Clause 1 - Establishment of Serious Organised

Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 11th January 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 80, in clause 2, page 2, line 9, after 'crime', insert 'and serious fraud'.

No. 81, in clause 2, page 2, line 10, leave out 'such'.

No. 82, in clause 2, page 2, line 14, leave our subsection (3).

No. 83, in clause 2, page 2, line 18, leave out from 'Office' to end of line 19.

No. 91, in clause 35, page 19, line 23, leave out

'in relation to serious organised crime'.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

We start with what is essentially a probing amendment, which I do not intend to press to a vote. We simply want to explore the thinking behind the architecture and function of the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Let me say immediately that the amendment, which would include the functions of the Serious Fraud Office among those of the agency, is linked with amendments Nos. 80 and 82, so the three can be taken together.

Over recent years, there has been a lot of debate about how to deal effectively with major crime in this country. It has long been realised that some functions   go beyond the scope of individual constabularies and police authority areas and that they require greater co-ordination. To that end, various national bodies have been set up over the years. One such body is the National Criminal Intelligence Service. I was involved in its early stages as a member of the Committee that had oversight over it from its inception. Similarly, there are the National Crime Squad and the Serious Fraud Office, which deals with problems of white-collar crime.

The question that we have put to the Minister is what should be the extent of the new national policing agency? In which issues should it or should it not be involved? Some time ago, I produced a paper arguing that we needed a national policing agency to deal with serious crime, as well as a financial crimes directorate that brought together the Serious Fraud Office and the investigative functions of Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue. In that way, we would have a combination of expertise that made a real difference in a very technical area. An alternative would be to introduce a single structure across all the issues.

Through the amendment, I simply ask the Minister for some indication of the Government's thinking. Why have they chosen to set the agency's parameters where they have? I was utterly unconvinced by the answer that the Solicitor-General gave on 2 December when asked exactly that question by my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett). She replied:

''I think that they will work together, but the work of the SFO involves a prosecution process, while that of the Serious Organised Crime Agency is largely investigative. The SFO will work closely with SOCA, but it will continue to prosecute, just as Customs and the CPS will continue to prosecute when information comes before them from SOCA.''—[Official Report, 2 December 2004: Vol. 428, c. 778.]

That seems to me an entirely artificial distinction, especially in the light of what we heard on the radio only this morning from the Attorney-General, who made clear the specific role of prosecutors working in, and—as I understood his remarks—almost embedded within, SOCA to investigate serious and organised crime. I do not propose to push the amendment to a Division, but I would welcome it if the Minister could put on the record the thinking behind the parameters set.

I want to deal briefly with the other amendments. Amendment No. 81 appears to be a minor amendment, as it involves merely leaving out the word ''such'' from clause 2, line 10, but it would have a significant effect on the organisation of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency. We know that the agency's principal function is to deal with serious organised crime, but many of us are concerned that if it takes that function too literally and exclusively, we will see a breakdown in the sharing of intelligence with the individual constabularies and with partner investigative bodies in other areas. We may see vital information, such as that which presently goes into the National Criminal Intelligence Service from the financial institutions, being missed because it is not part of a pattern of serious organised crime but relates   to criminality in other forms. Such information might not be addressed in the way that it should.

SOCA should not only be given the clear function of preventing and detecting serious organised crime—a function that I do not dispute for one moment—but that of contributing to the reduction of all crime, rather than ''such crime'', and it should be clearly engaged in connections with other crime agencies. To limit it to ''such crime'' is to limit it beyond what is reasonable. We know the history of such organisations, and the degree of difficulty experienced when the crime squads were set up. There seemed to be a gap between the responsibility of the crime squads and the responsibility of the local police force. There was a particularly grey area in category 2 crime. We must not let that happen again.

We must ensure that we do not squeeze the function of the police forces in this country in the middle, so that the top end is SOCA, the bottom end increasingly contains community support officers and local authorities acting on antisocial behaviour, and the police officers in the middle have only a limited function. There needs to be a continuum. I am sure that the Minister understands that, but the Bill does not seem to show appreciation of it.

Amendment No. 83 deals with a curious formulation, which I would like the Minister to explain. We understand that when SOCA deals with what could be serious or complex fraud, it should co-operate with the Serious Fraud Office. It should seek the agreement of the director of the Serious Fraud Office that SOCA should be investigating that area rather than the SFO. We do not want them falling over one another, but what on earth is paragraph (b) supposed to indicate by suggesting that where the Serious Fraud Office declines to act, SOCA can just blunder in anyway? Presumably, the Serious Fraud Office will have decided on good grounds that it no longer wanted to investigate or that it was inappropriate to investigate. Why should SOCA do so without the agreement of the director of the Serious Fraud Office? It seems a most curious suggestion, which I would like the Minister to explain. Paragraph (a) states all that we ought to know about the relationship between SOCA and the Serious Fraud Office.

Amendment No. 91 deals with a later clause and is, again, a matter of the interface between the police and other investigative agencies and SOCA. Clause 35 places a general duty on police and officers of those agencies to assist SOCA in the exercise of its functions. However, why should that assistance be given only in relation to serious organised crime? What is the reason for making that assessment, rather than simply assisting SOCA in the exercise of its functions, whatever they may be in the future? Whatever additional duties may be given to SOCA, it seems unnecessary to define the assistance that other agencies are to give it as relating only to serious organised crime. Will the Minister explain why the phrase

''in relation to serious organised crime'' has been used, and what it adds?  

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) 9:45 am, 11th January 2005

I welcome the remarks of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), including what he said about probing our reasons for committing ourselves as we have done in the clause. I hope to be able to allay some of his concerns.

The hon. Gentleman several times referred to a police agency or police organisation. It is important at the start of our deliberations to make it clear that we are not creating a police organisation. The point of establishing the Serious Organised Crime Agency is to bring together the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, drugs investigation by Customs and Excise and, of course, the immigration crime side of the immigration department of the Home Office. We are not creating a police organisation or a merger; SOCA is a new organisation bringing together talent and skills from different sectors to assist us in combating serious and organised crime. I am sure that we shall return to that aspect of the matter in later debates, so it is important to establish the context.

As the hon. Gentleman suggested, the amendments would widen the remit of SOCA in, I suggest, two ways. First, they would lead to the new agency subsuming the functions of the Serious Fraud Office; secondly, they would extend the agency's remit so that it would be concerned with defeating not only serious organised crime but crime in general. The unwelcome effect of the amendments would be to undermine the agency's core focus on defeating major-league drug smugglers, people traffickers and gun runners, who cause immense harm to our communities. Although SOCA is being set up to deal with level 3 crime, there is no doubt that such activities have consequences in relation to level 2 and level 1 crime, and I accept that a case could be made for incorporating the Serious Fraud Office into SOCA, but that approach would mean setting up a very different law enforcement agency. The focus would shift from tackling drug smuggling and people trafficking to tackling serious crime at large. Extending SOCA's remit in that way would risk spreading its resources and effort too thinly, to the detriment of its core objectives.

The Serious Fraud Office has a clearly defined role—the investigation of serious and complex fraud. Those engaged in organised crime might see large-scale fraud as one means of reaping ill-gotten gains, but many of the cases pursued by the SFO are very different from those on which SOCA should concentrate. A quick scan of the SFO's annual report shows a very different category of criminality: the cases completed by the SFO in 2003–04 included one involving false accounting, theft and conspiracy to defraud a retail chain that went into liquidation; one involving conspiracy to defraud two start-up companies; a third involving the operation of fraudulent investment schemes; and another involving false accounting at the Milk Development Council.

As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, SOCA and the SFO will need to work closely together, but clause 3 provides for that. A merger would not be appropriate. That is not to say that SOCA's remit   and its relationship with other law enforcement agencies should not be kept under review in the light of experience. We will see how SOCA, and crime, develop, but we do not believe that it would be right to merge the SFO and SOCA at this point. Referring to clause 2(3)(b), the hon. Gentleman asked what would happen if the SFO declined to act. Some cases of fraud might be so intimately connected to wider serious organised crime under investigation that it will make sense to take both together. We do not want an absolute bar that prevents a practical decision from being taken in a specific case, which is why the Bill needs that flexibility.

On amendments Nos. 81 and 91, I am the first to admit that crime does not always fit into neat compartments, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out. We talk about level 1, level 2 and level 3 crime—local force level, national and international crime—but the boundaries between those levels can become blurred. Nevertheless, the responsibility for reducing level 1 and 2 crime clearly rests with police forces, while SOCA will focus on level 3 crime. The change to clause 2 proposed in amendment No. 81 would heighten the risk of SOCA and police forces treading on each other's toes, which we must avoid at all costs. That is not to say that SOCA's activities will be confined entirely and exclusively to combating serious organised crime: information gathered by SOCA in accordance with its function in clause 3 may well be relevant to combating level 2 crime, and the agency can be expected to pass it on to the relevant police force.

In addition, clause 5 enables SOCA to act in support of the activities of the police or other law enforcement agencies. A police force may, for example, seek SOCA's help with a kidnapping. Kidnapping is obviously a serious crime, but it is not necessarily serious organised crime. The clause also enables SOCA to carry out activities in respect of lower-level crime if those activities accord with the functions in clauses 2 and 3. That is very important, because one of the main reasons for establishing SOCA is to see how we can reduce the harm done by the activities of very serious criminals. By recognising that, we recognise that there is more than one way to skin a cat. If it is possible to put away a drug smuggler for a lesser offence, SOCA should be able to pursue such an investigation if, in the circumstances, that is the most effective way of reducing the harm done by that individual.

In short, there is common ground between the hon. Gentleman and the Government regarding the way in which SOCA will fit into the wider law enforcement family, but the amendments would send the wrong messages about SOCA's priorities and core functions. I therefore invite the hon. Gentleman not to press the amendments to a vote.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I welcome the tone of the Minister's contribution. I am grateful that she understood my points and the spirit in which I tried to make them. Her understanding bodes well for the rest of our deliberations.

I hear what the Minister says about the SFO, although I do not entirely understand her argument   about the proposal diluting activities and spreading resources, because the SFO would bring its own resources if it were subsumed into the new organisation; there would be no dilution of resources. If anything, there would be economies of scale, because of the increased capacity for joint working and joint management. Nevertheless, we now have on record the Government's view, which is helpful.

I still do not understand the circumstances set out in clause 2(3) whereby SOCA would seek to act in a serious fraud case without the agreement of the director of the SFO. That is a recipe for disaster.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

May I elaborate? Investigation of a particular case of serious fraud may be a low priority for the SFO, but it may be important to SOCA in the context of a non-fraud-related organised crime. That relates to my earlier remarks about SOCA's ability to investigate and act against the individual and his activities. The SFO might choose not to pursue that particular crime, but SOCA should be able to do so. The two caveats in clause 2 allow that to happen.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister, but that does not explain why it should be desirable to investigate without the agreement of the director of the SFO. In those circumstances, the director of the SFO would probably say, ''Yes, we don't want to investigate this—please, feel free.'' If the director did not say that, he would presumably have a reason—for example, that there would be difficulties with other investigations in which he was engaged. I am afraid that we have still not got to the bottom of why there should be provision for SOCA to investigate something that the SFO does not want to investigate and is not prepared to agree to SOCA investigating, unless a strange set of circumstances apply, which would give cause for much wider concerns about the operation of the SFO than those that I envisage now.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

Given our discussions and consultation on that issue, the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. In most circumstances we would expect discussions between the two agencies, especially if the SFO was carrying out its own investigation, or thinking of doing so, which would cut across activities that SOCA was considering. However, there may be occasions on which urgency is important. We want to leave flexibility in the Bill, to allow SOCA to take urgent action where appropriate.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

If the matter is urgent, the SFO will not have had the opportunity to decline to act. Either the SFO agrees or it declines to act. The provisions do not make sense. However, I know that the Minister will talk with officials about precisely what is intended and why it is not covered in clause 2(3)(a), so I shall not labour the point now.

The Minister might not want to call SOCA a policing agency, but it will fight crime and have police officers in it, so to me it is a policing agency, albeit one that incorporates investigating officers from other disciplines. I have no problem with calling it an agency engaged in policing, because that is what it is   about. If another term, such as investigatory agency, is better, I have no problem with that either.

I think that the Minister is telling me that clause 5(3) will provide the scope for SOCA to deal with levels of crime that fall outside its primary function and to co-operate effectively with other constabularies, which is my intention. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.