Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. Mitchell: The Minister did indeed say that on Second Reading. Will she say whether she is drafting new clauses or amendments to that effect and whether she intends to table them on Report? They are not on the Committee's agenda yet

Caroline Flint: I am prepared to consider drafting amendments to include training in the Bill.

I share the hon. Gentleman's admiration for the police service. The Bill, as I have tried to illustrate, is not about undermining police forces in this country but is about recognising the issues that SOCA will face and the rationale for drawing together different parts of different organisations to make a real difference. I fear that the hon. Gentleman envisages a national police agency staffed, in the main, by police members. It sounded to me as though he wants to create super-police members. SOCA has been criticised for creating an elite, but as I said on Second Reading, we are not creating an elite force of police constables. SOCA will be a very different organisation. We recognise that police constables in forces up and down the country, including the South Yorkshire police force in my constituency, do an incredibly hard job in protecting our communities. We are not in the business of trying
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to create some super-constable based at SOCA who would compete with constables in police forces.

Mr. Grieve: A note of unreality seems to be creeping into our discussion. As I understand it, the agency is likely to have a substantial number of police or ex-police officers serving on its staff. Far from it being a super-constabulary, I expect it to draw in different strands of expertise to deliver a particular outcome. In those circumstances, it is all the odder that police members should not be recognised for what they are within the service. That is the issue with which the Minister has yet to grapple. I hope that she will do so.

Caroline Flint: I think that I am grappling with it. We recognise that the hon. Gentleman is right. Some people who currently work for, say, the NCS or NCIS will form part of SOCA, and other police officers may choose to apply to work for SOCA as part of their career or according to their interests. However, we are not creating a police agency. The amendments are fundamentally at odds with our vision of SOCA, about which we have been clear from the start. We were clear about it in the White Paper, on which we consulted. SOCA should not and will not be a police organisation. Its staff will not be police constables or, as the hon. Gentlemen prefer, police members. Instead, we envisage a national law enforcement agency that brings together the experience and expertise of the police agencies of NCIS and the NCS in one organisation and recognises that to do their job members of SOCA should have powers, many of which will undoubtedly include police powers.

The agency will bring under one roof NCIS and the NCS, as well as parts of Customs and the immigration service, and will therefore be more than the sum of its parts. It will be an independent body corporate with its own culture and its own identity, an agency whose staff are highly regarded and respected in their own right throughout the world, as are our excellent police forces. It is not about trying to tie together four different parts that have their own cultures, but about one organisation with one culture, which recognises that people will need to have access to and designation of the powers of a police officer, as well as those of customs or immigration officers.

11.15 am

Mr. Grieve: The Minister begins to worry me rather more when she makes such comments. She is giving SOCA police powers as and when the designation is given to individuals. Is there not a danger that she will be seen to be creating not an agency but a parallel police force for specific law enforcement purposes? That is not what the Government said that they were doing on Second Reading.

Caroline Flint: No, I do not think that I have said that. Of course, a number of people who work for the organisations that will form part of SOCA already have the qualifications and training for the powers that they will need to do their job. A number of other people in future—whether they come from customs, immigration or the police—will bring their training and qualifications with them. We are not starting with a blank sheet. All members of SOCA will be employees
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of SOCA—first among equals. Different people will need to use different expertise and talents. We will have to bring people in who have specialist skills in certain areas, such as financial investigation. It may be appropriate at some stage that they be trained and qualified in certain powers that will be necessary for them to be an effective member of a team and to contribute to the end, which is to defeat organised crime.

Mr. Heath: Why does that not cause a problem in NCIS now?

Caroline Flint: NCIS was created of itself. SOCA is a new organisation We must recognise that in the past many of the people who have come to NCIS have been on secondment. There may be secondments to SOCA, but it will be a totally different organisation.

We should consider what did not work. When I have talked to customs officers and to police officers who work for NCIS and the NCS, I have asked them why they want SOCA when they seem to have fantastic operations that work and which have had some good results. They reply that they have gone as far as they can in partnership working: to make a real difference and move on, they need to recognise that there are too many overlaps between what the different organisations do and that their cultures sometimes prevent them from working together effectively. They want a single organisation that brings their capabilities together, and within that one organisation, in many respects, they want people to be valued equally, with one status—as SOCA employees.

I can understand why the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield wants to adopt a more traditional approach, but in part we are trying to achieve recognition of how organised crime and serious organised crime operate in the 21st century. The creation of SOCA and its remit was a major part of our consultation in the White Paper. We need to recognise that we can defeat serious criminals in a number of ways. There are a number of people with different skills and talents in existing organisations, and in future people with such skills and talents might want to apply directly to be part of SOCA. We feel that we have come up with safeguards throughout the Bill to ensure that people are given appropriate powers—appropriate not only to their training and qualifications, but to the needs of the organisation. That is why the designation of powers is important. SOCA will be a step change away from a classic investigation organisation of investigation and prosecution toward employing the most effective and proportionate means dedicated to reducing the harm done by organised crime.

I fear that the argument advanced by the hon. Gentleman, which is in some ways very understandable, has led him to a place where he might not want to be, because the amendments would ensure that the Secretary of State can regulate the police members of SOCA in the performance of their duties and their maintenance as police members of SOCA. Is he actually suggesting that the Secretary of State should be given more powers to regulate what would in effect, if the amendments were accepted, be a
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national police agency? Elsewhere, he has tabled amendments to limit to the Secretary of State's powers. He seems to be pointing in two directions at once.

Mr. Mitchell: The Minister is unfairly representing the amendments in the round, as I am sure her civil servants will tell her. The amendments in this group when taken together with the amendments to limit the Home Secretary's interference and power would have precisely the opposite effect from the one that the Minister has just described.

Caroline Flint: I stand by what I said. There are issues about the Secretary of State's relationship to the police and to SOCA. However, the issues about accountability and the Secretary of State's powers are not the same for both groups. If the amendments were passed, there would be the potential to muddle the Government's clear position on the roles of the Secretary of State, the board, the chairman and the director general.

What of the powers of the police members whom the amendments would create? Such members would have the powers of a constable, a customs officer or an immigration officer. I am glad to say that we seem to agree on at least one thing—that, in principle, an individual can have and exercise the powers of a constable, customs officer and immigration officer all at the same time. However, that leads me to wonder why things cannot be the other way round. Why can a police member potentially exercise the powers of all three, but not a customs officer, an immigration officer or, better still, as we envisage, an employee of SOCA, uninhibited by cultural and institutional legacies? Such a person might come to the organisation fresh with a particular expertise that would help us to fight organised crime, but they would need to be designated certain powers to do their job and to work in a team.

The hon. Gentleman wants to have his cake and eat it and he has undermined his position. I am left wondering whether he has grasped the full implications of the amendments. Has he considered the possibility that the police members would, in effect, be super-police, with the full set of powers of a constable, an immigration officer and a customs officer? That would arguably leave SOCA in a worse position that the NCS. Under the provisions of the Police Reform Act 2002, the director general of the NCS could designate staff as investigating officers with a limited array of police powers. The amendments would deprive the director general of SOCA of a similar flexibility. Under the hon. Gentleman's approach, it is all the powers or none—there is no halfway house.

Of course the issue is complex, but we are dealing with complex crime. The sort of people we need to work in SOCA will bring certain knowledge and experience, but they may occasionally need at their disposal some of the powers of a constable, a customs officer or an immigration officer. It does not follow, however, that they will necessarily have to have all those powers at any one time. There are real problems with the amendments. They would not only create a class of super-police, but undermine the ability of
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some of the talents we want to attract to SOCA to do their job. The potential for real or perceived inequality is obvious. The danger of SOCA appearing to cream off the brightest and the best from local police forces will be all the greater if SOCA is seen to be staffed by an elite group of police members.

SOCA's staff will be every bit as professional and independent as police officers, but I strongly refute the argument that only police officers can be entrusted with police powers. We have long since moved away from such a position. There is a host of professionals with police or police-like powers, including customs officers, immigration officers, prison officers and, to an extent, community support officers. There are also investigating officers and the staff of the Independent Police Complaints Commission. It is an affront to each and every one of those dedicated public servants to suggest that they are in some way less professional or
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impartial in the discharge of their duties and the powers that have been assigned to them.

We value the office of constable highly. Sworn police officers have their place, and I am pleased to repeat that there are record numbers of them in this country. However, that the office of constable is part of the police service. SOCA will not be a police force and, consequently, should not be staffed by police officers. It will, however, be staffed by men and women who are every bit as professional, highly trained, dedicated and impartial.

Mr. Grieve: SOCA will not be a police force—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.

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Prepared 11 January 2005