Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

[back to previous text]

Caroline Flint: We foresee drug liaison officers forming part of SOCA. Our discussions of the formation of SOCA and those people who are acting on our behalf internationally addressed the possibility that we could end up with a variety of people whose work overlapped. We want to make better sense of that the arrangements and identify individuals who will not find themselves stopping at drugs when other forms of organised crime are apparent and they should work in those areas too. Making better sense of having people posted overseas is part of our work.

It is interesting that some Members criticize what could be defined by some as the dead hand of the Home Secretary interfering in the operational workings of SOCA, whereas the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome would add to the powers of the Home Secretary. I do not see any need for the amendment and I refer the hon.
Column Number: 74
Gentleman to section 2(3)(d) of the Police Act 1997. That deals with those with whom NCIS can be involved in terms of its functions and relationships. They include:

    ''any other person engaged outside the United Kingdom in the carrying on of activities similar to any carried on by the NCIS Service Authority, NCIS, a police authority, a police force, the NCS Service Authority or the National Crime Squad.''

In many respects, the definition in the Bill is lifted from that Act, and the arguments made in 1997 probably hold true today. It is not necessary for the Home Secretary to determine whether an overseas agency is carrying out activities that are similar to those carried out by SOCA or a United Kingdom police force. In his judgment, the director general is best qualified to do that.

Although the hon. Gentleman referred to bounty hunters, I hope that he will give the director general and others involved in the governance of the organisation some credit for understanding which organisations and individuals would best meet the provisions of clause 3(1), which is why information is disseminated when it is relevant to

    ''the prevention, detection, investigation or prosecution of offences, or . . . the reduction of crime in other ways or the mitigation of its consequences.''

We should keep the Bill as drafted. SOCA will be working on a day-to-day basis with police forces and law enforcement agencies in other countries. I do not understand why we should change a common practice with which there have not been particular problems. I fail to see why the agency cannot be relied on to determine whether an overseas agency meets the criteria under subsection (4)(d). I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the Minister for her comprehensive reply. She has allayed my fears a little, although I stressed throughout my remarks that I did not believe that operationally it would make the slightest difference to the activities of SOCA. I was providing a defence for the occasion on which information is given in good faith to an organisation that subsequently proved to be inappropriate for some reason. The difficulty now is that that would be entirely legal and within the definition. There could be no comeback if the body's activities were similar in any way to those of SOCA or a police force. The definition gives carte blanche, so the aggrieved citizen would have no redress in such circumstances. However, if the body involved had to be recognised by the Secretary of State, SOCA would first have the defence that the body was so recognised and thus could not be held to be unreasonable. Moreover, such a requirement would weed out any inappropriate bodies from the start—one hopes.

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw made an interesting observation about drugs liaison officers. They are integral to the fight against illegal drug importation. I am reminded of previous debates on budgets after a difficulty occurred when placing drugs liaison officers abroad. Although that may have been resolved by the two Departments in question, the difficulty lay in the fact that the Home Office had a deterrent to placing a great number of drugs liaison officers because they
Column Number: 75
were recharged on the basis of the running costs of the mission as a whole for the costs of placing a drugs liaison officer in an overseas mission . The Foreign and Commonwealth Office apportioned a part of the overall costs of the mission to the Home Office in recompense for placing a drugs liaison officer within the mission.

4.30 pm

That is all very well between Departments; it is almost a paper transaction. Were it to happen in the case of an organisation with its own budget, which has to then find those costs, there would be a marked deterrent to placing such officers in overseas missions. I hope that that has been resolved; I am going back four or five years to when I was examining the matter as a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, but in the case of the position in central Asia and, indeed, in the far East, the costs of placing drugs liaison officers was then a current issue.

I do not expect the Minister to give a response now because I am sure that she does not know off the top of her head what the present situation is. However, perhaps she will consider the issue, because if drugs liaison officers are to form part of the personnel of SOCA, there could be a very large cost to the Department. She might like to clear it with the FCO before we reach that point rather than after and having it cause her significant difficulties. She has helpfully drawn my attention to the provisions of the Police Act 1997. I was not aware that a similar provision was included in it. On the basis of what she has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

SOCA's general powers

Mr. Mitchell: I beg to move amendment No. 7, in clause 5, page 3, line 37, after 'institute', insert

    'and have the conduct of any'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 8, in clause 5, page 3, line 38, at end insert

    'which appear to it to relate to serious organised crime'.

Mr. Mitchell: This is the second of our small points, which I hope that I can deal with expeditiously. It concerns SOCA and where it lies in the hierarchy of the police family. The amendments have the purpose of clarifying the relationship between SOCA and police forces so as to ensure adequate liaison between them on questions of priority and operational matters.

Amendment No. 8 further defines SOCA's position by stating that it can institute criminal proceedings in England and Wales only if they

    ''relate to serious organised crime''.

Column Number: 76

In order to ensure adequate liaison with local police forces, our amendments seek to define more clearly the relationship.

Key questions remain unanswered. Will SOCA augment current force operations or replace work being conducted by other forces? How will SOCA co-ordinate its work with the police? In terms of joined-up policing, that is of immense importance.

In the Government's regulatory impact assessment, a key reason given for the establishment of SOCA is that existing agencies are not working together efficiently. The blurring of institutional responsibility means unclear lines of accountability. For example, the National Crime Squad and Her Majesty's Customs and Excise are both involved in tackling drugs and fraud against business, and that means that there is a potential for rivalry as well as capability gaps and opportunities being overlooked. That is what it says in the RIA.

That logic could be applied to the establishment of SOCA if clear lines of communication and responsibility are not established. Some forces, particularly the Metropolitan force, deal with serious organised crime, because their community crime activity is linked to serious organised crime networks at a higher national intelligence model level. SOCA must work as a partner with those forces to avoid duplication of activity and to ensure that what I have already referred to as blue-on-blue incidents do not occur. If SOCA were to become involved in an investigation without consulting the local force, it could have negative repercussions in particular communities. Liaison with local forces is vital if SOCA is to avoid creating frictions and disrupting communities.

We seek the Minister's assurance that those points are addressed in the clause or elsewhere in the Bill.

Mr. Grieve: I hope that the Minister will also be able to amplify a little the relationship between SOCA and the Crown Prosecution Service. The words ''institute proceedings'' are rather loose. They range from charging somebody to carrying out a prosecution itself . I do not believe that that is what is intended, because if it is, it runs contrary to the entire trend of the past 10 years of ensuring that prosecutions are in the hands of the CPS or, as is the case under the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill, which is currently going through the House, of actually removing prosecution from another enforcement authority. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that SOCA will have no role in the conduct of prosecutions that result from its investigations.

David Cairns: My point may be covered in clause 23(3) in relation to Scotland, but it follows on from what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) was saying. I am curious as to why the ability to institute criminal powers applies in England, in Wales and in Northern Ireland, but in Scotland SOCA must report matters to the procurator fiscal. Why is there a distinction?
Column Number: 77

Caroline Flint: We oppose the amendments because we believe that they will create legislation that will do exactly what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield does not want it to do.

Mr. Grieve: The amendments are probing.

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