Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. Mitchell: I am distressed by the party political tone that the Minister is adopting in dealing with my perfectly reasonable amendment. But in a spirit of good will, I assure her that the Conservative party's pledge for 40,000 more police officers starting on day one of a Conservative Government is costed and guaranteed.

Caroline Flint: Forty thousand, starting on day one?

Mr. Mitchell: From day one.

Caroline Flint: Ah, from day one. The hon. Gentleman corrects either me or himself to say ''from'' day one. We will all wait with bated breath to see whether that ever comes to fruition.

The provision is about recognising that, in tackling issues around law enforcement, the Home Office has to engage with other Departments; we engage with the Treasury on a whole number of issues. I believe that the track record of the Home Office in the years since 1997 shows that we have put our money where our mouth is, and that policing and tackling criminality in its various forms are things we have supported in a real and proper way. So we do not agree on amendment No. 1.

Amendment No. 2 would remove the ability to attach conditions to SOCA's grant. An inference has been drawn that there are somehow sinister motives in the provision, but it is standard in many statutes establishing non-departmental public bodies, including in the Police Act 1997, to allow some flexibility in attaching conditions to grants. The provision would enable, for example, an element of the grant to be ring-fenced for a specific purpose. One example might be funding from the Treasury's invest to save fund, which must be applied to the purpose for which the successful bid was submitted.

I understand another example already exists regarding NCIS and the NCS, which together cover a number of smaller functions. There is a discussion at present about where those functions might sit in the future, which hon. Members might want to discuss at a later date. Some of the smaller NCIS functions are being met by separate funding streams—for example, tackling wildlife crime is funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I understand there is a precedent for the Secretary of State to determine resources. I refer hon. Members to sections 17 and 62 of the 1997 Act in terms of grants to NCIS and the National Crime Squad respectively. I do not think anyone should read sinister motives into this, but occasionally there are points at which ring-fencing funding has an appropriate part to play in tackling certain types of crime.

John Mann: I ask for clarification of how the provision would work in terms of wildlife crime. The evidence from international wildlife organisations is that wildlife crime—particularly high-value wildlife crime such as the smuggling of rare and valuable
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species or parts of species—is run by the same organised criminals who smuggle drugs, arms and people. How would that link in if DEFRA was funding wildlife crime separately rather than having the whole area properly integrated into one, effective national system? That precise problem—missing out on linkages—is what I had thought SOCA was meant to be addressing.

Caroline Flint: We are not ignoring linkages. My hon. Friend is quite right. At the end of the day, organised criminals are entrepreneurs. At any given time, they will look at the area where they feel they can make some profit. That might be wildlife crime, or it might be drugs. We do not ignore those issues, but there are specific specialisms, such as wildlife crime, animal right extremism and paedophilia on the internet, for which there may be some common intelligence sharing, surveillance and operations issues that cross the organisation of SOCA. There might also, however, be the need for specialist expertise in those particular crimes. In those situations, such as in the case of DEFRA, it was felt that that the Department would put some money into the pot to ensure that that sort of expertise is supported. I do not want to deflect from what my hon. Friend has said, but—perhaps to pre-empt a further question—there are a number of areas that are not necessarily directly to do with drug smuggling, people trafficking and gun crime, although there may be linkages, as my hon. Friend points out, that are currently being looked at in relation to how they might fit into SOCA. A final decision has not yet been made as to where they would finally sit.

I am not trying to fob off my hon. Friend. We are very conscious of the problem, and, as the Minister responsible for dealing with animal rights extremism, I am acutely aware of how we need to look at particular areas. That is not to say that the criminals in specific areas will not be involved in drugs, human traffic or gun crime, or that there will not be issues of intelligence that would be appropriate to them. It is, however, about recognising that we do need some specialist skills in dealing with particular areas.

Mr. Heath: The Minister is right. I am not trying to deflect her from the main thesis in answering these amendments, but there is clearly work presently done by NCIS and the NCS, collating intelligence on matters that would not necessarily fall into the category of serious and organised crime, but which nevertheless cannot be done at local force level. That was the point I was trying to make earlier, and it is clearly one we need to return to. There are lacunae in the arrangements, and it is not clear how they are going to be met by the arrangements that the Minister is putting in place.

Caroline Flint: I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman has said, and that will form part of our debate on these particular areas of crime and the future role of the agency.

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Amendment No. 3 would require the Home Secretary to make an assessment of the funding that SOCA would require to fulfil its annual plan, and then determine the level of grant in light of that assessment. It goes almost without saying that there would, of course, be an assessment of SOCA's needs before we set its grant. As I said earlier, looking at SOCA's needs will inevitably be only one part of the equation. We will also need to look at other demands on the Home Office's financial resources before determining the grant for SOCA. That includes, very importantly, resources available at police force area level. We will ensure that the agency has the funds it needs to discharge its functions effectively, but we have to take the bigger picture into account in making decisions on grant, including supporting those agencies, organisations and police forces involved in tackling criminality. I invite the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield not to press his amendments Nos. 1 to 3.

Amendment No. 4 seeks to remove responsibility for deciding the level of staffing for SOCA from the agency's board to the director general. That would be inconsistent with the Government's arrangements for SOCA as set out in the Bill. Under clause 6, it is the responsibility of the SOCA board as a whole to prepare an annual plan. The level of resources, including the numbers of staff required, must be a central part of any such plan. Clearly, the director general will play a central role in preparing the annual plan and will need to consider the level of staffing necessary to enable him to give effect to it. Ultimately, the plan must be agreed and owned by the board.

I have no doubt that the board will wish to delegate to the director general responsibility for the recruitment of individual staff, although the board might wish to have a say in certain appointments. It is entirely proper for the board of SOCA to retain those responsibilities. That crystallises the concept that the director general discharges SOCA's functions on behalf of the board. On the other hand, the amendment would give too much independent control of SOCA's human resources to the director general.

Accordingly, rather than follow the example of NCS and NCIS under the Police Act 1997, we have adopted the approach of corresponding paragraphs in schedule 1 to the Private Security Industry Act 2001 and in schedule 2 to the Police Reform Act 2002. Those relate to the Security Industry Authority and the Independent Police Complaints Commission respectively, both of which are NDPBs like SOCA. I hope that what I have said about the respective roles of the director general and of resources and staffing in relation to the annual plan will reassure the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield that the director general will not be involved in advising on and influencing the shape of the organisation.

Even the NCS and NCIS model ensures that the director general does not have responsibility for appointing staff but, rather, that their respective service authorities do. In that sense, it is the board that is analogous to those service authorities. I hope that that clarifies our intention, and I invite the hon. Gentleman not to press the amendment.

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I am sympathetic to the intention of amendment No. 160 to ensure that SOCA's grants are payable at strategic intervals. However, the existing provision is sufficient to achieve the payment of SOCA's grant over three years. In fact, as the provision stands, grants could be determined for more than three years. It would be unwise to remove the flexibility built into the clause, which allows for the changing circumstances of the agency and the demands on the Home Office. We will ensure that the agency has the funds that it needs to discharge its functions effectively.

In taking decisions on the level of grant, we must consider the bigger picture. I assure the hon. Gentleman and other Committee members that, before determining its grant, there will be full discussion with SOCA about its needs. That should be taken as read; it is not necessary to put it in the Bill.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I welcome what the Minister has just said. Will she take into account the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister has taken great credit for the fact that local authorities are to move towards a three-year budget? Is that not a good precedent for this organisation?

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Prepared 11 January 2005