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Let me return to the point. [Hon. Members: Get on with it.] In July, the ombudsman published a substantial report that was the culmination of her four-year investigation, as we heard from hon. Members. I fully
understand why, after such a lengthy investigation, Equitable Life policyholders, and Members, are keen to know the Governments response.
Ian Pearson: I shall explain, if the hon. Lady will allow me. She will know that I have been Economic Secretary since September, but the ombudsman produced her report in July, and we have been considering it since then.
Daniel Kawczynski: For the record, will the Minister confirm whether he had discussions with the Chancellor on Equitable Life, and whether he asked the Chancellor to address the issue in yesterdays pre-Budget report?
Hon. Members will appreciate the significant factual and technical complexity of the issues investigated by the ombudsman and of the details of her 10 findings. As the House would expect, it has been necessary for the Government to take time to consider the report in detail. Instead of making partisan political points, the Government should get the detail right and respond in a mature and thorough way, which is what we plan to do.
Mr. Drew: I hope the Government will respond expeditiously. What does the Minister think are the costs to which other parties have committed themselves in order to compensate Equitable Life policyholders?
Ian Pearson: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I have not made an estimate of the Conservative partys or Liberal Democrats positions. I have been trying to focus on how we can reach a decision on all the findings in the ombudsmans report and produce a statement to the House.
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD):
Has the Minister instructed his officials to assess possible
compensation payable to Equitable Life policyholders? Part of his final decision, which he will eventually put before the House, will depend on those figures and the Chancellors agreement. Has he done that investigation?
I have heard calls today for the Government to accept the ombudsmans recommendations, including her central recommendation that the Government should establish and fund a compensation scheme with the aim of restoring policyholders who suffered a relative loss to the position in which they would have been, had the maladministration that she found not occurred. In considering those recommendations, the Government must weigh in the balance the interests of policyholders and taxpayers generally. However, hon. Members will appreciate that, until a decision is announced, I can say little more about the detail of the Governments response, although it has been helpful to hear today the strength of feeling among them.
Mr. Tyrie: I mean no disrespect to the Minister. I mentioned in my speech what a difficult task he had on his hands replying to a debate on a policy for which he no doubt had no direct responsibility. However, does he not understand that making the kind of speech that he is making, with such blatant and continual obfuscation, tarnishes the respect for politics, politicians and the way we conduct our business in this place? That cannot carry on. He must at least agree to write to us, within a week, with the date on which we will receive the Governments response.
Ian Pearson: I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that he appreciates that neither the Government, nor I today, have been guilty of obfuscation. I am trying to reach a position whereby we can shortly make a ministerial statement to both Houses. It is right that we respond, and we said that we wanted to do so by the autumn. I appreciate that we are getting close to the end of autumn, but we will make the statement very soon. I am sure that hon. Members will want to attend and to ask questions of the Government when we announce details of our full response to the ombudsman.
James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): I thank you, Mrs. Winterton, for the opportunity to discuss the information-sharing gateways of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and, in particular, the rights that attach to it following the transfer of some of the functions of the Assets Recovery Agency, which was wound up in April.
A wider debate on the general performance information available on SOCA and the ability of the House to scrutinise its activities effectively will be necessary at some point. There was a suggestion that the Select Committee on Home Affairs would conduct an inquiry into SOCA, but that has not yet come to fruition. My general concerns are the opaqueness of SOCAs activities and the assessment of its performance, but such a wider debate is for another day, and for the whole House because of its seriousness, and I do not intend to stray into it in this debate. Rather, I have an opportunity to discuss the narrower, more technical matter of the information-sharing requirements that were placed on SOCA following the transfer of powers from the ARA earlier this year.
At the outset, I thank the Minister for the constructive way in which he has sought to address some of the points that I will discuss. I am grateful for the steps that he has sought to take, although, unfortunately, it has proved necessary to introduce an Adjournment debate properly to explore the things that need to be considered.
On 11 January 2007, the then Home Secretary announced the transfer of the asset recovery functions of the ARA to SOCA, with the training functions going to the National Policing Improvement Agency, with effect from 1 April 2008. That announcement preceded a highly critical report of the performance of the ARA by the National Audit Office in February 2007. The report made a number of recommendations on the functions of the ARA that the NAO said would be applicable to the successor bodies that took over its functions. The report included significant criticism of the case management database, which the NAO described as poor. The NAO stated:
We had great difficulty in compiling a comprehensive list of cases and tracking their value and progress.
As I have said, the transfer of the asset recovery functions of the ARA to SOCA was effective on 1 April 2008. The measure was implemented by the Serious Crime Act 2007. In conducting its work, the ARA used information gateways for information that was disclosed to it by partner agencies to enable it to conduct its duties and to fulfil its responsibilities, and there were gateways that authorised the ARA to disclose specified information that it had obtained to certain other agencies.
The transfer of those powers was not addressed directly in the 2007 Act. Nearly two months after the transfer of the functions, the Government introduced secondary legislation to address the gap. Those measuresthe draft Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (Disclosure of Information by SOCA) Order 2008, and the draft Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (Disclosure of
Information) Order 2008were considered in Committee on 24 June 2008. The explanatory notes to those orders stated:
It is the policy that those undertaking civil recovery functions shall have the same provisions applying to them as...ARA.
The orders merely ensure that organisations which inherited the Assets Recovery Agencys work and functions can access the same information sources that were available to the agency and can disclose the same information onwards.[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 June 2008; Vol. 702, c. GC371.]
So, the orders ensure that SOCA and others that inherit the civil recovery functions have the same information gateways as were available to the Assets Recovery Agency. There is no change in policy. The orders are not giving SOCA or any other agency powers or functions that were not previously available to the Assets Recovery Agency.[Official Report, Fifth Delegated Legislation Committee, 24 June 2008; c. 4.]
During the consideration of the two orders, I highlighted the fact that one of the orders went beyond the rights that had been enjoyed by the ARA. The inbound orderit permitted information to be disclosed to SOCAwas limited to conducting asset recovery functions. However, the general outbound disclosure provision, meaning the provision on disclosure by SOCA to certain specified third parties, was not limited specifically to asset recovery functions, but applied generally to SOCA functions. I made that point in Committee and the Minister kindly said that he would look at the matter, as he has done previously when technical problems have been highlighted, and investigate whether the explanatory notes or statements on the statutory order were correct.
The intention when the Assets Recovery Agency...was abolished and certain of its functions were inherited by SOCA was that SOCA should also inherit the same powers, including powers to disclose information. The Orders operation goes beyond the narrow policy intention.
I do not want SOCA to lose an information sharing provision unless there are reasonable counter-arguments. I am therefore content for the gateway provisions to have their broad application, although I accept that this goes beyond the original stated policy intention.
I countered by saying that although I understood the Ministers points, I felt that our considerations, including statements and explanatory notes, did not adequately set out what the provisions actually achieved. I felt that the House should have that corrected and that a restatement should be made. The Minister made some reasonable points on whether SOCA should have general information gateways to disclose certain pieces of information on prevention of harm and financial crimes to other agencies to investigate, but I wanted people to have the opportunity to decide whether that was appropriate.
The point is that the situation was not as was stated. I therefore replied to the Minister on 22 July pointing out that that approach was not the way forward, that further consideration was appropriate and that one of the orders appeared to limit and restrict rights to asset
recovery whereas the other did not. The Minister kindly took on board my points and said that he would revoke the order. He commented:
These gateways, I am sure you will agree, are important for the fight against serious organised crime. In order to address your concerns we shall be laying a new Order revoking the existing one so as to allow for a full explanation and debate on the effect of the statutory instrument.
The Minister, whom I entirely respect, was true to his word and tried to do that, so that we could have the debate. However, having tried to go down that route he was, I believe, advisedas I am sure that he will explain to the House todaythat unfortunately, for various technical and procedural reasons, it was not possible to do so, and that the best means of debating the issue and putting it on record and correcting in some ways what had been said before was an Adjournment debate. That is why I am using the Houses time to correct some of what has been said and to achieve clarity. I do not believe that there was an intention to give a false impression or not to state the ambit and operation of the orders correctly. However, as a consequence of the statements and explanatory notes, an impression may have been givenI believe it was giventhat the outbound order was more limited than it was.
The issues that we are debating are technical and procedural. It is important that SOCA should have the right powers to do its job effectively. Will the Minister explain how he believes the extension in question will help it with its activities, through the information gateway that the two orders provide? How has the power been used to date? Prior to June it did not exist. The Minister explained to me in a further letter of 6 October 2008 that
SOCA did not specifically request an extension of their general gateways to cover onward disclosure in respect of protecting public health and the functions of the Financial Services Authority under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000.
inconsistent...to have different...gateways for different purposes,
Before I finish, there are a few more general points, one of which concerns the measurement of performance. During consideration by the Public Accounts Committee of the National Audit Office report, on 7 March 2007, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) now the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, asked the Comptroller and Auditor General:
Can you reassure us that when your unit
is merged with SOCA and the other units, we will still be able to assess for example whether the costs spent on this unit exceed or is less than the assets recovered? Will we still be able to do that exercise?
One of the criteria of the PAC, and I know it is a crude one, to assess value for money is whether the cost spent exceeds the amount of assets recovered. When this unit merges, will you still be able to do that task?
Yes. It should have a proper system of management accounts which will provide that information and we shall see that it does have.
Information on the application of civil recovery and taxation powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 will be published by the Serious Organised Crime Agency as part of its annual report. The presentation of this data will be aligned with SOCAs reporting on its existing asset recovery powers and as such will not make use of older formats. SOCA has not inherited all of the Asset Recovery Agencys asset recovery powers and, unlike ARA, SOCA will not be the sole agency exercising civil recovery powers. Any like-for-like comparisons with ARAs past achievements will therefore be inhibited.[Official Report, 10 November 2008; Vol. 482, c. 810W.]
Once this is established, the Agency should use the data collected to help inform case selection and prioritisation and to review its performance measurement regime so that it incorporates targets that are measurable, challenging and achievable, such as reducing the cost and time per case.
SOCA has implemented Recommendations (a) to (d) of the NAO report.
SOCA has case management systems in place which contain all relevant management information.[Official Report, 10 November 2008; Vol. 482, c. 811W.]
My question to the Minister today is not simply whether the case management is in place, but equally whether what are described as measurable, challenging and achievable performance measurements are equally in place and will be published so that there can be appropriate scrutiny.
A general issue of disclosure arises. I have covered some quite narrow issues in relation to the disclosure gateways, but I note from a statement yesterday from the Ministry of Justice that that Department proposes to
confer a power upon the Secretary of State to permit or require the sharing of personal information between particular specified persons, where a robust case for doing so exists.[Official Report, 24 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 39WS.]
On my reading, that announcement would appear to apply a very general and broad-brush approach to data sharing. Will the Minister clarify whether he has had any discussions with his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice about the application of what appear to be quite wide-ranging powers to SOCA or any other agencies, given that data sharing needs to be tightly defined for specific purposes?
Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) for giving me a minute or two on SOCA. The question in his excellent speech was the release of information, but my concern is that there is no information to release in many cases.
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