Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill
Caroline Flint: We have had an interesting debate. The amendments relate predominantly to clause 9, which enables the Home Secretary to set the strategic priorities for SOCA. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield seeks to remove the Home Secretary from the equation and leave it to the agency to set its own priorities: that is the situation in a nutshell. I remind the hon. Gentleman that clause 9 closely follows the precedent set by the Police Act 1997, passed by the previous Administration. Parts I and II of that Act enable the Home Secretary to set objectives for both the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad.
The Bill uses the language of priorities, but in substance clause 9 is little different to what has gone before. I do not think that the sky has fallen down since then, or that it will in future. The Police Reform Act 2002 provides for the setting of strategic policing priorities by the Home Secretary in the context of the annual national policing plan.
The Home Secretary has a legitimate role to play in setting the national context in which the various law enforcement agencies are to operate. I refer to the article in The Independent, as Sir Stephen Lander has been mentioned again. He was asked whether it is right for politicians to have an influence on how crime is tackled, and why we could not leave the matter to the professionals. He said:
That is pretty clear. However, he went on to stress that, within SOCA and the framework of the Bill, the operational decisions on specific targets and cases would be made by SOCA. That is important, because at the end of the day, in many respects, the Home Secretary and the Government will be held to account for the activities of SOCA and its role in fighting
It has already been said today that responsibility without power is as indefensible in a democratic society as power without responsibility. The Home Secretary can be held to account only if he has some means of influencing how SOCA discharges its functions. The amendments would deny any meaningful role for the Home Secretary in setting the priorities for SOCA. By their nature, any strategic priorities would be high level—for example focusing SOCA's energies on defeating the drug barons and those engaged in people smuggling. It will be open to SOCA to set its own additional priorities, subject to the proviso that they must be consistent with the strategic priorities. Furthermore, it will be down to SOCA to determine how to give effect to the Home Secretary's strategic priorities. We are not seeking to run SOCA from the Home Office.
Part 1, taken as a whole, draws a proper and equitable balance between the respective roles of the Home Secretary, the SOCA board and the director general. It is important that we consider the totality of the checks and balances in relation to the roles of the Home Secretary and the agency. The amendments would destroy the balance between those three pillars which underpin the agency's governance.
Mr. McWalter: Does my hon. Friend agree that in the amendments the model of what it is to be a Member of Parliament and what it is to have a Government is extraordinarily strange, because under them a Member of Parliament is there to respond to the perceptions of what is wrong in his or her constituency, including manifestations of serious and organised crime, which they take to Ministers and expect them to act on? That model means that MPs get shafted and are unable to do their jobs.
Caroline Flint: I agree with my hon. Friend. It is dangerous for any political party to suggest that we should disentangle the decisions that affect our constituents from the political process. Earlier today, we discussed the amount of money that the taxpayer will be paying towards running SOCA. There is another linkage in what my hon. Friend said in terms of accountability, which is important. However, there is more. I visited some officers from the National Crime Squad and asked how they dealt with and considered crime. Some of them said, ''How things have changed.'' They said that they used to spend years going after a criminal because they wanted to get him under a particular offence, but the nature of that offence and the network meant that they spent a lot of time, energy and resources going after what sometimes proved to be unattainable. They said, ''Today we have to be smarter and wiser. We need to disrupt these people and take them out of our communities and in doing so address some of the corrosive harm that they cause.''
Part of that debate is about our political influence in bringing to bear the experiences of our constituents
Mr. Mitchell: These started out as probing amendments, but the passion they have stirred on the other side of the Room has made me more certain that they are right. I am sorry to say that to the Minister after our debate on the last group of amendments, in which she so charmingly managed to satisfy our concerns.
At the heart of the matter is the question of whether the Home Secretary should be able both to settle all the priorities and nobble the board. That is too much of an armlock. The concept of the tripartite approach has been mentioned. It is important to remember that policing by consent in the UK is rooted in political independence. Systems and structures are needed to deliver that independence and they are delivered to local police forces by a statutory tripartite arrangement distributing power equally between the chief officer, the police authority and the Home Secretary. There is no reason why such a structure should not be applied nationally for SOCA in respect of the director general, the service authority and the Home Secretary. Arguably, there has been a shift of power within the tripartite structure. With more direction coming from the centre—from the Home Office—chief officers are held responsible for matters over which they have no control. There is a danger in politicising operational policing. Our belief that the tripartite structure is imbalanced in no way detracts from the fact that it is the most appropriate structure for policing. Police officers must act impartially, and they are accountable for their action or inaction. The tripartite structure has ultimate strength only if there is a balance of power and accountability. Unamended, the Bill would vest great power in a single individual, the Home Secretary. It is indisputable that there would be a danger of politicising the service if a politician alone were to hold those powers. For that reason, I shall divide the Committee on amendment No. 9.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.
Division No. 5]
Question accordingly negatived.
Mr. Mitchell: I beg to move amendment No. 13, in clause 7, page 5, line 28, at end insert
Mr. O'Brien: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 87, in clause 12, page 7, line 18, at end insert
Mr. Mitchell: My amendment is very similar to that tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome who is fast, on this Bill, becoming my hon. Friend. We both seek to ensure that SOCA is accountable to Parliament, not purely to the Home Secretary. It should be accountable both to the legislature and to the Executive. There is no doubt that it is accountable to the Executive, for many of the reasons that I have set out. It is less clear that it is properly accountable to the legislature. In view of the point made, with some passion, by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead during our debate on the last set of amendments, I feel doubly sure that he is with me and will support the amendment proposed jointly by the Liberal Democrats and Her Majesty's principal Opposition.
It is good discipline for the House to have an opportunity to debate such reports regularly. I underline that fact because I well know that Whips of all parties will not approve of the amendment to the same degree as will other hon. Members. I hope that it will command the support of the Committee, as it will enable hon. Members of all persuasions to comment on the performance of SOCA, in the way that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead outlined. After all, crime is of great concern across the House. It will give us a chance to examine the priorities of SOCA and to ensure that joined-up policing is taking place, and will enable us to establish how well SOCA is doing against the criteria set for it. It will also promote accountability—a concept that is immensely important in the view of Opposition Members.
Mr. Heath: I shall speak to amendment No. 87, which has a superficial similarity to that of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, although it refers to a different clause. My amendment deals with clause 12, rather than clause 7. The hon. Gentleman and I are in agreement this afternoon about significant aspects of the Bill—the difference being that I recollect the measures put before the House by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) when he was Home Secretary, and therefore have occasional reason for a wry smile.
I commend the methodology of putting reports before the House. It is important that there should be an opportunity to debate them. Amendment No. 13 would provide for the annual report to be placed before the House. The arguments put forward by the hon. Gentleman are doubled in the case of my amendment, because it deals with exceptional reports about something that has gone wrong with the operation of SOCA. It is right for Parliament to have an opportunity to discuss such a matter and
I hope that the Minister will not hesitate to accept both amendments. I am sure that she will want to demonstrate beyond peradventure her wish that the operation of the Home Department and SOCA should be accountable to the House of Commons.
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|Prepared 11 January 2005