Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for still trying to take in his theoretical example. I am sure that he has plenty of evidence for how much cocaine has been smuggled in through eastern Europe, but it seems rather a circuitous route.

My question is whether the hon. Gentleman's myriad amendments would reduce employment rights, including the right to strike, of any members of SOCA in any way.

Mr. Mitchell: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was having trouble with my example. I produced it in the hope that it would demonstrate the pitfalls in the current set up, and I look forward to the Minister's dissecting it and explaining why those pitfalls do not exist. We are very concerned that they do.

On the hon. Gentleman's specific point about employment rights, we will come to a set of amendments deal specifically with that and with the balance required in dealing with employment rights and complaints procedures between policemen and policewomen and civil servants. Clearly, his and my reaction to that point will depend on what the Minister says about this set of amendments, which clearly seek to remove some of the confusion and delineate a set of police members of SOCA.

In offering the amendments, we seek acceptance by the Government of our key criticisms of principle on this part of the Bill and in the make-up of the new
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agency. I accept that we are all as one in the aim of ensuring that the agency is able to combat serious and organised crime, but I hope the Minister will accept these amendments or take them away to consider which of them she can accept or explain why, as presently drafted, the Bill does not cause the very confusions that I have set out.

10.45 am

“Mr. Heath: As the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) said, this is a core issue of the Bill, and a core area of potential division between Opposition Members and the Government. As the Minister will be aware, there is serious concern outside this Committee, within the ranks of the police service, about the consequences of what is proposed. Anyone who has had any dealings with the police at any operational level fully understands the importance attached to the office of constable.”

We do not need to take an overdose of constitutionality to understand that this is considered to be of paramount importance in understanding the role and functions of the police officer. The office of constable, as an officer of the Crown, carries with it status, duties, responsibilities and protections. Those are protections from inappropriate influence; an awareness that as an officer of the Crown, an officer is doing his or her duty to the best of their abilities and cannot be manipulated in ways that are incompatible with the office of constable.

That is why police officers feel strongly about maintaining the office of constable. It has been a recurrent theme in my dealings with the service over the years, and I stand four-square behind the status of that office. It is something that is worth protecting by enshrining it in our law. Countless statutes in the law of England and Wales, and in Scots law, reflect the particular position of the constable. It is the constable who is given the powers that are not given to the ordinary citizen. They are quite extraordinary powers in terms of the plurality of our citizenship: the power to detain, to arrest, to investigate, to seek arrangements for a search, or to ensure identification. As a society, we should not give away those powers lightly to any individual. That is why I say that the office of constable is worth protecting.

As the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said regarding the police side of SOCA's functions, this was well understood in setting up its predecessor organisations, NCIS and the NCS. Specific arrangements were made for what were then hybrid organisations. NCIS in particular was a hybrid organisation, undoubtedly, but it was clearly understood that those police officers working in NCIS remained police officers. They may no longer have been working for a constabulary, nor have been donning a blue uniform and helmet, but they were police constables and officers of the Crown, with all the responsibilities and duties that go along with that.

So the point made by the hon. Gentleman is an important one. In looking at this new organisation we have to protect that which is good in the police service and ensure that it is maintained. The Minister will again say that this agency falls way beyond the police service, but it carries out policing functions and has police powers. It is inspected by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary and subject to investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. It is in many ways a policing organisation and we must understand that.

Given that it operates on a United Kingdom basis, we should also be aware of differences in the
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constabulary's position between the law of England and Wales and Scots law. If we are to have officers acting with the designation of constable, they must be aware of the legal framework within which they work. That is something that we will return to. It would be entirely inappropriate for an English constable who was familiar with the workings of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, but completely unaware of what relationship he or she may have with the procurator fiscal, to blunder their way through Scots law. Moreover, someone who has never held the office of constable in either jurisdiction would certainly not have the necessary training or knowledge to carry out their duties appropriately. We will return to this issue when we discuss clause 38. I have tabled amendments to that clause dealing with the transition between taking on employment in the new SOCA and leaving or returning to employment by a police force.

The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has done the Committee a service by tabling this comprehensive list of amendments. The Government cannot simply swat aside those serious concerns; they need to be addressed. We all want to see SOCA working effectively. We all want to ensure that there is no confusion; we want to ensure that appropriate officers are attracted into the service, and that they feel confident in the positions that they hold in the agency; and they should know what their powers are. We also want to ensure that they realise that, in many ways, as constables they remain officers of the Crown and not employees of an organisation to which they hold only a temporary contractual affiliation rather than the much deeper relationship that goes with the office of constable.

I hope that the Minister will reflect on what has been said today, and also on what I know has been said to her by those who represent police organisations. I hope that she will carefully consider the status of officers in the agency, and whether what is proposed genuinely reflects the responsibilities that we seek to place on them.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield clearly set out the nature of the office of constable. The point might best be made by saying that it is the difference between the role as set out by the hon. Gentleman, with the officer having the freedom and responsibility of being directly appointed by the Crown, and that of an employee in a commercial relationship with an employer, whose instructions he is contracted to follow whether or not they clash with his duties as a constable. That might most effectively sum up the potential tension. Of course, police officers cannot be dismissed so easily as employees.

I suppose that it is possible to exaggerate the independence of the role of constable. I have never known a police officer tell a sergeant that he was not going to follow orders because he thought that what he was being told to do was incompatible with his individual responsibility as a constable. The role is important. It is important to the police officers who hold it, but it is also important symbolically—and even constitutionally.
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I foresee a situation developing—I would be pleased if the Minister were to comment—in which much street policing is likely to be carried out by community support officers. They are not constables; although they are being given increasing powers, they are at the bottom end. At the top end are SOCA staff, who will not necessarily be constables. Only the middle level will include constables. I wonder whether that is because the Government do not truly put much value on the role; that may or may not be a realistic approach, but it is an interesting and important question.

Mr. Heath: Does the hon. and learned Lady share my concern about something to which I referred earlier—the squeezing of the role of the office of constable to the point at which the police are dealing primarily with outbreaks of civil disturbance and effectively becoming a gendarmerie rather than a police force?

Vera Baird: I heard that point being expressed as I arrived; I should have apologised at the outset, Dame Marion, for not being here at the start of the sitting. I see the hon. Gentleman's point.

There may be a more practical point here, which is that the director general or someone designated by him will be able to appoint to the role of constable someone who has never before had such a role. That is not a theoretical or symbolic question. It is about giving someone extra powers. They are serious powers—the power to take away someone's liberty; if he tries to escape, the power to chase and restrain him; the power to use reasonable physical force; the power to handcuff him, to search his home and, if necessary, to break and enter the home in order to carry out the search.

It is a slight cause for concern—I may be understating it—that the Government countenance giving those powers to someone who has not had them before. We clearly need to know what caution will be exercised when making such appointments, because one does not want SOCA giving powers of that sort to people not trained to deal with them, even under the pressure of needing to launch an operation quickly because of an emergency. Will the Minister comment on that?

I did not take strongly—it may have been a defensive move on my part—the point about lawyers being likely to play havoc with authorisation. It would be a pretty poor officer who did not check before he went on an operation what authorisation he had and whether it had expired. That is a fairly fanciful position. However, I am sure that there are good reasons for requiring it, and that they are connected with flexibility—bringing people into SOCA and letting them go out again should one type of crime increase and then reduce if SOCA is successful. No doubt the reasons are important, but police officers have real concerns and I am sure that the Minister will address them.

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