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Protection of Freedoms Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

Volume 533: debated on Monday 10 October 2011

The debate may continue for 45 minutes. I should inform the House that Mr Speaker has selected the amendment on the Order Paper in the name of Mr Edward Leigh.

I beg to move,

That the Order of 1 March 2011 (Protection of Freedoms Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows—

1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 shall be omitted.

2. Proceedings on consideration and Third Reading shall be concluded in two days.

3. Proceedings on consideration shall be taken on each of those days as shown in the following Table and in the order so shown.

4. Each part of the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in relation to it in the second column of the Table.

First day


Time for conclusion of proceedings

New Clauses and New Schedules relating to, and amendments to,

Chapter 1 of Part 1.

8.30 pm

New Clauses and New Schedules relating to, and amendments to,

Chapter 2 of Part 3.

10 pm

Second day


Time for conclusion of proceedings

New Clauses and New Schedules relating to, and amendments to,

Chapter 1 of Part 2.

5.30 pm

New Clauses and New Schedules relating to, and amendments to, Part 5.

7.30 pm

New Clauses and New Schedules relating to, and amendments to, Part 4, Chapter 2 of Part 1,

Chapter 2 of Part 2, Chapter 1 of Part 3, and Part 6; remaining New Clauses; remaining New Schedules; amendments to Part 7

and remaining proceedings on


9 pm

5. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 10.00 pm on the second day.

The programme motion provides two days for Report and Third Reading, and it follows more than 44 hours of consideration, over 10 days, in Public Bill Committee. During that time, the Committee was able to scrutinise carefully all aspects of the Bill.

In Committee, much of the focus of the debate was on the provisions in respect of the retention of DNA, the further regulation of CCTV, the prohibition on wheel clamping without lawful authority, the changes to counter-terrorism powers and the reform of the vetting and barring scheme and criminal records regime. It is right that those provisions should also be the focus of our deliberations on Report. The programme motion has accordingly been structured to achieve that.

The motion provides for the provisions on the retention of DNA and in respect of parking enforcement to be considered until 10 o’clock this evening. When we resume tomorrow, we will first consider the CCTV clauses, followed by the amendments to the safeguarding and criminal records provisions in part 5. That will allow some time to consider the counter-terrorism and other provisions in the Bill before we move on to Third Reading at 9 o’clock tomorrow evening.

My hon. Friend said that the Government have generously given the House two days at this stage of the proceedings. We have already lost three hours because the Government decided to make three statements to the House; with one hand they provide time generously, but with the other they take that time away.

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, there is a balance to be struck in all these proceedings. We maintain that the programme motion strikes that right and appropriate balance in respect of consideration of the Bill.

The Minister listed a number of items that the Committee rightly dealt with in great detail. However, it did not cover in any detail the issues raised in new clause 17, which is enormously important to the whole research community. Can the Minister guarantee that time will be available for a debate on that new clause?

We have sought to structure the programme motion to enable consideration of the Bill, and that is right and proper for Report. A priority appropriately has to be given to enable scrutiny of the Bill as drafted. Obviously, it is for the House to decide within the programme motion the extent to which it will debate particular clauses, but we have had to strike as fair a balance as we can on the provisions of the Bill to ensure that appropriate scrutiny is applied.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend is a coalition Minister and not a Conservative one; before we got into power, the Conservative party was against having programme motions.

Given that we have lost three hours or so to statements, would not a fair balance have been to have allowed us to go for three hours extra tonight? We have been away from this place for a long time; surely an extra three hours this evening would have been fair. That is what democracy is about—we are not trying to force things through. Let us have three hours extra tonight.

My hon. Friend takes the issues of the House extremely seriously, and I respect him for that. The Government have made important changes to how legislation is scrutinised. We are having two days on Report for the Bill, and that is markedly different from what we would have seen from the previous Government; we would have had a day for consideration of a Bill of this kind.

The terms of the programme motion will come as a disappointment to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) and the other right hon. and hon. Members who have put their name to new clause 1. Despite the two days that we have set aside for Report, twice the normal allocation that we were accustomed to seeing in the last Parliament, regrettably it is unlikely that the House will be able to consider all the new clauses tabled for debate.

As I said, the programme motion has been constructed to ensure that there is adequate time to consider the key provisions already in the Bill. I believe that that is the right approach. Although this is not the occasion to consider the substance of new clause 1, which seeks to amend section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, I fully recognise that the matter is of considerable interest to a number of Members on both sides of the House. That much is clear from the number of right hon. and hon. Members who have added their names to the new clause.

We agree that the issue should be examined further. That is why, in the next few days, we will publish a consultation seeking views on whether section 5 should be amended along the lines proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough. I will be happy to meet him to hear his views on this important issue. Once the consultation has concluded—it will run to early in the new year—the Government will set out their conclusions as quickly as possible, so that they can inform the debate on the issue while the Bill is in another place. I have no doubt that there will be other opportunities for the House to consider section 5, either when we next examine the Bill on its return from the other place or on some other suitable occasion. I can assure my hon. Friend that through the consultation we want to promote debate on this issue, not seek to curtail it, by widening and broadening it outside this House.

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says, which helps to set in a more attractive context the otherwise uncharacteristic step that was taken by moving new clause 1 to the very end of the Bill’s consideration. Is he saying that the Government will facilitate a parliamentary opportunity to legislate if a clear conclusion emerges from these discussions?

The timing of the consultation is intended to be such that it can inform proceedings in the other place. There may therefore be time, in the context of the consideration of the Bill as a whole, to be able to address issues that may come through from the consultation. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough will accept the consultation as a mark of our determination to undertake a proper review of section 5 and that on that basis he will agree not to press his new clause.

We believe that the programme motion strikes the right balance. I commend it to the House and ask Members to support it so that we can get on with debating the important issues that lie within the Bill.

I sense that, deep down, the Minister knows that he is on a sticky wicket and that the programme motion is not really adequate for debating the issues before the House.

As the Whip responsible for this Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), and his colleagues, would have accepted the programme motion had we not had, as the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) said, three hours of statements, which have taken us up to 6.41 pm. This Bill determines the very important issues of DNA that my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) wishes to discuss, and those discussions will reach their conclusion at 8.30 pm.

Although I disagree with the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) on those issues, I support his right to say what he wishes about his concerns. His concerns on public order issues will not be debated at all because the programme motion means that we will run out of time. However, I cannot support the hon. Gentleman if he presses his amendment to a vote, for the simple reason that it would knock out the business of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle regarding the important issues of DNA.

On reflection, the Minister will know that this is an inadequate programme motion that requires an 8.30 pm completion time for important issues of life and death, which is what DNA is about. It is about the prevention of crime, the security of our citizens, and ensuring that our citizens can walk safely, free of fear of crime. Those issues will not be debated at the length that my right hon. Friend wishes. We have had debates in the past when I have sat where the Minister sits and he has sat where I am now. I suspect that if I had come along this evening with a programme motion that provided for one hour and 45 minutes—potentially even one hour and 15 minutes—on DNA, he would be standing here saying what I am saying. As a Minister, I moved programme motions from the Government Front Bench just as the Minister has; I know and respect that fact. I am not averse to programme motions. My hon. Friends the Whips are not averse to programme motions, and, in the past, the Labour Government introduced programme motions. However, there has to be an element of fairness about them. We cannot support a programme motion that gives us, potentially, one hour and 15 minutes on the life and death issue of DNA and upsets the hon. Member for Gainsborough because he is not having a debate at all.

If I had moved that programme motion tonight, the Minister would have opposed it. If I had spoken as he has tonight, he would have opposed it. He will vote for it tonight, but he knows that he would vote against it if he were in my place. In fairness to the Opposition, he should allow time for this debate and reflect on the programme motion. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) made some sensible points, and we could have further discussions based on those. There is no problem with that. I will happily consider a small Adjournment of the House if Ministers want to discuss this with my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell). He is an amenable chap. We have worked together in the Home Office and we know about these matters, and he will help us to reach a conclusion.

It is not acceptable to have these major issues debated in this way and rushed through the House. We did not do that when the Minister opposed our proposals on DNA, which were fair and responsible. He needs to reflect on that. If he does not, then I cannot support the hon. Member for Gainsborough for the reasons I have outlined, as much as I wish him to have his say, but I will certainly not support the programme motion, and I ask my hon. Friends to vote against it.

I beg to move amendment (a), after “Proceedings” on the first day insert—

‘New Clauses relating to the Public Order Act 1986; and’.

I have tabled this amendment to the programme motion because I simply cannot believe that the Government are trying to stifle debate on new clause 1 —the only new clause in the Bill to attract support from dozens of Members from all parties in this House. One would have thought that the Government would welcome hon. Members trying to improve the Bill—is that such an outrageous thing? One would have thought that they would welcome the fact that 65 Members have put their names to new clause 1.

On Friday, the Joint Committee on Human Rights produced a voluminous report which says on page 61:

“We support the amendment of the Public Order Act 1986 to remove all references to offences based on insulting words or behaviour. We consider that this would be a human rights enhancing measure and would remove a risk that these provisions may be applied in a manner which is disproportionate and incompatible with the right to freedom of expression”.

One would have thought that surely a Government committed to free speech would realise that this was an important issue and allow some time for new clause 1 to be debated, especially as it is normal, if not a convention, for new clauses to be debated early on Report because they are debated last in our Committees. Because new clauses are often not reached in Committee, it is normal for a Government who want to have open debate to allow them to be debated at an early stage on Report.

This is one of the most extraordinary programme motions that I have seen, because it ensures that no new clauses are debated. Why have the Government done this? For the life of me, I do not know why we are being pushed to the back of the queue. There is no point in having emollient words. There is not some small chance that new clause 1 will be debated; as a result of this programme motion, there is no chance that it will be debated or voted on. We have had three hours of statements, and we now have two hours to debate many important issues. However, we are going to spend an hour and a half on car parking. I am sure that car parking is very important, but so is freedom of debate. How ironic that the Government are using their own powers under guillotine procedure to stifle a debate on freedom of speech. It is an extraordinary situation.

I know that we are discussing my amendment to the programme motion, not new clause 1 itself, but it is worth saying that it is a very modest proposal that seeks only to change one line of legislation, would not cost the Government one penny, and would not affect anything in the manifesto or the coalition agreement. There would have been no harm in our having a civilised debate. Perfectly valid arguments could have been made on both sides of the issue, and the Government would have got their way in the end, so why not have a debate?

I do not want to be unfair to the Government, who have written to me and said that they are now going to have a review. That is strange. We have been campaigning on this for a whole year. For several months, we got the same letters from the Minister that we used to get from the previous Labour Minister, no doubt written by the same civil servant sitting in front of the same potted plants and serving out the same cups of tea. We made no progress whatsoever. Yet suddenly, hey presto, because 65 people are prepared to put their name to new clause 1 and because my amendment is selected for debate, we get this promise of a review. Why is it starting tomorrow or next week? Why did it not start six months ago, when the amendment was put on the Order Paper? Is this a very complex issue? I have not yet been consulted about the issue, and neither have the National Secular Society, which supports the amendment, or the Christian Institute. We are going to have a review, and the only people who will not be consulted formally are those of us in the House of Commons. What a strange situation. Is this not the home of democracy? Is it not beyond the wit of the Government and the programme managers to allow just three quarters of an hour for an important debate about freedom of speech? But no, the one body that will not be allowed to debate the issue is the House of Commons. We are told by the Government, “Oh, don’t worry, we’ll have this review”—although there can be no debate in the House of Commons—“and then the House of Lords will debate it.” However, they could have had such a review months ago. It is hardly rocket science: we are not talking about a technically complicated issue such as trying to reform the entire national health service or anything like that

I say this to hon. Members on both sides of the House: why do Governments—I am not talking about this Government; I mean all Governments—accept amendments only in the House of Lords? Why not here? Why can we not accept the revolutionary proposal that, in a grown-up way, a Member of Parliament might produce a cross-party amendment on a serious issue, the Government could consider it on its merits and it might actually be agreed to? Why do all Governments take the view that they are prepared to accept amendments only in the other place? Frankly, I have never been an enthusiast for House of Lords reform, but I am beginning to think that until the other place is reformed, the Government will never take this place seriously.

We are talking about an important issue that is too serious to delay. There are so many cases, affecting people from all walks of life: demonstrators threatened with seizure of property and arrest under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 for protesting against seal culling by using toy seals coloured with red food dye; the young man prosecuted for growling at two Labrador dogs; the countless street preachers harassed by police for daring to mention Bible passages that some people do not like. Just last month, a café owner in Blackpool was told by the police that displaying verses from the New Testament on a video screen was a breach of section 5. What are the police suggesting? That we should cut and paste things from the Bible but leave out things that people do not like? Many people do not like many things from the Bible, but the Bible is the Bible and if people want to quote from it, they should be allowed to do so without PC Plod tapping them on the shoulder and telling them that it is against some piece of legislation.

All those things are happening under section 5 of the 1986 Act. There is something fundamentally wrong with the way it is being used. That needs to be properly debated in the House of Commons and nowhere else. The fact that the Government have agreed—only today, as a result of all the pressure from colleagues—to discuss such matters with outside groups shows that they acknowledge that there is a problem. All I am asking for is a debate. Why are the Government so concerned about our new clause? What we are proposing is hardly radical. It would not leave the police powerless to prevent public disorder. As the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, says in his legal opinion on new clause 1, there are plenty of other powers in existence to prevent or prosecute behaviour that is abusive or risks a breach of the peace; indeed, we have always had breach of the peace powers. There are numerous other powers that could be used, but section 5 is being used as a kind of catch-all and is chilling debate.

This is an important issue and the arguments are strong. The Government might even make a concession on it in the Lords—they have as good as admitted it today—in which case why could they not make the same concession here, in the home of democracy? Why do they make concessions only in the other Chamber? I feel passionately about new clause 1 because it is what the Bill is all about. This Bill is called the Protection of Freedoms Bill, but we are not being allowed to debate free speech. I thought that the aim of the Bill was to reverse the widespread erosion of civil liberties in recent years. Well, there is no greater civil liberty than freedom of speech. It is the foundation of our civil freedoms and new clause 1, which is supported by people from all parties, is all about freedom of speech.

I shall be brief. I am not sure that the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) and I necessarily agree on all things in this area, but on this we completely agree. I am a signatory to new clause 1, which I am delighted to support. It is essential that we look at this issue. We have heard, for example, that Liberty took up a case where somebody was threatened with prosecution under section 5 of the 1986 Act for peacefully holding a placard that said, “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult”. That is a matter of opinion rather than a matter for prosecution.

So the hon. Gentleman says, from a sedentary position. I tend to agree with him, but that is a topic for another debate.

I entirely support the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Gainsborough. However, I have concerns about his amendment to the programme motion. I would like the issue debated, but I am concerned because we need to discuss issues such as DNA and fingerprinting. DNA is a topic of particular interest to me, as someone who used to work on it, and we are at risk of reducing our debate on it to something like an hour. I am concerned about that, and for that reason I shall not be supporting his amendment to the programme motion, although I support his proposed amendment to the Bill. I very much welcome what the Minister said about how the Government are going to get on with it, and I hope that we will have an opportunity to discuss that in this House.

The hon. Gentleman is making a fair point. Given what the Opposition spokesman said, does that mean that he will be voting against the programme motion in toto, so that we can have proper debate?

It might be tempting to vote against all these things. I would love to see a reform of our entire process, so that time is not taken up on things that the public simply do not understand. However, I will not vote against the programme motion. I have seen what happens in the other place when there are no programme motions, which is filibusters. I do not think that many right hon. or hon. Members in this Chamber could claim that they have not been aware of any filibusters in this House or any efforts to waste time simply to put things off—not necessarily on this occasion, but on a number of others. I would like to see better self-government by this House and the other place, and then we could move away from programme motions.

If the hon. Gentleman voted against the programme motion along with my hon. Friends and it was defeated, the Government could, if they wished to, call an Adjournment, negotiate and then draft a new programme motion that covered some of the points raised by Government Members and us. Nothing is finalised; such a programme motion could still be put in place.

I have not gone through the right hon. Gentleman’s previous speeches on such issues to see what he has said before, but such an Adjournment would take time and would be likely to result in even less time for the debate. We need to move on, and I personally would like to move on in my speech.

I very much welcome what the Minister said about the review. It is important and I look forward to it being introduced into the Bill. However, let me talk about one issue that I have with the programme motion, on which I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments. New clause 11, which stands in my name, would repeal provisions in the Digital Economy Act 2010 that the Government have already accepted do not work and which they have accepted they will not use. It would be helpful to debate that, so I would be grateful if the Minister could say whether there will be any opportunity for that to happen. Debating that issue would be helpful, partly because I and others are passionate about supporting the creative industries, and creators have problems with piracy. The 2010 Act’s approach to web blocking simply does not work. I would like a debate in this House on the alternatives. I should therefore be grateful if the Minister would comment on the Government’s intentions with regard to those provisions in the 2010 Act now, if he will be unable to do so later.

I am grateful for the contributions of a number of right hon. and hon. Members to our consideration of the programme motion. As I said in my opening remarks, we judge it right that the programme motion should be drafted so as to allow this House to scrutinise the key provisions that are actually in the Bill. I appreciate that a number of hon. Members would have wished to amend the Bill to include various other provisions—in particular, given the level of support for new clause 1, the amendment of section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) sought to characterise that as simple or straightforward. However, I would say to him that there are complexities attached, which is why the Government would prefer to consider and reflect on the matter carefully, and to enable a public consultation to take place so as to ensure that all relevant issues are considered in the round and to inform the debate. It is worth mentioning that section 5 of the 1986 Act covers issues such as swearing at police officers and the case against the poppy burning on Remembrance day. It is therefore appropriate to ensure proper consultation before taking any action.

However, I reiterate that the intent is to move quickly to enable consideration of the results of the consultation in another place. Obviously, the consultation will provide an opportunity for hon. Members, the Christian Institute, the police and many others to set out their views, and I look forward to the debate and to meeting my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough to hear his views at first hand.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) mentioned the Digital Economy Act 2010. He will be aware that the Government announced in August that they did not intend to commence sections 17 and 18 of the Act. There might not be time to debate his new clause, but we are now working on a wide-scale review of the communications sector with a view to publishing a Green Paper by the spring of next year, and a draft Bill by mid-2013. Policy on tackling online copyright infringement, including site-blocking, is being considered as part of that review and, given our intention to conduct that wide-ranging review, it would be premature to act now to repeal sections 17 and 18 of the Act in isolation from any other legislative changes that might be needed.

We believe that the programme motion is right to focus on the provisions of the Bill to ensure that this House is able to apply appropriate scrutiny to the legislation before us. We have introduced important changes. I welcome the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) to his new position in the shadow home affairs team—he and I have had a number of debates on these issues, in relation to the Bill and elsewhere—but I think that some of his comments were a bit rich, because I can certainly remember previous occasions on which we have had less time than we have tonight to debate important legislation. This Government have made important changes that will allow us to debate these matters for two days, rather than rushing them through in one day, as would have happened in the past. I therefore commend the programme motion to the House.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Main Question put.