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Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab): I do not normally speak on home affairs. Having grown up in Belfast, I shall avoid the subject that the person whose Church I went to as a child has just touched on. I want to concentrate on a number of other issues, including the Serious Organised Crime Agency.
When SOCA is set up, the way in which its powerswhether customs powers, constabulary powers or immigration powersare allocated is crucial, and a bureaucratic pre-allocation route will not be flexible enough to tackle some of the serious issues that the agency will face. One of the key things is that the agency's officers should have the ability to select powers appropriate to their task and to be accountable for those powers, rather than having a pre-allocation of powers, as is envisaged in the Bill. I hope that Minister will look again at that issue, because getting it right is crucial.
Getting the culture of the organisation right at the beginning is very important. We have learned the lessons of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, under which we did not get such things right at the beginning. The relationships between SOCA and local constabularies and international forces are important, and we must get them right at the outset.
For generations, the Home Office's immediate reaction to any problem has been to introduce legislation. Despite the universal welcome for the Bill, which contains a lot of good things, I fear that there is still a tendency in the Home Office to think that legislation is the only thing that matters. It is much more important to consider enforcement and the international co-operation that is required, both of which will determine whether SOCA is a success far more than the legislation itself.
A number of technological changes are taking place that will have a direct impact on SOCA. Again, we must consider those aspects, which are not touched on in the Bill. Education also has a role to play. We often forget when passing Home Office legislation how to educate people about the aspects that we need to tackle, and how we can prevent serious organised crime.
The Minister will be aware of the relevance of the proceeds of crime. I have tackled that issue with her in the past. If an agency seizes assets under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and central Government are the prosecuting authority, the Department involved is reimbursed for the cost of the prosecution. Counterfeiting and piracy are major problems in this countrythey represent a lot of organised crime activityand local government trading standards officers are often involved in those prosecutions.
One prosecution for piracy and counterfeiting in Waltham Forest cost £90,000. The court confiscated the assets of the people who were found guilty, but there was no money to pay for the local authority's prosecution costs. I urge Ministers to take on board an amendment that has been discussed with the Department of Trade and Industry to allow agencies outside the Government to have their prosecution costs reimbursed. As we are amending the Proceeds of Crime Act, there is an opportunity for the Government to deal with that issue.
If SOCA is to work, its relationship with the private sectorparticularly with banks, internet service providers and other companiesis critical. Again, the
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Bill is too traditional in its approach and does not use the private sector to tackle serious organised crime. I would advocate that the directors of security of our banks and internet service providers be made special constables, so that they have the powers to collect the evidence to present to the prosecution authorities. Ministers have heard that argument, but we should consider innovative ways to tackle some serious organised crime. I hope that when it is up and running, the agency tackles those issues, rather than simply continuing down the traditional route.
It is vital that we have the resources and capacity to deal with international co-operation. One country recently gave a list of 500 paedophiles to us, but it overwhelmed the agencies that were supposed to deal with it because they did not have the capacity to cope. Having the right skills and the capacity to deal with such problems is important. I urge the Minister to consider not only how powers are allocated to SOCA, but the resources and training that will make it a success. If we do not have the skills or the resources both inside and outside the agencythat relates to linkages with other constabularieswe put it at a disadvantage.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that because of issues relating to the status of the new agency, many people in the National Crime Squad have said that they will not be happy to transfer to it, thereby denying it a source of expertise and skills? Does that cause him concern?
Brian White: If that were the case, I would be concerned. I appreciate that a number of issues need to be resolved, and those are being discussed. My understanding is that those people will happily transfer to SOCA, because it is the right way forward. We would expect uncertainties in any reorganisation. One of the important things about reorganisation is to get the culture right at the beginning. The director will have to get that right when SOCA is set up. If the hon. Gentleman's fears were well founded, I would be worried, but discussions are ongoing, as I hope the Minister will confirm when she responds.
We need to ensure that people in other forces understand what the agency is doing. There is still confusion in some police forces about what they can and cannot do under RIPA. Again, it is important that local police forces understand SOCA's remit and where it is going.
I regret that Ministers have missed an opportunity. The all-party group on the internet recently examined the Computer Misuse Act 1990 and made several recommendations, including upping the tariff set out in part 1 of that Act to two years, which would allow us to extradite people such as the members of the organised crime groups in Florida who are putting viruses into the internet. The problem with part 1 is that the tariff is only six months, so the offences are not extraditable.
The police will have the power the seize vehicles. Given the experience of Customs and Excise in doing that, and the problems that that has caused many of our constituents, I hope that Ministers will consider that power before police forces implement the measure. There is a difference between those who are actively engaged in fraud, whose cars should be taken, and those
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who are without insurance, tax or documentation because of incompetence or chaotic lifestyles. There is a fundamental difference between those who set out deliberately to act fraudulently and those who end up in a similar situation through their own incompetence. I am a great believer in the cock-up theory of life as opposed to the conspiracy theory, and when we consider clause 131, we need to examine the safeguards that can be built in to ensure that those whose lifestyles cause the situation are not penalised to the same extent as those who act deliberately.
The Bill contains much that is good, and it will be generally welcomed. It is a major step forward in tackling crime. The bringing together of functions under SOCA is important. We need to get the culture and the way in which SOCA is established right. I hope that when we discuss those aspects in Committee, the Government take on board some of the suggestions that will make it work more effectively, and that they learn the lessons of past agencies.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I have a difficulty with Home Office Bills. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, the Home Secretary is now up to about 50 Bills. Nearly two weeks ago, I tabled a question to the Prime Minister on how many Home Office Bills had been enacted since he became Prime Minister. Wisely, he promptly shifted it over to the Home Secretary's office, and of course there has not been a reply as I imagine that they are still weighing up the import of the question.
Mr. Shepherd: The hon. Gentleman is launching himself on a hopeful exposition of ignorance on my part. There has never been a Government like this one. They have showered a confetti of legislation in home affairs matters on the House. It has not even been considered in Committee here, but it has had to be looked at seriously in the House of Lords. It is absurd to suggest that this Government are modest and timid in introducing Home Office measures. They flaunt them. They shout them from the top of every roof in the hope that no one will inspect them or understand that they are often ineffectual and contradict certain serious purposes that this House and this country have.
It has been rightly pointed out that this is a compendium Bill. It is a portmanteau. The Home Office can stick anything into it that it wants. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman wanted something else stuck in it. Heaven forbid!
First, the Bill creates the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Secondly, it contains powers to compel people to co-operate with an investigation by producing documents and answering questions. Thirdly, it provides
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for defendants to plead guilty and offer Queen's evidence in return for a discounted sentence. Fourthly, it introduces changes to police powers contained in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and confers a number of new powers on the police. Fifthly, it extends the powers of community support officers and other police support staff. Sixthly, it provides for all criminal offences to be "arrestable offences", subject to a test of necessity. Seventhly, it provides for an offence of incitement to religious hatred. Eighthly, it creates a new offence of harassment of a person in his home. Ninthly, it create a new arrestable offence of trespass on sites designated by the Secretary of State. Tenthly, it gives the police new powers to control protests that hinder access to, or are disruptive of the workings of, Parliament, or which spoil the visual aspect of Parliament square.
Eleventhly, the Bill lifts the automatic reporting restrictions in youth courts in relation to proceedings for a breach of an antisocial behaviour order. Twelfthly, it extends the range of law enforcement agencies from which non-conviction information may be obtained. Thirteenthly, it enables the Criminal Records Bureau and its equivalent in Scotland to access passport, driving licence and national insurance number data in order to identify the identity of applicants for a criminal record disclosure.
I have listed only some of the propositions in the Bill, but many of them have, I would suggest, very significant human rights implications. Indeed, they engage a wide range of human rights, including the right to liberty under article 5; the right to a fair trial and the privilege against self-incrimination under article 6(1); the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence under article 8; the right to freedom of religion and conscience under article 9; the right to freedom of expression under article 10; freedom of association under article 11; and the right to be free from discrimination in the enjoyment of convention rights under article 14. That is quite a little coup, striking at the very heart of the Government's own Home Office flagship legislation, the Human Rights Act.
I do not know whether any Committee scrutinising the Bill or any judge who comes into contact with the Government's new proposals will find that they are in conflict with the range of rights that I mentioned. However, I would point out that this touches on something that is important to all of usthe balance between security and liberty, about which the Government are casual and careless.
Many people's minds have been concentrated by the new offenceor the replay of an offence that the Home Office tried to slip into a previous Bill, but did not get away withrelating to incitement to religious hatred. I come from a background, in Scotland and England, in which freedom of expression was the ultimate way of finding our liberty. It provides the way in which we assault the conscience of others.
James I of England, who was James VI of Scotland, said: "The business of state is mine; let no man meddle in it," and his authority for such a sweeping assertion was something called the divine right of kings. I might take exception to that concept, though I see that new Labour increasingly toys with it. Am I not assaulting a religious belief when I say that James I had no such divine right?
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What crime could I have committed under the Bill?[Interruption.] It is a religious faith and belief. Having absolute power came from his belief and faith in the church. It may be an old argument about new Labour, but it knows nothing about the time before it was born. The struggle that I referred to was an expression of freedom, and it was a long march that enabled us to respect the premises on which our liberty was built.
The Home Secretary has found it necessary to invoke a derogation from the Human Rights Act and the convention on human rights, asserting that the very life of this nation is threatened. It is something to which the House has acceded, and the consequence has been the diminution of traditional liberties and freedoms. That is the thread that runs through the present Home Secretary's administration of one of our great offices of state. I do not acquiesce easily to those propositions, but I notice that on the front of the Bill, the Home Secretary asserts:
I do not think that he is right in that judgment and I am sure that he will be found not to be right. I would argue that the House should treat with great caution a Bill which the Home Secretary says should be debated in detail in Committee, when we have on the Order Paper, immediately after our present business, a programme motion that insists on the Bill's being returned from Committee on 25 January. Christmas lies between. Traditionally, at this stage of the Session, before a Bill goes into Committee we would barely have a Committee stage, if at all, before Christmas. We are looking at no more than four or five sittings for examining the Bill.
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