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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (Application and Modification of Certain Enactments to Designated Staff of SOCA) Order 2006

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First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


John Bercow

Benyon, Mr. Richard (Newbury) (Con)
Cooper, Rosie (West Lancashire) (Lab)
Cox, Mr. Geoffrey (Torridge and West Devon) (Con)
†Cryer, Mrs. Ann (Keighley) (Lab)
Davies, Philip (Shipley) (Con)
†Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) (Lab)
†Fabricant, Michael (Lichfield) (Con)
†Featherstone, Lynne (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD)
†Goggins, Paul (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Henderson, Mr. Doug (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab)
†Herbert, Nick (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
†Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)
Hunter, Mark (Cheadle) (LD)
†Mahmood, Mr. Khalid (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab)
†Pound, Stephen (Ealing, North) (Lab)
†Ryan, Joan (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
†Wright, Mr. Anthony (
Great Yarmouth) (Lab)
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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Monday 20 March 2006

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Draft Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (Application and Modification of Certain Enactments to Designated Staff of SOCA) Order 2006

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (Application and Modification of Certain Enactments to Designated Staff of SOCA) Order 2006.

It is very good to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Bercow.

As the Committee will be aware, organised crime is one of the biggest challenges facing law enforcement in this country today. Indeed, it poses problems for all of us through the harm that it causes. Some people pay directly through harm to their health or their livelihoods. Others pay indirectly through the increased cost of goods and services because of fraud, or through their tax bill.

In the White Paper, “One Step Ahead”, the Government made a commitment to create a new agency—the Serious Organised Crime Agency—to counter those threats. It brings together staff from the former Customs and Excise, the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the UK immigration service.

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 established SOCA, which will assume its functions on 1 April. Section 43 of that Act specified that the director general may designate SOCA staff with powers, as long as they are capable, adequately trained and suitable to apply for them. He may designate staff as having one or more powers of a constable, the customs power of an officer of Revenue and Customs, and the powers of an immigration officer. That was discussed and agreed during the passage of the Act.

Initially, SOCA will designate officers only with the powers that they have been operating in their precursor agency. So a SOCA officer who was a police officer with the National Crime Squad would be designated only with the powers of a constable. Over time, of course, as people are trained in other powers, they will be designated with those other powers. SOCA staff members will depend on other legislation, such as the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, when using the powers with which they have been designated.

In many cases, that other legislation is framed in such a way that it can be used by a SOCA staff member with the necessary designation. However, in some cases, features of that legislation need technical amendment before it can be applied by a SOCA officer
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as set out in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. Section 52 of that Act makes provision for such   amendments to be made through secondary legislation.

That is what the order being considered today does. It uses the power in section 52 to amend a small number of enactments, so that the powers they confer can be operated by SOCA officers. The Acts it amends are the Immigration Act 1971, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. There are no amendments needed to the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 because the powers it provides can be operated by a designated SOCA officer without any amendment.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Rightly, the Minister is telling us the powers that a serious and organised crime officer will have. Can he help the Committee by reminding us of the definition of a serious crime and how closely it is defined, so that we can be assured that it will not apply to less serious crimes?

Paul Goggins: Serious organised crime covers a range of offences, but the most serious offences on which the Home Secretary wishes the new agency to concentrate are drug trafficking and human trafficking. The partnership that SOCA will have with local police forces will be vital to ensure that they build the intelligence and deal with the criminality that is there.

In accordance with section 52(6), the Secretary of State has consulted Scottish Ministers, who have indicated that they are content. I commend the order to the Committee.

4.34 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): May I say what a great pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow? In deference to your stature, I shall keep my jacket and tie firmly on.

I am grateful to the Minister for setting out briefly what the order does. I have some questions about it, which I hope he will be able to answer. My hon. Friends and I agree with him about the importance of dealing with serious organised crime, which is why we supported the creation of the agency. The losses and harms attributed to serious organised crime are estimated to cost at least £20 billion per annum. It makes up a significant proportion—probably more than half—of the total amount of crime committed in this country.

The agency will be in a unique position as its officers will not be police officers, Revenue and Customs officers or immigration officers, apart from a small number of secondees, but they will be able to exercise the same powers. On Second Reading of the Bill that created the agency, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) expressed his concern that civilians would be given police, Customs and immigration powers. We sought clarification on the checks that existed in the legislation to ensure that civilians who were
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empowered in that way were given adequate training. The checks to ensure that they receive appropriate training, are capable and suitable to exercise the powers are important.

The order enshrines the principle that civilian staff may be given those powers. That has been agreed and I do not question it. However, how many employees are likely to be affected by the order? I understand that, potentially, there will be 4,000 employees in the agency. How many are we talking about? Which duties would they not be able to do were it not for the order? It is very legalistic and it would help the Committee if we understood what powers will be exercised.

Can the Minister give me further assurance about the measures, which I hope are already under way, to ensure that the checks and balances to which I referred—training and so on—will be applied in the case of the civilians who are designated with powers under the order? We must know that the powers that we usually entrust to professionals such as Customs officers are exercised with due care and discretion.

4.38 pm

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): May I, too, say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow?

Most of the proposed changes seem to be tidying-up measures, as the powers that might be needed were not given originally. However, I have some questions on the application of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, as I am rather concerned about the balance being blurred between the designated persons in the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the local police force.

In respect of the Anti-social Behaviour Act, I would like the Minister to explain the link between SOCA and antisocial behaviour because there seem to be different levels of seriousness. Can he give examples to illustrate the need for those proposals? For example, obviously, crack-houses should be closed down. If SOCA were to find a crack-house, why would it not simply inform the local police to close it down? What is the power designated to those in the agency? I need to understand how the boundaries will be respected and exactly where they lie.

4.40 pm

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): May I, too, express my pleasure at serving under your chairship, Mr. Bercow? I am afraid that I do not have a tie that I can keep on in order to demonstrate my deep respect for you. I hope that you will understand.

I have a couple of questions and I should like to make a couple of observations. Having served as a Home Office Minister for a year, I know some of the issues faced by the forces of law and order in dealing with the newer types of globalised crime that cause immense social damage in many areas. One of the features of both drug trafficking and people trafficking, apart from the scale of the profits and the fact that they are recycled into crime to make the operations even more sophisticated, is that they cross borders. They also cross many barriers.

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It will be difficult to cope with the huge new challenges posed by cross-border crime if we keep ourselves in neat little boxes. That is why I welcome the creation of SOCA to deal with some of those challenges. The Government and the forces of law and order have ensured that some of the barriers that Customs and police officers have faced in working together, which have tended to be bureaucratic and set out in law, can be overcome. SOCA and other legislation, including the changes before us, provide that new flexibility.

It is absurd if a group of police officers cannot arrest extremely dangerous global criminals or undertake a Customs raid, simply because they do not have among them people with the bureaucratic legal duty. It is important that officers should be able to be flexible across the piece. As I understand it, that is what these powers are for. The measure should make our battle against organised criminals, who are very flexible, much more effective.

I am sure that the Minister can reassure us that disciplinary issues and complaints will be dealt with in a way that we would all recognise. It is important not only that our officers have flexibility under different legislation, but that the basic principles set out, for example, in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 are adhered to when suspects are picked up and have their rights read to them. With the assurances that I hope that the Minister will give us, I welcome the flexibility that the changes will allow across the different services—Customs, immigration and police. Often, those involved in cross-border crime break a range of our laws, and their offences need to be dealt with as flexibly, quickly and efficiently as possible. If that happens, I will welcome the changes.

4.43 pm

Paul Goggins: The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) started by underlining how much harm organised criminality does. I repeat that it is not just financial harm but harm to health and to people’s livelihoods. That is why we must take the challenge extremely seriously. He is correct to say that SOCA officers will be designated with the powers, rather than the office, of other officers, whether they be police, immigration or Customs officers. He was right to emphasise the importance of training. That will be required, and the person involved will have to be considered capable by the director general before such a designation can be made. I am sure that the Committee will be reassured to know that the designation will be reviewed annually as part of SOCA’s staff appraisal process. The designation will happen, but it will be kept under review.

The hon. Gentleman inquired about numbers. As things stand, following designation, 1,060 former police officers will have the powers of constables, 75 former immigration officers will have immigration powers, and 600 former Customs officers will have Customs powers. That is only the starting point. We want not only additional officers to be designated with particular powers, but those powers to be shared. One individual might hold the powers of both a constable
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and an immigration officer. We want SOCA to be seen not as all the old organisations brought together into one but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) outlined, as a truly unified organisation with a lot of flexibility that is able to deal with the threats that it faces.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) said that this is a tidying-up exercise. In some ways, it is. We are here today because some of the legislation that will empower the designated officers was passed before the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. We need to amend the earlier legislation to allow those people to exercise their powers in full. She asked specifically about the Anti-social Behaviour Act. I am sure that she will be reassured to know that we want SOCA officers to have the powers that exist under that Act to close a crack-house. At the moment, they would not be able to do that, so we have to change that legislation. The tidying-up will ensure that SOCA officers are not constrained, but empowered to take the appropriate action.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey rightly reminded the Committee of her distinguished service in the Home Office. I remember it well. I was a
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Parliamentary Private Secretary in the same team, and I acknowledge her experience and contribution on the international scene as well as domestically. She is right to point to this as an international issue and to call for flexibility and co-operation between our law enforcement agencies and those in the rest of the world. There needs to be better collaboration with Interpol and closer co-operation with Europol, as well as better co-operation between individual law enforcement agencies in different countries. Whether we are concerned with human trafficking from Lithuania or drug smuggling from Colombia, we want our law enforcement agencies to work more closely with other agencies. SOCA and the powers that we designate through it will enable that to happen. Our intelligence gathering will be more effective, and so will the operations that result from it.

Finally, I can confirm that discipline will be a matter for the director general, who will be accountable to the Home Office for the running of SOCA. The Home Secretary will keep all these things under review.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (Application and Modification of Certain Enactments to Designated Staff of SOCA) Order 2006.

Committee rose at twelve minutes to Five o’clock.


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