Clause 23 - Activities in Scotland in relation to crime

Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:45 pm on 11th January 2005.

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Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 5:45 pm, 11th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 68, in clause 23, page 12, line 31, at end add—

'(4) Subsections (1) to (3) shall not apply in the event of circumstances which the Secretary of State believes constitute a national emergency.'.

The clause is particularly interesting, and will attract the attention of all the Committee, especially the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde, who   contributed earlier today. The amendment is really very simple.

In her first remarks, at the beginning of the day, the Minister made it clear that it is essential that SOCA be able move urgently and quickly if necessity dictates. The amendment would ensure that, in times of crisis, SOCA can act without the time delay imposed by seeking permission to work in Scotland. That would ensure that SOCA could work effectively as a national body. I call this the ''hot pursuit'' amendment, as it will enable SOCA to take action across the border without going through the bureaucratic delay of having to consult the Scottish authorities. Currently, SOCA does not have the ability to investigate serious organised crime in Scotland without obtaining permission. We are concerned that that will slow down investigation and lead to inefficiencies. It also seems excessive, as clause 5 states that SOCA must co-ordinate its information with the Scottish DEA and the Bill also requires SOCA to consult Scottish Ministers regarding its annual plan.

The creation of SOCA is a significant opportunity to develop more effective international relationships and gateways to decrease the bureaucracy involved in negotiating with international forces. However, those noble sentiments are seriously undermined by the clause, which specifies that SOCA should get permission to operate in Scotland. We seek to remove it from the Bill, or at least to add the failsafe that the Secretary of State has the right to intervene in a national emergency.

Should SOCA have to negotiate with a part of the United Kingdom before it can pursue an investigation? It is understandable that clearance would be required when working over international borders, but SOCA should be able to work in Scotland without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops. To those who have studied the difficulty in defeating terrorism in Ireland because of the arrangements on the border between southern Ireland and Northern Ireland, that an easy point to assert. If SOCA is liaising adequately with the Scottish DEA, as it should do under clause 5, it should not be necessary for the Lord Advocate in Scotland to scrutinise SOCA's motives. If SOCA officers need to be versed in Scots law, that should be part of their training.

The Scotland Act 1998 created not a separate nation with an international border but a Scottish Parliament with the power to enact legislation and deal with taxation. SOCA should not have to divert time and resources into the bureaucracy-creating measure before us.

Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown Labour, Dumfries

The hon. Gentleman is right. What we have in Scotland is devolution. He referred earlier to Ireland; southern Ireland and Northern Ireland are two different countries, but Scotland is still part of the UK. We are talking about devolution, not independence.

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

I hope that that logic will lead the hon. Gentleman to support my amendment. He is entirely right about the difference in the nature of the borders, and I hope that he will agree that the problem that I set out—that of not being able to pursue   criminal activity, which does not recognise borders—is very real. The Minister herself said that it is important that the system is easy to understand and helps us to pursue serious criminals. That is at the heart of my amendment. Will the serious organised criminals being investigated and pursued by SOCA officers recognise that the clause represents a loophole in the law, which they can exploit to gain time while SOCA officers enter into negotiations with the Scottish authorities to gain clearance to cross the border?

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

That passage of the hon. Gentleman's speech is extraordinary. He is talking about criminals seeing the provisions as a loophole. Presumably they would also have to envisage the loophole being operable in a national emergency, because the clause applies only in a national emergency, so to take advantage of it, the clever criminals will have to work out the loophole and that there will be a national emergency at the time that they are going to commit their crime. Is not that a bit ridiculous?

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

That emphasises my point. The Home Secretary will be able to determine whether it is appropriate for pursuit to take place. The loophole is very real, for the reasons mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. A clever criminal will realise that if he or she goes across the Scotland-England border, there is a bar to SOCA. I hope that that will add to his enthusiasm for my amendment.

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

But the bar is only lifted in the event of a national emergency. If the amendment said that the Secretary of State shall have discretion under whatever circumstances and whatever power under any other Act to waive the bar, that would be fine, but the hon. Gentleman is tying it into a national emergency, so the clever criminals have to work out that they have to commit their criminal activity and make their way across the border to Scotland while there is a national emergency. Is not that a bit narrow?

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

I shall seriously consider tabling a further amendment on Report to satisfy the hon. Gentleman. He is suggesting a lower bar for the amendment and saying that my bar is too high and should be lower. Perhaps on Report we can try to enlist his support by tabling an amendment that strikes out ''national emergency'' and inserts ''in any case where hot pursuit would be helpful in pursuing a particular incident.''

SOCA should have in its statutory remit the independence to operate as necessary within the United Kingdom. Communications and discussions with the SDEA should be part of SOCA's everyday working to ensure that intelligence and information is used efficiently by all forces. SOCA should not need to seek permission every time it needs to carry out operations across the border.

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

I cannot support the hon. Gentleman's amendment. I understand his desire to amend subsections (1) and (2), but for the life of me I cannot understand why the amendment applies to subsection (3), which clearly says that the report should be made as soon as is practicable. I would have thought that a national emergency taking place that   would impinge on whether that was practical, so subsection (3) does not need to be amended.

Taking the amendment at face value and the fact that the hon. Gentleman is envisaging circumstances of national emergency, I have to say that having participated in the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Civil Contingencies Bill, I know that there are a lot of complex, detailed arrangements that have been worked out with the Scottish Executive and Whitehall about how, in a national emergency, all sorts of things will take place, not just in the criminal arena. However, the hon. Gentleman casually tables an amendment that would drive a coach and horses through all that.

If we accept the latter part of his argument, in which he accepted that he has painted himself into a ridiculously small corner by using the words ''in a national emergency'', and consider the lower bar to which he refers, perhaps when riders had to be dispatched to the Scottish courts, changing horses every hundred miles or so—

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar

We have telephones now.

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

Precisely. If things were what they used to be, the hon. Gentleman might have a point. However, the Lord Advocate is an extraordinarily intelligent human being who knows how to work a phone and, I am reliably informed, e-mail too. If there were some question of hot pursuit, how quickly would the people have to move to be quicker than a phone call or e-mail?

The amendment is another attempt by the Conservatives, who have never accepted devolution, who opposed the creation of the Scottish Parliament, who campaigned for a no vote and seek at every turn to diminish the powers that the Scottish people voted for in a referendum, after which this Parliament handed over in the Scotland Act 1998—[Interruption.]

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

Order. The hon. Gentleman must draw his comments to a close, because we will not have a debate on Scottish devolution.

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

Thank you, Mr. O'Brien, although I was enjoying my hon. Friend's contribution.

The amendment misses the point of the clause. The clause does not create a new obligation, but simply asserts that SOCA will operate within the existing Scottish criminal justice system. It is important for successful prosecutions that SOCA operates effectively within that system, while providing operations in Scotland. In a national emergency, the Scottish criminal justice system would still apply in Scotland. During the discussion of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, detailed examination was given to how we would respond to an emergency, whether it happened in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The amendments would not take us forward.

The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield seems very concerned about how operations might be affected by what we believe is the right and proper engagement with the appropriate figures in Scotland. He raised the issue of hot pursuit, but mutually agreed arrangements are already in place through which Scottish and English forces can collaborate to detain someone   suspected of committing an offence. Such arrangements apply to the National Crime Squad and the SDEA as well as to territorial forces. Also already in place are agreed arrangements between the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland on the prosecution of suspects. The Bill proposes nothing new. The arrangements already in place will extend to cover SOCA. I hope that that allays the hon. Gentleman's fears that SOCA would not be able to deal with crime in a meaningful and quick way.

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

The amendment did not start out as a probing amendment, although I think that it has become one. The Committee will understand that its aim is to ensure that there are no bureaucratic or artificial delays to the ability of SOCA to perform its duties beyond the border between England and Scotland. I am considerably relieved by the Minister's remarks and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.