Clause 31

Terrorist Asset-Freezing Etc. Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 23 November 2010.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat, Carshalton and Wallington 12:15, 23 November 2010

I beg to move amendment 5, in clause 31, page 15, line 25, at end insert—

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Substitute Member)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 6, page 15, line 31, leave out ‘send the Treasury a’.

Amendment 7, page 15, line 32, after ‘report’, insert ‘to Parliament’.

Amendment 8, page 15, line 34, leave out subsection (4).

Amendment 9, page 15, line 37, at end add—

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat, Carshalton and Wallington

Hon. Members may be pleased to hear that this is the final batch of amendments that the Joint Committee on Human Rights thought that we should discuss and requires airing in today’s Committee. The amendments pertain to parliamentary accountability. I suppose I need to bear in mind what I just said about ensuring that we do not adopt an ad hoc approach to legislation, but the purpose of the amendments is to ensure that there is greater parliamentary oversight of the role of the independent reviewer of the asset-freezing regime, so that it would become a clear responsibility of Parliament to monitor the independent reviewer’s activities, and that Parliament, rather than the Treasury, should receive reports about the work of the independent reviewer. The amendments would ensure that there was parliamentary confirmation of the appointment of the independent reviewer by the Treasury, that there would be reporting by the independent reviewer directly to Parliament and not to the Treasury, and finally, that there would be a single, non-renewable term of appointment of five years.

The amendments would achieve those aims if the Government were minded to adopt them. I will listen carefully to the Minister’s response. I think there is an important point made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the role of Parliament, as opposed to the Treasury, regarding the independent reviewer. However, I am aware that a different approach has been adopted in other areas of counter-terrorism legislation, so it is something that we may need to bundle up into the counter-terrorism review and perhaps come forward with alternative proposals.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for tabling his amendments about the status of the independent reviewer. He poses some important points that we need to respond to.

The provisions in the Bill are based on the review of counter-terrorism legislation contained in the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. We believe that the model is effective and ensures that there is an appropriate regime for the review of the asset-freezing regime.

Amendment 5 would require the independent reviewer to be approved by Parliament. The Government are committed to ensure that there are effective civil liberty safeguards set out in the Bill, and we have made  amendments in the other place to strengthen those safeguards. However, we believe that the independence of the reviewer is an essential part of these safeguards, and that will be the principal objective of any appointment. We do not believe that it is necessary for Parliament to approve the independent reviewer, as that would be a significant departure from standard practice. The appointment of a reviewer by Government reflects the long-standing principle of ministerial accountability, which is that Ministers are directly accountable to Parliament and to the public for those whom they appoint. Parliament will, of course, be able to scrutinise the work of the reviewer and hold him or her to account through existing mechanisms, for example through parliamentary Committees.

Amendments 6, 7 and 8 would replace the independent reviewer’s obligation to report to the Treasury, and the Treasury’s obligation to lay that report before Parliament, with an obligation on the reviewer to report directly to Parliament. The annual reports and any other ad hoc reports from Lord Carlile have always been provided in the first instance to the Home Office to check that they do not inadvertently include any material that is classified and therefore cannot be published. Asset freezing also deals with sensitive and classified material, and we therefore believe that a similar process is appropriate.

Given that the independent reviewer will have access to all relevant papers and evidence, including highly classified intelligence reports and, on occasion, material that is being considered as part of a separate criminal prosecution, it is only sensible to ensure that published reports do not include classified or sub judicematerial. Parliament could not undertake such a check.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington and the Committee that the Government will not seek to influence the outcome of any report. The report will be provided to Parliament as quickly as possible after it has been received by the Treasury and will be made available to the public.

Under amendment 9,the independent reviewer would be appointed for five years and the appointment would not be renewable. However, we do not believe it is necessary to have a statutory limit on the length of time that a reviewer should remain in post. There may be valid reasons why a reviewer should leave at an earlier stage, but there may also be valid reasons why a reviewer should stay in post longer, such as the expertise that a reviewer picks up over time and their knowledge of how the legislation works. That built-up knowledge and experience is invaluable.

Hon. Members will be aware that the amendments and the role of the independent reviewer were debated at length during the Bill’s passage through the other place, informed by the expertise and experience of the outgoing independent reviewer, Lord Carlile. Let me reiterate for the Committee’s benefit what he said in that debate. On the question of appointment procedures, he said:

“As to the way in which the independent reviewer is appointed, I do not have any very strong views. Appointment by a Minister does not make the reviewer any less independent. Many public appointments have sprung surprises on government; for example, chief inspectors of prisons. Independence is in the way the person concerned operates.”

On the question of whether submitting reports to the Government, rather than directly to Parliament, would run the risk of reports being altered in any way, Lord Carlile said:

“I cannot imagine any circumstances in which any honourable person appointed to this role would be prepared to change their report at the behest of a Minister or civil servant for political reasons. It has never happened. It did not happen with any of the reviewers before I was appointed, it has not happened during my period of tenure, and I do not think it will happen with any successor I can foresee under the present or changed arrangements.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 October 2010; Vol. 721, c. 1085-86.]

Let me reiterate: the Government consider it essential that the independent review of the asset-freezing regime is robust, impartial and transparent; and we are satisfied that the provisions in the Bill regarding the appointment and operation of the reviewer are appropriate to achieving that. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat, Carshalton and Wallington

I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said in response to the amendments. It was pertinent to the debate that he quoted Lord Carlile, who provided some reassurances about aspects of how the independent reviewer works and the extent to which that independent reviewer, in his expectation, would ensure that their independence was not affected or influenced by anything that the Government of the day might seek to impose or use to influence them in any way. I am reassured by what the Minister said, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I did not comment on the amendments because I agreed with every word the Minister said. We have been knocking chunks off each other on different Bills for the past few weeks, so in the spirit of cross-party co-operation, I just wanted to place my agreement with him today on the record.

However, may I ask the Minister for some clarity about the appointment that the clause will authorise? He has already mentioned Lord Carlile, the present independent reviewer of terrorist legislation. His appointment expires on 31 December this year and a further appointment has already been made. Does the Minister envisage that the independent reviewer appointed under the clause in due course will be a different person from the independent reviewer of terrorist legislation, whose remit is wider?

If the Minister can supply such information today, I would like details about the level of the salary to be paid to the individual appointed to the post, if it is independent from Lord Carlile’s current post. How does he intend to handle the appointment in terms of publicising it? I accept fully that it should be a ministerial appointment and that the person should be accountable to Ministers, but I am interested in hearing how he intends to recruit and deal with for applications the post. Although it is difficult to give certain information, because the post will be work load-oriented, what time commitment does the Minister anticipate the post will  require of anyone either in a joint post with the current reviewer, or in a separate post? We need to establish strictly in budgetary and monetary terms the time commitment, given that I expect the position to be paid on a daily or a cumulative basis.

I am interested in three things: salary, method of appointment and whether the Minister, in the interests of saving resources, intends to merge both posts in due course, following passage of the Bill.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his questions, although I am not sure that my answers will give him much satisfaction. Over the next few months, the Government will consider how best to recruit the independent reviewer and, following on from that, whom to appoint. The independent reviewer must complete the first review as soon as practicable and no later than nine months after the Bill comes into force, so we will need to appoint the person in the next few months to give them adequate time to complete their review.

Clearly, the salary will depend on whom we appoint and how much they cost, but it will also depend on the volume of their work load and how they wish to go about it. I would not want to think that their approach to the job would be in any way compromised by budgetary constraints that we might impose. The role is important. We need to go through the proper process and to make sure that adequate resources are available to do the job, and that depends on the amount of work they have to undertake to review the regime adequately.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am less concerned about the salary, although I wanted to give the Minister an opportunity to put such matters on record as well as the method of recruitment. I am more concerned about the necessary duplication. Under the clause, the Treasury will appoint a person to review independently the operation of the terrorist asset-freezing regime. There might be 10, 20 or 30 orders made during the year—we do not know. We shall assess the work load in due course.

Just over the road is my former Department, the Home Office, with an independently appointed reviewer of terrorist legislation, who scrutinises issues to do with control orders and a range of other measures. The reviewer is independent of the Government and accountable to the Home Secretary. I met the independent reviewer regularly when I was Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism, to be briefed on his concerns. As the Minister said, the reviewer did not interfere, was totally independent and produced his reports. He did cost a salary and back-up, but his reports raised a range of issues that were of interest to the Home Office. The reviewer examined the regime in a general, wide way.

The question for the Minister is: does he intend to establish a completely separate, parallel organisation accountable to the Treasury for reviewing terrorist-related asset-freezing orders, when there is an individual who is appointed to look at a range of other terrorist-related activities in terms of the Home Office’s performance on control orders and other issues? Last week, in this very room, the Minister would not give resources of about £1 million a year to support looked-after children through  child trust funds, yet, in this time of austerity, he is going to set up an entirely separate organisation accountable to the Treasury, with salary, with back up, to produce reports when there is already somebody in the Home Office doing a similar job on a range of other terrorist-related activity. I recognise that ministerial accountability for the Bill lies with the Minister and ministerial accountability for control orders lies with the Home Secretary, and that is fine, but surely, in this wonderful world of co-operation, there is a mechanism whereby the potential posts could be looked at as one, with joint ministerial accountability if necessary?

I will not propose deletion of the clause, but it is incumbent on the Minister to give serious reflection, not only to that possibility, but to whether he intends to rule it out. There is the potential for duplication and for extra cost when there is scope for ministerial accountability to be held by two Ministers, with one reviewer looking at both areas and reporting on separate issues to two separate Departments. Surely it must be worth while to consider doing that? I would welcome the Minister not giving me details on salary or on time commitments, but instead giving me details on whether he intends to give that serious consideration.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

All that I will say is that nothing is ruled out and nothing is ruled in. We need to consider this carefully. The right hon. Gentleman makes his argument, but we need to look at this in the context of the regime that we are proposing to set up.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

With due respect, the Minister is asking us to approve the clause, which states that the Treasury must appoint a person to review the operation of the regime. He is saying, “We might decide to do this, we might decide not to do this. We will let you know in due course.” He is asking the Committee to authorise him in appointing an official, but he cannot tell us whether he has had any discussions with colleagues in the Home Office.

I would be grateful if the Minister told us today whether he has discussed this matter with the Home Secretary. Has the Chancellor discussed it with the Home Secretary? Has the Minister discussed it with my successor in the Home Office, his right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice? Has he discussed it with the incumbent independent reviewer in the Home Office, Lord Carlile, or with Lord Carlile’s appointed successor? Has he costed it in terms of what the cost will be for the Treasury, versus the cost for the Home Office? Has he done any of those things? He is asking the Committee, both Government Members and Labour Members, to authorise the establishment by the Treasury of a new post, but he has not been able to convince me on whether he has ruled out or ruled in those options. A cursory, one-line answer will not do. Has he met with those individuals?

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Labour, Croydon North

Surely the point of being a Minister is the ability to make decisions. Given the reasoned argument from my right hon. Friend, could the Minister not make a decision that is in the interests of efficiency and the taxpayer?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He has been a Minister as well, and he knows that we can take those decisions.

I am not asking the Minister to make a snap decision today. I will not vote against clause 31. However, I want him to at least accord the Committee the respect to say: first, that he will meet, or has met, the Home Secretary; secondly, that he will discuss the matter with Lord Carlile and/or his successor; thirdly, that he will examine the cost of clause 31 versus the cost of the current reviewer of legislation; fourthly, that he will look at sharing between Treasury Ministers and Home Office Ministers the responsibilities for a possible joint post; and fifthly, that he will report back to us at some point before Report stage.

Those are reasonable questions. It is not unreasonable to ask the Minister, if we give him the power to appoint, that he consider them before Report. I am not happy with a one-sentence answer. We have had a reasonably productive and courteous debate and I will not shift from that position, but the Minister owes it to his Back Benchers, whose taxpayers’ money they will be spending on this post, to at least tell us how he will consider those issues for the future.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I do not quite understand why the right hon. Gentleman has suddenly built up a great head of steam on this point. I suppose I should be grateful that, after 13 years, Labour Members are concerned about the efficiency and effectiveness of public spending. That is welcome.

We will look at those issues. One thing that I have established in six months as a Minister is that the Treasury looks very carefully at the value-for-money case on appointments and at how to work across Government. We have had discussions with the Home Office. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that my noble Friend Lord Sassoon is responsible for the asset-freezing regime, and he will make that decision appropriately. The right hon. Gentleman has made some powerful and rather passionate arguments about how he thinks the process should work. He has his own experience. We will of course bear in mind what the right process is and we will discuss that with the Home Office.

It is not appropriate to go into more detail before the Bill has Royal Assent on what the appointment should look like, who should be appointed and what the salary should be. We are working on those matters and the right hon. Gentleman has made his point. I am grateful for him doing so—we can benefit from the experience of others. He should be reassured that the Treasury will do all in its power to ensure that the right appointment is made—one that represents value for money and efficiency across Government.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Let me complete my point, because we still have 20 minutes before 1 o’clock.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

No, no. That does not explain it. The Member for Reading East

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Sorry, the hon. Member for Reading West will know that if I have the opportunity to talk for a long time, I can do so. On this occasion, however, I am not trying to do so. We have spent many hours in Committee, during which time I have put many points on the record and perhaps kept the hon. Gentleman for longer than he would wish, but this is not one of those occasions. He will see from the speed of today’s debate that I have not done that.

The Bill commenced in another place and our discussions in Committee will be completed here today—perhaps before 1 o’clock or soon after. The Bill will come back to the Commons on Report and will receive Royal Assent because we will not be making any amendments to it. It will be law in perhaps as little as in two weeks’ time. All I am saying is that, before Report, the Minister should have some discussions with his noble Friend. That would be helpful to the House and to another place, which voiced concerns about the exercise to which the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred in his amendments.

By the time we reach the final stages of consideration of the Bill, it would be helpful to have some clarity about the Government’s proposals on the independent reviewer. Let me remind hon. Members that the new person takes up their duties on 1 January, following the noble Lord Carlile’s retirement from the position. Does the new person know what their work load might be in 2011 and 2012, given that the clause states that they shall produce a report nine months after this part of the Bill comes into force?

If there is to be one person dealing with the review of terrorist legislation, which makes eminent sense to me in cost terms and in terms of having an overview of such legislation, the Treasury’s position needs to be put into a work programme for the person who will be appointed to replace Lord Carlile from January 1. If we are not to have a merged position but are to have two separate positions, we will not have the overview that we would like across the board and we will be establishing, at some cost, a new position and back-up with additional costs for the Treasury, which will duplicate work that could be done by one person taking overall responsibility.

I said that I will not press the matter to a vote, but I hope that the Minister will consider coming back on Report and providing some answers to those questions. If he has not talked Home Office colleagues, I hope that he will. If he has done so by Report, I hope that he will have come to some conclusions on these matters.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 31 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 32 to 53 ordered to stand part of the Bill.