UK Liberty

Serious Crimes Bill – Serious Crime Prevention Orders

Posted in control orders, Serious Crimes Bill by ukliberty on October 23, 2007

Debated yesterday in the Commons.

(Possibly worth looking at my earlier commentary on the Bill, particularly the article entitled “On the growth of civil orders to prevent crime and the Serious Crime Bill“, for some background).
Let’s be clear, as Jeremy Browne (Taunton, Liberal Democrat) said:

the Bill’s underlying assumption: that we essentially know who is breaking the law, but we do not have enough evidence to prove it, so we will make legislation that means that we do not have to come up with such evidence, because we can restrict those people’s liberty severely without needing to prove that they have done anything wrong

Or as the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution put it,

We draw to the attention of the House the fact that the far-reaching restrictions of a SCPO may be placed on a person against whom no criminal proceedings have been instituted or who has been convicted of no criminal offence.

Back to Jeremy Browne:

people’s travel can be restricted, within the United Kingdom as well as abroad, and they may also be restricted in where they can work, live and visit. Short of sending people to prison, pretty much every imaginable restriction on the liberty of the citizen may be involved, and if people fail to comply with the orders, the sanctions extend as far as a prison sentence. In some cases, it is entirely possible that somebody contravening the orders might go to prison despite never having committed a criminal offence or having been found guilty according to a criminal standard of proof.

Furthermore, the orders can apply for anything up to five years—indeed, they are more draconian than that, because the five-year period is indefinitely renewable. Somebody could have a most severe restriction on their liberty for the remainder of their life without having committed a criminal offence or having been found guilty by any criminal standard of proof.

He sums it up pretty well, I think.

He also noted the language being used by the Government, for example

[Baroness Scotland] talked about the “likely”—another qualification—standard of proof being “very close” to the criminal standard. Everyone will note that she did not mention “the criminal standard”, merely one “very close” to it.

(in other words, what the hell does “very close to beyond reasonable doubt” mean?)

and

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) said during earlier deliberations on the Bill:

“On clause 1(1)(a), we would expect the standard of proof to be virtually identical to that for criminal proceedings” ——[Official Report, Serious Crime Public Bill Committee, 26 June 2007; c. 19.]

Again, the caveat is entered: not identical, but “virtually identical”.

(alternatively, “virtually identical to beyond reasonable doubt” – what does that mean?!)

On Second Reading, the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing said:

“we expect that the standard of proof required in relation to the question of whether a person has been involved in serious crime will be the same as in criminal cases”—[ Official Report, 12 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 664.]

However, that standard has not been put into the Bill; at present, according to the verbal guidance given by most Ministers, we are some way short of the criminal standard of proof.

We cannot trust Ministers’ assurances about how the Bill will operate.  We must look at the wording of the legislation – that is what will be interpreted by the courts.  As  James Brokenshire (Hornchurch, Conservative) said,

it is important, for the sake of certainty and clarity, to avoid the need for case law, and for interpretation to make this relatively simple issue clear in the Bill by way of the amendments.

Or as John Gummer (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative) asked,

When the Minister said that the tests would be virtually the same, it raises an important question. If they are virtually the same, why can they not be the same?

And of course the Government, represented by Vernon Coaker (Gedling, Labour, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Home Office), declined to answer.

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