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Mr. Heath: I do not want to spend too much time on the detail of my amendments. I want to deal with the wider issue of the office of constable, as the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) has done. First, however, let me record my appreciation of Government amendment No. 67, which strengthens the provisions by making it absolutely clear that a person designated under clause 41 must have not just the appropriate background and expertise but the necessary training.

In Committee, one of the matters that concerned me was the application of the agency to Scotland. Officers designated to work there would work under an entirely different jurisdiction and legal system. They would have to develop very different relationships with, for instance, the procurator fiscal. They would have to understand how the system worked, and to understand that the provisions were different from those in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. I am satisfied that the Government have at least gone some way towards satisfying my concerns in that area.

If one is not careful, it is quite easy to slip into pomposity when talking about the office of constable but it is an important issue that matters to the men and women who serve in our police forces. I have never had any doubts about that in my fairly long connection with the police service. People who are sworn in as constables recognise that that is an important, significant and historic role that carries with it not only duties and responsibilities, but protections, which are not to be lightly ignored, including protection from undue influence. They are not civil servants. They are not at the beck and call of a Minister of the Crown. They are officers of the Crown in their own right, capable of making their own decisions and not to be persuaded inappropriately against their instincts to take a wrong action.

Our police officers are extremely concerned about the Government's attitude to the definition of what constitutes a constable and an officer of the Crown. It seems to them that a top-level agency is to deal with high-level crime without anyone in it who is a constable, other than under temporary designation. They look at the role of community support officers. I support such officers, but I have concerns, which are shared widely, that a creep in their powers and responsibilities will take them more and more into normal municipal policing for many areas, and that that will not only prevent them from doing the job that they were originally intended to do but reduce the scope for police constables.

Provisions later in the Bill, which I suspect we may not have an opportunity to debate later, deal with the removal of the custody sergeant, a key element in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, a key protection not only for the police officer but for the public and for those who are arrested. Police officers see that role being passed over to civilian officers, which is not, I understand, a particularly popular move. This week, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, told Police Review that he was

over the switch


 
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That is a fairly damning assessment. A similar view was expressed by West Yorkshire police, so there are doubts even at senior levels about that change. The Government's proposals have yet to allay those concerns.

Most of all, the police fear that the important role that has been assigned to them as constables is being squeezed from below and above until, if we are not careful, we will have a police service that is a gendarmerie dealing with disturbance at a major level, but not with major crime, petty misdemeanours, low-level crime, or antisocial behaviour. That is not a future that they look at with any equanimity. They are concerned that the proposals do not recognise the important role that they play.

The main thrust of the Minister's argument in Committee—I hope that I am not unfairly summarising—was that SOCA is a brand new entity, it incorporates elements from different strands of interdiction and that, therefore, it would not be appropriate for it to be a police agency, any more than it would be appropriate for it to be a Customs agency or a security service agency. In Committee on 11 January the Minister said:

That is the concern in a nutshell of police officers—that it is the Government's view that police powers can be operated by a wide range of individuals who need not be police constables. That begs the question why we have the sworn constable any more.

8.45 pm

I want to make it absolutely plain—again, we do not have long to debate this serious issue—that I stand four square behind the office of constable, which has served us well. It has ensured that our police service has been able to resist the blandishments of politicians or the baying of the mob, and that is right and proper. Whatever the Government say, SOCA is effectively a policing agency. It will be dealing with serious crime, it will have police officers in its ranks, it will be inspected by Her Majesty's chief inspector of constabulary, and I see no reason to divorce it from its predecessors. The National Criminal Intelligence Service, with which I had a long connection, was a hybrid organisation that successfully melded the constables within its ranks with members of other professions and none who served effectively within that organisation. I see no argument that suggests that that could not work equally well, as the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield says in the new clause, in the new organisation.

Therefore, I shall support new clause 7 and recommend my right hon. and hon. Friends to do so too, but most of all I shall be supporting the principle that policing in this country is not a matter for paid officials of the Government, but for officers of the Crown, sworn constables, and that is something that we lose at our peril.

Caroline Flint: The creation of SOCA has not happened overnight; it was the result of considerable
 
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consultation, not least the White Paper produced last year, but also of considerable discussion before that between SOCA's constituent parts—the National Crime Squad, NCIS, the drug investigation side of Customs and Excise and the immigration crime side of the Home Office. For a number of years now, as we discussed in Committee, there has been a recognition that in dealing with serious organised crime, whether in terms of drugs or immigration, there have been closer working relationships between people in those four organisations.

In many respects, the development of SOCA was a result of that closer working, and the recognition that, while there has been effective partnership—and full credit to all those involved—some convincing and positive prosecutions of criminals resulting in their being brought to justice, not enough positive progress was being made. It was also recognised that, in dealing with organised crime in the 21st century, the creation of the agency and the expanded powers in the Bill on Queen's evidence and disclosure powers, will give us greater strength to deal with the serious problems in this area, which may have an impact nationally and internationally, but which, at the end of the day, also have an impact regionally and locally in our communities on the streets.

The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) says that his new clause and amendments are different from those tabled in Committee or that I did not understand him in Committee, but his explanation today is largely consistent with what was said in Committee. In effect, he is still calling for a national police agency. Clearly he, like the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), is inspired by a sincere wish to preserve the position of constables, which he somehow sees as under threat as a result of the creation of SOCA. I have made it clear and will say again that that is absolutely not the case. It is the case, however, that many of the people whom we have consulted in relation to creating SOCA have said that change is needed. For example, the Association of Chief Police Officers has said:

I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about my additional amendment to the Bill in relation to training. An important point was raised. In drawing people to apply for jobs in SOCA, it is important that the director general is able to be mindful of their experience, as they will include those who have worked for police forces up and down the country, those who have worked in Customs and Excise, and others who may have skills and expertise in IT and intelligence and who might need limited designation of powers to be an effective part of a team.

Much has been said this evening about the interference of politics in this area. In terms of the operational front line, this is all about making sure that the director general of SOCA is given powers that can be flexibly applied to people as he sees fit, while taking into account whether extensive training is necessary for those with previous experience. That is the situation, and it is a bone of contention between us and the Opposition.
 
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SOCA will be a national law enforcement agency dedicated to fighting serious organised crime. Its staff will be highly regarded and respected in their own right as our excellent police forces currently are around the world. They are not in competition with those police forces, however. This is not about creating an elite of police officers, which we could accuse the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield of wanting to do with his amendments.

Under the amendments, the police agency would be distorted by a view that those people best placed to serve it are police members, being individuals who were attested or sworn as constables or were members of police or special police forces. Were the amendments passed, those members of the agency who come in as customs officers and immigration officers would be seen as second-class. We do not want to be responsible for that. That would be a lost opportunity to bring together under one roof the operational experience and expertise of customs and immigration officers with that of the police agencies of the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad, to create an agency that would be more than the sum of its parts.

No doubt the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield will say, as he has pointed out, that the amendments provide that police members may exercise the powers of a customs or immigration officer together with those of a constable if they have the training or have held them before, even if, as I suspect, few will be in that last category. I am glad that, seemingly, we agree on one thing—that an individual can in principle have and exercise the powers of a constable, customs officer and immigration officer all at the same time. I am left wondering, however, why only a police member can potentially exercise the powers of all three, but not a customs or immigration officer, or even better, as we would have it, an employee of SOCA, free from his previous institution's baggage yet with all the experience and knowledge. The hon. Gentleman wants to have his cake and eat it on this issue, and he is fundamentally misunderstanding the aims of establishing SOCA and what we hope that it will achieve in the future.

I am almost left wondering whether the hon. Gentleman has thought of the impact of his amendments. I have already said that they would effectively create a super-police force. That would leave SOCA in, arguably, a worse position than the National Crime Squad, as under his approach, it has all the powers or none. Under the Police Reform Act 2002, however, the director general of NCS could designate staff as investigating officers with a limited array of police powers. Under his proposal, I suggest that that flexibility could be lost to SOCA. I have already mentioned the risk of creating an elitist culture and the potential for real or perceived inequality is obvious.

The Bill is not about SOCA creaming off the brightest and the best from local police forces. It is about creating a new organisation to tackle certain problems. New clause 7 takes the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield to a place that he does not want to go.
 
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The Bill enshrines the point that SOCA's staff will be every bit as professional and independent as police officers. I strongly refute the argument that only police officers can be entrusted with police powers, and we have moved away from that position.

I take the point raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that the perception that we do not value the role of the constable is a concern. We value that role, but we also recognise—as he acknowledged earlier—that other people, who may not have the full powers of a constable, can make a contribution to law enforcement.

All the people who participate in protecting our communities—customs officers, immigration officers, community support officers, prison officers and investigating officers—discharge their duties. We value the office of constable and sworn police officers, which have their place as part of the police service. I emphasise that SOCA will not be a police force and should therefore not be seen to be staffed by police members, but it will be staffed by men and women who are every bit as professional, highly trained, dedicated and impartial in their work.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's desire to ensure that the right people only have the powers of a constable and share his desire to ensure that the powers of constables, and indeed those of customs and immigration officer, are not distributed like confetti. Again, SOCA will take operational decisions on how it defines those people who should have different powers and on how it draws on the experience that people bring from different organisations.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman that the director general of SOCA's carrying out of those functions will cause huge problems and that people who do not know their powers will cause huge legal problems down the line. In Committee, I said that it would be ridiculous for SOCA senior management to send people out on an investigation if those people were not aware of their powers and were therefore unable to bring successful prosecutions. It is ridiculous to suggest that that is a consequence of the Bill.

We have said that the delegation of those powers will be backed by training, a commitment underlined by Government amendment No. 67, which states that the director general must be satisfied that people have experience and training before he designates the relevant powers. The three conditions on the director general are listed in the Police Reform Act 2002 and concern the delegation of powers to police authority staff. Those conditions will apply, even if an individual has already held those powers, which will ensure that training is up to date.

Government amendment No. 68 ties up some loose ends. As the Bill stands, the director general can delegate his power to designate powers. In effect, Government amendment No. 67 imposes a function on the director general, and Government amendment No. 68 simply ensures that that function can be delegated as part and parcel of the power to delegate the power to designate.

I hope that that reassures the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield—I am not sure whether it will—that SOCA does not have to be created as a national police organisation to preserve the powers of a constable. I hope that he will withdraw new clause 7 and that the House will accept the two Government amendments.
 
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The amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) also appear to have been inspired by a wish to preserve the offices of those joining SOCA, including—it is notable that this is not exclusive, however—the office of constable. As I said in Committee, those police officers who wish to return to their police force after serving with SOCA will have had their position as constable suspended during that time. If someone wants to rejoin a police force, perhaps not even the one that they came from, that is one way in which their constable status could be revived.

We are not convinced by the Liberal Democrat amendments, which might cause confusion. They would work if the person were to return to the service as the holder of their previous office, which would be treated as having been maintained by that person during their time in SOCA, but we would be none the wiser about the state of a person's office if they did not return to the service as a holder of that office.

If the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome seeks simply to ensure that an office continues to be maintained while a person is an employee of SOCA, the amendments are unworkable. By virtue of their office while they were in SOCA, whether constable, immigration or customs, a person would be able to exercise the powers attached to that office. That would undermine any designations made by the director general on reasonable grounds in order to meet SOCA's operational priorities as the person would already start with that collection of powers, which he held by virtue of maintaining his existing office. The entire process of designation would be thrown into confusion. As has been said by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, the powers of constable are extensive and it is not the wish of SOCA that someone should come in with all those powers and be designated as appropriate to the work that that individual would be undertaking within SOCA.

9 pm

I will bring my remarks to an end. I have better manners than the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield who gave me no time to respond on the issue of intercept as evidence. However, there has been much comment—there has been some tonight—that somehow what we are doing is against the wishes of those who are involved in police organisations. I do not believe that that is true.

I said in Committee and to representatives of the Police Federation that I do not believe that any member of the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service or, for that matter, anyone else, will sign up to the proposed organisation until they have seen the full terms and conditions, and that is absolutely appropriate. However, we know that there is real enthusiasm on the part of those working in those organisations for the direction that SOCA will take. It will make sense in terms of good partnership working. It will be a new organisation with a new direction and a new way of bringing people together with real skills. It will make a real difference to tackling organised crime.

On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield will understand why creating SOCA is not only about creating another police force. It is about something that is entirely different. The effect of the
 
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agency will depend on how we organise it and on the people within it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the new clause.


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