democracy.

    It being half-past Two o'clock, further consideration of the Bill stood adjourned.

    Freedom And Responsibility Of The Press Bill

    Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [23 April] on consideration of Bill, as amended (in the Standing Committee).

    Water Charges Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Registration Of Domiciliary Care Agencies Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Secret Societies (Declaration) Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 22 October.

    Energy Conservation Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Misuse Of Drugs (Anabolic Steroids) Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Professional Standards Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Video Recordings Bill Lords

    Read a Second time.

    Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.— [ Mr. Pickles.]

    Bill immediately considered in Committee: reported, without amendment, read the Third time, and passed.

    Voluntary Personal Security Cards Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Water (Domestic Disconnections) Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Declaration Of War (Requirement For Parliamentary Approval) Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Homicide (Defence Of Provocation) Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Weddings Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Hare Coursing Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Energy (Fair Competition) Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    On Monday we will have a debate on coal and the Bill could well be passed then.

    Second Reading deferred till Monday 5 July.

    Representation Of The People (Amendment) Bill

    Order read for resuming adjournment debate on Second Reading [ 12 February].

    Debate to be resumed on Friday 9 July.

    Pensions Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 9 July.

    European Union (Public Information) Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Abortion Clinics (Access) Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Coastal Waters (Quality Standards) Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 9 July.

    Human Fertilisation (Choice) Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Medical Act 1983 (Amendment) Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 22 October.

    Foxhunting (Abolition) Bill

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Housing (Fitness Standards) (Amendment) Bill Lords

    Order for Second Reading read.

    Second Reading deferred till Friday 16 July.

    Points Of Order

    2.40pm

    On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Noting the objections to my Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill and the three related Bills for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), I should like your guidance on a procedural point.

    It is argued, in justification of the power of a single hon. Member to block a Bill with the one word "object", that it stops and is only meant to stop the Second Reading of a Bill which has not been debated by the House. But that does not apply in the case of my Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, which has been debated for more than seven hours on the Floor of the House and for which there is demonstrably a clear all-party majority. Thus, a procedure that was designed to delay Bills that have never been debated is now used to obstruct a parliamentary majority.

    It was suggested to me from the Chair that I should raise this issue with the Select Committee on Procedure. I have since done so and now feel strongly that it would help to end abuse of the procedure if the Chair itself asked the Committee to make urgent recommendations. That would give solace and hope to those whom the four Bills seek to help. News of today's, as it were, serial killing of these important Bills will be received by Britain's 6·5 million disabled people with anguish and anger. They feel badly cheated.

    I understand that the Select Committee on Procedure is looking into that problem at present.

    Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, with specific reference to Northern Ireland. On a day when The Sun has shone on the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) and his Bill has been commended to the House, and given that all the parties in Northern Ireland agreed on an issue which affects disabled people in Northern Ireland, is it not unseemly that, when the principle of the Bill has been debated, because of the one word "object", we could not take the Bill through its committee stage to explore it further and give lead to the House? So often Northern Ireland is left in the back waters after issues have been dealt with here.

    The hon. Gentleman is at liberty to write to the Select Committee on Procedure and make those points.

    On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will see from today's Order Paper, under "Questions for Written Answer", that question No. I I is due for answer to me. It asks the Home Secretary to review the cases of Sam Kulasingham and Prem Sivalingham, who are presently serving life sentences in Wormwood Scrubs. I received a written answer a few moments ago saying that the review of the case is almost complete and that the Minister expects to make a decision now. The written question was tabled in sufficient time, and Essex police have investigated the case and presented volumes of evidence to the Home Secretary and are awaiting his decision.

    The urgency of the matter is that Sam Kulasingham is on hunger strike. Last year, he was on hunger strike for 54 days before Essex police were asked to investigate and look for any new evidence. He has now been on hunger strike for more than 30 days and is less than half his normal body weight.

    I am concerned to get a decision from the Home Office. Is there any way in which the Home Office can be encouraged rapidly to complete its review of the matter and decide whether the Home Secretary will exercise his powers to refer this disturbing and distressing case, which I believe to be a miscarriage of justice, to the Court of Appeal so that justice can be seen to be done, and be finally done, in the case of those two unfortunate gentlemen?

    I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman's request has been heard by those on the Government Front Bench.

    Further to an earlier point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I as a member of the Procedure Committee emphasise that the Committee is looking at the whole process of killing Bills in the way that happens on occasions such as this? We hope to be able to make some recommendations to the House in due course.

    French Customs Fines (Prison Sentences)

    Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]

    2.44 pm

    The subject of the debate affects a fairly small number of people, but it affects them seriously. They are people who are held in French prisons for the non-payment of customs fines. According to an answer that I received in February from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, about 80 people are currently held in French prisons for that reason, and some of them will spend up to two years in prison after the expiry of the normal sentence.

    I have some concerns about the provisions of the French penal code, but that is not the responsibility of the House or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Therefore, I shall concentrate on the impact on British prisoners and deal especially with how they are treated differently from French nationals and how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office could provide assistance, either through representations and negotiations with the French Government or directly to individuals via consular officials in France.

    I shall explain a little of the background to the debate. Under French law, a person convicted of a drugs-related offence suffers a customs fine in addition to, usually, a prison sentence. The amount of the fine is related to the street value of the drugs that have been seized, and we are aware of fines of up to £392,000. Therefore, large amounts can be involved. If, at the end of the prison sentence, a person is unable or unwilling to pay the customs fine, he may spend up to another two years in prison in lieu of payment. We are not debating the seizure of assets from drug trafficking. I shall draw an analogy with our own law. Earlier this week, we debated the Criminal Justice Bill [Lords] which will change the provisions for the seizure of assets from drug trafficking. It allows courts to make assumptions that assets are the proceeds of drug trafficking, and the person who holds them has to prove that they are not. That is not the question here. The debate is not about the seizure of assets.

    A drug courier, who does not necessarily stand to make a large amount of money from trafficking, may face a very heavy fine that is not related in any way to his money or to profits that he may have made. I am not in any way trying to defend drugs trafficking; nor am I debating the length of prison sentences. I am certainly not saying that anyone should be able to keep the illicit proceeds of drug trafficking or that couriers do not matter—that it is only the large dealers who matter—because many hon. Members, especially those who represent London constituencies, are aware of the problems caused on their streets and council estates by small-time dealers.

    My argument is that the penalty should fit the crime, people should not be doubly punished for the same offence and all prisoners should be treated alike. British prisoners should not get different—or worse—treatment from that afforded to French nationals. I intend to refer mainly to the latter issue, because it is relevant to the responsibilities of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

    I shall mention certain individuals, but I do not intend to use the debate to plead their case. I do not intend, either, to name those individuals. It would be wrong to do so, for it was impossible in the short time available before this debate to obtain their permission to name them. By pointing to individual cases, however, I hope to show what is happening. Some of these cases will be known to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and consular officials.

    Those cases will also be known to Prisoners Abroad, an organisation which is supported by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; prisoners in foreign prisons are referred to it. The main concern of Prisoners Abroad is to provide support for people who are in foreign prisons and for their families. It is not the organisation's concern to plead the innocence of those people. Its role is to ensure that prisoners are treated fairly and to give them advice and, where necessary, access to legal representation. In particular, its role is to help families in this country. The concerns that I shall mention are shared by Prisoners Abroad, and they have been raised on previous occasions with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

    I intend to concentrate on four main areas of concern. The first relates to people's ability to pay and their ability to prove insolvency. Secondly, the question of parole may arise. Thirdly, there is the question of transfer to British prisons. Fourthly, in one or two cases, there is the question of the retrospective nature of what appears to have happened.

    As for insolvency, it is generally accepted, I believe, that we tend not to imprison people for debt. We certainly imprison people who refuse to pay, but we try to avoid imprisoning people for debt. The French authorities appear to accept the principle that prisoners who are serving prison sentences in lieu of customs fines can be released on proof of insolvency. The fine is waived and they are released.

    The specific problem that affects British prisoners is proof of insolvency. The documents that are normally required by the French authorities include, for example, letters from tax offices or from the mayor. To some degree, that reflects the French local government system. When British prisoners attempt to provide that documentation, they often have difficulty in obtaining the relevant documents. Tax offices do not find it easy to produce letters that meet the requirements of the French authorities. In a number of cases, British mayors have refused to have anything to do with requests to provide letters. Under our local government system, mayors are in a different position from that of mayors in France. British mayors do not want to be involved in these matters.

    Even when documents are obtained, there can still be difficulties. I want to refer to a few cases. The first concerns a British woman who has served seven years in prison in France for a drugs offence. She is now faced with a customs fine. She has no money with which to pay that fine. Her only relative in this country is an elderly father who is on a state pension. She has been in prison, in lieu of the fine, since September of last year. She has assembled the documentation to prove insolvency, a task which is not easy to accomplish from inside prison.

    The case of that woman—that she should be regarded as insolvent—has been heard twice. However, French customs have now changed tack. They now argue that a person who is in prison for a drugs offence is prohibited from applying for a declaration of insolvency. She has now applied to the French supreme court, but has been told that it is likely to be over a year before her case is heard. She will, therefore, have to spend another year in prison before her case is heard. When a friend offered some money, customs said, "It isn't possible to have it both ways. If you apply for insolvency, we will not take any account of that offer of money until your case has been heard in the supreme court." That person is stuck in prison, completely unable to pay her fine, and with no prospect of being released within the year.

    My second example is of a man who has served four years. He assembled the documentation to prove insolvency, went to court, and won his case last November—but, because that decision was appealed against, he remains in prison waiting for the appeal to be heard. I could quote many similar cases.

    One obvious concern is whether the documentation required of British prisoners is appropriate. Another is the assistance that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can give in helping to obtain that documentation, and in discussing with the French authorities whether it is appropriate anyway, and possible alternatives.

    It seems that British prisoners are prevented from following a procedure in the French penal code. The first case that I cited is a good example, and it may be challenged at European Commission level. That issue also is one which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should consider.

    French prisoners in similar situations are often able to obtain parole. Agreement is reached that they will spay a proportion of the fine, be released, and then settle the rest of the fine over a period of time—with penalties if they do not adhere to the arrangement. I am aware of only one case in which such an arrangement has been agreed in respect of a British prisoner. In general, such agreements are refused—and British subjects remain in prison and unable to secure parole, when it is granted to French nationals.

    A convention exists for the transfer of sentenced prisoners from a foreign country to their own country. That is often in their interests and in the interests of their families, with whom they are then able to maintain proper links. Serious difficulties arise with France. The Foreign Office knows of only one such transfer from a French prison since 1985—and I do not believe that it related to a case that involved a customs fine. Anyone with outstanding fines is not usually allowed to transfer—the convention makes some reference to that. It could be argued that the convention prevents such transfers.

    I know of a case of a British national with an outstanding fine who was allowed to transfer from a prison in the United States after signing a promisory note that the fine would be paid in due course. The British Government have a role to play in actively pursuing with the French arrangements such as those available in the United States, which allow prisoners to transfer to this country. They do not in any way let prisoners off their sentences, but permit them to be in prison nearer their families and relatives.

    My final point is whether recognised canons of justice are being followed. I believe that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office argues that it cannot interfere if a trial was conducted in accordance with the normal cartons of justice.

    Last year, Prisoners Abroad wrote to Lord Donaldson about customs fines. It suggested that European law forbids the imposition of a customs fine for the trafficking of illegal drugs and that France has already been censured twice by the European Court of Justice for breaking that law. The first question is whether customs fines are legal, and whether what is happening is a back-door attempt to levy duty, in the way that a levy is imposed on legal goods. Clearly, narcotics are not legal and one would not expect duties to be levied on illegal goods.

    There is also the issue of the restrospective nature of some sentences. I raised with the Minister in May the case of a British prisoner who had been sentenced to 10 years. At the time that he was sentenced, he had been told that there would be a customs fine and, in lieu of payment of the fine, a sentence of four months' imprisonment. During the period of his sentence, French law changed and the period in lieu of customs fines was increased from four months to two years.

    The Foreign Office appears to believe that that did not constitute a retroactive step. In a letter dated 20 May, the Minister said:
    "As our consular staff have already explained … the change in the law … was not retroactive and did not apply to those persons whose sentences were final. As"
    his
    "case was still under appeal his sentence was not final and the new law therefore applied."
    I draw the Minister's attention to article 7 of the European convention on human rights, which says:
    "Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the criminal offence was committed"—
    not whether the sentence had been passed or whether the case was still being considered but
    "at the time the criminal offence was committed."
    I argue that, in this case, there was a breach of article 7 of the European convention and that a retroactive penalty was imposed. In addition, the person concerned was not informed of the change in time to be able to pursue an appeal.

    I am now aware of another case concerning not a British prisoner but a Brazilian who is in prison in France. His case is now going to the European Court of Human Rights, which will consider the retroactive nature of the change.

    In essence, the argument that I should like the Minister to address is that customs fines have an impact on British nationals; that British nationals are treated differently from French nationals; and that there are questions about whether the system is even legal—certainly questions about whether the retroactive nature of the sentence is a breach of the European convention on human rights.

    My intervention will be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important issue. I draw his attention to the case of my constituent, Mr. Humphries of Onra road, who has been in a French prison since 14 October. I have received letters from the Foreign Office saying that the case involves a very protracted investigation, which it supports. In the meantime, my constituent can get no urgent legal representation. His wife is, of course, extremely distressed and is convinced that her husband is innocent. She wants justice to be done, but she can get no support from the Foreign Office. Is that common in the cases to which my hon. Friend is referring?

    Delay is certainly a common element to many cases. I mentioned the British woman who may end up finishing her sentence, or getting close to it, before the case is decided. I ask the Foreign Office to take a more active role to confront the problems in the cases that I have mentioned and that to which hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) has drawn attention. The Government should be prepared to discuss the general issues with the French Government, such as the questions of transfer, parole and documentation, and should give as much help as possible to the individual involved, through consular officials.

    3.5 pm

    I know that some hon. Members would like to leave the House at 3.10 pm to catch a train and I shall do my best to facilitate that. It means that I shall have some difficulty in responding to all the points, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be writing to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on matters not covered by me.

    I wish to make two preliminary points. First, as the House may know, three years ago, I was a Minister in the Home Office where I had responsibility for the conduct and co-ordination of policy on drugs. I have also been a barrister for some 25 years. In both capacities, I have developed a very unsympathetic approach to those who are convicted of drug offences. That is especially true where the conviction involves trafficking in hard drugs.

    Secondly, as a general proposition, the criminal law in France is a matter for the French Parliament, not for us. There are only a very few circumstances in which I would be ready to interfere, and I shall give some examples. First, in circumstances where there is a reason to suppose that the conviction may be unfair or that a sentence is disproportionate, the Government might want to intervene.

    Secondly, there may be cases where there are special reasons—for example, humanitarian reasons—in which it would be right to ask the French authorities to take a lenient and compassionate view. That said, however, the general proposition must be that where people infringe the law of a democratic and civilised country with which we have friendly relations, and are pun