Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. Heath: I do not think that the Minister was best served by the briefing that she was given on this amendment. My proposal was perfectly explicit: it is nothing to do with the specific operational responsibility conferred by clause 22; it is designed to deal with clauses 2 to 21 and all of the duties and responsibilities—

Mr. Heppell: It does not say that.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that that is not what the amendment says, so let me read it out to him:

    ''Any duty or responsibility of SOCA specified in sections 2 to 21 shall be a duty or responsibility of the Director General.''

I find it hard to be told that is not what it says.

Mr. McWalter: We smell a rat because we think that the hon. Gentleman is trying to move
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responsibilities from the Secretary of State to the director general.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman can smell as many rodents as he chooses. I had rather hoped he would read the amendment that I placed before the Committee. It could not be more explicit. It states:

    ''Any duty or responsibility of SOCA''—

not of the Secretary of State, of SOCA—

    ''specified in sections 2 to 21'',

which all now stand part of the Bill, because that is what the Committee has said,

    ''shall be a duty or responsibility of the Director General.''

I do not see how there could be any confusion in what that means.

Mr. Heppell indicated assent.

Mr. Heath: The Government Whip is now nodding sagely—the penny has dropped that this is in fact a perfectly sensible amendment. Unfortunately, the briefing the Minister received in response to it is based on an entirely erroneous interpretation. This means that we have not yet had the debate which we might have had.

Mr. Mitchell: I had not intended to intervene in this debate, but having listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's argument, it seems to me that we have not yet had a proper response from the Government explaining why the amendment is not an improvement to the Bill that we can support. Unless the Minister tells us why the amendment is not helpful, it is our duty to support the hon. Gentleman by voting for it.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that expression of encouragement, but I genuinely hoped to hear the Minister explain that it was unnecessary to place the responsibility on the director general because it was conferred in some other way. However, it seems we are not to have that answer and however long I extend my remarks to give the Minister an opportunity to make another contribution—

Caroline Flint: I rise to the challenge, but my point still stands. We believe that the clause clearly outlines the operational responsibilities of the director general. That, taken with the other clauses relating to the role of the SOCA board, the annual plans and reports and the functions of SOCA, provide a clear understanding of SOCA's role and the director general's place in it. We do not need to embellish further.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the Minister for intervening. That is not exactly the story that we heard the first time around, but it will suffice as a reply to my amendment. I will examine the matter again, taking account of the debates earlier today. I ask simply that she, too, examines it again.

In police forces, the chief constable's personal responsibilities—not those of the body corporate, the police force, or even of the police authority—are very clear. There is a case for the director general having a personal responsibility for the duties that fall upon SOCA as conferred by sections 2 to 21. That is not because there is any deficiency in accountability but because it is important that the director general of an
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organisation set up in this form understands that the buck stops with them and that they have a responsibility for ensuring that the organisation works. That cannot be a matter for the board in some indeterminate way; nor can it be hived off to the Home Secretary or to junior officers within the organisation. The director general should have a responsibility to this country for ensuring that everything that is contained in the statute happens. That is an entirely sensible provision. I shall now sit down so that the Minister can respond.

Caroline Flint: I wish to make one more detailed point, because this is an important subject. In relation to previous clauses, we had a considerable discussion about the SOCA board and its formation. The duties and responsibilities of SOCA under clauses 2 to 21 properly rest with the SOCA board unless delegated by the board to the director general. We should keep it in mind that the director general is a member of the board and therefore shares its roles and responsibilities. I hope that explains a little further how the organisation will work in relation to the director general.

Mr. Heath: That goes a little further, but I do not think that it is entirely satisfactory for a board to have responsibilities that an individual must eventually shoulder. That is the difference between SOCA and police forces; SOCA has a different structure. In matters of liberty and well-being I should prefer personal responsibility to lie with an individual rather than a board, however well intentioned and competent it may be. We know how in the corporate world it is difficult to pin responsibility on a board of directors as opposed to an individual. It is even more important in a law enforcement agency that one person has responsibility for the operation of the organisation under his or her control.

I do not intend to press the amendment to a Division, but I will consider more carefully what the Minister has said. Now that we have finally got everyone to understand what the amendment is about, that I am trying to improve the Bill, not to make it worse, and that this is a significant area for consideration, perhaps it is a matter that we can profitably return to on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 22 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 23

Activities in Scotland in relation to crime

5.45 pm

Mr. Mitchell: I beg to move amendment No. 68, in clause 23, page 12, line 31, at end add—

    '(4) Subsections (1) to (3) shall not apply in the event of circumstances which the Secretary of State believes constitute a national emergency.'.

The clause is particularly interesting, and will attract the attention of all the Committee, especially the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde, who
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contributed earlier today. The amendment is really very simple.

In her first remarks, at the beginning of the day, the Minister made it clear that it is essential that SOCA be able move urgently and quickly if necessity dictates. The amendment would ensure that, in times of crisis, SOCA can act without the time delay imposed by seeking permission to work in Scotland. That would ensure that SOCA could work effectively as a national body. I call this the ''hot pursuit'' amendment, as it will enable SOCA to take action across the border without going through the bureaucratic delay of having to consult the Scottish authorities. Currently, SOCA does not have the ability to investigate serious organised crime in Scotland without obtaining permission. We are concerned that that will slow down investigation and lead to inefficiencies. It also seems excessive, as clause 5 states that SOCA must co-ordinate its information with the Scottish DEA and the Bill also requires SOCA to consult Scottish Ministers regarding its annual plan.

The creation of SOCA is a significant opportunity to develop more effective international relationships and gateways to decrease the bureaucracy involved in negotiating with international forces. However, those noble sentiments are seriously undermined by the clause, which specifies that SOCA should get permission to operate in Scotland. We seek to remove it from the Bill, or at least to add the failsafe that the Secretary of State has the right to intervene in a national emergency.

Should SOCA have to negotiate with a part of the United Kingdom before it can pursue an investigation? It is understandable that clearance would be required when working over international borders, but SOCA should be able to work in Scotland without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops. To those who have studied the difficulty in defeating terrorism in Ireland because of the arrangements on the border between southern Ireland and Northern Ireland, that an easy point to assert. If SOCA is liaising adequately with the Scottish DEA, as it should do under clause 5, it should not be necessary for the Lord Advocate in Scotland to scrutinise SOCA's motives. If SOCA officers need to be versed in Scots law, that should be part of their training.

The Scotland Act 1998 created not a separate nation with an international border but a Scottish Parliament with the power to enact legislation and deal with taxation. SOCA should not have to divert time and resources into the bureaucracy-creating measure before us.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is right. What we have in Scotland is devolution. He referred earlier to Ireland; southern Ireland and Northern Ireland are two different countries, but Scotland is still part of the UK. We are talking about devolution, not independence.

Mr. Mitchell: I hope that that logic will lead the hon. Gentleman to support my amendment. He is entirely right about the difference in the nature of the borders, and I hope that he will agree that the problem that I set out—that of not being able to pursue
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criminal activity, which does not recognise borders—is very real. The Minister herself said that it is important that the system is easy to understand and helps us to pursue serious criminals. That is at the heart of my amendment. Will the serious organised criminals being investigated and pursued by SOCA officers recognise that the clause represents a loophole in the law, which they can exploit to gain time while SOCA officers enter into negotiations with the Scottish authorities to gain clearance to cross the border?

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