Clause 3 - Operations

Crime and Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 24th January 2013.

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Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 11:45 am, 24th January 2013

I beg to move amendment 3, in clause 3, page 4, line 1, leave out subsection (10).

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 14, in schedule 2, page 50, line 19, after ‘must’, insert ‘by order’.

Amendment 40, in schedule 2, page 50, line 21, after ‘under’, insert ‘annual’.

Amendment 15, in schedule 2, page 50, line 24, at end insert—

‘( ) An order under this paragraph shall be in the form of a statutory instrument and is subject to approval by resolution of each House of Parliament.’.

Amendment 16, in schedule 2, page 50, line 33, leave out paragraph (b).

Amendment 42, in schedule 2, page 51, line 12, leave out from ‘published’ to end of line 13.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I hope to be brief so that we can make some progress. We will not press amendment 3 to a vote, because it was tabled as a teaser and a tester to see what the Government think on the matter.

Amendment 3 would delete the schedule that establishes the framework, but that is not my intention. When we tabled the amendment, we intended to get some indication of what the framework would be. Helpfully, in part, following Tuesday’s discussions, the Minister and his officials drew our attention to the now published outline framework document for the NCA.

I still want to press the Minister on when the actual framework document will be published. The outline is helpful, but having looked at it over the past couple of days, we can see that it is very much an outline. In fact it is so much of an outline that, for example, item 10, which is about scrutiny, transparency and information, says, “Scrutiny”; it does not say how that scrutiny will happen. Under “publish information”, it does not say how. All the items are a series of headlines as to what the Government want to fill in in due course and how the framework will work. While the headlines themselves seem apparent, as ever with such matters, the devil is in the detail.

The Minister said on Tuesday that the Government cannot publish the framework document until the Bill receives Royal Assent. I simply ask him again what I asked on Tuesday. The outline framework document is a series of headings and indications of likely areas, but the detail will be in the paragraphs and the text that follows. While he says that he cannot legally produce the framework document until the Bill receives Royal  Assent, I will ask him again—gently and in a friendly way, in a spirit of co-operation—when he will be able to publish a draft of the framework document with the details.

My purpose of tabling amendment 3 is not to delete the framework document—self-evidently, we want one—but simply to ask the Minister when he will publish it. Even if the final version has to come after Royal Assent, will he consider publishing a much more detailed draft? The nub of what the NCA will do and how it will relate to other organisations will be governed by the draft.

To save time, Ms Dorries, I have only one other point to highlight from the amendments. Amendment 40 says that we want the framework document to be kept under annual review, and we also want to ensure that amendment 15 is considered, which aims to make sure that the framework is subject to affirmative resolution in each House of Parliament. Whatever our political differences are, the framework document should be published, not only in the Secretary of State’s world, but in a form that Members or interested parties can look at. Most importantly, if the framework document is to be reviewed, given that we will not see it in full until after the legislation receives Royal Assent, it would be a nice touch for the Minister to say, “Let’s have it affirmed by Parliament, so Parliament can discuss it and express a view.”

Significant powers will be included in the framework document that are to be exercised by the National Crime Agency and/or the Home Secretary, and those will not be approved by Parliament, even though schedule 2 says that the document will have effect. We do not yet know, with regard to subsection (10), what will have effect, because all we have is the outline document. We do not have the framework document, so we are giving carte blanche to the Minister, when we do not know what carte blanche actually is. In terms of parliamentary scrutiny, I think every Member would like to see the document. I do not want to cause trouble, but if we approve the proposal, we are doing so without knowing what we are approving.

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

There is a slight danger of the Opposition fetishising the outline framework document, which we discussed at some length on Tuesday. I shall take the opportunity to discuss it in more detail now, for the purpose of reassuring any members of the Committee who would otherwise feel alarmed. As the right hon. Gentleman has explained, the set of amendments—there are six in this grouping—all relate to the NCA framework document. I would like to make some general points about the framework document first, and then move on to the substance of the amendments.

The framework document will be a joint statement of intent by the Home Secretary and the director general of the NCA, setting out how they will work together and the ways in which NCA functions are to be exercised. As set out in the outline framework document, we expect that the document will cover internal governance, accountability between the director general and the Home Secretary, financial arrangements, performance management and reporting, requirements in respect of tasking and co-ordination, and transparency arrangements, including setting out the classes of information to be published by the NCA.

The framework document is essentially an agreement between the Home Secretary and the director general about how they will work together to best fulfil their respective statutory duties and functions, and it is only those two persons who must have regard to the document. I think that Opposition Members have perhaps overstated the importance of the document, certainly in legislative terms. Although I do not want to downplay the document, it is clearly secondary to the legislation, which sets out the core governance arrangements and what will happen with the NCA. The framework document will be an agreement between the Home Secretary and the director general about how that will be put into practice, and it will not—and cannot—cut across the legislation that we have agreed in the Committee and in Parliament more generally in any way. As a result, the framework document can only be agreed following Royal Assent, once the provisions of the Bill are settled. We will then publish the document and lay it before Parliament at about the time the NCA is formally established, which we envisage being later this year, subject to parliamentary approval.

I recognise that some hon. Members are disappointed with the level of detail provided in the form of the outline framework document that we have supplied, but given the secondary nature of the document, it would be jumping the gun to produce a full draft of it before the Bill has completed its parliamentary passage. Were the right hon. Gentleman to be successful with some of the amendments he proposed in Committee, we may well need to reflect that in the framework document. As the Committee has not yet had a chance to consider all his amendments, we cannot be certain whether he will be successful with them. The content of the document will be informed by the parliamentary debates on the Bill in Committee and later in the Chamber, as well as by the detailed work in progress to build the agency.

Such documents, agreed between Ministers and the agencies or Departments for which they have policy responsibility, are fairly commonplace in government, as the right hon. Member for Delyn will be aware. The Attorney-General, for example, has such a protocol in place with the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office, which was established by the previous Government in 2009. Framework documents and protocols of this kind are not usually laid before Parliament—indeed, in some cases they are not made public at all—but we have rejected that course of action.

In the interests of transparency, we have proposed that the NCA’s framework document be published and laid before Parliament. To go further and require parliamentary approval of the document, as amendments 14 and 15 would provide, is unnecessary, given that it will be essentially an agreement between the Home Secretary and director general about how they will do their jobs in respect of the NCA. I remind the right hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members that the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 made no provision for a framework document for SOCA, let alone for subjecting such a document to parliamentary scrutiny.

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

It was shocking to reflect on that, but we have learned lessons and as a result have a far more transparent arrangement.

Amendment 16 would remove the requirement for the Home Secretary to obtain the consent of the director general of the NCA before issuing the framework document. As the leader of the agency, the director general will have an entirely proper interest in ensuring that the framework document arrangements reflect his or her operational view of the NCA and how it can operate most effectively and efficiently. Since the director general will be ultimately accountable to the Home Secretary for delivering the priorities of the NCA, it is only right that his or her consent is gained for decisions about how the agency is administered.

Amendment 42 deals with the publication arrangements for the framework document. The important point to make is that the Government are committed to publishing the NCA framework document, as well as the other key documents referred to in the Bill, such as the annual plan and the annual report, in a fully transparent and accessible way so that all those with an interest in the agency’s work can read them. The requirement in schedule 2 to publish the document

“in the manner which the Secretary of State considers appropriate” is simply intended to indicate that it is for the Home Secretary, as the publisher of the framework document, to determine the most appropriate means of publication. We expect, for the avoidance of doubt or concern, that in practice the document will most likely be released via the NCA or Home Office website, or conceivably both.

Amendment 40 would require the framework document to be reviewed annually. While it is clearly important that the document should be kept up to date, that requirement is already fulfilled by the existing provision requiring the Home Secretary to keep it under review. We can leave it to the judgment of the Home Secretary and the director general to determine the frequency of such reviews, which could be more or less frequently than annually, without imposing a specific requirement. One could well imagine that once the NCA is bedded in, the need to make changes to the document may become less frequent. Accordingly, it would be far better to have a general requirement to keep the document under review, so that it can be revised as often as necessary—no more and no less—rather than having the rigid requirements envisaged by the amendment.

Finally, amendment 3 points in the opposite direction to the other amendments in the group by seeking not only to strike the provisions on the framework document from the Bill, but, on its coat tails, to remove the requirement on the director general to produce an annual report, which I am sure is not the right hon. Gentleman’s intention. Indeed, I am sure he agrees that such a step would not be in the interests of transparency and accountability.

In summary, I have argued that the framework document, while undoubtedly important, is secondary to the Bill’s provisions and so, while we have committed to publish it and lay it before Parliament, does not require further parliamentary scrutiny. It is appropriate, on the other hand, that it should have the director general’s consent, since he or she will have to implement its arrangements. It should of course be kept under review, but I have  argued that an annual process is disproportionate. On that basis, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I hope I gave the Minister food for thought. He knows that amendment 3 was never designed, as I said earlier, to knock out the framework document. It was a mechanism to test some points, which the Minister has responded to. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.