Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Caroline Flint: I am glad that we agree on that. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's probing question is that we are not seeking to overturn the role of the CPS in these proceedings. We do not want SOCA to be able to conduct its own prosecutions, but we entirely share the belief that we need to strengthen the working relationship between investigators and prosecutors. Pilots of such closer working in which the CPS provided early advice to the police and took over the responsibility for charging defendants resulted in a 15 per cent. improvement in conviction rates and an increase in guilty pleas at first hearing to 30 per cent.

Mr. Grieve: I am pleased to hear the Minister say that. She may be coming to this, but perhaps she will also explain how she envisages the CPS and SOCA working together. I would expect the CPS to work with SOCA exactly as it works with the police. Perhaps she will confirm whether my ideas are correct, in which case CPS personnel actually sit in with SOCA on interviews if those interviews are conducted by SOCA for the purpose of deciding whether material has been gathered on which one can prosecute.

Caroline Flint: We are looking for a closer working relationship. As was mentioned today, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General talked on the radio this morning about the importance of such a relationship to the success of SOCA. We also hope to use the powers in part 2 to make Queen's evidence statutory, as disclosure of these issues is very important in getting to the criminals who are causing the most problems in our community. We do not believe, as I said, that putting prosecutors and investigators into the same agency would compromise the independence of both groups, but in order to strengthen the integrity of the prosecution process in, say, Customs and Excise cases, we are placing the Revenue and Customs Prosecution Office on an independent statutory footing.

Both the RCPO and the CPS will support the work of SOCA. As I said, we are working with the Attorney-General to see how we can establish a cadre of dedicated specialist prosecutors who will work alongside SOCA officers. At the end of the day, however, they will be answerable to the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the RCPO is answerable to the Attorney-General.

Mr. Grieve: The Minister has raised another possibility, which I confess I had not thought about. I expected that SOCA would link in with the CPS, as the police do. The Minister now tells the Committee that there might be circumstances in which SOCA works with the Revenue prosecutors. I understand the logic of that for SOCA's work, but I am starting to have slight anxieties that that illustrates the blurring of relationships. We know that Customs and Excise, for whom I used to prosecute, got into difficulty precisely
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when it started to carry out major joint operations with the police. The lines of accountability were blurred. The Minister might be well advised to decide that SOCA should work solely with a single prosecuting authority.

Caroline Flint: The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises is one reason for our placing the Revenue and Customs Prosecution Office on an independent statutory footing; the intention is to create that distance. However, we perceive a possible role for the RCPO and the CPS to support the work of SOCA. We are not minded to change our view on that.

We envisage that, while the CPS will be answerable to the Director of Public Prosecutions and the RCPO prosecutors to the Director of Revenue and Customs Prosecutions, some of those individuals could be co-located with SOCA staff so that they would be on hand to provide comprehensive legal advice throughout an investigation and take responsibility for charging suspects. I hope that that answers some of the hon. Gentleman's points about what currently happens at police force level and the close working relationship between the police and the CPS. I am happy to write to him about that, seeking advice from the Attorney-General. This is one area where we are working on how things will operate in practice.

Mr. Heath: I see a great deal of sense in what the Minister says about co-location. I understand that there will be circumstances—to return to our earlier discussion—in which SOCA investigations reveal, inter alia, revenue offences, which, the commissioners having given permission for the investigation to proceed, should logically be prosecuted by Revenue prosecutors. What I do not yet understand is why the clause states that SOCA itself may institute criminal proceedings in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, when everything that the Minister has said apart from that appears to suggest that it is not SOCA that will institute criminal proceedings, but rather the co-located special prosecutors that the Attorney-General is going to great lengths to put in place.

Caroline Flint: As I have said, it is fair to say that SOCA has a role in instituting criminal proceedings, with the caveat concerning the role of the CPS and the Revenue and Customs prosecuting officers. SOCA will be involved in pursuing criminals and will be looking to have them arrested and charged. The consequence of the hon. Gentleman's point of view would be almost to divorce SOCA from involvement to that extent. I have tried to make it clear that amending the clause to include provision to

    ''have the conduct of any''

criminal proceedings would much more clearly define a prosecution role for it within the organisation.

Mr. Heath: I agree, which is why I should not support the Conservative amendments, although I assume that they are tabled for probing purposes. I do not agree with the Minister, though, that it is obvious that SOCA should have the power to initiate proceedings. That is quite separate from the investigative process, and the hon. Member for
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Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) was right when he said that there is a direct analogy between handing the case to the procurator fiscal in Scotland and handing it to the DPP or the Revenue prosecutors in England and Wales.

Caroline Flint: It may be necessary on occasion for SOCA officers to charge a suspect in exceptional circumstances, if they are up against the PACE clock. We view those as exceptional circumstances, but it is clear that the clause does not give SOCA itself a prosecutory role.

Mr. Grieve: I am sure that this can be cleared up, and I do not want to pick a quarrel when probably we are worrying about nothing. However, it is clear to me and probably to the Minister and the Committee that decisions on prosecution and above all on the continuation of prosecutions must be made by a prosecuting authority, not by SOCA. SOCA may have an input and express a view, but that is it.

We have in the recent past been moving towards involving the prosecution authorities at the charging stage, so that the decision is not subsequently rescinded when they come to look at the papers. That is a matter of involving the prosecuting authority with SOCA. What we do not want to end up with is SOCA's own tame prosecutors, lifted from the CPS and Customs and Excise, who take decisions without reference to the prosecution authorities. A letter from the Attorney-General to the Committee would be useful in providing the necessary reassurance on that point.

Caroline Flint: That is indeed what I offered a few moments ago.

In relation to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde asked, subsection (2)(a) does not apply to Scotland in view of the distinctive arrangements there for investigating and prosecuting offences. Clause 23 therefore preserves the role of the Lord Advocate's Procurator Fiscal Service. Police in Scotland cannot initiate proceedings themselves. The Scottish justice system is such that only the Crown Agent's Procurator Fiscal Service can act as a public prosecution authority. We would therefore expect SOCA to act accordingly, to fit within the Scottish criminal justice systems. All the aspects of the Bill that relate to Scotland have been discussed with colleagues in Scotland, whose support we have attained.

4.45 pm

Mr. Mitchell: We will return to what the Committee might come to know as the ''Greenock question'' about Scotland, perhaps over an amendment that we hope to move today. As has been said, the amendments in the group that we are discussing are probing amendments. Subject to the Minister's commitment to ensuring that the Attorney General writes to us, I am happy to withdraw the amendment. On the hierarchy in the police family, which I may have mistakenly mixed with the former issue, we want to ensure adequate liaison between SOCA and the police
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forces on questions of priority and operational matters. We may need to return to that issue on Report, but now I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Mr. Clifton-Brown: At the risk of incurring the wrath of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, I want to put two points to the Minister. Perhaps I have a suspicious mind, but the clause contains two powers for SOCA that I consider very general, so I would be grateful if the Minister could dispel my suspicions.

Subsection (2)(c) says that SOCA may

    ''at the request of any law enforcement agency, act in support of any activities of that agency''.

Will the Minister confirm that that applies to the UK agencies only? Much more worrying is subsection (5), which says:

    ''SOCA may furnish such assistance as it considers appropriate in response to requests made by any government or other body''—

presumably that means anywhere in the world—

    ''exercising functions of a public nature in any country or territory outside the United Kingdom.''

Those are widely drawn provisions and I would like some assurance on how they might be applied. For example, my suspicious mind turns to Europe. Could a request from Europol mean SOCA being used to enforce a function of a European body? There may be other Governments with whom we might not want SOCA to co-operate too closely. SOCA might make one decision and that Government might make a different one. How are those situations to be covered?

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