Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 13th January 2005.
I beg to move amendment No. 206, in clause 73, page 42, line 25, at end insert
'but he must inform the person in respect of whom an order was made that he has disclosed a report and to whom he has disclosed it.'.
The clause deals with the verification and disclosure of financial reporting orders. I accept that for the system to work, it must be possible for those examining the orders to check that what they are being told by the defendant—the convicted criminal who is under an obligation to provide the information—is accurate. However, there does not seem to be any suggestion in the clause that the person about whom questions are being asked will know who is being approached. The Minister might argue that there are compelling reasons why that should be the case, but there can be little doubt that that is a considerable intrusion on completely legitimate private relationships.
Let us take the example of an individual who has been convicted but is now going straight. At regular intervals, he presents his bank statements or statements from his employer, and the officer or investigator speaks to his bank manager or employer about it. That has the capacity to cause considerable damage to those private relationships. I have a horrible feeling that in some cases it could lead to a person losing his job if it had not been known that an FRO was in force. What is the justification for not informing somebody who is providing information in respect of an FRO that contact has been made with certain people to check it? In the ordinary course of events, I would expect a person to be entitled to that information. The Minister might persuade me that in the particular circumstances of an FRO, it would not be right to do it, because if an irregularity were shown up, the investigator might want to investigate other matters.
However, there might be a halfway house. There could be a discretion not to inform if it were considered that there had been some impropriety, but to inform if everything were shown by the checks to be all right. I have not sought to tackle that position in the amendment, but I have an anxiety about a situation in which information is obtained from the defendant and is checked behind his back with individuals with whom he has private or commercial relations, while he is kept completely in the dark that those contacts have taken place. That could cause considerable damage in the case of somebody who is trying to lead a law-abiding life. It is a difficult matter to reconcile, but I should be grateful to hear from the Minister how the Government view the issue.
As has been outlined, the amendment would require the person receiving financial reports to inform the subject of them every time a report was disclosed. That would provide the subject with a complete list of the enforcement agencies that were taking an interest in his potentially illegal financial affairs, as well as any third parties who had been asked to provide verification of the information in the report.
I acknowledge that this is a difficult area. One problem is that investigations could be prejudiced and third parties put at risk of intimidation in the course of verification of information. The other is that the probation service—as the go-between—could gain an unnecessary bureaucratic burden. However, it is important that the individual to whom an FRO is attached is fully aware of how the information might be used, and who might have access to it. In that situation, it is right that we issue guidance so that those who are subject to the orders are left in no doubt about what the content of the reports will potentially be used for and by which agencies. We believe that the drawbacks of the amendment outweigh the benefits, and we think that it would create an over-bureaucratic process. I ask the hon. Gentleman not to press his amendment.
I am grateful to learn from the Minister that the guidance will cover that concern. Drafting the amendment, I had not thought in terms of someone having to be told that the investigator had shared the information with some other enforcement agency. I was specifically concerned about its capacity to intrude on the private or commercial relations that an individual might have with his bank manager or his employers. Those were the examples that I could think of—there may be others. I do not have a great problem with the sharing of information with Customs and Excise, the security services or whoever else. That does not trouble me. If the guidance is properly drawn up, I suspect that the problem that I have seen can be addressed. In the circumstances, I shall have no hesitation in asking leave to withdraw the amendment.
In most circumstances, it is unlikely that an employer will be contacted. I do not want to misdirect the Committee—that may be a possibility in certain circumstances. That is why I made the point about third parties potentially being subject to intimidation. I hope that the guidance will cover some of the issues.
I can see the Minister's point that it might be unusual for an employer to be contacted. I would certainly expect that if a substantial sum of money were to appear in a bank account and the person were to say that they sold their car to someone down the road, the investigator might want to go off and check. If it turns out to be a legitimate transaction, that has the capacity to inform the person down the road of the fact that the person up the road, with whom they thought that they were having perfectly amicable relations, is subject to an FRO. It is one of those matters of balance, but if the guidance is issued so that we do not end up with a situation, as the Minister has rightly appreciated, where people complain that their attempts to go straight have been wrecked by intrusive disclosure of information about their finances when they have done nothing wrong. That is what we have to guard against.
I accept that those who have committed criminal offences and are subject to FROs will have to accept the burden that goes with it. That is just tough. However, the dividing line that we have to find is that between being tough and being over-tough or unfair. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
I wish to ask the Minister about the references made in a couple of the provisions to a report being made to a ''specified person'' by somebody subject to what we have now slipped happily into calling FROs. Who are the specified people likely to be? Are they likely to be the police, SOCA or the Assets Recovery Agency? To whom is it likely that someone will have to make such a report on an ongoing basis?
I think that I am right in saying that the probation officer will act as the person to whom the reports will come, as I mentioned earlier. From that point, access to and information on the reports for intelligence or verification purposes that might be sought by other agencies.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 73 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 74 ordered to stand part of the Bill.