Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Caroline Flint: I do give credit to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister for his role in relation to local authorities. We try to look across Government to give surety of funding. However, we have to consider the situation that we are in and the wider picture in terms of the Home Office and of defining what we need when putting our case to the Treasury. I hope that my comments have assured the hon. Gentleman that here, as in other areas, we will aim to give people certainty about the grants that will be allocated to them in order for them to undertake mid-term planning for their organisations. Amendment No. 160 goes somewhat too far and would place too many restrictions on the Government.

The principle of including financial information in SOCA's annual plan, as proposed in amendments Nos. 161 and 162, is sound. It would formalise what is already likely to happen in practice. For example, the NCS provides a detailed financial analysis in its annual plan. However, I cannot invite the Committee to accept those amendments, as they are too restrictive. Linking the financial resources that SOCA would require to each priority would limit in-year flexibility of resource allocation in response to changing operational demands. If the Opposition agree not to press those amendments, I shall move an appropriate amendment on Report, which I hope will meet the requirements and intent by placing the relevant provisions in the annual plan.

3.30 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) raised a point about trade unions and how those involved in industrial action might be affected. Clearly we do not see trade unions as serious organised crime groups—my hon. Friend may be pleased to hear that. For matters falling under the civil recovery of assets, investigation and proceedings would be for the Assets Recovery Agency rather than SOCA. SOCA
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may have an interest in information arising from that process, but takes no direct lead. I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend on that if he wishes.

I hope that I have covered the points raised and assure the Committee that we seek to ensure that SOCA has the resources. Money will be important to SOCA, just as it is to the 43 police forces in England and Wales. However, the issue is not just about money, but the sort of organisation we want and its ability to deliver, based on resources. The organisation's biggest resource is the people within it—their skills and expertise, and how they come together to work to defeat organised crime.

Mr. Mitchell: I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for his support of the probing nature of the amendments, on which we have had an interesting and helpful debate.

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw intervened to assure the Committee that he is not a lawyer. Similarly, I would like assure the Committee that I am not a lawyer and neither, I think, is my hon. Friend the Whip. The hon. Gentleman sought an answer about trade unions. I know that new Labour has moved a long way under the Prime Minister, but I find it surprising that the Minister needed to say, ''We do not see trade unions as serious organised crime groups.'' The fact that she was required to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance shows how much the political landscape has changed over the last few years—I have to say that he did not look that reassured when he heard it, but at least it is on record.

The hon. Gentleman also made a point about money laundering. Even now, my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield is toiling away at some simply magnificent amendments on money laundering that.

Caroline Flint: He's behind you.

Mr. Mitchell: I must correct myself: my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield has just returned from drafting some absolutely magnificent amendments on money laundering that will, I hope, captivate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw and tempt his support next week, or even on Thursday. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon asked a number of questions, which I think the Minister also answered.

When the Minister rose to speak, notes were flying backwards and forwards and I had to suppress a feeling of immense excitement: I thought that some of my amendments might have found favour with the Minister. It must be said that she teased me with amendments Nos. 161 and 162, saying that if I did not press them she would return later with something similar. Accordingly, I am happy not to press those amendments.

The Minister made a few rather regrettable political points, but I am prepared to conceded that this year's settlement for my police force, West Midlands, which I have discussed with her colleagues in the Home Office, was better. It recognised the particular difficulties that face those who police Britain's second city. I am certain that that has nothing to do with likely
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events on 5 May, but we are nevertheless grateful that our needs have been recognised. The Minister made a number of points on that subject.

The Minister also spoke about ring-fencing. The Opposition are extremely suspicious about the way in which the Government use ring-fencing. We think it is a form of micro-management, and we do not like the way in which what should be locally determined priorities are distorted by its ever-increasing use by the Home Office. We do not agree with her on that.

The Minister came precious close to satisfying me on amendment No. 3. However, not least because I want to help by placing it on the record that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) was unable to vote on the first amendment when he was in fact in his place, but principally because of its declaratory nature, I would like to put amendment No. 4 to the vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 11.

Division No. 3]

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.

Question proposed, That this schedule be the first schedule to the Bill.

Mr. Djanogly: I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss schedule 1, which in effect is taken with clause 1. We have discussed the mechanics of SOCA. We have discussed its operations. We have discussed its funding. We have discussed the governance of SOCA. However, we have not yet discussed the purpose of SOCA. The Government may assume that because the Opposition support the concept of SOCA—we do—its purpose can be ignored. That would be incorrect, and I believe that a few things need to be mentioned. The Minister said earlier that we are suggesting through our amendments that we want to keep things the way they are.

The Chairman: Order. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that there is nothing in schedule 1 about the purpose of SOCA. That was the subject of clause 1, which we debated this morning; the subject should have been raised then.
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Mr. Djanogly: With respect, Mr. O'Brien, I would suggest that the purpose is intrinsic to the schedule. I could address my comments to any part of the schedule.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman started by saying that there is no record of SOCA's purpose. I am saying that schedule 1 makes no reference to that point, and therefore that the matter being raised by the hon. Gentleman is not included in this part of our business. I am advised that that part of the hon. Gentleman's contribution should have been made this morning when clause 1 was being debated.

Mr. Djanogly: Thank you, Mr. O'Brien. The subject on which I was going to speak is equally applicable to clause 2.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 2

Functions of SOCA as to serious organised crime

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Heath: At the risk of labouring a point beyond anything that is reasonable, I wish to draw attention to the dissimilarity of subsections (3) and (4), which deal with the commissioners and rightly contain a requirement to act in agreement on revenue fraud. Under subsection (3), there is a further and, in my view, otiose requirement for SOCA to act if the Serious Fraud Office declines to act, which does not apply with regard to revenue fraud. Such matters bolster my case for re-examining the issue. Does the term ''commissioners for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs'' mean anything or is it, as I suspect, dependent on the passing of a separate Bill, which we cannot be assured will pass through Parliament and receive Royal Assent at this stage?

Mr. Djanogly: Creating SOCA for its own sake is not a reason in itself for doing so. As of yet, the Minister has not adequately set out the Government's intentions. The question is not so much how SOCA will work, but how its functions will deal with the particular problems that society faces and which now give cause for the agency to be created. In other words, what are the functions of SOCA? What is its purpose?

We know, for example, that drugs use has shot through the roof in recent years. We know that more British children try drugs than do children in any other European country. We know that a dose of cocaine is half the price that it was 10 years ago. How will the agency stop that? What is it that we now do wrong that SOCA will correct? As I said before, just because the Conservative party supports SOCA, it does not mean that we, and the Committee as a whole, should not question its function and how it will solve the problems we face. That is the purpose of the criminal law.

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SOCA is intended to deal with gun crime. We now have one gun crime every hour in this country. Will the Minister explain how the formation and functions of SOCA will stop that? There must be something more to dealing with such problems than simply introducing another new agency or, for that matter, another crime Bill. Surely as much a question as why have SOCA in the first place is whether there will be the managerial ability and the political will to sort out the problems through the functions of SOCA. To date, the Government have failed to respond in that respect. I invite the Minister to explain how setting up SOCA will change the position.

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Prepared 11 January 2005