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Baroness O'Cathain: Before the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, sits down, perhaps the Committee may allow me to say how very grateful I am for what she has just said. But she has given notice that she will fight vigorously for the reintroduction of the clause. I give the noble Baroness notice that I will do precisely the same.
The noble Baroness said: In speaking to Amendment No. 1, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 2 and 4. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, for their support. The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that the board of the Serious Organised Crime Agency cannot be controlled by the Secretary of State. We believe that there should be built-in symmetry between the ex officio members and ordinary members. Our amendments would preserve political accountability without allowing political control.
I will now address my amendments in a little detail, but not too much. At this stage, it might be helpful if I say that I understand that the Minister may be able to make certain representations in response to this group of amendments which will further assist the progress of the Bill today. Obviously, whatever the Minister says in regard to my amendments may not bind any other Members of the Committee. But if the noble Baroness is able to give certain undertakings, it may be that I will not need to move a considerable number of my amendments.
Paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 sets out the composition of the Serious Organised Crime Agency board and contemplates a board that will comprise three categories of member: namely, the chairman, to be appointed by the Secretary of State; ex officio members who are to include the director general of SOCA and other employees of SOCA who will be appointed by the director general after consultation with the chairman; and the so-called "ordinary" members who will be appointed directly by the Secretary of State. There are no qualifying conditions that ordinary members must meet, so the Secretary of State is left with an unfettered choice. He also appoints, of course, the director-general. The board is therefore limited to the direct appointees of the Secretary of Statethe chairman and the ordinary membersand the appointees of the director-general, who is himself an appointee.
That is clearly designed to prevent the ordinary members being regularly outvoted by the ex-officio members. We hope that the board would not be split on a regular basis between the ex-officio members and the ordinary members appointed directly by the Secretary of State, but it would be a prudent step to ensure that the ex-officio members do not have a controlling majority. In other words, a balance should be built in.
My amendments would allow the Secretary of State to determine the total number of board members, to appoint the ordinary members and would continue to allow the director-general to appoint the ex-officio members. There would still be a minimum board size of four members as well as a chairman. Finally, and most important, they would ensure that the number of ex-officio and ordinary members was equal and that, as usual, the chairman would have a casting vote. As ever, one would expect the chairman to act impartially.
Those are the objectives of these amendments, which reflect the wider concern I expressed at Second Reading that the Serious Organised Crime Agency should have operational independence from the Home Secretary. We believe that that is the key to its success, although I recognise that it must be accountable for its work.
Amendments in other groupings reflect that concern, in particular the next group. I shall be cautious not to stray into addressing another group, but perhaps I may carefully mention it in the briefest terms. The next group reflects my concern that the powers of the Home Secretary in setting the strategic priorities of SOCA are too stringent at the moment. They would give him too much authority. If, in her response to the first group of amendments, the noble Baroness was able to give a more general indication of her response to my concerns about Part 1, I believe that I will then be able to indicate that other amendments may not need to be moved. Given that I am always optimistic in these matters, I have ready for the Chairman of Committees a note to explain this in some detail. I beg to move.
Lord Dholakia: I support Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 4 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and my noble friend Lady Harris of Richmond, and to which I have added my name. Amendments Nos. 3 and 5 are tabled in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Harris. As we made clear on Second Reading, we do not have any objections in principle to the setting up of SOCA, but it is right to point out that the agency will be a unique body in this country and it is only right to address some of the anomalies, as we see them.
My noble friend Lady Harris, a one-time member of a police authority, has done much research work in relation to our amendments, and I am sorry that she is not able to contribute fully to the debate because of her recent accident.
Schedule 1 covers the board of SOCA. It is most important that the composition of the board for this new agency is right and therefore we wish to add the suggestions made in Amendments Nos. 3 and 5. We
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are concerned that, under the provisions of paragraph 1, the Secretary of State has been granted too wide a discretion on the make-up of the board. We believe it is important that SOCA should benefit from the experience of existing law enforcement agencies, will serve their needs and will be accountable to them. These amendments would mean that SOCA would more closely resemble the service authorities currently governing the work of the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad. We also believe it essential for the maintenance of the rule of law that SOCA is subject to independent oversight and that it should not have such a close and exclusive relationship with a single government department.
The tripartite balance between the Secretary of State, the board of SOCA and the director-general is presently skewed, giving too much power to the Secretary of State. It is essential for a rebalancing to take place on the membership of the agency. Left as it is, there would be little scrutiny of its work, which none of us would like to see. Some form of accountability must be provided. Giving this scrutiny to a Cabinet committee completely politicises the agency. Where is there any sort of cross-party view of what the organisation will be doing? At the very least, it could be subject to the scrutiny of the proposed Joint Committee on securityor whatever it is called. It is not acceptable to appoint a board which does not reflect all the bodies which have a legitimate interest in the work of the agency.
We are broadly supported in our amendments by the suggestion put forward by Justice. The agencies to be replaced by SOCA, the National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service, are maintained by service authorities established by the Police Act 1997. These service authorities have varied memberships. The National Crime Squad's website states that the service authority includes independent members, police authority members, senior police officers, a Customs officer, a member of the Security Service and a senior civil servant from the Home Office. The service authority therefore benefits from a breadth of experience that spans most of the key agencies and stakeholders that the NCS needs to work with. Given that, the structure of SOCA must maintain in some way this level of independence and pluralism.
There are no external or independent members on the board, no members appointed by other law enforcement agencies, and no members appointed by the police authorities. There are no requirements in paragraph 1 on the make-up of the category of ordinary members appointed by the Home Secretary. He must consult Scottish Ministers before appointing the chairman, but need not consult anyone on the appointment of the ordinary members.
It is essential for the maintenance of the rule of law that law enforcement agencies be subject to independent oversight and that they have a measure of operational independence from the Executive. It is highly undesirable that an agency with such extensive powers in relation to
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information gathering, investigation and prosecution should have such a close and exclusive relationship with a single government department.
The current structure of the board may result in a lack of genuine transparency and accountability. We believe that it provides inadequate safeguards against interferences with fundamental rights and ultimately promotes the politicisation of important policing functions. We therefore recommend in the strongest terms that it should be reinforced with independent oversight and that such oversight is maintained.
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