Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): I take this opportunity to deal briefly with the relationship between SOCA and the Serious Fraud Office, as recognised explicitly under clause 2. I apologise to the Committee and the Minister for the fact that I could not be in Committee for the whole of this morning's sitting, as a result of which I did not hear my hon. Friend's explanation of the exclusion of the SFO from SOCA, pursuant to the amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats.

On reflection, I agree entirely with the formal exclusion of the SFO from SOCA on purely practical grounds. Apart from the potential for disruption, the SFO pursues serious, sophisticated and financial crime, which, albeit very organised, does not generally involve violence. Indeed, its exclusion from SOCA acknowledges the fact that the pursuit of fraud might be diluted among all the other priorities that SOCA will have to pursue. Nevertheless, there are serious potential overlaps between their work, not least in respect of the laundering of the proceeds of crime. I am thinking, albeit not exclusively, about the operations of Russian crime syndicates and drugs syndicates.

Clause 2 explicitly acknowledges those overlaps in the reference to the responsibility of SOCA to liaise with the SFO. I also welcome the apparent extension of plea bargaining to the SFO, which the Committee will come to later. Notwithstanding the statutory responsibility on SOCA to liaise with the SFO on matters of fraud, the two agencies will clearly have to work closely in practice to ensure that the liaison happens the other way around, as clause 2 contains no reciprocal duty. They will also have to work closely to ensure that intelligence is shared, that there is effective international co-operation with agencies such as the FBI and that the two agencies generally co-operate rather than compete where their functions overlap.

3.45 pm

The SFO has long experience of the use, the advantages and the practical limitations of the section 2 interview powers that are now being envisaged for SOCA. It is experience that the SFO should clearly share with SOCA. When I was a financial journalist pursuing money laundering, fraud and financial crime, the SFO was generally known as the ''Nightmare on Elm Street'', a name derived from its headquarters off Gray's Inn road. It is important that the lessons are learnt so that SOCA does not become the nightmare on Parliament square.

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I would be grateful if, without going over ground that has been covered this morning, the Minister addressed a few remarks to the closer working and liaison arrangements that are envisaged between SOCA and the SFO. Have the Government, despite rejecting a merger at this stage, considered the merits of housing both organisations in the same building to cement those closer working relationships?

Caroline Flint: Clause 2 lays the foundations for the organisation of SOCA's functions in respect of serious organised crime. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Huntingdon has read the White Paper that we produced and widely consulted on, which dealt with why we are establishing the Serious Organised Crime Agency, but if he has not, he should have a look. If he has read it, he should have another look. That document contains extensive arguments about the nature of organised crime and how it manifests itself. It talks about the harm caused by organised crime and why we have reached the point where we feel that, despite the good work carried out by those individuals who work for the NCS and NCIS, those who work on drug investigations in Customs and Excise and those in the immigration crime unit who deal with the heartrending personal tragedies of human trafficking, there is consensus in principle that the organisations and the people within them could do even better under one organisation. That is a simple answer to a difficult and complex question.

The law enforcement activity surrounding criminal entrepreneurs requires some of the traditional powers of police officers, but it also requires an number of different approaches to intelligence and harm reduction. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome quoted an article in The Independent and subsequently in the Daily Mail in reference to the way in which organised crime is debated in our media. I have not read the full article—I shall do so—but I think that it is important to appreciate and understand how the harms of crime, locally, regionally or nationally, are perceived by the public and impact on them.

Sometimes, we politicians or those involved in law enforcement may feel that we know the right areas to investigate and pursue. However, we might not have the impact that we want in supporting communities and individuals. That is why one of the step changes reflected in the rationale of SOCA is that, although we are not taking our eye off the ball of the serious criminal offences in which some of those whom we would like to see behind bars are involved—drug smuggling, people trafficking, bringing arms into the country, the distribution of weapons—we are considering how we can frustrate their networks and disrupt their organisations. In addition, if appropriate, we are considering how to establish whether such people are involved in other, level 1, crimes. In the short term, the immediate priority is to tackle such people and take them out of action, rather than wait—perhaps for many years—before going for one individual who might be protected and sheltered from our investigation in all sorts of ways. Such approaches are important when we consider the harms and the impact on communities. The Home Office is certainly
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not arguing that the priorities for SOCA should be dictated by column inches in newspapers. However, we should be mindful of how the public perceive organised crime.

Many people may not even see the connection between what happens to them in their communities and organised crime. A good example of that is money laundering. Ordinary members of the public may go into a shop, buy goods and not realise that that enterprise is a front and that they have unwittingly become part of the laundering of money in the wider community.

Mr. Heath: I recommend that the Minister look at the interview in The Independent. The words that I used were not mine, but Sir Stephen Lander's. Clearly, he had formed the impression from debates with the Home Office that he was to be judged on quantitative terms—column inches—rather than on the qualitative terms that the Minister is now expounding. That is a very alarming prospectus for the new organisation.

Caroline Flint: I shall look into the issues raised by the article.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): I have the article here. Sir Stephen says:

    ''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: the rewards taken and made by the criminal; the social and economic harm to the UK; the institutional harm—corruption for example and illegal immigration—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.''

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome went on to quote Sir Stephen saying,

    ''Which is not quite right'',

and he made a great point of that. However, Sir Stephen said:

    ''Which is not quite right but is probably as good as you will get. It is pretty rough and ready but it is asking the right questions. It is asking not, what is the incidence of something, but what is its impact.''

It is a good idea to quote someone in full rather than in part.

Caroline Flint: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that intervention, which proves that anything can mean anything if it is taken out of context.

We should be aware of and brave about the fact that for the first time we are trying to find a way of identifying different harms to communities and society and addressing them in a meaningful and accountable way. By serious and organised crime, we generally mean criminal activities across national borders carried out in conjunction with others to produce substantial profits. We have not defined that in the Bill, as SOCA will not have an exclusive remit on the issues that it is tackling; it will also need to engage with agencies dealing with more localised criminal activities. In its focus on reducing the harm caused by serious organised crime, SOCA will need to make a judgment about the most effective use of its resources.
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We do not want to set artificially restrictive definitions. In practice, SOCA will respond to the strategic priorities set by the Secretary of State under clause 9, which will reflect the views of the Cabinet Committee on Organised Crime.

As I said before, SOCA will take the place of four organisations or parts of organisations in tackling those important areas of criminality. However, this is not just a machinery of government-type change that brings them together for administrative convenience. However good each of the bodies may be in its own right, the reality is that they are operating according to priorities and performance management regimes that treat them as single bodies. They cannot be as effective as a single body, which can focus its combined resources on a single strategy. SOCA will work in a fundamentally different way to its predecessors. Its prime concern, and the ultimate purpose of the organisation, is reducing the harm from organised crime. Criminal convictions and seizures of drugs will of course be an important component, but as I said, we are also looking at ways to disrupt illegal business through other means, such as by pursuing a major operator for tax evasion or by hardening the targets that criminals are attacking. Most important, SOCA will be a genuinely intelligence-led organisation. Real knowledge and understanding of the problems must be its first responsibility. That in turn will drive decisions about which activities to target and the best means of attacking them.

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