Clause 1 - The National Crime Agency

Crime and Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 22nd January 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Amendment moved (this day): 35, in clause 1, page 2, line 9, at end add—

‘(5A) The NCA is to have the following four commands—

(a) organised crime command;

(b) border policing command;

(c) economic crime command; and

(d) child exploitation and on-line protection command.

(5B) The Secretary of State may, by order, in the form of statutory instrument—

(a) close existing commands; and

(b) open new commands.’.—(Paul Goggins.)

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Labour, Wythenshawe and Sale East

Welcome to the Chair, Ms Dorries. I look forward to serving under your chairpersonship—if that is the correct terminology.

I was moving amendment 35, which is intended to help the Government, as it simply seeks to put in the Bill what Ministers have already given by way of assurance in statements and what is on the Home Office website.

I was describing the command structure that will be in place for the National Crime Agency—four commands—and speaking specifically about the child exploitation and online protection command. I was going over how the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre began, in work that I oversaw as chair of the taskforce on child protection on the internet as a Minister between 2003 and 2006. Eventually, the co-operative approach of that taskforce, bringing together industry, children’s organisations, law enforcement and the Government, led to the creation of a more substantial framework for delivering protection for children from the dangers that lurk on the internet. That is how CEOP was formed.

The centre opened formally for business in April 2006, at precisely the same time as the Serious Organised Crime Agency came into operation. It was, from the outset, part of SOCA. That was done deliberately. It was a time of great change—SOCA itself was an amalgamation of many different strands of work. Rather than place a huge organisational burden on what would be a modest part of SOCA, we decided to place CEOP within SOCA, so that it could get management support  from SOCA and concentrate on the real and urgent job of protecting our children. That is what happened, although as Ministers we were always clear that we remained open to the possibility that at some point in the future, CEOP could become an independent organisation.

At that point, I moved on to other responsibilities, but I know that altogether three reviews were carried out into CEOP and its work, on the question whether it should become independent. Little by little, those reviews moved to the point of recommending that CEOP should become an independent organisation. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who was Home Secretary before the 2010 election, had agreed in principle to give CEOP independent organisational status.

After the 2010 general election, the Home Secretary made a statement on the new National Crime Agency. She made it clear that CEOP would remain within the new framework of the NCA, which caused considerable disquiet, certainly among many of my colleagues, and among those working in children’s organisations and those speaking up on behalf of the victims of child abuse—online and offline, for that matter. Those who follow the issue closely will remember that ultimately, Jim Gamble, who was the chief executive of CEOP, resigned from that position because he felt that the decision was an indication that the Government were seeking to downgrade and undervalue the work of the centre.

I do not wish to dwell on that matter. I know that the Select Committee on Home Affairs conducted an inquiry that looked into the status of CEOP. A number of assurances were given, and I think the Home Secretary and Ministers have been at pains to confirm that CEOP would remain with its own identity, albeit within the NCA, and I welcome that. Part of what I am seeking to do today is to place that commitment firmly in the Bill.

I agreed strongly with the Home Secretary when she paid tribute to Jim Gamble; it is worth dwelling on that for a second. When he announced his resignation, she said that he had

“done a great job at CEOP and made a huge contribution to protecting children.”

There is no more important thing than protecting our children, and Jim did a great job. It was right that the Home Secretary acknowledged that in the warm comments that she made. My understanding is that Peter Davies has continued in that role and that, equally, he has done a fine job leading the organisation in its important work.

The annual review for 2011-12 gives examples of that work. Three things stand out for me. The first is the huge breadth of the partnership that CEOP now embodies, and the broad support therefore that it enjoys. From a range of companies such as Microsoft, Google, O2, Virgin Media and Yahoo, all the main players in the internet industry and in modern forms of communication are there, supporting CEOP in the work it is trying to do to protect our children. Law enforcement organisations—the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland and the Association of Police Authorities—are giving their support. The principal children’s organisations such as Barnardo’s, Action for  Children, the Children’s Society and a number of others are also supportive. There is a very broad, strong partnership in place supporting that work, which is very welcome.

When we look at the achievements of CEOP just in the year of that report, we find that more than 2.5 million children have seen the “Thinkuknow” resource, which is CEOP’s main educational tool to ensure that children are increasingly aware of the dangers of the internet. That is a tremendous achievement. It is very telling that 427 children have been subject to safeguarding or protection as a result of CEOP’s work. In the last year alone, 192 suspects were arrested after CEOP’s work: 192 people who posed substantial risks and threats to vulnerable children. CEOP is doing a great job.

Of course, the kind of risks that lurk within the internet are not confined to particular localities or even particular countries. They are global threats, and it is therefore very important that CEOP works and has credibility in partnerships in many countries around the world. I note from the report that in the last year CEOP took on responsibility for missing children, as well as its work on safeguarding children on the internet. That has been a high priority for many Members on both sides of the House over the last year or so, and as we face up to the Savile investigation and all the dreadful information we are finding out, and to issues very close to my own constituency in Rochdale, where children have been systematically abused. I am sure that there are other stories to come out about abuse in other towns and cities. One of the most important responsibilities of government is to ensure that our children are protected. We have all that for about £6 million per year. Given the reach of CEOP’s work, that is incredibly good value for money, as it leads the work in this area.

There is a third point from the report that I would like to dwell on for a second. It is the final paragraph of the foreword, written by the Home Secretary herself:

“I am committed to giving CEOP the ability to continue to create and sustain innovative partnerships, to add capacity and engage with the wider world, to maintain its multi-disciplinary workforce, to keep the independent CEOP brand, to maintain its operational independence within the NCA, to have clear delegated authority for its budget and to retain external governance. In short, I am committed to continuing to support CEOP in its vitally important work to protect the most vulnerable children in our society.”

I agree with every word that the Home Secretary wrote in that foreword, and I am sure that every member of the Committee will endorse it.

I simply want to try to help the Home Secretary and the Minister to make sure that those words are not just words, but are turned into substantial action. That is why my amendment would place the CEOP command and the other three commands in the Bill. In other words, the legislation would underpin those four commands; they could not be changed unless Parliament itself approved it. That is why I make it clear, in proposed new subsection (5B), that the Secretary of State can by order close down any one of those commands if she chooses, or, indeed, can open up new commands. However, she could not do it on a whim and it could not be done by people acting in an executive capacity.

The Home Secretary would have to come back to the House, justify her arguments and explain why she was choosing to close down CEOP or any of the other commands. Of course if she tried to close down CEOP  she would face substantial opposition from both sides of the House, and I do not expect it to happen. However the matter is so significant and so important that Ministers should signal its importance by accepting my amendment, thereby making sure that the commitment to CEOP and the work of the other commands is firmly placed in the Bill, and that only Parliament could change it.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Labour, Middlesbrough

I would like to speak to proposed new subsection (5B) of my right hon. Friend’s amendment. Having heard what he had to say about CEOP, I wholeheartedly endorse his comments and the need to enshrine the existence of that command within the ambit of the agency. We hear what he said about the closing of existing commands, but my concern is about the opening of new commands.

On Second Reading, we had a discussion about the way being left open to bring in an anti-terrorism command without primary legislation. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend would like to comment on whether any protection can be afforded in that respect, so that we do not inadvertently leave the door open to that coming about by these means.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Labour, Wythenshawe and Sale East

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I know about his concern in relation to the so-called super-affirmative order, which has now been taken out of the Bill. We await with interest any news the Minister may have confirming that the Government intend to leave it out of the Bill. That would be very welcome. However, my hon. Friend is asking whether my amendment could be a kind of back door enabling the Home Secretary to change a command and introduce counter-terrorism, making sure that the NCA becomes the lead on counter-terrorism, which of course would be a very significant step. She could not do that without the approval of Parliament, because she would have to open up a new command, the counter-terrorism command, and she could only do that, under my amendment, if she had the approval of both Houses through an order.

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne The Minister of State, Home Department

Thank you for giving me an opportunity to respond to the amendment, Ms Dorries. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I hope you are looking forward to this extended period in isolated confinement, being surreptitiously filmed with a collection of people of dubious celebrity status, some of whom may even, in time, sadly be voted out of this very setting.

I could not resist that. The horrors of the amendments proposed by the right hon. Member for Delyn are nothing compared to what you have had to experience in recent months, Ms. Dorries.

Let me answer the amendment in two ways. Part of the purpose of tabling it was to demonstrate the commitment of the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East to CEOP and to seek reassurances from the Government that we share his commitment, which we do, and I will expand that theme later. I also ought to address the literal applications of the amendment, were the Committee to decide to support it, because there are some wider implications that it is reasonable to bring to the Committee’s attention.

I understand that the amendment seeks to set the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, widely known as CEOP, on a firmer statutory footing, by putting it, and the other NCA commands, on the face of the Bill. While I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point, and I will turn later to the specific question of CEOP’s role in the NCA, I am not persuaded that this approach is necessary or appropriate.

Looking first at the amendment itself, the operational commands are an internal organisational issue; how the agency structures itself is not a matter for primary legislation. This is to ensure that the NCA is able to flex and adapt its structure, operations and priorities to the changing threat from serious, organised and complex crime. Indeed, the previous Government adopted the same pragmatic approach and there is no mention of CEOP or other structures in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005—legislation enacted when the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East was himself a Home Office Minister.

Although CEOP’s public profile is that of a distinct body, affiliated to SOCA, in terms of its legal standing it is part of SOCA, with the SOCA accounting officer being accountable to Parliament for the organisation as a whole. While I am pleased to see that there is some recognition of the need for flexibility by conferring an order-making power on the Secretary of State to enable her to abolish existing commands or establish new ones, this seems to me to be a strange proposal, not least because of the seeming absence of any role for the director general in the amendment. Similarly, there is no mention of other core aspects of the NCA, such as the national cyber crime unit or the intelligence hub, each of which will represent a significant component of the NCA’s overall crime-fighting capability.

Putting the commands in the Bill creates unnecessary rigidity in the NCA’s internal structure without providing any of the assurance that I believe the right hon. Gentleman is seeking. On the face of it, the amendment does no more than preserve the names of the commands, as there is nothing about their roles and responsibilities. So Parliament could accept the amendment and then, in theory at any rate, leave a hollow shell because the names themselves and not the organisational capacity would be all that would be required. It will not increase the ability of the NCA to protect children.

I will absolutely join the right hon. Gentleman in his praise for the important work of CEOP. I have had the opportunity as a Minister in the Home Office to visit CEOP and to talk not just to the leading members of staff but to members of staff at different levels right across the organisation. I was impressed not only by their professionalism, but by the obvious importance they attach to their work and the sense throughout the organisation that they were making a meaningful contribution to child protection. They are right to feel that strongly about their own responsibilities, which are significant and impressively discharged by them.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Government’s strong and continuing commitment to CEOP. We want to build on its successes to date and ensure that children are even better protected in future.  The Government have clearly and publicly committed to six principles to underpin the transition of CEOP into the NCA. These were included in the NCA plan and will be enshrined in the famous and widely available framework document, which all hon. Members who so wished will have already taken the opportunity to read. Both the Home Secretary and the NCA director general will have a statutory duty to have regard to that document. Within these principles there is, for example, an explicit commitment that CEOP will

“retain its operational independence, within the context of the NCA”.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Labour, Walsall South 2:15 pm, 22nd January 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. May I ask the Minister whether all the staff from CEOP will go over to this new body?

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne The Minister of State, Home Department

The short answer is yes; that is my understanding. I cannot vouch for every individual member of staff who has to decide whether to continue with that career, but the organisation will be transferred into the NCA and will not be altered or compromised in its existing forms. I suspect for a lot of staff on a day-to-day basis their work will continue largely as before. I hope that CEOP as an organisation within the NCA will benefit from what we regard as the greater reach and strategic capacity of the NCA. It will remain in that sense in its existing form.

I was saying that the role of CEOP is spelled out in greater detail in the draft framework document, including retaining its operational independence within the context of the NCA, having a clear delegated authority for its budget and so on, and that document is publicly available. There is a series of assurances that I hope will comfort right hon. and hon. Members who may inaccurately doubt the Government’s commitment to CEOP. It will be able to retain its multidisciplinary work force and its innovative partnerships and fund-raising work with the private, public and third sector. I wholeheartedly share the right hon. Gentleman’s desire to ensure that CEOP, within the NCA, continues to build on its work to protect children, but I do not agree that putting the commands on the face of the Bill is the right way to ensure that. I hope that I have reassured him and other members of the Committee that sufficient guarantees are already in place

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I just want to try to understand how it retains operational independence. I thought that the NCA was under the control of the director general, who has operational independence. How can a branch or an arm within the agency have separate operational independence?

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne The Minister of State, Home Department

As I was just saying, CEOP sits within the SOCA structures at present, but there does not seem to be widespread concern that CEOP does not make decisions that it regards as being in the interests of protecting children, either online or more generally, and we would believe and assert that that would still be the case within the NCA. It may be able to draw on what we would hope would be the greater strategic breadth of the NCA and perhaps the shared intelligence hub would be of greater value to CEOP than what it can draw on currently. It would be able to make its own decisions  and the confines of its organisational structure would be protected in the way that is outlined in the draft framework document.

On that basis and with those reassurances, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Labour, Wythenshawe and Sale East

I have listened carefully to the Minister’s assurances, and I welcome them, but I still have some difficulties and reservations. One thing that I do not doubt for a minute is that the Minister could come up with a better draft amendment than I. He has a great army of people to help him, and I would be happy were he to come forward on Report with a better amendment than amendment 35 that was properly thought through and fully filled out. I would be the first in the queue to support it. I hold that out as at least one option.

There are, however, two or three serious issues that, if not to be dealt with now, should give the Minister some further food for thought. One point is that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, who asked whether all staff would be transferred to the National Crime Agency. It is important to get that right, because some staff—this is certainly how it used to be—are not employed by SOCA but by private companies and children’s charities, and they are seconded to CEOP as part of the partnership arrangement. They will only do that provided that CEOP is clearly independent and able to do the job in the way that it sees fit. It is rather important in terms of resources that the independence is clearly spelled out and protected, because CEOP’s credibility rests on that.

Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne The Minister of State, Home Department

Maybe I should go in slightly greater detail through the six so-called guarantees on CEOP in the draft framework document, because No. 5 states that CEOP will

“retain its mixed economy of staff, from a variety of disciplines” and No. 6 states that it will

“continue its innovative partnerships with the public, private and third sector and have the ability to raise and hold funds from donors.”

Guarantee No. 4 says that CEOP will

“retain its well-known brand” and No. 3 states that it will

“continue to include external partners in its governance”.

The Government are mindful of the special status of CEOP; we think it would benefit from being within the organisational family that is the NCA. This is not such an abrupt departure because the centre sits loosely within SOCA’s structures, and we think it can benefit from being part of the NCA structures. However, it is a distinct organisation and it will continue to have the special status it currently enjoys.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Labour, Wythenshawe and Sale East

I am very grateful for that clarification. We are all very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, who in the course of this morning’s proceedings asked whether we could see the outline framework document, which at that point none of us apart from the Minister seemed to have seen. We now have a copy of the document, and indeed the Minister was able to offer some assurances about the six principles spelled out in it. I have just been reading through it and have almost got to the end of that section.

The assurances the Minister offers based on that document are well received by the Committee, but there is still a nagging doubt—certainly on the Opposition Benches—that too many rather important things are being left to this or that document, and are not in the legislation. What we actually have in the legislation is a fairly cosy relationship between the director general and the Home Secretary; one runs the organisation and is then accountable to the other. We would not dream of it happening with the present incumbents, but at some future time with a different director general and a different Home Secretary, what is to say that one day they will not suddenly decide to abolish two of the four commands, and close down the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre? It might be unthinkable now, but the Bill would allow them to do it. I remain worried that it is not sufficiently robust to say that it is tucked away in some framework document that we may or may not have had an opportunity to read.

I do not intend to press the amendment to a Division, but I hope the Minister will take those concerns away and find an opportunity to table an amendment on Report that puts CEOP on the face of the Bill, to ensure that the words of the Minister and the Home Secretary are beyond any doubt whatever, because they are contained in the legislation, which could only be changed if Parliament itself decided to do so. However, for the purposes of our debate today, 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 Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne The Minister of State, Home Department

Ms Dorries, given that we had the opportunity in this morning’s sitting to discuss the clause at length, I do not propose to participate in a stand part debate unless it is the wish of the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.