Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I apologise for not being in my place for the latter part of this morning's sitting. I had a meeting elsewhere in the House of Commons. The Minister has been clear
Column Number: 45
and explicit that she does not want to set up a separate, parallel organisation. She wants an organisation to act in concert with the police in fighting serious and organised crime. If she is really serious about that, does she envisage regular exchanges of duties with, or secondments from, the various police forces? Does she then envisage that the organisation might form part of a senior police officer's career path, so he or she spends some time within SOCA and thereafter goes back to their own or a different police force?

Caroline Flint: I would not be as prescriptive as the hon. Gentleman suggests. I am not ruling out future opportunity or the need for secondments from police forces into SOCA. I would not suggest that in order for someone to have a good career in police forces throughout the country they would necessarily have to have worked within SOCA in order to reach the highest ranks within their force areas, whether in the South Yorkshire force, the Met, or wherever.

We have a flow of people who choose for a number of reasons to work within different agencies, and I think that that will continue. We are also looking to establish direct recruitment into SOCA, in much the same way that NCIS and NCS were going before the consultation on SOCA. They were looking to more direct recruitment instead of relying on secondment. I cannot be as prescriptive as the hon. Gentleman outlines on secondment. It is a matter of recognising the different forms of law enforcement in this country. There is a need for police officers at force level, and that is not second class to the role of SOCA. It is about trying to deal with different types of crime. The way that we have reformed community support officers, or the way that police reform consultation has focused on people's specialist skills when coming into the police at force level, means that we are asking ourselves whether we want to fossilise a structure that stems from the 20th century, or to move it forward into the 21st century. We are keeping an eye on what is ahead.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): Does the Minister envisage a situation where, in future, the police force might recruit directly out of SOCA into their senior ranks people who had not previously gone through the police force, but had come through other career routes into SOCA?

Caroline Flint: That possibility would not necessarily be disadvantageous for the police force. Again, we need to consider the tasks that police forces require to be carried out. We are already, for example, providing funding for police forces throughout the country to have financial investigators. We recognise that in terms of asset recovery police forces should use to the full the powers provided by the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Whether we have community support officers, financial investigators or police officers who have a distinct and unique role, they are all part and parcel of trying to tackle crime at different levels. We should be open to different ideas of law enforcement, based on the outcomes that we want to achieve.

Column Number: 46
A point was made earlier that 95 per cent. of NCS officers were unwilling to transfer to SOCA until satisfactory terms and conditions are finalised. To be honest, I am surprised that the figure is not 100 per cent. I do not think anybody should agree to sign up to a transfer without being absolutely clear about the final terms and conditions. I would not expect anything less from any of those people currently working within NCIS or the NCS. To date, over 800 NCS officers have indicated that they would wish to join SOCA in principle, and transfer to it on 1 April 2006. We obviously have to do, and continue to do, a great deal of work with the different representatives of those who currently work within the different areas that will form SOCA, to ensure that they are clear about what being part of the new agency would entail. We are committed to continuing that dialogue.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): The Minister is being slightly tricky with the Committee. She made it clear that there are no terms and conditions yet, so no one can actually sign up. We have an expression of interest from potential recruits to SOCA, none of whom will join until they are aware of the terms and conditions.

Caroline Flint: The hon. Gentleman is repeating what I have just said. My point was that the charge was made that 95 per cent. of NCS officers were unwilling to transfer without knowing what their terms and conditions were likely to be. I do not see that as something we should be concerned about; it is absolutely practical and straightforward, and I am surprised it is not 100 per cent. As someone who used to work for a trade union, I would not recommend that anybody agree to a transfer without knowing exactly what is in writing about how it will affect them at the end of the day.

I understand that the Police Federation is concerned about a number of issues. There are representatives of the federation in the Committee Room, and I am meeting them tomorrow. We are trying to ensure that we maintain our commitment to police officers at police force level while trying to deal, in a more vision-seeking way, with the way that organised crime manifests itself. We will need people with the necessary skills to deal with that.

The thinking behind these amendments is fundamentally misconceived. I hope that I have shown the Committee that these proposals are a step in the wrong direction and that they do not hang together. If agreed to, they would certainly drive a coach and horses through both the intention of the consultation paper on organised crime, and our intention to make Britain the least attractive place in the world for organised crime to flourish.

Mr. Mitchell: First, I join the Minister in welcoming you, Mr O'Brien, in your role as Chairman this afternoon. I have no doubt that you will jointly chair the remaining sittings of the Committee.

With one exception, I am distinctly underwhelmed by the Minister's response. That may not surprise her. An exception is her comments on training, but I am pretty underwhelmed by those as well. She excited and
Column Number: 47
tempted us with her comments on Second Reading, but there is nothing of substance in the amendment paper. There has been sufficient time, and it ought to have been possible for her officials to put some flesh on the bones of what she said on Second Reading. However, we have nothing. We will, of course, consider whatever she tables—I think that we have a commitment to this—on Report.

Training will not solve the fundamental problem that we have set out today, and there was nothing in the Minister's remarks that addressed our concerns. I sense that I am not alone in Committee in feeling that the fundamental points that are the heart of the Bill and the setting up of the new agency have not been adequately addressed.

We have had an interesting debate, however. The hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) slightly chided me on the suggestion that there might be unscrupulous defence lawyers around who would behave in the way that I set out in my example. There could be bureaucratic and other difficulties for the agency under the regime that is currently envisaged. In my work as shadow police Minister, I talk to many senior policemen and policewomen, and I am convinced that existing loopholes are exploited by very clever lawyers. I hasten to add that their approach is completely different from that adopted by the hon. and learned Lady. We must not introduce legislation that would increase the chance of unscrupulous defence lawyers behaving in that way.

2.45 pm

I sense that the hon. and learned Lady had some sympathy with my remarks. When she spoke about the way in which the powers will be handed out, I was reminded of the sheriff in the wild west riding into town and dispensing badges—in the present case, to members of SOCA so that they can undertake tasks for which they have not been properly trained. We heard nothing in the Minister's response to quiet those anxieties. She will not have much trouble carrying the vote on the amendment, but she has to win the argument on Report, which might be a little more difficult, and she will still have to win the argument in the other place, where, I suspect, her real trouble will begin.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield—he too is a lawyer, but none the worse for that—explained that the Government tend to dislike the present independence of the police. As my hon. Friend made clear, that dislike was embodied by the former Home Secretary. The Government seek greater control, and we are trying through this and other amendments to get a fair balance, one that reflects the rights and position of the Home Secretary to set strategic priorities but not to interfere unduly. The balance is not right at the moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison)—another lawyer, I fear, as well as member of the Home Affairs Committee—also made that point.

On a number of things of which the Minister spoke, there is an enormous gulf between us. For example, she said that the amendments acted against the setting up of SOCA. With respect, that is absolute nonsense.
Column Number: 48
They do not; they are designed to take forward the aims that the Minister set out on Second Reading and to make SOCA more effective. She said that the amendments would ensure that we did not have one organisation with one culture. That is a desirable result, but at the end of the day the people who work in the agency must do the job for which they are trained and they must be able to exercise those powers competently.

We do not agree on a range of issues. The best way to deal with that is probably for me to seek to divide the Committee. With permission, we will return to the subject on Report and in another place.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 11.

Division No. 2]

Clappison, Mr. James
Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Heath, Mr. David
Mitchell, Mr. Andrew

Baird, Vera
Brown, Mr. Russell
Cairns, David
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Farrelly, Paul
Flint, Caroline
Heppell, Mr. John
McWalter, Mr. Tony
Mann, John
Taylor, Ms Dari
Ward, Claire

Question accordingly negatived.

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