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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I will not speak for very long on this amendment because I want to hear what the Minister has to say in reply. However, the Police Federation is very concerned about this particular matter and I think that it is right to be concerned. The federation is not only considering its own members—
 
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it will apparently recommend them not to take up any posts with SOCA unless some amendment is made. It is also concerned about the effect on the public, and it is rightly concerned about that. I tend to support these amendments, but I would like to hear what the Minister has to say.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for giving us the opportunity to have this debate as I know that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, would have been distraught not to have had this opportunity and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, would have made sure that he was distraught.

I thank the noble Lord for his explanation of the amendments, but I am afraid that I cannot accept them as they strike at the very heart of our vision of SOCA. I hope that I will be able to explain why they need not be as discomfited by them as at first blush they seem to be.

We see SOCA as a national law enforcement agency dedicated to fighting serious organised crime; as an independent body corporate with its own culture and its own identity, staffed by its own employees. It will be an agency whose staff will, in their own rights, be as highly regarded and respected as our law enforcement agencies—including our excellent police forces—currently are around the world. We see this measure not simply as bringing the police agencies of NCIS and NCS as well as parts of Customs and the Immigration Service under one roof, but in integrating and building on their experience and expertise, creating a new agency with a new operation—one which will be more than the sum of its parts.

I fear, however, that these amendments reflect a more traditional approach. By ensuring that the new agency's staff retain "membership" of police, customs and immigration it is effectively a machinery of government change. It would merge the existing constituents into a single unit, but would retain all the institutional and cultural legacies that have hindered the existing constituents' work so far. That is not to say, however, that the current agencies including NCS and NCIS have not had considerable success against organised crime. It is widely acknowledged that they have and I do so again now.

However, it is also widely acknowledged that a new approach is required if we are to meet the challenges of serious organised criminality of the 21st century. We want to grasp this opportunity to move forward. Under these amendments, the traditional lines of staff and the powers that they can exercise will be maintained and so the same attitudes, systems and approaches will also persist. Lost then would be this opportunity to tackle serious organised crime in a way designed and suited to the 21st century. And in prohibiting civilians from being designated any of the powers of a constable, customs or immigration officer, lost also would be the opportunity to add value and fresh vigour to the operational front line of the agency that individuals from civilian backgrounds would otherwise bring.
 
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No doubt, the noble Lord and the noble Baroness will point to the fact that their amendments enable police members of SOCA to also have customs and immigration powers by designation, so there would still be a body of staff who would potentially bring together all three suites of powers. They may say that they have safeguarded the designations by ensuring that these persons must have either held these powers before—which I suspect would be quite rare—or be trained in them before they can exercise such powers, or, even further, by ensuring that the designated powers can be exercised only for specified investigations.

It is important to point out that we are also quite clear that such powers are not to be taken lightly and be handed out willy nilly. That is why the Bill ensures that the designation of powers is backed by robust procedures for the Director General of SOCA must be satisfied as to the suitability, capability and proper training of the individuals before he designates these powers to them.

As for tying designated powers to specific investigations, I am afraid that these will unnecessarily reduce the operational and resource flexibility of the director general and may even add to his administrative and bureaucratic load. Given the investment of selection and training in those designated with certain powers, why not allow the director general the flexibility to deploy them based on operational needs as he sees fit? I fear that there are fundamental problems with the proposals that only police members can have all three suites of power.

Although I am glad that we are seemingly agreed on one thing, namely, an individual can, in principle, have and exercise the powers of a constable, customs officer and immigration officer all at the same time, I am left wondering why it is that only a police member can potentially exercise the powers of all three? Why not a customs officer or an immigration officer? Or even better, as we would have it, an employee of SOCA free from his previous institution's baggage yet with all the experience and knowledge? Are customs or immigration officers somehow less than their police counterparts in not being suitable or capable to exercise police powers even if they were properly trained? Quite aside from being left with this difficulty, the practical impact of these amendments has not been fully grasped. For, under these proposals, the police members who were able to exercise the full set of powers of a constable and of an immigration and customs officer would effectively become "super police". That would leave SOCA in arguably a worse position than the National Crime Squad because, under the proposed amendments, it is all the powers, or none. But under the provisions of the Police Reform Act 2002, the Director-General of NCS could designate staff as investigating officers with a limited array of police powers. Under these proposals, that flexibility would be lost to SOCA.

In creating a class of "super-police", the amendments run the risk of creating an elitist culture. The potential for real or perceived inequality is obvious. After all, is not the danger of SOCA creaming off the brightest and the best from local police forces all the greater if SOCA itself is seen to be staffed by an
 
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elite group of police members? SOCA's staff will be every bit as professional and independent as police officers. We strongly refute the argument that only police officers can be entrusted to discharge these duties.

I hope that I have shown that these amendments would not only constitute a traditional and overly cautious approach but are also impractical, and it would be a missed opportunity to set up an agency designed audaciously yet with due propriety and legitimacy to tackle and defeat serious organised crime. I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment and the noble Lord not to press the matter further.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: As usual the Minister makes her arguments very thoroughly and persuasively, but has she been able to persuade the Police Federation, given its fears about political control and the fact that officers of SOCA will not swear allegiance to the Crown, that there are no dangers in that regard? That is really important because, without the co-operation of the ordinary police, SOCA is not going to work very well.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I can certainly assure the noble Lord that we have taken very seriously indeed the concerns that the Police Federation has expressed in relation to politicisation and independence, in the way in which we have sought to structure the whole of SOCA's framework.

In one sense, we are caught two ways: either it is said that we are going to create such a honey pot and such an elite system that we will suck out all the very best officers into SOCA, or it is said that the reverse is true and that nobody will want to join it. We believe that neither of those statements is right. We have sought to structure something in a balanced way, which we genuinely hope and believe will attract people of talent and ability into the organisation from the different disciplines that I have described. We desperately need that to happen, if the service which we need for the 21st century is to be delivered to the people of this country.

We believe that we have the balance right; we hope that we will get experienced officers, but they will have to work hand in glove with all the police forces on whose expertise, good will and hard work they will seek to rely. SOCA will add value; it will not expunge what has already been done—it should enhance it.

I hope that what I have said reassures Members of this House, along with members of the Police Federation and others, that this is an opportunity to be embraced and not one to be feared.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I am sorry to intervene again, but I need an answer to the following question, which has also been raised with me.

Is SOCA to become part of a wider organisation—a sort of Federal Bureau of Investigation within the European Union? Does this measure represent a further Europeanisation of justice and home affairs by stealth? Some people are very concerned about that, and from
 
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my long experience of matters European, I know that they get their powers by stealth and by ratchet. I should like a reassurance that this is not yet another stealthy step towards a European FBI, and yet another ratchet to give further powers to the European Union.

5.15 p.m.


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