Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 11th January 2005.
This is the second of our small points, which I hope that I can deal with expeditiously. It concerns SOCA and where it lies in the hierarchy of the police family. The amendments have the purpose of clarifying the relationship between SOCA and police forces so as to ensure adequate liaison between them on questions of priority and operational matters.
Amendment No. 8 further defines SOCA's position by stating that it can institute criminal proceedings in England and Wales only if they
''relate to serious organised crime''.
In order to ensure adequate liaison with local police forces, our amendments seek to define more clearly the relationship.
Key questions remain unanswered. Will SOCA augment current force operations or replace work being conducted by other forces? How will SOCA co-ordinate its work with the police? In terms of joined-up policing, that is of immense importance.
In the Government's regulatory impact assessment, a key reason given for the establishment of SOCA is that existing agencies are not working together efficiently. The blurring of institutional responsibility means unclear lines of accountability. For example, the National Crime Squad and Her Majesty's Customs and Excise are both involved in tackling drugs and fraud against business, and that means that there is a potential for rivalry as well as capability gaps and opportunities being overlooked. That is what it says in the RIA.
That logic could be applied to the establishment of SOCA if clear lines of communication and responsibility are not established. Some forces, particularly the Metropolitan force, deal with serious organised crime, because their community crime activity is linked to serious organised crime networks at a higher national intelligence model level. SOCA must work as a partner with those forces to avoid duplication of activity and to ensure that what I have already referred to as blue-on-blue incidents do not occur. If SOCA were to become involved in an investigation without consulting the local force, it could have negative repercussions in particular communities. Liaison with local forces is vital if SOCA is to avoid creating frictions and disrupting communities.
We seek the Minister's assurance that those points are addressed in the clause or elsewhere in the Bill.
I hope that the Minister will also be able to amplify a little the relationship between SOCA and the Crown Prosecution Service. The words ''institute proceedings'' are rather loose. They range from charging somebody to carrying out a prosecution itself . I do not believe that that is what is intended, because if it is, it runs contrary to the entire trend of the past 10 years of ensuring that prosecutions are in the hands of the CPS or, as is the case under the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Bill, which is currently going through the House, of actually removing prosecution from another enforcement authority. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that SOCA will have no role in the conduct of prosecutions that result from its investigations.
My point may be covered in clause 23(3) in relation to Scotland, but it follows on from what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) was saying. I am curious as to why the ability to institute criminal powers applies in England, in Wales and in Northern Ireland, but in Scotland SOCA must report matters to the procurator fiscal. Why is there a distinction?
We oppose the amendments because we believe that they will create legislation that will do exactly what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield does not want it to do.
I am glad that we agree on that. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's probing question is that we are not seeking to overturn the role of the CPS in these proceedings. We do not want SOCA to be able to conduct its own prosecutions, but we entirely share the belief that we need to strengthen the working relationship between investigators and prosecutors. Pilots of such closer working in which the CPS provided early advice to the police and took over the responsibility for charging defendants resulted in a 15 per cent. improvement in conviction rates and an increase in guilty pleas at first hearing to 30 per cent.
I am pleased to hear the Minister say that. She may be coming to this, but perhaps she will also explain how she envisages the CPS and SOCA working together. I would expect the CPS to work with SOCA exactly as it works with the police. Perhaps she will confirm whether my ideas are correct, in which case CPS personnel actually sit in with SOCA on interviews if those interviews are conducted by SOCA for the purpose of deciding whether material has been gathered on which one can prosecute.
We are looking for a closer working relationship. As was mentioned today, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General talked on the radio this morning about the importance of such a relationship to the success of SOCA. We also hope to use the powers in part 2 to make Queen's evidence statutory, as disclosure of these issues is very important in getting to the criminals who are causing the most problems in our community. We do not believe, as I said, that putting prosecutors and investigators into the same agency would compromise the independence of both groups, but in order to strengthen the integrity of the prosecution process in, say, Customs and Excise cases, we are placing the Revenue and Customs Prosecution Office on an independent statutory footing.
Both the RCPO and the CPS will support the work of SOCA. As I said, we are working with the Attorney-General to see how we can establish a cadre of dedicated specialist prosecutors who will work alongside SOCA officers. At the end of the day, however, they will be answerable to the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the RCPO is answerable to the Attorney-General.
The Minister has raised another possibility, which I confess I had not thought about. I expected that SOCA would link in with the CPS, as the police do. The Minister now tells the Committee that there might be circumstances in which SOCA works with the Revenue prosecutors. I understand the logic of that for SOCA's work, but I am starting to have slight anxieties that that illustrates the blurring of relationships. We know that Customs and Excise, for whom I used to prosecute, got into difficulty precisely when it started to carry out major joint operations with the police. The lines of accountability were blurred. The Minister might be well advised to decide that SOCA should work solely with a single prosecuting authority.
The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises is one reason for our placing the Revenue and Customs Prosecution Office on an independent statutory footing; the intention is to create that distance. However, we perceive a possible role for the RCPO and the CPS to support the work of SOCA. We are not minded to change our view on that.
We envisage that, while the CPS will be answerable to the Director of Public Prosecutions and the RCPO prosecutors to the Director of Revenue and Customs Prosecutions, some of those individuals could be co-located with SOCA staff so that they would be on hand to provide comprehensive legal advice throughout an investigation and take responsibility for charging suspects. I hope that that answers some of the hon. Gentleman's points about what currently happens at police force level and the close working relationship between the police and the CPS. I am happy to write to him about that, seeking advice from the Attorney-General. This is one area where we are working on how things will operate in practice.
I see a great deal of sense in what the Minister says about co-location. I understand that there will be circumstances—to return to our earlier discussion—in which SOCA investigations reveal, inter alia, revenue offences, which, the commissioners having given permission for the investigation to proceed, should logically be prosecuted by Revenue prosecutors. What I do not yet understand is why the clause states that SOCA itself may institute criminal proceedings in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, when everything that the Minister has said apart from that appears to suggest that it is not SOCA that will institute criminal proceedings, but rather the co-located special prosecutors that the Attorney-General is going to great lengths to put in place.
As I have said, it is fair to say that SOCA has a role in instituting criminal proceedings, with the caveat concerning the role of the CPS and the Revenue and Customs prosecuting officers. SOCA will be involved in pursuing criminals and will be looking to have them arrested and charged. The consequence of the hon. Gentleman's point of view would be almost to divorce SOCA from involvement to that extent. I have tried to make it clear that amending the clause to include provision to
''have the conduct of any'' criminal proceedings would much more clearly define a prosecution role for it within the organisation.
I agree, which is why I should not support the Conservative amendments, although I assume that they are tabled for probing purposes. I do not agree with the Minister, though, that it is obvious that SOCA should have the power to initiate proceedings. That is quite separate from the investigative process, and the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) was right when he said that there is a direct analogy between handing the case to the procurator fiscal in Scotland and handing it to the DPP or the Revenue prosecutors in England and Wales.
I am sure that this can be cleared up, and I do not want to pick a quarrel when probably we are worrying about nothing. However, it is clear to me and probably to the Minister and the Committee that decisions on prosecution and above all on the continuation of prosecutions must be made by a prosecuting authority, not by SOCA. SOCA may have an input and express a view, but that is it.
We have in the recent past been moving towards involving the prosecution authorities at the charging stage, so that the decision is not subsequently rescinded when they come to look at the papers. That is a matter of involving the prosecuting authority with SOCA. What we do not want to end up with is SOCA's own tame prosecutors, lifted from the CPS and Customs and Excise, who take decisions without reference to the prosecution authorities. A letter from the Attorney-General to the Committee would be useful in providing the necessary reassurance on that point.
That is indeed what I offered a few moments ago.
In relation to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde asked, subsection (2)(a) does not apply to Scotland in view of the distinctive arrangements there for investigating and prosecuting offences. Clause 23 therefore preserves the role of the Lord Advocate's Procurator Fiscal Service. Police in Scotland cannot initiate proceedings themselves. The Scottish justice system is such that only the Crown Agent's Procurator Fiscal Service can act as a public prosecution authority. We would therefore expect SOCA to act accordingly, to fit within the Scottish criminal justice systems. All the aspects of the Bill that relate to Scotland have been discussed with colleagues in Scotland, whose support we have attained.
We will return to what the Committee might come to know as the ''Greenock question'' about Scotland, perhaps over an amendment that we hope to move today. As has been said, the amendments in the group that we are discussing are probing amendments. Subject to the Minister's commitment to ensuring that the Attorney General writes to us, I am happy to withdraw the amendment. On the hierarchy in the police family, which I may have mistakenly mixed with the former issue, we want to ensure adequate liaison between SOCA and the police forces on questions of priority and operational matters. We may need to return to that issue on Report, but now I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
At the risk of incurring the wrath of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, I want to put two points to the Minister. Perhaps I have a suspicious mind, but the clause contains two powers for SOCA that I consider very general, so I would be grateful if the Minister could dispel my suspicions.
Subsection (2)(c) says that SOCA may
''at the request of any law enforcement agency, act in support of any activities of that agency''.
Will the Minister confirm that that applies to the UK agencies only? Much more worrying is subsection (5), which says:
''SOCA may furnish such assistance as it considers appropriate in response to requests made by any government or other body''— presumably that means anywhere in the world—
''exercising functions of a public nature in any country or territory outside the United Kingdom.''
Those are widely drawn provisions and I would like some assurance on how they might be applied. For example, my suspicious mind turns to Europe. Could a request from Europol mean SOCA being used to enforce a function of a European body? There may be other Governments with whom we might not want SOCA to co-operate too closely. SOCA might make one decision and that Government might make a different one. How are those situations to be covered?
I, too, have some brief questions about SOCA's relationship with other police forces. In preparation for the Committee I have been leafing through an excellent book called ''Untouchables'', by Michael Gillard, who is the son of one my colleagues, who is also called Michael Gillard, of The Observer, and Laurie Flynn, who is a respected former ''World In Action'' producer. The book, which I commend to the Minister, chronicles tales of police corruption, the activities of a Metropolitan police unit called CIB3—otherwise known as the untouchables—and the resurrection of the discredited ''super grass'' system, to which we will turn later.
In the course of investigations, it is quite feasible that SOCA might come across the activities of corrupt police officers who effectively assist, by commission or omission, in the perpetration of serious organised crime. So I ask the Minister, pursuant to the drafting of clause 5(2), will SOCA have the power to investigate corrupt officers of the police force? Under clause 5(2)(b), would it have such a power only if the police force in question commenced an investigation of its own accord? Thirdly, again under clause 5(2)(b), would it have such a power only if the chief police officer of the force in question made a request and therefore, by implication, granted his or her approval for such an investigation?
In relation to the points made by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), let us not forget that SOCA will predominantly deal with level 3 crime; although, as I have said earlier in the debate, it may still have an involvement and engage with crimes at level 1 and level 2. A level 3 crime is national and international. Therefore, it is important than SOCA has the ability to work with other law enforcement bodies, in Europe and beyond, in pursuit of the aims of the organisation that we discussed earlier: to combat and defeat organised crime. It is absolutely essential that there is an indication within the Bill that SOCA may—and I emphasise ''may''—seek to work with other organisations beyond the UK. The decision is for SOCA. There is no obligation to assist. It is a matter for it to determine. The very nature of the criminal activities, however, would make it a nonsense if we were to try to restrict operational ability to use a network of contacts beyond our own shores in tackling the sort of criminal activity we have talked about, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw emphasised in relation to drugs. That may not be the answer the hon. Member for Cotswold wants, but I hope it makes clear our intention and desire to give SOCA the ability to carry out their work in that way.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.