Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Grieve: There comes a point in a Committee's consideration of any legislation—I have served on enough home affairs Committees over the past three years to say this—when it reaches a crunch point. I
Column Number: 30
wish SOCA well. I understand why the Government want to set it up: it has the potential to perform a valuable service in the detection and prevention of crime and the arrest of serious criminals. However, when one looks at the totality of the Bill, and at the powers that are to be conferred on SOCA, it is apparent that SOCA is not some Government Department producing intelligence, it is an enforcement agency, and some of its proposed powers are draconian.

Picking up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, it is true that the office of constable has always existed as a separate office under the Crown, not as part of the Administration. It is also true that in the past it was easy to be sworn as a constable. My cousins have truncheons on their walls from the time in the early 19th century when their forebears were sworn as constables to suppress riots. All one had to do was to go before a magistrate and swear. One was then issued with a truncheon and went off to carry out the function. We have moved on a little since then, and obtaining the office of constable is seen as a professional activity. It starts with training and gaining an understanding of the rights and, above all—as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said—responsibilities that go with the office, and of the independence of action that is supposed to be conferred.

The hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) is right. I do not suppose that many constables have told their sergeants that they will not do something, but the potential exists for that to happen. Later in the Bill, SOCA officers of one kind or another—including some who might not be constables at all, which is more problematic—have conferred on them certain substantial powers, so it is important that the Government get SOCA off on the right footing. The way in which it is being devised is misplaced. An enforcement agency that is almost certainly going to contain police officers to carry out its work should, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield said, have police members and follow the well tried procedure that NCIS had.

I urge the Minister to take in good part, and as a co-operative enterprise by the Committee, the deep anxieties that are being expressed about the way in which the Government seem to be going about this. The irony is that if the Government do not listen in this place, they will be forced to listen in another place. Given that they want to introduce the Bill, the Minister would do well to consider how it can be used to set up the organisation that we all want in a fashion that commands approval. I am looking forward to hearing her response, as the Committee stage is an opportunity for dialogue. I hope that she will explain why she does not agree with Committee members of all parties that there should be police membership and that this should be a police body with constables sworn in the usual way. What is the downside? What problem does the Minister perceive? Why can we not have such things? If she can give me a coherent and understandable explanation, I may be persuaded. At the moment, however, I simply do not see it.
Column Number: 31

11 am

There are a number of lurking anxieties about the Bill, which I do not necessarily share but which we must face head-on. One is that the last Home Secretary, with his generalised dislike of police operational independence, wished to create a body without such features and that is one reason why the Bill was drafted in its present form. If that was indeed his fear, I disagree with him, but we now have a new helmsman, so we have all the more reason to review any such lurking prejudices and to look at the Bill afresh.

Ultimately, we come back to fundamental issues of civil liberties. Like so many Bills that we have considered over the past few years, this Bill gives state agents considerable powers. There may be good reasons for doing so. We must face up to the fact that, as Ministers often remind us, we live in a more lawless world—although it is apparently a more lawless world in which crime is decreasing; there has always been a certain incompatibility between those two views—and a world in which we need to take effective action to deal with dangerous people. In the process, however, we should not throw out the baby with the bath water. We must preserve our civil liberties.

I have great faith in the policing service in this country precisely because of the ethos that underpins it. The problem with the Bill is that we are creating an agency that will have considerable powers and exercise police functions—if it were not going to do so, there would be no need for clause 38—but we are not giving it the identity that it ought to have. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to the amendments. We want SOCA and we want it to work as well as the Minister wants it to, but she will have an awful lot of trouble getting it unless she listens on this point.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I rise to support the excellent points that have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, including by my hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield in his excellent opening speech. The Government have to tell us why they are going down their chosen path and apparently bypassing the office of constable.

I have only one point to add. One reason why people in this country have a good relationship with individual police officers is that the office of constable has operated for a long time—there has been continuity in that office. People have got used to police officers acting within the framework of the rights and responsibilities created by that office. That is very valuable, and it is one reason why people do not see the police as an organisation to be feared, to be held in contempt or to be uncertain about because it is one of 57 varieties of security organisation. That is why people regard individual police officers in the way they do. I want SOCA to be a success and its members to have the same relationship with the public as the police. The question that cries out to be answered in this debate is the one framed by my hon. Friends: why can the office of constable not be included in the way that they suggest?
Column Number: 32

Caroline Flint: Let me start by saying that neither I nor any other member of the ministerial team at the Home Office is trying to undermine the role of police constables and the work that they do on our behalf. We have record numbers of police officers in England and Wales, which demonstrates our recognition of the fact that for level 1 and level 2 policing we must ensure that we have throughout the 43 police forces an adequate body of people who have the status of a constable and the concomitant powers for dealing with the different types of crime and criminality that they see daily. That does not mean we think that there are no roles for others who can support police officers in their duty. That is one of the reasons why we have supported the development of community support officers. We are at odds with the Opposition on that subject, even though we know that where the arrangements work well—where local police forces work in harmony with CSOs and engage in developing and working with them—it is extremely popular with the public. Such an approach tackles criminality and antisocial behaviour and their effect on our communities. In that mixed picture, which we as constituency MPs, members of the public as victims, and police forces have to deal with, we need different skills and support to achieve our aims. Those aims are to ensure that communities can live in peace without fear of crime and that police officers do not have to deal with matters that tie their hands and prevent them from getting on with what their powers enable them to do—to really crack down on crime in an effective way.

It is important that we go through the rationale for establishing SOCA at this stage. In some ways the amendments act against the concept of establishing such an agency. The question could be asked, ''Why not just make existing partnerships work better? Why not leave the NCS, NCIS, drugs investigations by Customs and Excise and the immigration crime department of the Home Office in one place, and make them work better, with each retaining its present individual status?'' That is one possible consequence of the line of argument that Opposition Members are putting forward.

It might be argued that we should not have a new organisation with one culture where people come together as first among equals, but that we should instead merge the old organisations and have departments within the new one that deal with different matters. Certain types of people who come from customs and drugs investigations could work in one department, police officers in another, and financial investigators, accountants and specialists in other areas in other departments. That, too, could be a consequence of accepting the amendments.

In devising SOCA, there has been and continues to be considerable consultation with all organisations affected, including the Police Federation, and staff involved in all the constituent parts of the new organisation. We are mindful of the fact that we are not trying to create a type of second-class constable—or a super-constable. SOCA will be a new organisation where there is one culture that people sign up to, where their best endeavours and talents can be utilised to the
Column Number: 33
utmost to ensure that we can intervene, use intelligence to its best effect and enforce the law.

I take issue with some of the comments about Keystone Cops and sending officers of SOCA into a situation where they would spend half their time arguing about who was able to do what. I give organisations credit for the way in which they already work with different people with different powers and from different backgrounds. In the regions of England and Wales, I have visited staff of NCIS and the NCS who are working in multi-skilled, multi-qualified teams. We have talked quite a bit about political interference in operations. I would not begin to try to second guess the director general, his executive directors and all those who will work in SOCA, who will use their skill and expertise to make sure that they are mindful of the law when they go into investigations and operations and that they are working within the limits of the law. The people involved in those teams and operations are qualified to do the jobs that they have to.

Questions have rightly been asked about designating powers—who will have the powers and their training and qualification to have some of those powers assigned to them. I said on Second Reading that there is no doubt that, whether the powers be those that apply to a constable, a customs officer or an immigration officer, we must ensure that the individual employee of SOCA who is to be given them is trained to do that job. That is relevant to the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about members of SOCA working in Scotland and being aware of the different legal procedures. I will consider the matter further and decide whether it would provide reassurance to include some mention of training in the Bill. I did say on Second Reading that it is vital that people are reassured that members of SOCA will not simply be designated powers, with no safeguards to ensure that they are adequately trained and therefore qualified to use those powers.

Previous Contents Continue
House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 11 January 2005