Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien.

This is an important group of amendments, because we need greater clarity about the budget of the new organisation. To an extent, we have been at this point before in the genesis of the predecessor organisations. NCIS was set up on the basis of recharging from the constabularies and police authorities—an arrangement that did not work well, as we ended up with some unfortunate spats between the various police authorities and forces and NCIS about the appropriate level of funding for what was described as a service to them rather than a national agency. Clearly, that is not the case with the establishment of SOCA, but there are still some imponderables about exactly where the funding will come from and the extent to which it will be a top slice from the police
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grant. Is there a view in the Home Office about whether there are any savings in the operational requirements of police authorities as a result of the establishment of SOCA? Will that be factored in to the distribution of police grant at a later stage?

We are also not clear—this is tangential to the comments of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell)—about the extent to which SOCA will have to buy in services either from other parts of the Home Office or from outside. Will it have to buy in IT requirements in order to make them compatible with those of police forces around the country? The privatisation of the Forensic Science Service was announced today—something about which many of us have serious questions. We do not know what the implications of that privatisation will be for SOCA, but clearly there is a high-level requirement for forensic science support to enable SOCA to do its job properly. The privatisation proposals may have an impact on that, and we must consider those implications seriously.

The hon. Gentleman makes another, crucial, point about the prospect of compartmentalisation and earmarking of resources within the SOCA budget to establish priorities laid down by the Home Secretary. That is not an idle threat; we know that it will happen. Yesterday's very illuminating interview with Sir Stephen Lander revealed the extraordinary ''policing by focus group'' that is being foisted on the organisation even before its creation, so that priorities

    ''will be partly based upon on the number of column inches newspapers give to different types of organised criminality''.

When the Daily Mail gets into one of its periodic spates of excitement about a particular aspect of crime, SOCA will be expected to apply its resources there. Presumably, if the Home Secretary of the day has anything to do with it, that is how the Home Office budget will be allocated. The interview reports Sir Stephen as saying, helpfully:

    ''The brainboxes in the Home Office have been putting together a sort of harm model.

    The model basically articulates the harm that is caused to the UK under a number of headings''—

some of which he lists—

    ''and tries to put a cost [on them].

    It also brings into play judgements about the degree of public concern and they have a proxy for this, which is the amount of column inches in the press. Which is not quite right''.

I agree; it is not quite right. I hope that the Home Office will think again about setting its priorities in that way. The proposed amendments would at least correct that potential mischief by ensuring that there would be a single allocation. That would be based, one would hope, on a costed approach to the annual plan derived from the work of SOCA itself, which would make proposals. That approach would have the further advantage of making the budgetary arrangements more accessible to audit.

That brings me to the last point on which I should like the Minister to comment in the context of the amendments. What will the process of audit be for SOCA? I am very keen to ensure that the Home Affairs
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Committee has the greatest possible access to the budgetary requirements set out by the organisation and to information about the degree to which those are met. Presumably, SOCA, because it is not a police force, as we have been told repeatedly, will not fall under the remit of the Audit Commission, but will come within the remit of the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee. If those bodies are to do a satisfactory job, they must be able to assess what the organisation itself assesses it needs to meet the demands put on it by the policing plan, which will in part derive from the Home Secretary's priorities. We are told that those priorities are to be led by an obscure voting system—a sort of ''Big Brother'' that gives people the police they want.

The question of funding is full of complexities that are not clear at the moment. The Minister must, during the passage of the Bill, make much clearer how SOCA is to be funded, the level at which it will be funded, and where the funding will come from.

John Mann: I declare that I am not a member of a barristers', solicitors' or lawyers' trade union, but I shall not be pressing, as I have in other Standing Committees, for hon. Members who are members of such unions to make an appropriate declaration of interest as trade unionists are sometimes requested to do, for, in my view, rather spurious reasons.

I rise to seek guidance from the Minister on whether there is any conceivable scenario under any Government whereby SOCA could be used and involved in any industrial dispute. Remembering the miners' strike, I ask whether an alleged shifting of assets to avoid the sequestration of union funds, which a Government, Home Secretary or head of SOCA might unwisely, wrongly and unjustly deem to be an attempt at money laundering, would entice SOCA to take an active interest in pursuing anything to do with an industrial dispute.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): The financial stability of the new organisation would be paramount to giving it a solid start, so I wholly support the amendments, not least the proposal for a three-year funding cycle, which seems to be eminently sensible, not least so that the organisation can have the funding necessary for proper strategic planning.

I have two questions for the Minister. What is the cost of setting up SOCA and are the running costs likely to be more or less than those of NCIS, the NCS and their service authorities? In other words, what will be the incremental additional cost of having SOCA in place?

Caroline Flint: I shall go through the amendments in numerical order and try to deal with all the points raised by members of the Committee.

As the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield explained, amendments Nos. 1 to 3 relate to the payment of a grant to SOCA. Amendment No. 1 would require the annual grant to SOCA to be paid by the end of April each year. I fail to understand the argument in support of that. It is a fundamental aspect of Government accounting that grants to NDPBs are not paid in advance of need. As the hon. Gentleman said—this
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may answer the point made by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly)—SOCA will have a budget of some £340 million, which is the combined budgets of the organisations that will form SOCA, and a £27 million start-up fund. Having said that, a lot of work is being done to see how the four constituent parts come together and what their assets and their current human resource contracts are.

Finding where the work of those constituent organisations comes together is in the interests of efficiency and value for money. Doing so will ensure that we do not duplicate spending and that we get better value for money, but it will not necessarily be a way of reducing the amount of money that SOCA will have. That is why a lot of work is being done with the different organisations, particularly with NCIS and the NCS, to see where the overheads of each organisation lie. Those overheads will be unified as the organisations become one organisation. Hopefully that will result in our obtaining better value for money, particularly in contracts, since we might have one contract rather than two, three or four, depending on the arrangements for drug investigations by Customs and Excise and all the issues affecting the immigration crime department.

We do not believe that it is necessary to pay the whole sum in the first month of the financial year. As I said, the usual practice is to pay grants in monthly instalments. That will ensure that SOCA has sufficient cash in the bank at any time to meet its day-to-day commitments.

3.15 pm

To pick up on a point raised about the financing of SOCA having a detrimental effect on the financing of police forces, I remind Committee members about a Government announcement made within the last month, of an extra £750 million being put into the fight against crime. That means central Government funding direct to police forces will increase by 5.1 per cent., including an increase of 4.8 per cent. in total formula grant, and more than £760 million in specific grants to police authorities. Taken together with the increase in central funding for police communication, IT and support services it provides an increase of 6.7 per cent. in Government spending on policing.

We believe it is important to act rather than just speak. There is no doubt that in real terms police forces have had increased allocations since 1997. That is demonstrated by the number of police officers and also by the equipment and technology they are able to use, whether that is ANPR, or Airwave and so on, in tackling modern policing today. This is not about setting up SOCA against police forces but, as we said in the previous debate, about recognising that there are different forms of criminality that have to be tackled in different ways. Different organisations have to be equipped and resourced to meet that task.

This is in a context, of course, about spending in all these areas. Based on our track record, people should have confidence in this Government. They should compare it with the Conservative proposals to remove
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substantial moneys from the Home Office budget, which would eventually lead into discussions about where that money might go.

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