Clause 3 - Functions of SOCA as to information relating to crime

Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 11th January 2005.

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Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 4:00 pm, 11th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 5, in clause 3, page 2, line 42, after 'agencies', insert—

'(ca) intelligence agencies,'.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 6, in clause 3, page 3, line 19, at end add—

'(6) In this section ''intelligence agency'' means—

(a) the Security Services,

(b) the Secret Intelligence Service

(c) Government Communications Headquarters, or

(d) any other United Kingdom intelligence-gathering agency.'.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

This is the first of the six small points that we wish to probe and, following the intervention of the Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), we might call it the Cotswolds amendment. Amendment No. 5 would add the words ''intelligence agencies'', which deals with the point that he sought to elucidate, and amendment No. 6 is rather more explicit about which intelligence agencies we are talking about.

The purpose of the amendment is to add an express requirement to SOCA to disseminate information with the United Kingdom intelligence agencies and places SOCA and the intelligence agencies on a statutory footing. There are similar provisions in the Bill relating to police forces, special forces and the law enforcement agencies. Since a measure introduced by the Conservative Government was passed, both the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service are on a statutory footing. The key point is that the relationship between SOCA and the UK intelligence agencies should be formalised. As drafted, the Bill creates no statutory requirement for SOCA to disseminate information to the UK intelligence agencies. Information and intelligence must flow freely between SOCA and the agencies to remove the risk of duplication—what I believe is known as a blue on blue event—and they must work to ensure joined-up policing.

We want to amend the Bill to add an express requirement for SOCA to disseminate information with the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service. Our amendment puts the relationship between SOCA and those intelligence agencies on a statutory footing to assist information sharing and collaboration. The Bill provides for relationships with other bodies. The clause does not expressly state that SOCA must disseminate information relevant to the prevention, detection, investigation or prosecution of offences to the security services or the secret intelligence services. As SOCA's remit is focused on serious organised crime, which by its nature crosses international boundaries, highly valuable information will be accumulated.

The British police and law enforcement system has been praised for the high degree of communication between the different agencies involved. We must ensure that the situation that occurred in the United States, where the FBI and CIA were not exchanging compatible information before the tragic attacks on the World Trade Centre, does not occur in this country. For one agency to know that individuals were learning to fly planes but not to land them and for it not to disseminate that information was a grave error. We must do all that we can to avoid any danger of that in the United Kingdom. When I first became a shadow Home Affairs Minister, I went to see the senior people who run the Metropolitan police at Scotland Yard. They made the point that in Britain, because of the   joined-up nature of policing, such an event as tragically took place in the United States could not happen in the UK. The purpose of the two amendments is to ensure that that point is underlined in the Bill. I hope that the Minister will be able to agree to the amendment or to explain to us why it is unnecessary.

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

I begin by assuring the hon. Gentleman that SOCA will have a close working relationship with all the intelligence agencies in furtherance of their shared objective of combating serious crime in the United Kingdom. The fact that we appointed Sir Stephen Lander, former director general of the Security Service, as chairman-designate of SOCA is testimony to that. We are clear that SOCA and the intelligence agencies will acquire information of value to each other and they must be free to share such information in furtherance of their respective functions. The information gateways in clauses 32 and 33 will facilitate that.

Although we share the sentiment behind the amendments, we do not believe that they are necessary. Clause 3(2) already provides that SOCA may, as one of its functions, disseminate information to ''law enforcement agencies''. That term is defined in subsection (4) and includes Government Departments. The Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ are all non-ministerial Government Departments; as such they already come within the definition of a law enforcement agency.

The Bill will achieve the intent behind the amendments. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured by my remarks and I invite him to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

This is an important point. The Minister says that the Bill says ''may'' rather than makes the matter an express requirement, as is the specific purpose of our amendments, so I cannot accept her argument, no matter how lucidly it was put. Therefore I want to press amendment No. 5 to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Division number 4 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 3 - Functions of SOCA as to information relating to crime

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 84, in clause 3, page 3, line 12, after 'is', insert

'recognised by the Secretary of State as being'.

There should be some accountability for passing information to other organisations. I do not doubt that SOCA will take its responsibilities seriously and will be very careful, but the British citizen is entitled to have the satisfaction of knowing that the Secretary of State has given some sort of imprimatur to the organisation in question—that it is a bona fide police force or investigation agency. Under the present wording, people carrying out a function similar to those carried out by a police force or SOCA would include bounty hunters. They would be entitled to receive information—or SOCA would be entitled to give it to them—by virtue of clause 3. I do not think that that would be a proper use of information gathered within the United Kingdom by SOCA and I suspect that SOCA would not feel that it was appropriate either. However, the legal justification for it is contained in the clause, loosely worded as it is.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns PPS (Malcolm Wicks, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions

I am genuinely curious and not trying to trip the hon. Gentleman up. Would the effect of his amendment be to exclude organisations and agencies that do not come under the remit of the Secretary of State, such as the Scottish Drugs Enforcement Agency? Would they be affected?

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

Absolutely not. Let me make it clear that that is covered under a separate subsection. The Scottish DEA is defined as a separate police force, for example, and therefore comes under (3)(2)(b). We are talking about those organisations that may be defined as law enforcement agencies under (3)(2)(c). Those include the customs and excise commissioners—or the revenue and customs commissioners, as they will become. The Scottish Administration is still there—there is no problem with that. The

''person who is charged with the duty of investigating offences or charging offenders'' is understood to be within British jurisdiction under English, Welsh or Scots law. However, there are other people who may be outside the United Kingdom and exercising some power similarly to a police force or SOCA and to whom SOCA may be entitled to disseminate information. The laxity of the wording   may have little consequence in practice, because SOCA would not be in the practice of passing on information to any person not associated with a respectable law enforcement agency—or so I would hope—but I would feel happier if the Secretary of State were at least to have a role, so that there is a degree of accountability for the citizen through Parliament for information passed to a third party which is a quasi-policing organisation in another country.

Photo of Mr Tony McWalter Mr Tony McWalter Labour/Co-operative, Hemel Hempstead

Does the hon. Gentleman want every police force in the whole world listed? If you accidentally missed one, for example the specialist force that deals with policing the Basque country, you would lose the opportunity of liaising with them. That surely cannot be what he wants.

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

No, I do not want that, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman does not think that I do. All I am asking for is recognition that, for instance, the police forces that are members of Interpol or Europol would automatically be recognised by the Secretary of State and indeed under statute within this country.

I do not think that the amendment implies any operational difficulties. It simply provides a safeguard against information being given to a third party abroad that may not be a genuine police force or a genuine law enforcement agency, but may have some other design. In operational terms I think it will have no effect, but in safeguarding British citizens and the constitutionality of the arrangements it will have considerable import. I therefore commend the amendment to the Committee.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

The amendment hits right at one of the biggest tensions behind the Bill. How effective will SOCA be, since one person's accountability is another person's political interference? Let me illustrate that with a couple of examples from the drugs trade, which is one of the most serious organised crime threats we face in this country.

In its 2001 report on drug trafficking, the UN suggested that heroin production and trade in south-east Asia had virtually disappeared, based on evidence collated from Australia and New Zealand, where there had indeed been a dramatic reduction in the preceding two years. The UN gives no conclusions about why this happened, but people on the ground suggest that it was not because gangs had stopped heroin in Burma and Thailand. Instead, they stopped trafficking it rather expensively to fairly small markets in Australia and New Zealand, where they were well identified by the law enforcement agencies. Instead they shifted the northward to China. People on the ground suggest that there is a major and growing heroin epidemic sweeping China, which is particularly prevalent in its south. I suggest that the reason why the UN has chosen to overlook the evidence from the specialists on the ground in Thailand and Burma—whose evidence shows that consumption by the local population is not decreasing as the UN is suggesting, but is, in fact, rapidly increasing—is to do with some kind of political consideration, that of not wanting to upset China.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

Order. I draw the hon. Member's attention to the fact that we are considering information gathering outside the UK. I think we have gone a little bit wide of the point. I appreciate the hon. Member's contribution, but I ask him to contain his remarks to the narrow issue of information gathering.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

My point is this: where there is a political imperative in the intelligence provided, it can skew the criminal enforcement. What is required is a criminal enforcement agency that is sufficiently confident in its independence, ethos and culture to look at the evidence base, rather than political presumptions.

Will the drug liaison officers that we have as UK police secondments in countries such as Colombia and other drug-trafficking countries remain in their role, or will they become part of SOCA? In other words, will they report into the agency, or be part of it? In addition, does the Minister believe that there is an increasing need for a European initiative on organised crime? Should that not be the direction that SOCA takes?

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

We foresee drug liaison officers forming part of SOCA. Our discussions of the formation of SOCA and those people who are acting on our behalf internationally addressed the possibility that we could end up with a variety of people whose work overlapped. We want to make better sense of that the arrangements and identify individuals who will not find themselves stopping at drugs when other forms of organised crime are apparent and they should work in those areas too. Making better sense of having people posted overseas is part of our work.

It is interesting that some Members criticize what could be defined by some as the dead hand of the Home Secretary interfering in the operational workings of SOCA, whereas the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome would add to the powers of the Home Secretary. I do not see any need for the amendment and I refer the hon.   Gentleman to section 2(3)(d) of the Police Act 1997. That deals with those with whom NCIS can be involved in terms of its functions and relationships. They include:

''any other person engaged outside the United Kingdom in the carrying on of activities similar to any carried on by the NCIS Service Authority, NCIS, a police authority, a police force, the NCS Service Authority or the National Crime Squad.''

In many respects, the definition in the Bill is lifted from that Act, and the arguments made in 1997 probably hold true today. It is not necessary for the Home Secretary to determine whether an overseas agency is carrying out activities that are similar to those carried out by SOCA or a United Kingdom police force. In his judgment, the director general is best qualified to do that.

Although the hon. Gentleman referred to bounty hunters, I hope that he will give the director general and others involved in the governance of the organisation some credit for understanding which organisations and individuals would best meet the provisions of clause 3(1), which is why information is disseminated when it is relevant to

''the prevention, detection, investigation or prosecution of offences, or . . . the reduction of crime in other ways or the mitigation of its consequences.''

We should keep the Bill as drafted. SOCA will be working on a day-to-day basis with police forces and law enforcement agencies in other countries. I do not understand why we should change a common practice with which there have not been particular problems. I fail to see why the agency cannot be relied on to determine whether an overseas agency meets the criteria under subsection (4)(d). I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for her comprehensive reply. She has allayed my fears a little, although I stressed throughout my remarks that I did not believe that operationally it would make the slightest difference to the activities of SOCA. I was providing a defence for the occasion on which information is given in good faith to an organisation that subsequently proved to be inappropriate for some reason. The difficulty now is that that would be entirely legal and within the definition. There could be no comeback if the body's activities were similar in any way to those of SOCA or a police force. The definition gives carte blanche, so the aggrieved citizen would have no redress in such circumstances. However, if the body involved had to be recognised by the Secretary of State, SOCA would first have the defence that the body was so recognised and thus could not be held to be unreasonable. Moreover, such a requirement would weed out any inappropriate bodies from the start—one hopes.

The hon. Member for Bassetlaw made an interesting observation about drugs liaison officers. They are integral to the fight against illegal drug importation. I am reminded of previous debates on budgets after a difficulty occurred when placing drugs liaison officers abroad. Although that may have been resolved by the two Departments in question, the difficulty lay in the fact that the Home Office had a deterrent to placing a great number of drugs liaison officers because they   were recharged on the basis of the running costs of the mission as a whole for the costs of placing a drugs liaison officer in an overseas mission . The Foreign and Commonwealth Office apportioned a part of the overall costs of the mission to the Home Office in recompense for placing a drugs liaison officer within the mission.

That is all very well between Departments; it is almost a paper transaction. Were it to happen in the case of an organisation with its own budget, which has to then find those costs, there would be a marked deterrent to placing such officers in overseas missions. I hope that that has been resolved; I am going back four or five years to when I was examining the matter as a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, but in the case of the position in central Asia and, indeed, in the far East, the costs of placing drugs liaison officers was then a current issue.

I do not expect the Minister to give a response now because I am sure that she does not know off the top of her head what the present situation is. However, perhaps she will consider the issue, because if drugs liaison officers are to form part of the personnel of SOCA, there could be a very large cost to the Department. She might like to clear it with the FCO before we reach that point rather than after and having it cause her significant difficulties. She has helpfully drawn my attention to the provisions of the Police Act 1997. I was not aware that a similar provision was included in it. On the basis of what she has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.