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The Assets Recovery Agency is a success story in Northern Ireland. The new arrangements will not change that. We will still pursue criminals and their assets with the same force as we have done to date. I endorse the words of the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, on how the agency has been of particular

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significance in Northern Ireland. That it is disliked so much is a badge of honour and not something of which it should feel the least bit ashamed.

We have made provision in paragraph 143 of Schedule 7 to the Bill that the Serious Organised Crime Agency must appoint and designate one of its staff as a person with responsibility in the organisation for asset recovery in Northern Ireland. In a letter of 1 March to Lady Sylvia Hermon in another place, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said:

Our aim is that this will improve and enhance our efforts on the recovery of criminal proceeds. There will be no diminution in the resources available for asset recovery work in Northern Ireland, as all staff in the Assets Recovery Agency in Belfast will have the opportunity to transfer to the Serious Organised Crime Agency.

The agency will dedicate at least the same level of resource in Northern Ireland as the Assets Recovery Agency currently spends, and SOCA’s presence in Northern Ireland will be at least as large as the current office of the Assets Recovery Agency. As at present, asset recovery work in Northern Ireland will continue to be focused on local priority targets. The Northern Ireland public can be assured that the asset recovery effort will benefit from guaranteed resourcing. We shall be looking for challenging targets to increase further the performance in the Province.

I hope that we can agree that we have addressed the concerns in this amendment by the separate provision in the Bill requiring SOCA to appoint a member of staff with clear responsibility for proceeds of crime in Northern Ireland and by the earlier assurances that I have given. For these reasons, we are not persuaded that we need to make specific provision in the Bill as proposed in the amendment. Further, we are not convinced that a statutory requirement to set up such a unit of the Serious Organised Crime Agency in Northern Ireland would necessarily result in our achieving the most operationally effective way of tackling organised crime, or attacking criminal proceeds in Northern Ireland in the future. Rather, it could limit the director-general’s operational capability and flexibility.

For example, at some future date the director-general may wish the Assets Recovery Agency staff in Belfast who transfer to SOCA to be part of a larger unit with a wider range of responsibility linked to the recovery of the proceeds of crime in order to maximise their effectiveness. I would also question whether the director-general should be required to set up a dedicated asset recovery unit but not, for example, specialist units for other areas of SOCA activity in Northern Ireland, since the needs of Northern Ireland have to be met as broadly as anywhere else where SOCA will have responsibility.

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5.15 pm

For all those reasons, the amendments are not necessary, but we understand why they have been tabled. The noble Viscount and the noble Baroness are properly reflecting anxiety expressed in the Province because of the inherent risks that there always are when any of us contemplate change. It is absolutely right that we all want to achieve at least the maintenance of the high performance that we have now. We would like to do a lot better, and we believe that it is possible to do even better than we do now. Given that we have made express provision in the Bill for SOCA to have an officer assigned to, and with responsibility for, asset recovery activity in Northern Ireland, I hope that I have addressed the spirit of these amendments and that the noble Viscount will be content.

The noble Viscount also asked me specifically about the cross-border relationship with the Republic. I assure him that we have very good relations and welcome the close links that have been forged between the Criminal Assets Bureau and the ARA. We are committed to continuing this close co-operation when the ARA and SOCA are merged. We will legislate separately to enable better exchange of information between HM Revenue and Customs and the Criminal Assets Bureau on civil recovery of criminal assets, which will be a significant contribution to the combined efforts of the UK and the Republic against organised crime.

The Criminal Assets Bureau in Dublin and the ARA operate in different ways. As the noble Viscount has identified, the CAB is a different model. The CAB model works well in the Republic of Ireland because the organisations involved have a national remit. Northern Ireland is one region of the UK and organisations operating there, such as HMRC and SOCA, have UK-wide responsibilities that would not be devolved to a regional unit. However, the Organised Crime Task Force in Northern Ireland provides a vehicle through which all organisations engage and come together to co-operate, including on assets recovery. One sub-group of the OCTF looks specifically at criminal finance. I hope that I have reassured the noble Viscount that that is something with very much value, which we want to consolidate and improve on if we can. Those links have been very beneficial for the CAB and for us.

I hope that I have answered all the questions raised by the noble Viscount, but if I have neglected any, I will be very happy to respond further in writing.

Viscount Bridgeman: I am most grateful to the Minister for that very comprehensive explanation, in particular her reassurance about relations with the Republic of Ireland. Even with the developments from, I hope, the passing of the Northern Ireland Bill today, Northern Ireland remains a very different place, particularly as regards the crime with which this amendment deals. I thank the Minister for her good intentions, but we are just a little worried about whether the Government will be able to deliver on this. I hope that I have had some reassurance on centralisation, about which we have had misgivings. I shall read very carefully the Minister’s reply.

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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Perhaps I may reassure the noble Viscount further. He is right that we are on the brink of significant changes in Northern Ireland. I reassure him that my honourable friend Vernon Coaker, who is dealing with this matter, and my honourable friend Paul Goggins in the Northern Ireland Office have had conversations in Northern Ireland with the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland about these concerns. We are taking these issues very seriously to ensure that they will be well embedded in any new structure that may arise. This matter is being given appropriate attention.

Viscount Bridgeman: Again, I am grateful to the Minister. We shall read very carefully her reply. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 119 not moved.]

Lord Henley moved Amendment No. 120:

(a) information on the sums of assets recovered; (b) information detailing from whom assets were recovered; and (c) information on the costs incurred in recovering assets.”

The noble Lord said: On his earlier amendment my noble friend Lord Bridgeman set out what Clause 66 seeks to do. This amendment is self-explanatory. It would insert a new subsection (3) requiring SOCA to lay before Parliament an annual report. Paragraphs (a) to (c) dictate that the report should include,

Members on these Benches recognise that the proposed merger of the Assets Recovery Agency and SOCA could be a matter of simple common sense but, following the merger, it is important that people know what is happening. Does not the noble Baroness agree that the work of the merged agency should be a matter of public knowledge and needs to be in the public domain? It is important that the issues listed in the three paragraphs of the amendment continue to be published so that the effectiveness of the combined skills of the agencies can be measured. Transparent monitoring is central to accountability. Although it might be a point of principle, could it be considered efficient, for example, if SOCA ended up spending more money on retrieving assets than the sum of the assets retrieved? One might expect a period of adaptation, but if it were to become an ongoing situation year after year, we would have to question whether the funds were being used in an effective and efficient way. That is what lies behind the amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I agree with the noble Lord that it is entirely right and proper that the Serious Organised Crime Agency should be fully held to account for its performance on the recovery of

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criminal assets in the same way that the Assets Recovery Agency has in the past been held to account. However, I have to say to the noble Lord that we cannot support the amendment simply because we do not believe it is necessary. I hope that when I explain why I say that, the noble Lord will concur. Nevertheless it is right that this amendment has been moved because it gives me an opportunity to put the explanation on the record, as well as recording my assent to what he has said about the need for accountability.

Under Chapter 1 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, SOCA is already required to issue an annual report on the exercise of its functions. Paragraph 140 of Schedule 7 to this Bill includes an amendment to the 2005 Act so that one of SOCA’s statutory functions will be the recovery of assets. The Secretary of State must lay a copy of the annual report before Parliament, and Scottish Ministers must lay a copy before the Scottish Parliament. Under Section 7 of the 2005 Act, SOCA’s annual report must include an assessment of the extent to which its annual plan has been carried out, while under Section 6 of the 2005 Act the annual plan must include a statement of, among other things, current performance targets and the financial resources expected to be available.

The Assets Recovery Agency’s costs and revenue recovery data are at present published each year in its annual report. Similar information on the recovery of criminal assets will be included in the annual report of the Serious Organised Crime Agency when both bodies are merged. I hope the noble Lord will agree that it would be inappropriate and—dare I say?—a suboptimal use of SOCA’s resources, to require it to lay before Parliament a separate report specifically on asset recovery.

We should also bear in mind that SOCA is only one of a range of front-line agencies carrying out asset recovery work. The police, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the main prosecuting agencies and Her Majesty’s Courts Service are also major contributors to the delivery of the Government’s targets, so a specific annual report from SOCA on its asset recovery performance would present an incomplete picture of the overall effort. It is for those reasons alone that the amendments tabled are unnecessary, and I hope the noble Lord will feel content, if not happy—in fact, he might even be happy—to withdraw them.

Lord Crickhowell: As I read this amendment, I think I exactly anticipated what the Minister’s reply was likely to be. Indeed, I found myself almost writing it word for word. I have two questions. One relates to the amendment we have just dealt with about Northern Ireland, where we received an assurance that at least the same resources would be devoted to Northern Ireland as have been under the present arrangements. Are we likely to see any information that confirms or does not confirm that aspect covered in SOCA’s annual report?

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The other question is: are there any changes in the responsibilities of SOCA resulting from this legislation that would not be covered under the existing annual reporting regime resulting from the 2005 Act, or is the Minister saying that the annual reporting obligations fully cover even any changes that may result from this legislation? If she is able to give that assurance, I for one am satisfied.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I am. When we merged the two agencies, we put in amendments to enable SOCA to perform its functions in a more comprehensive way. Therefore, everything that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, seeks with his amendment is covered by its annual report. I agree with him that that has to be done, and it is; it is done through a different vehicle, but it is there.

Lord Henley: My noble friend Lord Crickhowell said that he exactly anticipated what the Minister’s reply was going to be. Her reply was that my amendment would be, and I hope I have got the words right, “a suboptimal use of resources”—in other words, a waste of time. At least, I presume that is what “a suboptimal use of resources” means, but the Minister, as always, was being polite to me. I shall remember that most of my amendments are a suboptimal use of resources. I shall possibly throw that expression back at her from time to time.

I listened carefully to the Minister. She seemed to be saying that SOCA was going to report the information anyway, but then seemed to be saying that it was not. For that reason, I was grateful to my noble friend. As far as I can make out, the report that comes out from SOCA will deal with the three points that are dealt with in sub-paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of my amendment. With the Minister’s assurance in response to my noble friend, I will withdraw my amendment—but I will remember her words about suboptimality for some time. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 66 agreed to.

5.30 pm

Schedule 7 [Abolition of Assets Recovery Agency and its Director]:

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 120A:

(a) in paragraph (b) omit “or 52”; and (b) in paragraph (d) omit “or 200”. (a) in paragraph (a) for “, 50 or 52” substitute “or 50”; and (b) in paragraph (c) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. (a) omit “52,”; and (b) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”.

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(a) in paragraph (b) omit “or 52”; and (b) in paragraph (d) omit “or 200”. (a) in paragraph (a) for “, 50 or 52” substitute “or 50”; and (b) in paragraph (c) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. (a) omit “52,”; and (b) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. (a) in paragraph (b) omit “or 52”; and (b) in paragraph (d) omit “or 200”. (a) in paragraph (a) for “, 50 or 52” substitute “or 50”; and (b) in paragraph (c) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. (a) omit “52,”; and (b) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. (a) in paragraph (b) omit “or 52”; and (b) in paragraph (d) omit “or 200”. (a) in paragraph (a) for “, 50 or 52” substitute “or 50”; and (b) in paragraph (c) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. (a) omit “52,”; and (b) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. (a) in paragraph (b) omit “or 52”; and (b) in paragraph (d) omit “or 200”. (a) in paragraph (a) for “, 50 or 52” substitute “or 50”; and (b) in paragraph (c) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. (a) omit “52,”; and (b) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. (a) in paragraph (b) omit “or 52”; and (b) in paragraph (d) omit “or 200”. (a) in paragraph (a) for “, 50 or 52” substitute “or 50”; and (b) in paragraph (c) for “, 198 or 200” substitute “or 198”. (a) in paragraph (a) for “, 55(3), 56(2) or 57(3)” substitute “or 55(3)”; and (b) in paragraph (c) for “, 203(3), 204(2) or 205(3)” substitute “or 203(3)”.”

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The noble Lord said: This group of amendments deals with two issues under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. The Bill amends the Act to improve and extend its operation and efficiency so that we can build on its undoubted successes.

Amendments Nos. 120A and 133 are purely consequential on amendments already made in Part 1 of Schedule 7. Those amendments abolish the confiscation provisions in the Proceeds of Crime Act relating to the Assets Recovery Agency. This forms part of the merger of the Assets Recovery Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency.

The provisions in the 2002 Act providing for what happens to property, which is subject to both criminal confiscation and insolvency legislation, need tidying up. They still refer in places to the confiscation provisions which are to be repealed. Consequently, the cross-references in the insolvency provisions also need to be repealed.

Amendments Nos. 121A and 121B delete an unnecessary reference in Schedule 10. The schedule allows extension of the search, seizure, detention and forfeiture of suspect cash under the Proceeds of Crime Act from constables and officers of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to accredited financial investigators. All operational staff of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are covered by the term,

The definition of this term is provided in Section 2 of the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005.

Paragraph 11 of Schedule 10 provides for compensation to be paid by agencies in cash recovery cases. It provides that the commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have compensation liability for accredited financial investigators who are members of staff, but not officers, of HMRC. This is an unnecessary provision and will be deleted. Section 302(7) of the Proceeds of Crime Act already provides for compensation to be awarded following the actions of officers of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. I beg to move.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: The amendments mention the Acts to which they refer, but I see no mention of Scotland. Do the Acts apply to Scotland? Has Scotland been remembered in all this?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I do not think that they apply to Scotland. I shall send the noble Baroness a note, which I shall copy to all other Members of the Committee, to clarify the position.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: It is quite important because the Revenue and Customs applies to Scotland. If that has not been done, it is very strange. I hope that the Minister will do slightly more than send me a note and that, if necessary, proper amendments will be tabled.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I shall ensure that the position is clarified.

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