32 Bills in six months: the Government plan

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Indy Politics

CRIME

CRIME

Plans to make every offence arrestable, including minor crimes such as littering or spraying walls with graffiti, were criticised yesterday by solicitors for giving the police excessive powers.

The proposal is contained in a Bill that includes the setting up of a national crime agency that is expected to become Britain's version of the FBI.

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill is expected to give the police many new powers including allowing officers to take DNA samples and fingerprints from minor offenders arrested on the street.

One of the controversial measures is to allow officers to arrest a suspect for any offence. At present, a police officer can only arrest someone suspected of an offence that could result in a prison sentence of at least five years.

Janet Paraskeva, the chief executive of the Law Society, which represents all solicitors in England and Wales, said: "The police would have a power to arrest however minor the suspected offence. That is not an appropriate balance between the liberty of the citizen and the needs of the police."

The Bill extends the powers of community support officers.

In addition it will create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred to protect faith groups - particularly Muslims - from hate attacks.

Police powers are also to be strengthened to combat harassment by animal-rights extremists against scientific and medical establishments that use animals. The Bill would strengthen the existing police power to prevent protesters from demonstrating outside people's homes.

The Bill is one of the few pieces of legislation that is likely to become law before the expected general election in May and highlights the importance the Government places on the measures, which are likely to win popular support.

Powers to test offenders on arrest rather than when charged is to be contained in the Drugs Bill. The Bill will give the police powers to tackle dealers who hide evidence or claim drugs are for personal use.

Jason Bennetto

ID CARDS

Opponents of identity cards were planning a guerrilla campaign last night to wreck the flagship Bill in the House of Lords. Although some Labour MPs will rebel, the party's majority makes it certain it will pass through the Commons unscathed. But critics believe they can win the support of enough Tory, Labour, Liberal Democrat and crossbench peers to defeat the scheme in the Upper House. Talks have already begun among opponents of all parties on their strategy, with the large number of lawyers in the Lords preparing to raise civil-liberties objections.

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "There is a groundswell of opinion in the Lords. I believe we can tie this up for a long time there and cause the Bill to fall there."

As plans for an Identity Cards Bill were confirmed, the protest group NO2ID demonstrated outside the Commons. Mark Littlewood, its organiser, said the Bill's fate rested with the Tories, who are yet to finalise their position on ID cards. He said: "If the Conservative Party does not back the Bill, it will not progress."

The Bill is a government priority, with ministers planning to introduce the measure before Christmas, with a view to becoming law by the general election expected in May.

It will create a national register designed to hold details of everyone living in Britain. The database, the biggest IT project attempted by the Government, will store details such as name and address, plus so-called biometrics such as fingerprints and images of the iris. Critics maintain it represents a serious invasion of personal privacy by the state.

In the Commons yesterday, Tony Blair disclosed that he supported an eventual move towards compulsion.

Nigel Morris

ANTI-SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR

Teenagers who create havoc in their communities will be "named and shamed" in their local media in the latest crackdown on yobbery.

Reporting restrictions on the under-18s who breach anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) will be lifted in a move that ministers hope will be a powerful deterrent to young tearaways.

The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill will also give local authorities more flexibility to tackle anti-social behaviour, with parish and town councils empowered to issue on-the-spot fines of up to £100 to litter louts and noisy neighbours. They could be handed out by wardens, rangers or crime and safety officers accredited by the police.

District and unitary councils can already hand out fixed penalties. Giving the power to the 10,000 English parish and town councils, covering one-third of the country, would mean a significant rise in the number of fines imposed.

Retailers who sell spray paint to the under-16s face tough new penalties.

Local authorities will be allowed to put gates on alleyways to prevent them becoming havens for gangs and drug-users. They will also get tougher powers to deal with abandoned cars, which has emerged as a major complaint among many communities.

In the Commons, Tony Blair said the anti-social behaviour moves, along with those on terrorism and serious crime, were designed to "ensure we have respect and responsibility back on the streets of Britain".

Nigel Morris

EDUCATION

Independent schools face a review of their charitable status as the Charities Bill will set out a new definition of what constitutes a charity.

Under it, all independent schools with charitable status will have to prove their activities "provide a benefit to the public''. About 80 per cent of independent schools currently have charitable status.

Last night their leaders said they were "confident'' that they could meet any new requirements. A statement from the Independent Schools Council said it welcomed the upgrading of the charities laws: "The great majority of our member schools are charities and we're confident they will be able to demonstrate comprehensively the immense public benefit they contribute by saving the public purse some £2bn a year in educating 450,000 children."

Government sources indicated last night they did not expect a large number of charities to be stripped of their status as a result of the review. Any shake-up would help charities operate more efficiently. However, a growing number of independent schools have in the past year increased the number of bursaries and scholarships they offer to youngsters from poorer homes to underline their charitable aims. Ministers had let it be known a review was imminent.

As revealed in yesterday's Independent, schools and childminding services will face snap inspections by Ofsted.

In addition, a new bill will give head teachers more freedom from local education authorities and cut red tape. They will also receive three-year budgets. As a result of these moves, secondary schools will be allowed to opt for "foundation status'' which will give them control of their own buildings.

Richard Garner

TRANSPORT

Tougher penalties for motorists who use mobile phones and flexible fines for drivers who exceed speed limits are among the provisions of a Road Safety Bill. The proposed legislation would mean higher fines for "careless and inconsiderate" driving and for using a vehicle in a dangerous condition. The Bill would enable courts to order the worst offenders to face fresh driving tests.

Police would be given powers to issue fixed penalties to foreign drivers to prevent them escaping punishment. The legislation would aim to clarify which vehicles can exceed speed limits in emergencies.

The RAC welcomed a more graduated system of fines for speeding - where the penalty varies with the speed above the limit. However, Gwyneth Dunwoody, chairman of the House of Commons Transport Committee, said the system sent the wrong message to those who break the limit in built-up areas. "The facts for pedestrians are stark. If you are hit by a car doing 30mph your chances of survival are 50:50. At 40mph, you only have a one in 10 chance," she said.

A Railways Bill will enact last summer's White Paper by abolishing the Strategic Rail Authority, handing responsibilities to the Transport Secretary. The Rail Passengers Council - the passengers' "champion" - is to be reformed as " a stronger, more independent national body reporting directly to the Transport Secretary".

The Government is to bring forward a Crossrail Bill to build the much-delayed link between west and east London. However the railway will not be in time for 2012 - should London be awarded that year's Olympics.

Barrie Clement

CREDIT

Credit card lending guidelines will be tightened to stop lenders charging extortionate interest rates and consumers running up huge debts.

The Department of Trade and Industry said a modernisation of the Consumer Credit Act was long overdue - the law dates from 1974 when only one type of credit card was used.

The new measures under the Consumer Credit Bill include an "unfair credit" test, making it easier for people to take lenders to court when they are victims of unfair lending practices. The move comes after the case of Tony and Michelle Meadows, who saw a £5,750 loan turn into a £384,000 debt over 15 years. A judge wiped out the debt last month, saying the 34.9 per cent interest rate was extortionate.

Debt campaigners gave a cautious welcome to the Bill, but said that they would continue to push for a legal cap on interest charges.

Julia Kellowe

EQUALITY

A new equality body fighting discrimination on grounds of sex, race, religion, age and homosexuality will be created.

The Equality Bill will create a new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, which will replace the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission. The body, to come into being in 2008, will also monitor discrimination on the grounds of age and religious belief, while public bodies will be given a new duty to promote equality between the sexes.

Campaigners for the elderly immediately welcomed the move as a "big win" in the fight against ageism. But the Commission for Racial Equality warned that ministers had "a long way to go" before it could endorse the legislation.

The Public and Commercial Services Union warned that the new Commission may not have sufficient funding to carry out its functions.

Ben Russell

EUROPEAN UNION

The European Union bill fuelled a simmering Cabinet row last night over the date for Britain's referendum on the European constitution.

It is likely that the Bill will be given priority in the Commons, and it could have a second reading before Christmas, but ministers said the row over the date for the referendum had yet to be resolved. That could mean the Bill may not become law before a May general election.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, led demands for a firm date to be included, but that was resisted by Tony Blair at a cabinet committee on Europe. The Prime Minister is believed to have been supported by Peter Hain, leader of the Commons, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, and Patricia Hewitt, Trade and Industry Secretary.

Mr Blair's allies have privately accused Mr Straw of trying to bounce Number 10 into an early poll after the Foreign Secretary said it would be held "early" in 2006.

Mr Hain refused to answer questions yesterday about the wording of the Bill, telling reporters: "Wait and see."

The Bill will put Mr Blair under renewed pressure to risk upsetting a Eurosceptic electorate before the election by more vigorously supporting a "yes" vote on the constitution.

Colin Brown

INQUIRIES

An inquiry into the alleged involvement of the security forces in the killing of the Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane will be speeded up under the Inquiries Bill. However, the family of Mr Finucane said new legislation to streamline the inquiry was not needed and warned it would lead to a "cover-up and lies".

A senior Tory MP said it could lead to more "whitewash" inquiries like those of Lord Hutton and Lord Butler.

The Bill is being introduced to cut the cost of inquiries. Ministers were horrified by the soaring cost of the Saville inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings, which ended this week after seven years and at a total cost of £155m. Concern about the Bill was also expressed by Richard Ottaway, the MP for Croydon South, who was a member of the select committee that questioned Dr David Kelly, the weapons expert whose suicide was investigated by the Hutton inquiry. "Ministers will be free to draw the terms of reference for these inquiries very narrowly so they can safely fudge it," he said.

Colin Brown

LOTTERY

The public is to be given a greater say in how National Lottery money is distributed. Decisions on which good causes should receive funds will be opened up to public consultation for the first time as a result of the National Lottery Bill.

However, charities warned that the proposed reforms would extend government control over the Lottery rather than give more freedom to good causes. Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) said many people in the voluntary sector had concerns about the Bill.

He said: "Surveys have shown that public opinion is deeply opposed to political interference in the Lottery and money to good causes can only suffer as a result. NCVO and others shall be looking at the legislation closely and tabling amendments to it if necessary."

Maxine Frith

NOT BEFORE THE ELECTION

Hunt supporters were offered a deal last night to delay the ban on hunting with dogs until after the next general election. The Government had considered including a short bill to delay the introduction of the hunting ban from 18 February, but dropped the idea after pro-hunting peers supported an immediate ban to embarrass Tony Blair before the election.

However, in a surprise move, Peter Hain, leader of the Commons, said the Government would be willing to introduce an emergency bill to delay the ban for 18 months, if the Lords showed support for the measure.

Downing Street was accused of watering down or delaying other measures because of the election. They included the draft Corporate Manslaughter Bill to allow companies to be fined for criminal negligence leading to deaths. Campaigners complained that the measure stopped short of holding directors personally responsible for rail or ferry disasters.

Some campaigners claimed it showed No 10 had bowed to pressure from business leaders by avoiding personal liability for company directors. Louise Christian, a lawyer for the families of those killed in the Potters Bar rail crash, said the corporate manslaughter legislation was little more than a "cosmetic" change to the current Health and Safety at Work Acts.

Trade union leaders warned they would be campaigning to strengthen the law. Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, said: "We are disappointed the Bill doesn't threaten directors with the ultimate sanction of a jail sentence."

Lawyers for the trade unions also expressed concern. Jamie Hanley, a partner at solicitors Morrish & Co said: "Our concern is that if the legislation lacks teeth, it will not make workplaces safer for employees and it will not be the legal tool that will prevent workplace tragedies."

An anti-terrorism Bill on the removal of trial by jury and making tapped conversations admissable as evidence were delayed until the new year.

The Mental Health Bill was reintroduced in draft form to complete its pre-legislative scrutiny by next March, but will not reach the statute book before a May election.

Colin Brown

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