Draft Crime (International Co-operation) Act 2003 (Designation of Participating Countries) (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) Order 2008

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Mr. Ruffley: I will give a genuine answer. The report does not specifically refer to the passenger information issue or to the order, but to Brussels. The right hon. Gentleman can read the report on the internet. My information is that that source referred to the arrangements that we are talking about.
John Reid: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Ruffley: In a moment. As we shall vote on the order, it seems legitimate to ask the Minister whether she is aware of the request.
John Reid: rose—
Mr. Ruffley: I will give way in a minute. If the Minister is not aware of that request, no one would be more delighted than I to get a denial on the record. Then we will all be happy. I give way to the right hon. Gentleman, who must contain himself.
John Reid: It is difficult to give an answer to a question, the premise of which is not based on empirical evidence or fact. Will the hon. Gentleman therefore tell us—[Interruption.] I am asking for elucidation for the Committee. He said that his information is that the reference was to the order. Will he share the nature and the source of that information with the Committee?
Mr. Ruffley: I will not engage in nit-picking. The right hon. Gentleman does not want his Minister to answer. I have read out the source, and it should not be too difficult for the Minister to deny that it refers to the order. What possible objection can the right hon. Gentleman have to a question put to the Minister in simple terms—that is, does the set of requests that will allegedly be made by the Department of Homeland Security relate to the order? Is the Minister aware of that? The answer is yes or no. The right hon. Gentleman obviously does not like debate. We are here to ask questions, and the right hon. Gentleman should let the Minister answer.
I repeat my final question, as we have been detained by the deeply unhelpful peregrinations of the former Home Secretary. Will the Minister place a copy of the guidelines in the Library, so that we can scrutinise them?
3.23 pm
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. O’Hara. I hope that it has not been too taxing so far.
I have a limited number of straightforward questions for the Minister. First, there has clearly been some delay in putting the order before Members. Is there an explanation for why it has take so long to reach this point? Echoing the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds, it would be useful to know how many requests have been processed so far, so that we have an idea of the scale. As the Minister indicated, there are informal arrangements at present. Is there anything different in the more formalised arrangements that we are discussing?
I am sure all Members will welcome the fact that the arrangements are mutual. Will the Minister say whether comparable tests will be used in the UK and the US to authorise the requests? There is a list of judicial and prosecuting authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Will the Minister say whether there is comparability between the authorities in the UK that can make requests and those in the US? Finally, will the Minister say whether there are any other designations from other countries that we might consider shortly?
3.25 pm
John Reid: I am more or less prompted by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds to contribute to the debate. He is not an unpleasant chap, but his contribution was slightly over-long and less than substantial in content. In particular, I do not understand how anyone on the Opposition Front Bench could speak about the order for almost half an hour without using the phrase “victims of crime”, which is what the order is about.
The order seeks to ensure that our system is fair, and that citizens of the United Kingdom are protected from criminality in an age of huge mobility, when the movement of people around the world and international crime are heavier than ever before and when international terrorism is a concern. In the past fortnight we discovered that fraud among marketing managers appears to have risen by 40 per cent. in the recent past.
Not once in the hon. Gentleman’s 30-minute contribution did he make any reference to the victims of crime. There was no reference to those who have suffered as a result of terrorism, fraud or international scams or to the nature of the justice that we are trying to bring about, together with our major international partners. I hope my contribution will be as short and substantial as his was over-long and insubstantial.
Will my hon. Friend the Minister please respond by describing how the legislation will contribute towards alleviating some of the threats, pressures and possible damage against the ordinary people of this country, who are the potential victims of such crime?
3.27 pm
Perhaps that has more to do with a distant by-election campaign and silly points to be made in relation to that, instead of helping to support victims of crime, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts rightly highlighted. That is one point on which we might have agreed, as the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds acknowledged that crime now crosses borders on a regular basis, so it is important that we have the safeguards in place to deal with it.
A number of detailed points were raised, so I shall have to detain the Committee to answer them, but I hope my comments will be more informative than those from the Opposition. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire asked why the explanatory memorandum did not include a reference to section 35. I did not have the explanatory memorandum immediately to hand, so I took him on trust when he said there was no reference. However, section 35 is dealt with in paragraph 2 of the explanatory note and paragraph 7.4 of the explanatory memorandum. Next time he should check his facts before raising such concerns.
Mr. Gray: Will the Minister give way?
Meg Hillier: I have many points to answer and we have heard a great deal from the Opposition. If I could get into my stride, that would be helpful.
We heard much about the difference between serious criminal conduct and the serious code. I stress that we are here today not to make primary legislation, but to decide whether primary legislation that has already been debated extensively in the House and which is already part of law should be extended by order to an additional country. If there are concerns about the primary legislation, I will happily write to the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds, but I will need to look back at the activity undertaken, both in Brussels and the House, to decide on the language used at that point. However, that is not the issue today.
I am mindful that in Committees chaired excellently by you, Mr. O’Hara, and other members of the Chairmen’s Panel, it is important that we stick to the subject of debate and do not go beyond it.
Mr. Ruffley: I am somewhat surprised that the Minister does not want to delineate the difference between the customer information order and the monitoring order. Why does one apply to serious criminal misconduct and the other not? It is at the heart of the order. Will she refresh our memory about what the primary legislation and the debate at the time said about the difference between the two orders and the tests applied to them?
Meg Hillier: I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman, but he could look it up in Hansard himself. Rather than going into detail about that, I shall move on and pick up on some of the other points that he raised, particularly in relation to section 32 and customer information.
In simple terms, customer information is details concerning whether a person holds a particular account; account information includes details of activity in a particular account; they are different matters. The hon. Gentleman also raised issues with sections 43 and 44 involving UK requests dealing with foreign accounts, account monitoring orders and the difference between criminal processes. I have dealt with that as far as I can in this Committee.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire spoke about the drafting of the protocol. I must write to him about that, as I was not involved in it, and it would be better for me to check the facts absolutely. As he is an experienced Member of the House, I am sure that he is aware that it takes a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in discussions and debates in Europe and a lot of negotiation at the diplomatic stage to reach agreement across the European Union. As a Home Office Minister, I am involved in that now, but I was not in a position to do so—in fact, I was not even an elected Member of the House—at the time when the protocol was drafted.
I will have to look at Home Office records to see what discussions previous Ministers had at the time. I know that great work is done in Europe by our diplomatic and ministerial teams to ensure that we get things as right as we can for the UK’s interests. I attempt to achieve that as a Home Office Minister in Europe, and I have no doubt that my predecessors, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts, did the same.
The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds attacked the United States of America for its keenness to use extraterritorial powers freely. This point has been made, but it is worth stressing again: there are safeguards in place. There is a threshold that must be reached. The Secretary of State has discretion. She must ask an operational officer to go to the Crown court, where the judge can refuse a request. It is not an unfettered right.
On the issue of information, I am not keen to debate a partial quote from a newspaper article that I have not read in which unnamed people are quoted, but I should make it clear that I also deal in Europe with passenger name records. That is a different matter from the one covered by the order. Although I could explain in a lot of detail what passenger name records do, suffice it to say that we have agreements. Through e-Borders, a system that I hope all parties acknowledge is important in monitoring migrants entering and leaving the country, we monitor the information that people provide as passengers. We are in discussions with the US and across Europe about how to extend that. That is a different issue, and it does not relate to the order.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): The scale of the impact is obviously an issue for debate. An impact assessment has not been prepared. What is the Department’s estimate of how many requests will be forthcoming under the two sections?
Mr. Gray: I am extremely interested to hear that in the three years in which the order has been in effect with regard to the EU, there have been no requests. Can the Minister claim, therefore, that the order has some particular purpose? It has not been used for the last three years and she is just about to argue that it will not be used successfully for years to come. What on earth is the purpose of it?
Meg Hillier: The Government have to take responsibility for planning for any future possibility. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds acknowledged that financial crime crosses boundaries. It is important that we have the tools in place to deal with these issues. Perhaps there are not such issues in Europe. I know that, as other hon. Members have highlighted, there are issues with transfers of money and financial crimes that cross borders. It is right that we have powers in place. That the powers have not been used in Europe, to my knowledge, is no reason for not having safeguards in place to ensure that victims of such crimes are protected in future.
I move on to the issue of micro-banks and small businesses.
Mr. Blunt: Will the hon. Lady give way?
Meg Hillier: May I please make some progress?
Here, I again refer to the scaremongering from the Opposition that there will be a flood of requests. There is not likely to be a flood of requests or a heavy burden for banks. Since 2006, banks have had to have a mechanism in place to deal with such requests, but this is not a routine matter. It is a question of taking each case on its merits. A request would not go to a bank until it had been considered by the Secretary of State and had gone, via the Crown court, through the processes that I have described. At that point, the banks would have to get involved.
There is no plan to undertake a further impact assessment, because we have not had to use this power; we do not believe that to be necessary just because we are introducing one additional country.
Tom Brake: I do not want to prolong the Minister’s pain, but there is an issue with the number of requests. If a large block of requests came in, could the Secretary of State dismiss all the applications en bloc because of the scale or because no particular assessment had been done at the other end, or would each one require assessment?
Meg Hillier: Perhaps I should clarify that there is no pain for me in explaining Government policy on this important matter. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. As with other information requests that pass across international borders, it is important that the country making the request do so in line with the protocol and agreement.
There may be instances where the evidence from the requesting country suggests that there is not just one case, but that information might have to be captured for others. The requesting country might have picked up a pattern of behaviour—perhaps of money coming on certain routes across Europe or the world. That route map may lead it to question a number of bank accounts when it does an exercise. At other times, it might have an individual case.
It will be for the Secretary of State to assess the evidence gathered by the requesting country, in this case the United States. At that point, the Secretary of State would have to be satisfied that there was good reason for a request that caught a lot of individuals. She would have to judge the case on its merits in deciding whether to split it up because it was oversimplifying a number of individual cases, or to take it as a genuine single case with lots of parties involved. We have long-established protocols in place for dealing with that.
Overall, it is not possible to make a block request for data. A request should be related to a particular account. There may be multiple requests on a single type of approach, perhaps if a money laundering ring has been uncovered. In that case, a number of requests might come in on the same issue, but it would not be just a block presented to Her Majesty’s Government.
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