Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Mitchell: This is the third and final substantive point on which we wish to test the Minister—namely, the terms and conditions of service, and complaints. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome set out the position fairly and well, and also made the perfectly fair point that we have already trodden on some of this ground.

I draw the attention of the Committee to the amendments tabled by me and my hon. Friends. Amendment No. 75 would ensure that the terms and conditions of any employee who was formerly a police constable outside SOCA, and whose office of police constable was suspended as a result of his employment as a SOCA constable, were revived should he resume his office on leaving SOCA. The purpose of amendment No. 76 is to clarify the employment status of employees by cross-referencing with section 230 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. If the Government propose that staff are to have the same rights, amendment No. 8 could also be added.

Amendments Nos. 102 to 105 would mean that there was no scope for the employment terms and conditions of transfer to SOCA being any less favourable than is currently the case for the employee. Our purpose with amendment No. 106 is to protect the terms and conditions of those transferred to SOCA, as it is fundamental to the ability of the new agency to attract recruits and operate successfully to provide such protection. Finally, on amendment No. 107, we believe that the Bill should include express provision to require consultation on the terms of any transfer scheme in so far as it impacts on members of the Police Federation who may be transferred to SOCA. I remind the Committee that the Police Federation is not a trade union.

These are the key issues. It is our contention that there is insufficient separation between the commercial arrangements between an employer and an employee, and the powers to be conferred and exercised under the Bill. There should be no scope for the employment terms and conditions of transfer to SOCA being any less favourable than is currently the case. There is no limit on the terms and conditions that are to apply on a transfer to SOCA. The terms and conditions to which the police member is subject after transfer of
Column Number: 112
their employment to SOCA could be very different from those that apply in their current position.

As the Minister knows, police officers can be dismissed only under the discipline or efficiency regulations or on grounds of ill health. They cannot be dismissed on notice. As non-police officers, those individuals will be under threat from dismissal on notice and their independence—their ability to withstand pressure to act in a particular way—will be compromised, in contrast with officers holding the office of constable. We discussed that point at length this morning.

6.30 pm

The protection of the terms and conditions of those transferred into SOCA is fundamental to the ability of the agency to attract recruits and operate successfully. Police officers employed directly by the National Crime Squad are employed under terms and conditions that do not include any notice period for termination. The transfer scheme must not be used as a means of terminating the employment of a police officer; albeit that the Secretary of State may determine the amount payable as compensation, it may be inadequate in contrast to the loss suffered by the officer.

The fact that SOCA officers will be investigated by the IPCC is a patent example of mixed thinking by the Government. On one hand, it is proposed that SOCA officers should not be police officers; on the other hand, they would be overseen by a body established exclusively to oversee police complaints—namely, the IPCC.

I next pursue the question of complaints, and draw the Committee's attention to new clause 6. The purpose of the new clause is to ensure that the employment rights of SOCA employees, including those who are designated constables, are preserved. That includes rights to do with dismissal and disciplinary hearings under the Employment Act 2002 (Dispute Resolution) Regulations 2004, which are properly the responsibility of SOCA as the employer. The new clause maintains the distinction of the office of constable.

Clause 50 covers complaints against SOCA staff and the ultimate oversight of SOCA by the IPCC, which, for the reasons stated, shows confused thinking. Under the terms of the Employment Act 2002, employers are required to set up their own disciplinary and grievance procedures to deal with disciplinary matters, internal grievances and dismissal. Accordingly, SOCA should set up its own internal procedures governing the conduct of its employees. SOCA alone should have the power to dismiss its employees.

The IPCC should arguably have no jurisdiction in conduct matters concerning SOCA employees. For the IPCC to be involved suggests that the rank of a SOCA constable will still retain its privileges. The drafting could be tightened to require the Government to state precisely what the IPCC will have the power to investigate and what, if any, will be the limitations on its recommendations. If the Minister believes that
Column Number: 113
that would be a good way forward, perhaps she will say so.

The Government may intend the IPCC to have the same role as the General Medical Council or the Law Society, as the professional body dealing with the question of the removal or otherwise of a SOCA constable's rank as constable, with SOCA being left to dismiss or otherwise discipline the employee. In any event, the new clause would clarify the powers of the IPCC.

I hope that the Minister will be sensitive to the concerns that I and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome have set out, and comment on the key issues that we have raised.

Caroline Flint: The amendments deal with a number of interlinked issues. I shall start with amendments Nos. 94, 75 and 76, and address the contribution of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. I understand where he is coming from, although he is misguided in his approach. He is clearly trying to safeguard the interests of SOCA staff in the event that, after their time in SOCA, they wished to return to their original employment, whether with the local police force, the immigration service or HMRC. The Bill ensures that a person's office, whether as a constable or immigration or customs officer, is held in suspense and can be revived, so that it does not prove to be a hurdle with the prospective employer to whom the person wishes to return.

The hon. Gentleman's amendments propose that the terms and conditions under which a person was employed prior to joining SOCA that are associated with the office to which he wants to return revive at the same time as his office. Admittedly, that would ensure that the terms and conditions under which the person returned were no less favourable. Ironically, however, and contrary to the hon. Gentleman's intentions, setting such a requirement in statute would mean that such a person was not and could not be any better off.

Working for SOCA can bring opportunities and new levels of activity for many, including detective constables. During their time with SOCA, they might be given responsibilities or opportunities such that they would return to force level with higher competencies. It is therefore important that we provide that all SOCA employees who take up opportunities to advance their skills and responsibilities are not disadvantaged, whether they are former police officers who want to return to the force or specialists who want to find employment elsewhere in the law enforcement community. It is far better for the original employer—be it a police force or otherwise—to which the person seeks to return and with which their office would be revived to be able to take into account the time spent with SOCA. I believe that that should be reflected in any terms and conditions accrued between them. We are confident that experiences in SOCA will mean that returns are made under more favourable terms and conditions.

I hope that my explanation clarifies the Government's approach and reassures the hon.
Column Number: 114
Gentleman on why we do not want to tie an individual to the precise terms and conditions that applied when they left a police force or other organisation so that their experience with SOCA cannot be taken into account.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome proposes in amendment No. 94 that rather than the suspension of a person's office on their joining SOCA, assuming that they had not resigned from the office before joining, they should continue to hold that office at the same time as being employed by SOCA. That is an unattractive proposition, and our view is partly based on what we discussed earlier today. SOCA will be more than the sum of its parts. If it is to establish its own culture and ways of working, it will need a clean break from the past, and we would not achieve that if the agency's staff continued to hold one or other of the offices of constable, customs officer or immigration officer. We have had a wide debate on the powers that are important for people to be able to do their job, but there is a difference between powers and a title assigned to someone. We have recognised that by providing for suspension of the title while the person works for SOCA.

Amendments Nos. 77 and 78 and new clause 6 would give the Independent Police Complaints Commission sole responsibility for investigating a complaint about, or misconduct by, SOCA staff anywhere in the UK. At the same time, the IPCC's jurisdiction would be limited to those members who had and could exercise the powers of a constable. Complaints against other members of SOCA staff would be investigated by the agency itself, with no role for the IPCC.

I believe that the amendments are intended to follow on from attempts that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield made earlier to change the nature of the Bill and to turn SOCA into a police organisation staffed mostly by police officers. Even if that is so, the amendments cannot stand, because under them the IPCC would be responsible for investigating SOCA staff anywhere in the UK. That would mean that the IPCC would cut across the role of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.

I suspect that the amendments are at least partly inspired by concerns about how SOCA fits in with the remit of the IPCC. The remit of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, as its name suggests, is to oversee the arrangements for the investigation of complaints against members of police forces—both police constables and police staff. We considered whether the IPCC was the appropriate body to oversee complaints against SOCA staff, given that SOCA will not be a police body. The point has been made by the hon. Gentleman. It would not be an efficient use of resources to set up a bespoke complaints body for SOCA. We must consider the effective and efficient use of public money. That is why we have sought instead to go down a different route and to broaden the remit of the IPCC, albeit without changing its name. The commission already has responsibility for oversight of complaints against community support officers and other designated
Column Number: 115
police staff, so it is a relatively small step to confer on it a role in respect of SOCA staff.

In the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill, we are giving the IPCC responsibility for oversight of the investigation of complaints against Revenue and customs officers. The important point is that the IPCC has the staff, skills and experience to investigate independently the most serious complaints made against SOCA staff, and to ensure that SOCA's arrangements for investigating less serious complaints conform to best practice.

Similarly, although it could be said that the ombudsman is currently solely responsible for investigating complaints against police officers in the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and so should not take on investigations for SOCA in Northern Ireland, that would be anachronistic, as the remit of the ombudsman is being changed elsewhere so that it extends beyond police officers to include civilian staff. That explains in more detail our thoughts behind the way in which we have defined the role of the IPCC; the landscape is changing in a number of areas, and the provision makes practical sense.

Clause 50 and schedule 2 provide a practical means of ensuring independent oversight of the investigation of complaints made against all SOCA staff. The provisions are an essential element of the accountability framework that we are putting in place for SOCA, and they should stand part of the Bill.

Through amendments Nos. 102 to 106, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield clearly wishes to protect the terms and conditions of those transferring into SOCA from its four precursors, so that those employees are not disadvantaged as a result of that transfer. I should reiterate right from the start what we have already made clear in debates in the House: the terms and conditions of any individual transferring from any of SOCA's precursors—be it the NCS, NCIS, the immigration service or Customs—to become an employee of SOCA will not be any less favourable than those of their appointment or service in those organisations. The hon. Gentleman's amendments would freeze all existing terms and conditions, particularly for the police members of the National Crime Squad and NCIS. Where the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 apply to transfers, we will naturally comply with those requirements. Where TUPE does not apply—for example, in the case of police officers—we will apply the principles of TUPE in accordance with the Cabinet Office statement of practice on staff transfers.

The key point is that there will be no detriment to the terms and conditions as a whole of transferring staff. That does not mean that each and every term and condition will be unchanged. Police members of the NCS transferring to SOCA will be no longer police officers but employees of the agency. In those circumstances, it will not be appropriate for them to be on exactly the same terms and conditions as before, but they will not be disadvantaged by any changes.

Some points were made on SOCA's disciplinary procedures, which would provide for dismissal—for
Column Number: 116
example, for gross misconduct—as do those of the police. SOCA staff will have the full employment rights that all other employees have, including rights against unfair dismissal. Therefore, SOCA staff will be in the same position as Customs and immigration officers, who are no less impartial in the exercise of their powers than police officers.

Finally, I have some good news on amendment No. 107. I understand the concerns of the hon. Gentleman, and sympathise with him. The SOCA programme team is already in consultation with the Police Federation and the trade unions that represent other staff of the four precursor agencies who will transfer to SOCA. I would be content to formalise in statute what we are already doing in practice. I cannot invite the Committee to accept amendment No. 107 in its current form, as any duty to consult should go wider than to persons representing the interests of the police members of the NCS and NCIS—namely, the Police Federation. If the hon. Gentleman will agree to withdraw his amendment, I will table an appropriate Government amendment on Report.

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