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Mr. Blunkett: The Scottish Drugs Enforcement Agency is to remain. As part of the protocol, the Serious Organised Crime Agency will have to work out its relationships with that agency and others to ensure that where overlaps occur there is a role for the Scottish Executive. I am happy to talk to Westminster Members of Parliament from Scotland, including my hon. Friend, about any concerns that they have. It is important to get things right in what is inevitably a situation requiring co-operation and good will. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and to the Executive for their co-operation on this matter.
Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab):
Clause 11(4) provides that codes of practice should be laid before Parliament. Is it anticipated that there will be any form of affirmative procedure?
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Mr. Blunkett: Yes. As my hon. and learned Friend is aware, where matters are technical and non-controversial we generally opt for the normal prayer. Where we are dealing with more controversial issues I am happy for my hon. Friends to address this in CommitteeI am willing to accept an affirmative procedure so that there can, where appropriate, be a debate on the Floor of the House in conjunction with the usual channels.
Clauses 22 to 30 deal with the operational responsibilities of the director general. The autonomy of the operation is absolutely crucial in providing the confidence that people are able to do the job properly in drawing together the various elements, including those who had the powers of the constable.
Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Home Secretary will be aware that concerns have been expressed in Scotland about clauses 24 and 25, which appear to mean that an officer from south of the border could be seconded to a Scottish police force and given the powers of a police constable in Scotland. The concern centres on the fact that, as the Home Secretary is aware, Scots law and procedure can differ in important respects from English procedure. Will any person so seconded be given proper training in Scots law and procedure beforehand?
Mr. Blunkett: It is important that people are able to work together through mutual support. For instance, we shall work with the French through Project Reflex. Let me put it as gently as I can: if we can demonstrate that we can work well with the French, we must surely be able to work even better with our Scottish colleagues. There is already common ground through working arrangements that allow for cross-border mutual support. I have assurances from Sir Stephen and Bill Hughes that that will be a priority in making things happen on the ground. The director general will be in charge of the operational side.
Clauses 31 to 34 deal with information sharing and the proper exchange of vital data. A year or two ago, there were problems in and between existing agencies. We must ensure that the Serious Organised Crime Agency is not subject to those problems. That is underpinned by recognising the importance of oversight, including by the Home Affairs Committee, of what is done in respect of data sharing and information. I wanted to put that on the record. Issues to do with gateways and information sharing are critical to doing the job, but also raise in all our minds issues that we must address.
Clauses 38 to 49 cover the conferment of the combination of powers held by the existing, separate offices that are to be brought togetheras the shadow Home Secretary saidsubject to the appropriate training and accreditation. Training and accreditation will be critical if people are to be able to take on the differing roles that have existed, from those in Customs to those of the constable, and will enable them to do the job, wherever they are and in whatever circumstances, much more effectively than has been possible in the past. The chairman and the director general of the new agency have been explicit in saying how crucial that will be and how vital it is that we reassure people about it.
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The Police Federation has expressed concern, so I want to reassure it that we are mindful of that and happy to continue the consultation.
Clause 50 is about agency staff being subject to the scrutiny and appeal mechanisms of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. During the consultation on the White Paper, concern was expressed that there would be no scrutiny and appeals mechanism where things go wrong. We want to be explicit about those procedures. In Northern Ireland, the Police Ombudsman will take on that role.
Mr. Heath: Will the Independent Police Complaints Commission be responsible for complaints only against officers of the agency who are acting in the role of constable, or will it take complaints in respect of any capacity in which an officer acts?
Mr. Blunkett: Once they have been designated with the powers that exist in all the agencies that are being drawn in, they will be subject to the mechanism of scrutiny by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. There is no other sensible way of doing it, and people will be reassured to know that no one can exceed or misuse their powers without being subject to that scrutiny.
Clauses 54 to 64 ensure that witnesses and others involved co-operate in the provision of documents. They extend to SOCA existing Serious Fraud Office powers that have been used sparingly by the SFO but are absolutely crucial to doing the job. Those powers will be available, in relation to organised crime only, to the police services. That will overcome the nonsense that has existed whereby agencies attempting to get to the truth by accessing documents, including those held on disk, have experienced enormous blockages when people are not prepared to hand over the information. These powers are exercised with the consent of the prosecutor and only where the evidence will be "of substantial value" to the investigation, and parameters and restrictions are in place to avoid their misuse. It will not be possible for someone to incriminate themselves. Moreover, there will be safeguards in relation to professionally privileged material; that will secure the confidence of the legal profession.
Mr. Blunkett: Yes, they will. If my hon. and learned Friend is lucky enough to be on the Committeealthough I am not sure whether he would feel lucky to be therewe should value his contribution to getting this right.
Clauses 65 to 68 are about what we colloquially call turning Queen's evidence, and will put a common-law power on to a statutory footing. To give an example, similar powers are used in Australia in about 15 per cent. of convictions for drug trafficking, and in about a
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quarter of such convictions in the United States. In Britain, the figure is 1 per cent. There is therefore scope for us to look at this issue, with great care. I know that Members will want to examine in Committee how these provisions can operate without encouraging criminals to commit criminal acts to get themselves out of a spot. Obviously, we need to ensure that the proper powers are put in place to ensure that that does not happen.
Clauses 69 to 73 are about financial reporting orders. These measures will close the absurd loophole in which people are able to return to organised crime after they have served their sentence and, in some cases, pick up the assets that they have stashed away so that they can continue to fund and invest in their criminality. As with supervising those coming out after long sentences in other ways, the power will now be available to supervise the use of the resources still held by those individuals, including their bank accounts and other financial holdings, so that we can monitor what they are doing and link it to the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and any further activity can be dealt with and any resources obtained by criminal activity can be confiscated. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that this should have been done a long time ago. The Assets Recovery Agency will be intrinsically involved, and we shall also be able to use the new powers to undertake monitoring.
Clauses 74 to 86 are about witness protection. We need to put on a statutory footing provisions involving the duty to co-operate of agencies such as housing authorities, housing associations and education authoritiesin terms of being able to place the children of families who have had to be rehoused, for example. Further provisions include measures to tackle the ridiculous situation involving the disclosure of names, addresses and whereabouts of witnesses, and to ensure that this is simply about witnesses and jurors, rather than about people who have been involved in criminality.
Clauses 89 to 100 are about amending the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, and about the faster disposal and execution of cases involving civil assets. These measures will get rid of a situation that we did not foreseeit has to be saidwhen the massive Proceeds of Crime Bill was going through Parliament. The situation arises when, if we have not released some of the assets that an individual had, we end up having to pay legal aid in order to be able to prosecute his or her case.
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