Clause 7 - Annual reports

Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 11th January 2005.

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Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 5:15 pm, 11th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 13, in clause 7, page 5, line 28, at end insert

'(4A) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of the annual report before Parliament.'.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 87, in clause 12, page 7, line 18, at end insert

'(4A) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament any report published under this section.'.

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

My amendment is very similar to that tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome who is fast, on this Bill, becoming my hon. Friend. We both seek to ensure that SOCA is accountable to Parliament, not purely to the Home Secretary. It should be accountable both to the legislature and to the Executive. There is no doubt that it is accountable to the Executive, for many of the reasons that I have set out. It is less clear that it is properly accountable to the legislature. In view of the point made, with some passion, by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead during our debate on the last set of amendments, I feel doubly sure that he is with me and will support the amendment proposed jointly by the Liberal Democrats and Her Majesty's principal Opposition.

It is good discipline for the House to have an opportunity to debate such reports regularly. I underline that fact because I well know that Whips of all parties will not approve of the amendment to the same degree as will other hon. Members. I hope that it will command the support of the Committee, as it will enable hon. Members of all persuasions to comment on the performance of SOCA, in the way that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead outlined. After all, crime is of great concern across the House. It will give us a chance to examine the priorities of SOCA and to ensure that joined-up policing is taking place, and will enable us to establish how well SOCA is doing against the criteria set for it. It will also promote accountability—a concept that is immensely important in the view of Opposition Members.

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

I shall speak to amendment No. 87, which has a superficial similarity to that of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, although it refers to a different clause. My amendment deals with clause 12, rather than clause 7. The hon. Gentleman and I are in agreement this afternoon about significant aspects of the Bill—the difference being that I recollect the measures put before the House by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) when he was Home Secretary, and therefore have occasional reason for a wry smile.

I commend the methodology of putting reports before the House. It is important that there should be an opportunity to debate them. Amendment No. 13 would provide for the annual report to be placed before the House. The arguments put forward by the hon. Gentleman are doubled in the case of my amendment, because it deals with exceptional reports about something that has gone wrong with the operation of SOCA. It is right for Parliament to have an opportunity to discuss such a matter and   make appropriate recommendations to the Secretary of State about putting right whatever has been going wrong.

I hope that the Minister will not hesitate to accept both amendments. I am sure that she will want to demonstrate beyond peradventure her wish that the operation of the Home Department and SOCA should be accountable to the House of Commons.

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

We are happy to accept amendment No. 13, although we do not accept that it follows that an annual parliamentary debate on SOCA is needed. There are many opportunities to discuss activities concerned with organised crime, and if the Opposition want to use some of their allocated time to initiate such a debate, it is open to them to do so. I should add at this point that the Scottish Executive have agreed that there should be a parallel duty on Scottish Ministers to lay a copy of SOCA's annual report before the Scottish Parliament, and an appropriate amendment to that end will be tabled on Report.

I am not persuaded that there is a similar case for laying before Parliament reports submitted to the Home Secretary under clause 12. The clause provides for any reports to be published. I should expect them to appear on SOCA's website and they should be freely available to parliamentarians.

I fully accept that the Home Secretary must be accountable to Parliament for the way in which he discharges his functions under the Bill, but I am not sure whether that accountability would be strengthened by requiring every report that SOCA ever produced to be laid before the House. I remind the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that no such requirement is contained in the equivalent provisions of the Police Act 1997. I believe that the reports published under clause 12 will be open to scrutiny, but I do not believe that amendment No. 87 is necessary, and I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

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

I am obviously pleased that the Minister has accepted the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, but I am extremely disappointed that she has not accepted the parallel provision in my amendment to clause 12. She says that she does not see the need for every report produced by SOCA to be put before the House. Nor do I, because I think that there are ways of identifying what SOCA is producing. However, the amendment is not concerned with just any report, but a report required by the Secretary of State. It would be an exceptional report into a matter on which the Secretary of State required the board of SOCA or the director general to provide him with information.

Parliament is entitled to that information as well, to enable it to form an opinion about the stewardship of SOCA or, indeed, the stewardship of the Home Secretary of the day. For that reason, I hope that there may be an opportunity at the appropriate time to press the amendment to a vote.

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

I am delighted that the Minister has accepted the cogency of our arguments for amendment No. 13 and that it is not therefore necessary for us to put it to the vote. I did think that the Liberal   Democrats' argument in support of amendment No. 87 was extremely powerful and I can, therefore, tell the Committee that if the hon. Gentleman is able to put the amendment to the vote at the appropriate time Her Majesty's principal Opposition will of course support him.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 7, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8 to 11, ordered to stand part of the Bill.