Clause 22 - Operational responsibility of

Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:30 pm on 11 January 2005.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 5:30, 11 January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 89, in clause 22, page 12, line 21, at end add—

'(3) Any duty or responsibility of SOCA specified in sections 2 to 21 shall be a duty or responsibility of the Director General.'.

The amendment would identify the director general as having the duties and responsibilities conferred by the Bill on SOCA as a whole. When considering schedule 1 we mentioned the vagueness of the   definition of SOCA. At one point, it is interpreted as being the board of SOCA; at others, it comprises the whole force of SOCA officers. Various duties fall on SOCA as a corporate entity, so there is at least the capacity for confusion in operational terms.

If there were a failure to engage in the responsibilities and duties that pertain to SOCA, it might be more difficult to identify where responsibility lies if there were not a person on whom such duties were placed. In a police force, it is often the chief constable who has personal responsibility for what happens within his or her force. In SOCA, that responsibility is by no means clear. That amorphous body, SOCA, has responsibilities and duties corporately, which may or may not fall on the members of the board or those who are identified in the Bill. I believe that would be is more appropriate for the director general separately to have the responsibilities that fall on the body as a corporate structure. That would resolve any potential ambiguities in the wording of the Bill. I look forward to the Minister's response.

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

I confess to being slightly perplexed by the amendment. No duties or responsibilities of SOCA are mentioned in clause 22(1) and (2). The clause sets out on the face of the Bill the operational independence of the director general.

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

Amendment No. 89 clearly refers to

''Any duty or responsibility of SOCA specified in sections 2 to 21''.

That is a very large part of the Bill. It has nothing to do with the clause.

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

What shall be a duty is specified in preceding provisions. As for the operational independence of the director general, I have no disagreement with the hon. Gentleman's detailed point, but I think that clause 22 does set out that independence on the face of the Bill. The SOCA board will collectively determine the strategies to be pursued by the agency in discharging its functions and it will hold the director general and his executive team to account. However, it will be for the director general to decide which particular operations to mount and how they are to be conducted. The clause as it stands makes that point and needs no further embellishment. I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

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

I do not think that the Minister was best served by the briefing that she was given on this amendment. My proposal was perfectly explicit: it is nothing to do with the specific operational responsibility conferred by clause 22; it is designed to deal with clauses 2 to 21 and all of the duties and responsibilities—

Photo of John Heppell John Heppell Government Whip

It does not say that.

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

The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that that is not what the amendment says, so let me read it out to him:

''Any duty or responsibility of SOCA specified in sections 2 to 21 shall be a duty or responsibility of the Director General.''

I find it hard to be told that is not what it says.

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

We smell a rat because we think that the hon. Gentleman is trying to move   responsibilities from the Secretary of State to the director general.

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

The hon. Gentleman can smell as many rodents as he chooses. I had rather hoped he would read the amendment that I placed before the Committee. It could not be more explicit. It states:

''Any duty or responsibility of SOCA''— not of the Secretary of State, of SOCA—

''specified in sections 2 to 21'', which all now stand part of the Bill, because that is what the Committee has said,

''shall be a duty or responsibility of the Director General.''

I do not see how there could be any confusion in what that means.

Mr. Heppell indicated assent.

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

The Government Whip is now nodding sagely—the penny has dropped that this is in fact a perfectly sensible amendment. Unfortunately, the briefing the Minister received in response to it is based on an entirely erroneous interpretation. This means that we have not yet had the debate which we might have had.

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

I had not intended to intervene in this debate, but having listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's argument, it seems to me that we have not yet had a proper response from the Government explaining why the amendment is not an improvement to the Bill that we can support. Unless the Minister tells us why the amendment is not helpful, it is our duty to support the hon. Gentleman by voting for it.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that expression of encouragement, but I genuinely hoped to hear the Minister explain that it was unnecessary to place the responsibility on the director general because it was conferred in some other way. However, it seems we are not to have that answer and however long I extend my remarks to give the Minister an opportunity to make another contribution—

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

I rise to the challenge, but my point still stands. We believe that the clause clearly outlines the operational responsibilities of the director general. That, taken with the other clauses relating to the role of the SOCA board, the annual plans and reports and the functions of SOCA, provide a clear understanding of SOCA's role and the director general's place in it. We do not need to embellish further.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for intervening. That is not exactly the story that we heard the first time around, but it will suffice as a reply to my amendment. I will examine the matter again, taking account of the debates earlier today. I ask simply that she, too, examines it again.

In police forces, the chief constable's personal responsibilities—not those of the body corporate, the police force, or even of the police authority—are very clear. There is a case for the director general having a personal responsibility for the duties that fall upon SOCA as conferred by sections 2 to 21. That is not because there is any deficiency in accountability but because it is important that the director general of an   organisation set up in this form understands that the buck stops with them and that they have a responsibility for ensuring that the organisation works. That cannot be a matter for the board in some indeterminate way; nor can it be hived off to the Home Secretary or to junior officers within the organisation. The director general should have a responsibility to this country for ensuring that everything that is contained in the statute happens. That is an entirely sensible provision. I shall now sit down so that the Minister can respond.

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

I wish to make one more detailed point, because this is an important subject. In relation to previous clauses, we had a considerable discussion about the SOCA board and its formation. The duties and responsibilities of SOCA under clauses 2 to 21 properly rest with the SOCA board unless delegated by the board to the director general. We should keep it in mind that the director general is a member of the board and therefore shares its roles and responsibilities. I hope that explains a little further how the organisation will work in relation to the director general.

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

That goes a little further, but I do not think that it is entirely satisfactory for a board to have responsibilities that an individual must eventually shoulder. That is the difference between SOCA and police forces; SOCA has a different structure. In matters of liberty and well-being I should prefer personal responsibility to lie with an individual rather than a board, however well intentioned and competent it may be. We know how in the corporate world it is difficult to pin responsibility on a board of directors as opposed to an individual. It is even more important in a law enforcement agency that one person has responsibility for the operation of the organisation under his or her control.

I do not intend to press the amendment to a Division, but I will consider more carefully what the Minister has said. Now that we have finally got everyone to understand what the amendment is about, that I am trying to improve the Bill, not to make it worse, and that this is a significant area for consideration, perhaps it is a matter that we can profitably return to on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 22 ordered to stand part of the Bill.