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25 Nov 2008 : Column 210WH—continued

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
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understand why, after such a lengthy investigation, Equitable Life policyholders, and Members, are keen to know the Government’s response.

Jo Swinson: We are particularly keen because the Government said that they would tell people by the autumn. We are well passed autumn, so when will the Government respond?

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 yesterday’s pre-Budget report?

Ian Pearson: I have had discussions with the Chancellor on Equitable Life and on when we could make a statement in the House. Hopefully, I or the Chief Secretary will make one shortly.

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 party’s or Liberal Democrats’ positions. I have been trying to focus on how we can reach a decision on all the findings in the ombudsman’s report and produce a statement to the House.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): Has the Minister instructed his officials to assess possible
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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 Chancellor’s agreement. Has he done that investigation?

Ian Pearson: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is not Government practice to provide a running commentary on policy discussions with officials.

I have heard calls today for the Government to accept the ombudsman’s 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 Government’s 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 Government’s 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.

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Serious Organised Crime Agency

12.30 pm

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 SOCA’s 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:

The NAO said that the ARA had collected £23 million against cumulative costs of £65 million.

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 measures—the 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
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Information) Order 2008—were considered in Committee on 24 June 2008. The explanatory notes to those orders stated:

That point was reaffirmed in the other place when their lordships considered the orders. Lord West stated:

In Committee on 24 June, the point was reiterated by the Minister, who said:

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 order—it permitted information to be disclosed to SOCA—was 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.

On my review and interpretation of the orders, there was an extension, and the approach was wider than asset recovery functions. The Minister e-mailed me 16 July 2008:

He added:

I countered by saying that although I understood the Minister’s 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
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recovery whereas the other did not. The Minister kindly took on board my points and said that he would revoke the order. He commented:

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, advised—as I am sure that he will explain to the House today—that 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 House’s 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 given—I believe it was given—that 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

However, he said that he believed that it would be

albeit that, as I have said, the inbound information gateway has that slight distinction.

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:

the ARA—

He followed that up with:

Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, answered:

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I have recently received a parliamentary answer from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell):

I take what is said in that answer, but the question remains whether there will be a level of transparency that allows an assessment of costs recovered and spent.

The National Audit Office raised certain recommendations, as I said previously, with recommendation (b) requiring that the case management system be developed. The NAO commented:

A further parliamentary answer from the Under-Secretary confirmed:

On recommendation (b) he added:

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

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?

12.47 pm

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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In answer to a question that I tabled, the Minister said:

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