Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. Djanogly: I should be grateful if the Minister spent a little time explaining who is to be a special prosecutor and what the role will involve, so that the committee knows the scope of those who will be able to issue the orders.

Caroline Flint: I can cover that in more detail when we discuss the next group of amendments. As I said on Tuesday, we have been working with the Attorney-General to identify a cadre of prosecutors who will work closely with the Serious and Organised Crime
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Agency—in some cases, they will work in the same location as SOCA staff—and who will be authorised to issue disclosure notices. The Attorney-General will produce guidance on all issues affecting disclosure that will involve his prosecutors.

Mr. Djanogly: Would the cadre that the Minister mentions be central—not local prosecutors but SOCA employees?

Caroline Flint: No, they would not be SOCA employees. We had that discussion on Tuesday, and we are going rather wider than the amendment. On Tuesday, we discussed preserving the independence of the prosecuting function. That is why the prosecutors delegated to carry out the task will be under the authority of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Having said that, because they will work closely with SOCA staff, some of them might be based in buildings alongside SOCA staff. However, I think that I made the lines of accountability clear on Tuesday—prosecutors will not be accountable to the director general of SOCA. Prosecutors will not issue disclosure notices unless they believe that offending is sufficiently serious to justify them and, as I have said several times, we will issue guidance under which they will operate. That will make clear what factors they should take into account when considering seriousness. Therefore, we do not think that it is necessary or appropriate to specify them in the Bill, and I ask the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful for the support of the hon. Members for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) on this serious matter. I have listened carefully, and I have no objection to the Minister's stated intention. My problem lies in the fact that nothing in what she has said is inconsistent with the proviso that I propose to add to the Bill. She relies on the policy of the Director of Public Prosecutions remaining, or even being initiated, in the form that she requires. Although she says that she is referring only to cases of serious organised crime, that is not what the statute says. We have to rely on what the statute says, not on the intentions of Ministers when they propose measures.

I draw the Minister's attention to the list of offences in clause 55 to which the chapter applies. She said that those were serious cases. In most cases, they are serious offences, but let us not be foolish. For instance, the fraudulent evasion of duty under clause 55(1)(d) can deal with serious organised crime organising shiploads of cigarettes, but it can also apply to the cross-channel ferry driver and tourist who has come back with a little too much in his boot.

Caroline Flint: The hon. Gentleman is quite right to draw attention to the fact that tax and excise fraud can be a very serious matter. We know that organised crime gets involved in those activities, and we estimate the cost to the UK to be billions of pounds.

The Director of Revenue and Customs Prosecutions will draw up strict guidance on the use of disclosure notices by Her Majesty's Revenue and
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Customs. Our intention is to restrict the use of notices to serious organised crime investigations rather than low-value fraud cases. The Paymaster General has announced a review of the powers available to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, and we will await the outcome of that review before we implement disclosure notices for the tax and excise fraud offences. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some reassurance that we do not want to create a huge catch-all for such offences and are mindful that notices should be used proportionately.

Mr. Heath: That gives me reassurance, but it reinforces my view that the concerns that the hon. Lady is expressing as a Minister of the Crown are exactly those that I am expressing as an Opposition member of the Committee. I want to see them framed within the clause to make sure that her assurances are given weight in law. I find no discontinuity between what I suggest as an addition to the Bill and her assurances on how the Bill will work.

Clause 55(1)(e) refers to the Theft Act 1968 and false accounting. Practically every crime that has a financial aspect may involve false accounting. An extraordinarily wide web of offences is therefore brought under the draconian provisions on disclosure. I understand the Minister's intention perfectly well, but I hope that she will understand that if those intentions are to be laid out in statute, a threshold requires to be built into the clause. Otherwise, we will be entirely reliant on the advice at any given time of the Director of Public Prosecutions or other prosecuting authorities. They will have the statutory power to use the disclosure capacity in a wide range of cases. For those reasons, I believe that the amendment is a necessary addition.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.

Division No. 7]

Clappison, Mr. James Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Grieve, Mr. Dominic Heath, Mr. David Mitchell, Mr. Andrew

Baird, Vera Cairns, David Campbell, Mr. Alan Flint, Caroline
Griffiths, Jane Heppell, Mr. John McWalter, Mr. Tony Taylor, Ms Dari

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 55 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 56

Disclosure notices

9.30 am

Mr. Heath: I beg to move amendment No. 172, in clause 56, page 30, line 32, leave out 'expedient' and insert 'necessary'.

Subsection (2) provides the grounds on which an investigating authority may give a disclosure notice or authorise an appropriate person to give one. There are three such grounds, the first of which is if it appears that
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    ''there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that a person has committed an offence'',

which we would all understand. The second ground is if

    ''the conditions in subsection (1)(b) and (c) are satisfied'',

which refers to a person who has information about an offence. Then there are the rather curious grounds on which a disclosure notice may be given, in subsection (2)(c), which are if

    ''there are exceptional circumstances making it expedient to do so''.

Such circumstances are those that apply neither to a person who has committed an offence or is suspected of having done so, nor to a person having information about an offence or suspicions of one having been committed.

I am not absolutely clear when the subsection might apply. What are the exceptional circumstances in which a prosecuting authority could apply a disclosure notice to somebody who neither is suspected of having committed an offence nor has information about an offence being committed? Paragraph (c) seems odd indeed.

Assuming that the Minister can explain why the provision is there in the first place and will describe the circumstances in which it might be used—I hope that she will give one or more examples—I do not think that the question should be one of expediency. Using such an extraordinary measure, under such extraordinary circumstances, should be a matter of the utmost gravity. I object to the word ''expedient'', because expediency can take many forms. It might mean the convenience of the prosecuting or investigating authorities, but it could even mean enabling a person to go home in time for tea. Expediency is not a sufficient test.

The amendment is therefore simple and would leave out ''expedient'' and insert ''necessary'', which would at least ensure that the disclosure notice would be required only because it was necessary to complete the investigation, which should surely be the starting point of any consideration anyway. I also hope that the amendment will give the Minister an opportunity to explain why subsection (2)(c) is in the Bill at all and to describe the circumstances that might require it to be used.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Co-op): I hope that the Committee will resist the amendment. The Liberal party is dealing with the issue in an extraordinary way. When serious offences are being committed, quite often the first thing that the police come across is a rather trivial offence.

I have just been on the parliamentary police scheme. One of the cases that we looked at was that of a builder who had dumped some rubble in front of the house of somebody who had not paid for their driveway. However, underlying that trivial matter—although it was not so trivial for the people who could not get into their house—was a sophisticated network of people knocking off driveway materials and cheating the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise on a huge scale. It was only because an apparently trivial offence was seen as the tip of an
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iceberg and referred to those capable of dealing with interwoven networks that that network of serious offences was picked up.

It is sometimes necessary to get information by requiring people to say in the first place, for example, exactly where they got their driveway materials. I hope that the Minister will resist the extraordinary idea that serious offences should come with a big sign on their foreheads saying, ''This is a serious offence.''

Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) is right to say that we are dealing with a spider's web of connections and networks. I have talked before about criminal entrepreneurs who corrupt legitimate businesses in pursuit of their aims. We need safeguards and we have safeguards in the Bill.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome raises an important point about when it is appropriate to give a disclosure notice to a person suspected of one of the specified offences. Several hon. Members raised that on Second Reading. Our intention is that notices will usually be given to people other than the primary suspects, partly as they are more likely to co-operate and partly because of the protections against self-incrimination for the subject of the notice.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said, however, the full involvement of all the players in complex organised criminality is often not obvious at the beginning of an investigation. Also, in certain circumstances the prosecutor may decide to give a notice to someone suspected of one of the offences anyway. For example, a junior member of a criminal group may be suspected of one of the specified offences, but the prosecutor may believe that serving a notice on him would provide information of substantial value to the wider investigation, and that the benefit of that would outweigh not being able to use a self-incriminatory statement made by the junior member.

The clause currently creates a bit of an artificial statutory distinction between those suspected of an offence on the list and others. The analogous powers work effectively without such a legislative distinction, and prosecutors can manage the issues in deciding whether to issue a notice against a suspect, based on their oversight of the full investigation. I therefore propose to introduce amendments on Report to remove that distinction.

I draw to the attention of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome the word ''and'' between paragraphs (b) and (c) of clause 56(2). The provisions do not stand alone. His amendment would strengthen the artificial distinction. Rather than leaving the matter to the prosecutor's discretion, it would allow someone suspected of one of the specified offences to be given a disclosure notice only when it was ''necessary'' to do so. In practice, it would be quite difficult to argue that it was necessary to interview anyone, so I call on him to withdraw the amendment and to understand the reasons why prosecutors should have flexibility, albeit based on comprehensive guidelines on disclosure, which provide safeguards for individuals against self-incrimination.
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