Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Caroline Flint: We had a huge discussion about that on Tuesday. In many respects, the hon. Gentleman makes a point that divided the Government and the Opposition. SOCA will be made up of several individuals with particular skills and experience, which will help us to defeat organised crime. Some members will have a police background, a Customs and Excise background and so on. As we discussed on Tuesday, the Government believe that SOCA staff, where appropriate, should be designated with powers to carry out their functions. That is why we discussed giving the powers of the constable to other individuals, after accredited training, who may not have come from a policing background. The Government and the Opposition clearly disagree on that.

Any staff member of SOCA involved in executing the disclosure notices will be given the necessary training and any staff member exercising search powers will be designated. As I said on Tuesday, we will not shoot ourselves in the foot by sending out SOCA staff to carry out these functions if their ability to do so could be challenged. That is why training and designation are so important.

That point links to amendment No. 2007—I mean 207.

Mr. Grieve: Just you wait.

Caroline Flint: It is going to be a long, long day.

In some ways, amendment No. 207 amplifies our debate on Tuesday and the differences between the Government and Conservative Members. The Government do not believe that SOCA will be a police organisation staffed either by police officers with the powers of a constable or by immigration and Customs officers. If that were the case, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome would be right that we should leave out paragraph (b), as it would no longer serve a purpose, and we would therefore support the amendment.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the Minister for setting out her position, which I shall consider carefully. In parenthesis, in response to the Conservative amendments and as I said on Tuesday, it would be helpful to have an early indication of how SOCA will
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be organised. Will it have a rank structure, and if so, in what form? It must have a rank structure. It is not possible to operate a body of that size without a chain of command. Whether or not it is a policing organisation, one would assume that, like its parent bodies, it will have levels of responsibility other than the director general and the directors, who are the only known ranks at this stage. I would be grateful if the Minister gave the Committee her Department's thoughts on the matter at some point, because it will impinge on how enactment will work.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Grieve: I beg to move amendment No. 208, in clause 56, page 30, line 43, leave out paragraph (a).

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 209, in clause 56, page 30, line 45, leave out paragraph (b).

Amendment No. 210, in clause 57, page 31, line 19, leave out from 'notice' to end of line 21.

Amendment No. 211, in clause 58, page 32, line 17, at end insert—

    '(5)(A) A person may not be required under section 56 to produce any document or information provided to him under a duty of confidentiality in respect of it.'.

Amendment No. 215, in clause 60, page 33, line 37, leave out from 'to' to 'state' in line 38.

New clause 16—Legal privilege—

    '(1) Provision may be made by regulation for the resolution of disputes as to whether a document, or part of a document, is an item subject to legal privilege.

    (2) The regulations may, in particular, make provision as to—

    (a) the custody of the document whilst its status is being decided,

    (b) the appointment of an independent, legally qualified person to decide the matter,

    (c) the procedure to be followed, and

    (d) the costs of the proceedings.'.

Mr. Grieve: I apologise, Mr. O'Brien, for not being able to hear the Minister's reply to the amendments or to participate further in the debate once I have spoken. However, as I tabled most of the amendments, I will speak to them.

The Bill gives the power not only to seize documents or to ask where they might be, but to ask questions of a third party who is not under investigation in respect of the content of those documents. Power exists in company law and in respect of serious fraud to ask a third party to provide explanations. However, when the power in this part of the Bill was first proposed, the justification for it, which I heard on the radio, was that it was inconvenient to have to go to court to obtain a production order in relation to documents and that what was desired was the ability to attend the home of a third party and to secure documentation without going through the court procedure. I was comfortable with that concept, as it seemed that what was proposed made sense. On examining the detail, however, it became clear that a much wider power was proposed,
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although the explanation on the radio was probably not made wilfully. It is the power not only to say, ''Have you got any of Bloggs's documents in your house,'' or to seize them or to say, ''Can you show me where they are?'', but to say, ''Tell me what these things are all about from what you know of them?''.

I said earlier, not entirely tongue in cheek, that these are fascist provisions, the provisions of a totalitarian state. If they are to be implemented, we need a good and sufficient reason for doing so. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said earlier, which I echoed, SOCA's remit is potentially extremely wide.

These are probing amendments on a matter of principle; I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to discuss them, and I will read Hansard and think about what is said. I hope that she will explain why the power has to be so widely drawn if what is desired is the ability to seize documentation and materials speedily. The measure goes much further than that, and it could be argued that if the Minister wishes to include the power to ask questions of a third party about the material, it should be put in a more restricted setting than that of the seizure of documents—there could be a two-tier system. I will return to the matter on Report if I am not satisfied with the Minister's answers.

Mr. McWalter: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he is not committing the logical fallacy of affirming a consequence by saying that a fascist state has a police force, Britain has a police force, therefore Britain is a fascist state? The hon. Gentleman's argument sounds like that.

10 am

Mr. Grieve: There are basic principles of law that have existed in this country for a long time; exceptions are sometimes made—for example, a person has a privilege against self-incrimination, and a person who is not under investigation has no duty or responsibility to answer questions asked by a person in authority, except in a number of set provisions, such as when filling in a tax return. It is therefore unusual to demand of someone who is not under investigation—it is worth bearing in mind that some pretty draconian penalties are provided in the Bill—that unless they tell everything they know about someone else or his business affairs, they will go to prison for a long time. That is the stick that is being waved at them. In a free society, we have consistently avoided doing that, even though I accept that those exercising power in the state may find it convenient to have such a power. The Minister tells us that that power will not be abused, and I know that she speaks with complete and transparent honesty when she expresses that view. However, it is not a light matter that we will implement in this clause.

This morning, I heard on the radio about Prince Harry getting into trouble for wearing fancy dress. It made me laugh slightly that a huge amount of noise was made about that, when it seemed to me to be, at worst, a matter of bad taste for which an apology should be readily accepted, yet there has been very little comment about the fact that in a Committee such
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as this we are implementing exactly the sorts of powers that that sort of state would happily have taken to itself.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab): Oh, for heaven's sake!

Mr. Grieve: No, no, no.

David Cairns: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Grieve: No.

David Cairns: Outrageous.

Mr. Grieve: Will the hon. Gentleman keep quiet for a moment?

I shall now turn to new clause 16, which deals with the question of privileged documents and is probing in its intent. When I read the Bill, it was not clear to me how disputes in respect of privileged documents would be resolved. The proposed new clause therefore puts forward a way in which that might be done. I will be grateful to hear from the Minister whether that mechanism might be helpful, or whether she can reassure the Committee that there will be a tried and tested procedure that can be adopted to resolve such issues. I am sure that other members of the Committee will agree that that is important. The Government have been consistent in the past in protecting privileged documents and communications, and there should therefore be no difficulty over that matter. I hope that the Minister can provide some reassurance on that point.

I apologise to the Committee that the requirements of going to a funeral mean that I cannot stay. I am sorry if some members of the Committee felt upset at my comments, but we should not blindly take powers because it seems convenient to do so, without constantly remembering why it is that over the past 150 years Parliament has consistently prevented the Government from getting that type of power. It is the fact that we have done that which makes us the sort of country, with the sort of freedoms, in which we live today. If we just get rid of those freedoms at the stroke of a pen without carefully considering the implications, we are in danger of creating a very different kind of society.

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Prepared 13 January 2005