House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2004 - 05
Publications on the internet
Standing Committee Debates
Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

Standing Committee D

Thursday 13 January 2005

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Chairmen: Dame Marion Roe, †Mr. Bill O'Brien

†Baird, Vera (Redcar) (Lab)

†Blears, Ms Hazel (Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety)

†Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries) (Lab)

†Cairns, David (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab)

†Campbell, Mr. Alan (Tynemouth) (Lab)

†Clappison, Mr. James (Hertsmere) (Con)

†Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey (Cotswold) (Con)

†Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)

†Farrelly, Paul (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab)

†Flint, Caroline (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)

†Grieve, Mr. Dominic (Beaconsfield) (Con)

†Griffiths, Jane (Reading, East) (Lab)

†Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)

†Heath, Mr. David (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

†Heppell, Mr. John (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

†Mann, John (Bassetlaw) (Lab)

McWalter, Mr. Tony (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Co-op)

†Mitchell, Mr. Andrew (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

†Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton, South) (Lab)

†Ward, Claire (Watford) (Lab)

Alan Sandall, Committee Clerk

attended the Committee


[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

9.10 am

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. In view of the content of some amendments, I should draw the Committee's attention to my interests as a director of an investment bank, which are set out in the Register of Members' Interests.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. O'Brien. I should declare an interest as a practising solicitor.

New clause 2

Restrictions on further disclosure

    '(1) Information disclosed by SOCA under section 32 to any person or body must not be further disclosed except—

    (a) for a purpose connected with any function of that person or body for the purposes of which the information was disclosed by SOCA, or otherwise for any permitted purposes, and

    (b) with the consent of SOCA.

    (2) Information disclosed to SOCA under any enactment by the Commissioners or a person acting on their behalf must not be further disclosed except—

    (a) for any permitted purposes, and

    (b) with the consent of the Commissioners or an authorised officer of Revenue and Customs.

    (3) Consent under subsection (1) or (2) may be given—

    (a) in relation to a particular disclosure, or

    (b) in relation to disclosures made in circumstances specified or described in the consent.

    (4) In this section ''permitted purposes'' has the meaning given by section 32(2).'.—[Caroline Flint.]

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New clause 3

Directed arrangements: Scotland

    '(1) This section applies where it appears to the Scottish Ministers—

    (a) that a body within subsection (2) has a special need for assistance from SOCA or SOCA has a special need for assistance from a body within that subsection,

    (b) that it is expedient for such assistance to be provided by SOCA or (as the case may be) the body, and

    (c) that satisfactory arrangements cannot be made, or cannot be made in time, under section 24.

    (2) The bodies within this subsection are—

    (a) any police force in Scotland, and

    (b) the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency.

    (3) In a case where this section applies the Scottish Ministers may (as appropriate)—

    (a) direct the chief officer of the police force to provide such constables or other assistance for the purpose of meeting the need in question as may be specified in the direction;

    (b) direct the Director of the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency to provide such constables or other persons, or other

Column Number: 126
    assistance, for the purpose of meeting the need in question as may be so specified;

    (c) with the agreement of the Secretary of State, direct the Director General of SOCA to provide such members of the staff of SOCA or other assistance for the purpose of meeting the need in question as may be so specified.

    (4) Subsections (6) to (9A) of section 24 apply in relation to assistance provided under this section—

    (a) by SOCA to a police force in Scotland or to the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency, or

    (b) to SOCA by a police force in Scotland or by the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency,

    as they apply in relation to assistance so provided under that section.'.—[Caroline Flint.]

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

Clause 54

Investigatory powers of DPP etc.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): I beg to move amendment No. 31, in clause 54, page 29, leave out lines 17 and 18 and insert 'Revenue and Customs Prosecutor.'.

Welcome to our proceedings, Mr. O'Brien. I hope that we shall make as much progress as we did on Tuesday.

Amendment No. 31 is a textual amendment to reflect the type of Customs and Revenue protection being set up in the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 54, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 55

Offences to which this Chapter applies

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I beg to move amendment No. 99, in clause 55, page 29, line 29, after 'offences', insert

    'which appear to the investigating authority on reasonable grounds to be of sufficient seriousness to warrant investigation pursuant to this Part'.

Welcome to the Committee, Mr. O'Brien. We move now to the widening of the powers of coercion and the investigatory powers of the Director of Public Prosecutions and others. It is well understood—I certainly understand—why exceptional powers are extended to the investigation of serious fraud, and the power to compel a witness to produce documents and answer questions has existed for some time. There are equally strong arguments for extending the same powers to the work of the new agency and to other serious organised crime cases. I would not quarrel with that; such powers are exceptional but perhaps necessary to ensure that the evidence is there. However, it is reasonable to suggest that there should be some limit to the extension of such extraordinary powers.

The amendment would require the investigating authority specifically to consider whether the suspected offence was sufficiently serious to warrant
Column Number: 127
the use of compulsory questioning. In other words, it introduces a threshold determination, which must be made before the powers are used. It is necessary for clause 55 to extend the powers over quite a wide range of offences because organised crime covers a wide range of offences, but that serves only to enforce the need for a threshold of seriousness. One would not want these powers to be used in an arbitrary way, and I am sure that that is not the Minister's intention. Including the safeguard in the amendment would be a sensible precaution, and I commend it to the Committee.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): As we are coming to what to my mind is a very important part of the Bill, I shall take this opportunity to say a few words about the principle of the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). I apologise to the Committee for having to be absent after 10 o'clock as I have to go to a funeral.

The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise that the powers should be used only in serious cases. I have considerable anxiety about disclosure notices generally. They are draconian in scope and, as we will see when we consider the form of the notices in slightly greater detail, they involve not only the production of documents but the power to compel people to answer questions. The only other setting in which they could be compelled to answer questions is in a court of law when giving evidence from the witness box.

In this country, we have consistently shied away from giving such powers; we do so only for exceptional reasons. They are normally given only in cases of serious financial fraud and cases involving the operation of the Companies Acts, and it is controversial that it is so. One of the justifications for doing so is generally the belief that when dealing with a large financial organisation, questions will be asked of individuals who are intimately concerned with its operation.

In the Bill, however, such powers are being extended to the general criminal law. That worries me, and I am unconvinced by the scope of some of the powers. The operation of the Serious Organised Crime Agency is somewhat nebulous around the edges, and we will be giving powers to ordinary criminal investigators that the police would not have. The only way in which the police can obtain answers to questions is to issue a witness summons. The point is unusual, but it can be dealt with in a number of ways. We can certainly try to deal with it in the way suggested by the hon. Gentleman, by emphasising that we are dealing only with cases of ''sufficient seriousness''. Later this morning, under other amendments, we could consider in detail whether the powers that we are giving to SOCA are too wide.

All that bothers me. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having raised the issue, and I wait with interest to hear what the Minister has to say.

Mr. Djanogly: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The powers in the clause and chapter 1 already exist in the Companies Acts, such as the power to go to
Column Number: 128
the Department of Trade and Industry, and the Enterprise Act 2002 gives similar powers to the Serious Fraud Office. The implication is that those powers have been aimed at business-type fraud, and it is probable that we have not heard an outcry about them because those who have been subjected to them have tended to have the money to represent themselves, or their companies have paid for representation. Broadening the powers towards the whole population through the general criminal law is a different issue, and we need a different way of looking at it.

No benchmark exists. The Bill deals with serious organised crime, but the vast majority of criminals to be subjected to the powers under chapter 1 will have had nothing to do with serious organised crime. At a time when the law fraternity, Liberty and many other organisations are highlighting the way in which the Government have been cutting back on legal aid and therefore removing people's right to representation, that is a great concern. In this clause, we see their right to silence being taken away. I have other serious concerns, which will come out during our debates on chapter 1.

Caroline Flint: As Opposition Members have questioned the purpose of the disclosure powers, I shall remind the Committee why we are discussing the issue. On Tuesday, we had extensive discussion about the ways in which organised criminals operate. They might be involved in a variety of activities, from tax evasion and fraud to trafficking drugs or people. Ultimately, they wish to protect their criminal assets and, like other entrepreneurs, they seek to diversify.

We have consulted widely on disclosure powers. We recognise that they are important and serious, and that the way in which they are used has to be safeguarded. They should be used in investigations into serious offending. A number of people, including the Law Society, have raised concerns about the potential for the notices to be used too widely. We share that concern but have made it clear on a number of occasions that the notices will be appropriate only in relation to serious crimes. That is why we have restricted the offences in relation to which they might be used to those listed in clause 55, the majority of which are always serious. They are: trafficking in drugs, money, people or arms; counterfeiting; intellectual property theft; blackmail; organising prostitution; terrorist funding offences; and certain tax and excise offences. Specialist prosecutors, who will have the power to authorise disclosure notices, will not issue them unless they believe that the offending is sufficiently serious to justify them, and the Attorney-General will produce guidance.

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 13 January 2005