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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: This Bill is now in some confusion. I raised the matter when the Government Chief Whip outlined what was to happen as the result of a general election being called. I expressed my doubts about whether such an important Bill should go through all its stages in this House in such a short time. I still believe that to be true. However, I understand from the Opposition Chief Whip and later from the Government Chief Whip that certain discussions have been held, arrangements made and agreements reached between the parties on alterations that are to be made to the Bill.
So far as I can see, only one alteration has been made, which is that the clause dealing with incitement to religious hatred is not to be proceeded with at this point. But many other aspects of the Bill, which will be raised in later amendments, deserve a great deal of consideration. Indeed, although I missed the Second Reading debate, I am not at all sure that I am in favour of SOCA itself or that this is the way to deal with serious organised crime. We are putting in place what is, in reality, a Federal Bureau of Investigation by another name, and I am concerned that this organisation will have powers over local police forces and chief constables.
I must not make a Second Reading speechI do not intend to do sobut I wished to raise that point and the whole question of what has been agreed between the parties to allow this very important Bill to go through. Many representations have been made about the Bill. The police, in particular, have raised a large number of concerns. When she replies, perhaps the Minister will give more details of the conversations and agreements which have taken place to make the Bill more acceptable to those it will affect.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I shall be very happy to assist the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, as far as I can. It is quite clear that certain issues were raised at Second Reading which gave rise to concerns on the part of both Her Majesty's loyal Opposition and the Liberal Democrat Party. In my responses to the amendments as they arise, I shall seek to allay those concerns by giving fuller explanations of how the Government intend to respond to the matters raised by each of the two parties.
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The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, is right to highlight the fact that the major arrangement has been in relation to incitement to religious hatred, which caused the most contention. I also made reference to the role of custody officers and I shall now deal with other issues which, although less contentious, are still matters of concern. As we go through the issues, I shall indicate on each amendment the way in which they will be dealt with.
If, as I hope, I am able to satisfy the Committee that the Government's explanations are sound, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has indicated that she would not seek to move some of her amendments. It is very difficult for me to pre-empt her because the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, on behalf of the Liberal Democrat Benches, will wait to see whether I hold good in my explanations and my promises.
So, with that proviso, it might assist if I now dealt with Amendments Nos. 1 to 5, which have been spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. I hope that my explanations will be sufficient to quieten the beating hearts that have raised concerns about the next group of amendments, which includes Amendment No. 6 through to Clauses 9 and 10 stand part. I shall resist certain of those amendments but I may be in a position to accept other amendments which deal adequately with the issues.
I turn to the explanations on the first group of amendments. The effect of the three amendments standing in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, would be to alter the balance of the SOCA board's membership and draw it further away from the normal practice of other non-departmental public bodies. While I commend her desire to ensure the best governance arrangements for SOCA, I can tell her that her fears about political influence over the board are wholly unfounded. Let me explain why. The ordinary members of the board will be appointed on merit and, once appointed, will take decisions on the basis of their own independent judgment. They are in no sense the representatives of the Home Secretary.
Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 provide that the number of ordinary and ex officio board members must be the same. At this point it is worth reminding the Committee that, typically, the board of a non-departmental public body is composed entirely of the equivalent of ordinary members. We have therefore already moved a considerable way in the direction proposed by the noble Baroness in providing for the appointment of ex officio members.
The role of ordinary members is vital. They will be drawn from a variety of backgrounds, with a wealth of experience, and will ensure the accountability of the executive members of SOCA. If the board of SOCA is not simply to act as the director-general's management committee, it is important that the non-executive members are in a clear majority. I therefore commend the existing structure to the Committee.
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Amendment No. 4 would limit the role that the chair is able to play in the decision-making process of SOCA's board. This is an untenable situation considering that the chair has overall responsibility for ensuring that the agency fulfils the aims and priorities set out by statute and the Home Secretary. Once again, this proposal goes against the grain. The chairman must have a full role in decision making.
Turning to the amendments standing in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, I respectfully suggest that these proposals would make SOCA's board similarly unbalancedand, indeed, unmanageablein a way that neither of them would like or intend.
I must stress again that SOCA will not be a police force, although it will clearly be a law enforcement agency. It will work very closely with police forces in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but also with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, the intelligence agencies and other organisations involved in tackling organised crime. As it will not be a police force, it follows that it would be inappropriate to mirror the tripartite framework on the SOCA board.
Similarly, we do not see the case for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and the Immigration Service to be represented on the board. We accept that these will be important stakeholders, but no more or less important than a host of other agencies with which SOCA will need to work. We want the ordinary members to be appointed on the basis of the skills, experience and independent judgment they can bring to the agency's deliberations, not because they represent a particular organisation or interest.
It is also worth pointing out that the effect of Amendment No. 5 would be that the SOCA board would comprise a minimum of 16 individualsthat is, 10 ordinary members, the chairman, the director-general and four planned ex officio members. We submit that this would be too big for the efficient and effective conduct of the board's business.
In the light of these explanations, I hope that the noble Baroness will agree to withdraw the amendment, anticipating that I shall accept Amendment No. 10 and the submission on Clause 10 stand part, which we shall come to next.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: I thank the Minister for giving, as ever, a full response to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and myself. I appreciate the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, who is right to seek to clarify where we might be going with the remainder of the Bill today. As the Minister said, I am eagerly awaiting every word to ensure that we are both going down more or less the same route.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, was particularly right to refer to the representations that have been made by the Police Federation and others. I have had meetings with the Police Federation, read its briefings with great care and, indeed, where possible, sought to refer to them, not only in my speaking notes but in tabling some of my amendments. I have sought to
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distil from that some of the concerns felt and achieve some movement today, which I think we are now seeing from the Minister. I hear what she says about her refusal to accept my first group of amendments. I bear that with equanimity. The noble Baroness argues that I should have no concern because the board of SOCA will be independent and the people who are appointed to it will be of such calibre that they will exercise their duties in a proper and independent way.
I also appreciate that those persons who have been appointed as chair and chief executive of SOCA are of the very highest proven ability. But as ever in this House, we must be concerned to ensure that legislation provides the right framework not only for today but for the future.
The noble Baroness said at the end of her remarks that although she turns her back on my first group of amendments, she is prepared to accept my Amendment No. 10 and will not expect Clause 10 to stand part. She has there responded to my concerns about performance targets. I thank her for that and, in withdrawing this amendment, I give notice that I do not expect to move any further amendments in my name to this part of the Bill. I anticipate that I will be very sparing in moving further amendments to other parts, although some will need to be moved to give the Government the opportunity to make further progress to clarify discussions that have already been held. However, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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