Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:45 pm on 11th January 2005.
The amendment represents the fifth of the six small points that we want to raise today. It is a probing amendment, designed to limit the Home Secretary's control over SOCA's functions and the way in which it chooses to allocate its budget for equipment. Clause 27 is a further example of the constraints placed on SOCA by the Bill and the Secretary of State's operational control of SOCA. It also represents a significant augmentation of the Secretary of State's powers.
The amendment is consistent with a theme voiced by Opposition Members today. We wish to amend the clause to ensure not only that SOCA will be consulted by the Secretary of State, but that the Secretary of State will have regard to that consultation. We believe that decisions made under the clause should, in certain circumstances, also be subject to the scrutiny of Parliament.
The clause would allow the Secretary of State to make regulations governing the equipment used by SOCA. Regulations prescribing the design and performance of equipment provided or used for the purposes of SOCA could also be made. The current position is outlined in sections 6 and 7 of the Police Reform Act 2002, which give the Secretary of State regulation-making powers in respect of equipment for police use. That is extended to the NCS and NCIS. It allows the Secretary of State to require all police forces in England and Wales to use or keep available for use only equipment that is specified and to apply conditions to the use of equipment. The Secretary of State can also prohibit forces from using specified equipment.
However, the key difference between those provisions and clause 27 is that the 2002 Act required the Secretary of State to consult ACPO and the APA before making any regulations. Section 6 of that Act adds the further caveat that the Secretary of State shall not make any regulations under subsection (1)(a) unless he considers it necessary to do so for the purpose of promoting the general efficiency and effectiveness of the police forces maintained for police areas in England and Wales. That section can also be regulated by Parliament, as section 6(2B) of the 2002 Act states:
''A statutory instrument containing any regulations under this section shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.''
This probing amendment seeks to include a similar provision by amending clause 27 to ensure that the director general of SOCA has operational independence to use the available resources in whatever way is necessary to ensure the operational effectiveness of SOCA. The implications of the clause are major, particularly given the lack of parliamentary debate allowed. There are no checks on the powers of the Secretary of State to issue regulations about equipment. The ramifications of that could fundamentally alter the relationship between the law enforcement agencies and the people whom they seek to protect.
Let us imagine that the Secretary of State has had discussions with a number of organisations and individuals and has decided that, in the circumstances, it would be sensible for some or all SOCA officers to be armed. Using this clause, he could issue a regulation stating that SOCA officers must use a certain type of weapon in certain circumstances. As SOCA officers are dealing with serious organised crime, that could mean most of the time. As SOCA will be not a police force but an organisation similar in its structure to the civil service, SOCA officers will not necessarily have had the full training and experience to use such weapons safely. The issue is highlighted by the fact that the Bill allows the director general to delegate police powers to SOCA officers without SOCA officers having had any training.
I do not want to engage in a debate about whether SOCA officers and police officers should be armed. It might well be that in certain circumstances they should be armed. The point is that any measure of that nature should be debated in Parliament; it should not be allowed in through the back door.
In summary, this amendment seeks to probe the Minister as to why what has applied to other arrangements in similar circumstances does not apply to this Bill.
I want to ask the Minister whether any consideration was given, beyond the assertion that SOCA is not a police force, to why the present regulations pertaining to police forces could not be extended to include SOCA. That seems to be the most appropriate way of dealing with the matter. There is no obvious reason why SOCA should have equipment that is different from that available to police forces in this country, given the range of crime that they are required to deal with. It would seem a much simpler arrangement.
Also, are there any circumstances in which the Minister would anticipate a SOCA officer, whether or not acting in the office of constable, being in uniform? If there are, what arrangements will be made for the provision of identification or otherwise, and all the matters that pertain to police officers and, I think, Customs officers in uniform in similar circumstances?
Under the clause, the Home Secretary ''can''—that does not mean that on every occasion he will—through regulation prescribe the design and performance of equipment, require SOCA to use specified equipment or equipment of a specified description, require SOCA to use equipment of a type approved by him that may or may not be subject to certain specified conditions of use, and prohibit the use of specified equipment or equipment of a specified description. Those are powers for the Home Secretary to have and use as appropriate.
The Secretary of State has long-standing powers to make regulations about the equipment used by police forces, which were continued in the Police Act 1997, for the National Crime Squad. Although SOCA is not a police force, it will work closely with police forces. It will be engaged in operational activities that will be similar, if not identical, in some cases to some of the operational activities undertaken by the police. There is therefore a question of consistency in matters of equipment.
I agree that there will be similarities of the kind that my hon. Friend mentioned, but I urge her to think again. I am a member of the Science and Technology Committee and we have done a lot of work on terrorism: we know that there are many bespoke forms of equipment that are suitable for dangers that occur exceptionally, outside the normal range of police activities. I ask my hon. Friend to think quite constructively about that matter.
I hope to reassure my hon. Friend. The power in question is one of the reserve powers that I hope we shall not need to exercise.
Mr. Grieve indicated dissent.
No, this is a serious point. Decisions about what equipment to use can for the most part be left to SOCA to determine. However, there may be rare occasions when it would be essential for SOCA and other law enforcement agencies to share, for example, information technology or communication systems. Bichard demonstrated in his report the issues that arise in this context.
The Minister is, of course, right. Similarity in this context—and, indeed, a marriage of two organisations using the same equipment—is desirable. However, does that not highlight the oddity of SOCA? A para-police organisation is being established, but the Secretary of State's envisaged directions require no consultation with the ACPO. I do not think the Minister can escape the oddity of the organisation that she is putting together.
In view of the fact that SOCA will be carrying out policing functions, surely ACPO should be consulted; otherwise only two inferences can be made. One is that the Secretary of State intends to direct without reference to anyone else, and the other is that he intends to make SOCA take different equipment. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) has just said that that would be ridiculous, but the lack of consultation of the police force in connection with this organisation causes me real concern.
The example of weaponry was cited. Customs and Excise has never been armed. If it required armed support, it went to the police. However, the implication now is clearly that SOCA could be armed. Those are quite worrying developments, and the Minister has not satisfied me about the Government's approach.
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me a little more time, I hope to be able to do so. I shall give another example. There might be a need for common communications equipment with the security services.
The point about ACPO is not really appropriate. However, we understand and support the idea of the Home Secretary consulting SOCA, but the amendment would require him not only to consult SOCA before making any regulations, but to
''have regard to any representations'' made by the agency. We think that that amendment is unnecessary. I believe it is implicit in the duty to consult that the Home Secretary must have regard to any representations that are made; why else would one consult? Representations cannot simply be ignored. They must be considered—but not necessarily accepted. There is on some occasions a duty for the Home Secretary to consider the overriding imperative which, in this context of equipment and the wider interest of the efficiency and effectiveness of the law-enforcement community, might be to insist on the use of compatible technology. That is a practical and logical way forward.
Amendment No. 164 would provide that the regulations on equipment should be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. That would be entirely disproportionate and an inefficient use of parliamentary time. Moreover, the clause does have precedent in that it models similar provisions for the NCS and NCIS in the Police Act 1997.
I can see that there will be occasions when it is appropriate for a direction on communality to be applied to deal with, for instance, IT and other communications systems. I am more interested, however, in areas in which there will be prohibition of particular equipment. There have been several areas in which new weaponry or restraining equipment has been brought on to the market which the police are not allowed to use until that equipment has been tested adequately. It would be entirely inappropriate if SOCA, for no distinct operational reasons, could use equipment similar to the equipment that might be provided to police forces but which they cannot use. That is why it is sensible for the same regulations to apply to SOCA and to police forces wherever possible.
I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with more detail, and I hope that the Committee will accept my contribution.
I will withdraw the amendment in my bid to be helpful, as ever, to the Minister, but I hope that she will have heard the concern expressed, not least by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead, about the clause. The sentiments behind the amendment are striking an important note and might be helpful to the Minister and her colleagues in the Home Office. Whenever I hear a Minister explain that although the powers are in the Bill, the Government do not expect to use them, or that they will probably not be necessary, I always think that Members of Parliament should be enormously careful in allowing such powers to stay in the Bill on that basis.
I hope that almost every Member of the House would agree that Home Office Ministers pay lip service to the fact that the Home Secretary must have regard to an argument. It is very hard to believe that the former Home Secretary would feel fettered if he did not accept an argument. He would have pretty scant regard to it.
I will withdraw the amendment, but I hope that the Minister will register the concern that has been expressed across the Committee and consider returning on Report with other language that might address that concern. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.