Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Bob Ainsworth: Amendment No. 1 would require the Secretary of State to appoint a deputy director of the agency for Northern Ireland. Amendment No. 6 would require the appointment of a deputy director for Northern Ireland rather than, as is currently proposed, a senior official, but it would not require that appointment to be made by the Secretary of State.

The Government are committed to combating crime in Northern Ireland and to ensuring that the agency operates effectively there. The possibility of a separate agency for Northern Ireland was considered with colleagues from Northern Ireland before the Bill was introduced. It was agreed that there should instead be a single agency with a unified management structure, and that is reflected in the Bill.

It may be helpful if I explain how we envisage the agency being structured in Northern Ireland. We envisage that it will have a presence—an office and operational staff—in Northern Ireland, which can be achieved administratively. A senior official in the agency will have the specific responsibility of exercising the director's functions in Northern Ireland. Schedule 1 states that the director will appoint that official, and will also be required to make specific references to Northern Ireland in his annual plan. The Secretary of State must approve the annual plan as a whole. We envisage that the Home Secretary will take the lead on that, but approval will not be given without consultation with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We also envisage that the director will keep both the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland informed of the plan's progress. Although the Home Secretary will be accountable to Parliament for the agency, we expect that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will give answers relating to Northern Ireland.

That is the background against which we should consider the amendments, which raise two questions. First, should the agency have an official with the title of deputy director for Northern Ireland? If the answer to that is yes, the second question is whether any such deputy director should be appointed by the Secretary of State rather than by the director.

The Bill requires that the agency's staff must include a senior official with specific responsibility for exercising his functions in Northern Ireland. That is set out in paragraph 4 of schedule 1. The director will make that appointment, just as the director will appoint his deputy. Do we need the official appointed to the Northern Ireland office to be termed a deputy director rather than a senior official?

It is important that the agency's work in Northern Ireland is given the high profile and the priority that are necessary. However, it is not appropriate to specify that there should be two deputy directors of the agency. The deputy to the director, for whom provision is made in paragraph 4(a), will—following the normal use of the term ``deputy''—act as a substitute for the director in his whole range of functions when called upon to do so. The role of the officer with responsibility for Northern Ireland will be far narrower. The term deputy director should not be used, because that could cause confusion.

Mr. Grieve: Obviously, we have not explored the national structure of the agency—the Minister touched only briefly on that. However, he laid down a broad hint that there will be an office in Northern Ireland for Northern Ireland, and I suspect that there will be one office in England and Wales for England and Wales. Does not the geographical separation of the two offices emphasise the need for a deputy director with enhanced status, because of the different judicial system under which he would operate?

Mr. Ainsworth: As I said, it is our intention to have a separate office with a specific official appointed to run it. The title that we give to that official is not set in stone. I am happy to reflect on how we give appropriate recognition to that role and to the priority of the work that must be done in Northern Ireland. However, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that deputy director is not the appropriate title. Perhaps we should reflect on whether there should be a named senior official, or perhaps an assistant director, for Northern Ireland. The title should be appropriate and should send out the right messages. The amendment to make the title ``deputy director'' could lead to confusion and make people believe that that role influences matters beyond Northern Ireland, which is wider than expected. I will consider the matter, and will, before Report stage, reflect on the hon. Gentleman's point that the senior official's title should reflect the priority given to work done in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether the Secretary of State, rather than the director, should appoint the Northern Ireland official, whatever his or her title. That arrangement would not be the best way to achieve the management accountability necessary for the agency. If the official for Northern Ireland were appointed by the Secretary of State, he or she would be the only member of the agency's staff not appointed by the director. That might create confusion as to whether the Northern Ireland official is accountable to the director or to the Secretary of State.

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The official will exercise the director's functions in Northern Ireland, and will receive his or her powers from the director. It makes sense for the director to make the appointment in order to preserve the unity of the agency's management structure. The director will retain overall control of his functions in Northern Ireland. Ministers will be involved in the appointment process, and the director will have to consult the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when making the appointment. We reject amendment No. 1, because the title

    ``deputy Director for Northern Ireland''

could be confusing. We reject amendment No. 6 because it would make management accountability in the agency difficult. For those reasons, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. I was interested to hear of the consultation that he says will take place with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the subject of the appointment. Such a consultation would help to address the anxieties that led me to table amendments Nos. 1 and 6. The question, as always, is what we should put in the Bill and what we should leave out. The Minister says that the consultation will be held, but there is nothing in the Bill to specify that the consultation must take place, and must involve those Ministers. We may have to revisit that issue.

The notion of a consultation gives me some reassurance, but as the Minister knows, if any area in the United Kingdom needs reinforcement against racketeering, it is Northern Ireland. Success in Northern Ireland is likely to be the benchmark that tells us whether the Bill works adequately. We must ensure, as a priority, that the Northern Ireland official is seen to have sufficient status, and that the consultation mechanisms work. Subject to that, and subject to the Minister's promise to think of ways in which to emphasise the Northern Ireland official's role, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Grieve: We must consider the role of the director, and his or her functions. The extent to which the director is an independent law enforcement officer or an officer who does the bidding of the Home Secretary is ambiguous. I flag that up, because the point is important.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, for example, has complete independence. The Attorney-General cannot interfere with the exercise of his discretion, and nobody would suggest that that should be the case. However, a hybrid product is being created, and I am concerned about that, as the explanation provided is unclear. Will the director be left to get on with the job, with the exercise of his or her discretion ring-fenced from any influence from others, or will the director merely play an executive role by carrying out the will of the Government in respect of the proceeds of crime, confiscation and civil recovery? The document that the Minister provided suggested that the director would not have as much autonomy as the DPP. The Committee will return to that matter as it discusses the legislation further, but I want to flag up the fact that I wish the Minister to clarify the role that the Home Secretary will play in exercising influence over the actions of the director.

Mr. Wilshire: I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said.

I wish the Minister to keep in mind a different matter, which might become serious—although at the moment it may seem petty and silly. Subsection (5) states:

    ``Anything which the Director is authorised or required to do may be done by—

    (a) a member of staff of the Agency, or

    (b) a person providing services under arrangements made by the Director''.

The director is entitled to appoint people all the way down through the system—to the office cleaners, for example—and he is entitled to arrange services, such as those provided by the outside contractors who do the catering for his staff. I am sure that the Government do not intend to allow such people to deal with some of the highly sensitive matters that the Bill addresses. Is the Minister prepared to register that point, and if Members from my party choose to revisit it, will he clarify the fact that certain services or activities should be handled only by senior people? It might be necessary to ask for changes to be made.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): I seek clarification from the Minister about the way in which the Assets Recovery Agency will co-operate with the Scottish authorities. I am unclear about how it will be guaranteed that there are no gaps between the Scottish jurisdiction and the ARA. It is essential that hordes of English villains—there are millions of them—cannot flee north of the border to a jurisdiction where the ARA cannot follow them. Will the Minister describe the liaison arrangements, and will he address the issue of the funding that will be provided to the ARA and the appropriate authorities in Scotland? I especially want him to clarify what funding has been set aside for Scotland to create or enhance the asset recovery unit and the civil recovery units at the Crown Office.

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