Clause 6 - Former Inland Revenue matters

Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 11th January 2005.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 9, in clause 6, page 4, line 28, leave out paragraph (b).

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 10, in clause 6, page 4, line 32, leave out subsection (4).

Amendment No. 134, in clause 9, page 5, line 39, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

'(1) SOCA may determine its own strategic priorities.'.

Amendment No. 135, in clause 9, page 5, line 40, leave out 'the Secretary of State' and insert 'SOCA'.

Amendment No. 136, in clause 9, page 6, line 1, leave out 'SOCA' and insert 'the Secretary of State'.

Amendment No. 137, in clause 9, page 6, line 4, leave out 'The Secretary of State' and insert 'SOCA'.

Amendment No. 138, in clause 9, page 6, line 5, leave out 'he' and insert 'it'.

Clause 9 stand part.

Clause 10 stand part.

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

We now come the second of the three significant issues that the Opposition wish to raise. Two points that are already familiar to the Committee—namely, the power of the Home Secretary and operational independence—are the subject of this group of amendments, which touch on points that have already been raised. The amendments are designed to ensure that SOCA can get on with its important operational functions without the potentially unhelpful and hindering interference of the Home Secretary.

We submit that the Home Secretary will have excessive control over SOCA, a fact that I set out in our debates on the first group of amendments that we considered this morning. We are concerned about the potential politicisation of SOCA and the lack of operational freedom to which it will lead. As I said earlier, the Home Secretary should determine the overall positioning of SOCA, but the board should decide how such policies should be implemented.

On the politicisation of SOCA and the power of the Home Secretary, the most pointless and defunct provisions are found in clause 22. It states:

''The Director General of SOCA has the function of exercising general operational control in relation to the activities carried out in the exercise of SOCA's functions.''

That would be all well and good if it were not contradicted throughout the Bill by references to the power of the Secretary of State over SOCA and how   he can exercise that power. Under the Bill, the director general will not have control over the allocation of all SOCA's resources, the setting of its strategic targets or the equipment that SOCA will use. Clause 9 gives the Home Secretary the power directly to set the strategic priorities of SOCA; clause 10 gives him the power directly to set its performance targets; clause 18 gives him the power to ring-fence sections of SOCA's grant; and clause 27 gives him the power to decide what technology and equipment SOCA can use.

Clauses 9 and 10 deal with the strategic priorities and the performance targets, and we seek to amend the provisions to ensure that SOCA has a more clearly defined role in setting its own strategic priorities. We seek to ensure that SOCA retains its independence and non-political nature. Strategic independence is crucial to avoid the perception that strategy is determined by public opinion rather than by reference to developments in serious crime. In that sense, my fox has already been shot by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and, to some extent by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar. For greater accuracy, I have obtained a copy of the much-mentioned article in The Independent, headlined ''UK's crime-fighting agency will use the press to set agenda''. It clearly makes the point that public opinion should not directly determine developments. It states:

''Britain's new 'FBI' agency will be set priorities by the Home Office that are partly based on how much newspapers write about different types of organised crime.''

That is the very point about which we are concerned. We submit that it should be for the SOCA board to set strategy, and not the Home Secretary.

We seek to remove the reference in clause 6 to the Home Secretary's strategic priorities when SOCA is compiling its annual plan. Again, it should be for SOCA, in conjunction with the Home Secretary, to set out clearly its priorities and strategic aims. We seek also to remove clause 10, under which the Secretary of State has the ability to set performance targets. Clauses 9 and 10 and associated clauses do not raise any point of true law, but they raise questions about the Government's policy and to what degree the Labour Government want law enforcement agencies to be the subject of political control.

Operational independence is vital to SOCA's success. For example, it is vital that it has the flexibility to determine where and when to focus its activities. To combat serious organised crime in the United Kingdom, the focus and provision of SOCA support needs to be based on the consideration of need throughout the UK rather than any political agenda. It should be for the SOCA board and its chief officers to decide; the Secretary of State's influence should not be necessary.

We have set out, particularly in earlier amendment, our view that the Home Secretary should not be able to influence the board as the Bill allows. Armed, by coincidence, with the article in Monday's edition of The Independent, we submit that the Committee would be wise to consider those important points and pass judgment on them.  

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

I support the general tenor of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield.

It must be extraordinarily irksome for a British Home Secretary at international conferences to be in the company of Ministers of the Interior who are in direct control of their security forces and gendarmeries and are able to say, ''I will commit my officers to such and such a task.'' The British Home Secretary would have to say, ''I do not control the police in my country. I have an influence on policing, but I do not control it.'' I believe that that has been the origin of many attempts over the years by successive Home Secretaries, who have fretted about the fact that they do not have control, to establish direct control—by subterfuge, by statute or by bullying chief constables and police authorities.

We have to be very wary of that in this House. We in this country have a fine tradition of policing by consent and by tripartite arrangements that ensure that no single authority directs our police. That becomes doubly important when we establish a national agency of this kind, with far-reaching powers and a higher level of capability than many regional police forces. My concern is exactly what has been expressed: the Bill would provide for the Home Secretary to have very substantial operational control of the priorities, the programmes and the procurement of the agency being set up.

The hon. and learned Member for Redcar suggested that I was trying to mislead the Committee earlier when I read out the quotes from Sir Stephen Lander—far from it. Reading out every single word of the interview would only have reinforced my point. Many of us have significant concerns about the way in which it appears that SOCA is to do its business, subjected to pressures that are largely populist rather than based on a candid assessment of policing need and the need to reduce serious and organised crime. We should be wary about giving too many levers of control to any Home Secretary—this one, his predecessor or Home Secretaries in the future.

A level of independence in priority setting for SOCA is to be welcomed and encouraged and should be expressly set out in the legislation.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I rise to speak in support of amendments Nos. 134 to 138. I shall not go over the discussion of the article in question; the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar, the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield have covered that in some detail. Whatever the article does or does not say, we are right to be concerned that the strategy of SOCA should not become an instrument of the governing party's whim, egged on by public sentiment. Whether such a suggestion is in the article or not, that is a fair point.

Amendment No. 134 would give SOCA the ability to determine its own strategy. Of course, the Secretary of State would still have to be consulted, and amendment No. 135 makes that very point. The Minister may pooh-pooh the idea, but there could be some kind of halfway house. Why should not SOCA   or the Secretary of State have the right to determine strategy through consultation with the other party? Even more radically, why should not the parties determine strategy together? There are various alternatives that could form a more elegant solution than the yes-or-no approach that I have heard about so far in this debate. The Government have consistently shown their willingness to govern by market-testing and focus groups, and so I do not think that my point is invalid.

I find clause 10 rather strange. I wholly support the idea of both individual and team performance targets; the latter are not relevant to the Bill, but could be relevant to management. I am not exactly sure why SOCA will be subject to performance targets itself. Is not this a means of possible ministerial control, which could be disproportionate? Could not the Minister threaten sanctions to create an atmosphere in which SOCA behaves in a certain way? A Minister might threaten SOCA and say, ''If you don't do such and such, we'll wind you up,'' but should not that be a matter for Parliament rather than a Minister? For all those reasons, I would be grateful if the Minister addressed the purpose behind performance targets in clause 10.

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

We have had an interesting debate. The amendments relate predominantly to clause 9, which enables the Home Secretary to set the strategic priorities for SOCA. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield seeks to remove the Home Secretary from the equation and leave it to the agency to set its own priorities: that is the situation in a nutshell. I remind the hon. Gentleman that clause 9 closely follows the precedent set by the Police Act 1997, passed by the previous Administration. Parts I and II of that Act enable the Home Secretary to set objectives for both the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad.

The Bill uses the language of priorities, but in substance clause 9 is little different to what has gone before. I do not think that the sky has fallen down since then, or that it will in future. The Police Reform Act 2002 provides for the setting of strategic policing priorities by the Home Secretary in the context of the annual national policing plan.

The Home Secretary has a legitimate role to play in setting the national context in which the various law enforcement agencies are to operate. I refer to the article in The Independent, as Sir Stephen Lander has been mentioned again. He was asked whether it is right for politicians to have an influence on how crime is tackled, and why we could not leave the matter to the professionals. He said:

''You can't disentangle the political imperatives. If ministers want to have something slightly more important than something else then that is their political judgement.

They run the country, I don't—it's their judgement that counts.''

That is pretty clear. However, he went on to stress that, within SOCA and the framework of the Bill, the operational decisions on specific targets and cases would be made by SOCA. That is important, because at the end of the day, in many respects, the Home Secretary and the Government will be held to account for the activities of SOCA and its role in fighting   organised crime. Let us face it, it is the Home Secretary who is accountable to Parliament for the Government's record on fighting crime in this and other areas.

It has already been said today that responsibility without power is as indefensible in a democratic society as power without responsibility. The Home Secretary can be held to account only if he has some means of influencing how SOCA discharges its functions. The amendments would deny any meaningful role for the Home Secretary in setting the priorities for SOCA. By their nature, any strategic priorities would be high level—for example focusing SOCA's energies on defeating the drug barons and those engaged in people smuggling. It will be open to SOCA to set its own additional priorities, subject to the proviso that they must be consistent with the strategic priorities. Furthermore, it will be down to SOCA to determine how to give effect to the Home Secretary's strategic priorities. We are not seeking to run SOCA from the Home Office.

Part 1, taken as a whole, draws a proper and equitable balance between the respective roles of the Home Secretary, the SOCA board and the director general. It is important that we consider the totality of the checks and balances in relation to the roles of the Home Secretary and the agency. The amendments would destroy the balance between those three pillars which underpin the agency's governance.

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

Does my hon. Friend agree that in the amendments the model of what it is to be a Member of Parliament and what it is to have a Government is extraordinarily strange, because under them a Member of Parliament is there to respond to the perceptions of what is wrong in his or her constituency, including manifestations of serious and organised crime, which they take to Ministers and expect them to act on? That model means that MPs get shafted and are unable to do their jobs.

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

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is dangerous for any political party to suggest that we should disentangle the decisions that affect our constituents from the political process. Earlier today, we discussed the amount of money that the taxpayer will be paying towards running SOCA. There is another linkage in what my hon. Friend said in terms of accountability, which is important. However, there is more. I visited some officers from the National Crime Squad and asked how they dealt with and considered crime. Some of them said, ''How things have changed.'' They said that they used to spend years going after a criminal because they wanted to get him under a particular offence, but the nature of that offence and the network meant that they spent a lot of time, energy and resources going after what sometimes proved to be unattainable. They said, ''Today we have to be smarter and wiser. We need to disrupt these people and take them out of our communities and in doing so address some of the corrosive harm that they cause.''

Part of that debate is about our political influence in bringing to bear the experiences of our constituents   and the effect of crime on their lives, whether it is organised crime or antisocial behaviour. The amendments are dangerous and in many respects they add to cynicism about the political engagement that is so important and that we support and defend.

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

These started out as probing amendments, but the passion they have stirred on the other side of the Room has made me more certain that they are right. I am sorry to say that to the Minister after our debate on the last group of amendments, in which she so charmingly managed to satisfy our concerns.

At the heart of the matter is the question of whether the Home Secretary should be able both to settle all the priorities and nobble the board. That is too much of an armlock. The concept of the tripartite approach has been mentioned. It is important to remember that policing by consent in the UK is rooted in political independence. Systems and structures are needed to deliver that independence and they are delivered to local police forces by a statutory tripartite arrangement distributing power equally between the chief officer, the police authority and the Home Secretary. There is no reason why such a structure should not be applied nationally for SOCA in respect of the director general, the service authority and the Home Secretary. Arguably, there has been a shift of power within the tripartite structure. With more direction coming from the centre—from the Home Office—chief officers are held responsible for matters over which they have no control. There is a danger in politicising operational policing. Our belief that the tripartite structure is imbalanced in no way detracts from the fact that it is the most appropriate structure for policing. Police officers must act impartially, and they are accountable for their action or inaction. The tripartite structure has ultimate strength only if there is a balance of power and accountability. Unamended, the Bill would vest great power in a single individual, the Home Secretary. It is indisputable that there would be a danger of politicising the service if a politician alone were to hold those powers. For that reason, I shall divide the Committee on amendment No. 9.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Division number 5 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 6 - Former Inland Revenue matters

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.