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Clause 4 - Relationships between NCA and other agencies: tasking etc

Part of Crime and Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 24th January 2013.

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Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 12:00 pm, 24th January 2013

I fail to see it in the Bill, but I would love to see the amendment that the Government will be tabling shortly.

I hope, too, that I will live up to the Olympian standards of debate that we have had so far this morning, seeing that the Minister has set such a high bar for us all to pass. I am afraid that I am not as familiar with “Angry Birds” as some; perhaps that is where my shortcomings come from.

I hope that our amendments to clause 4 will move the debate forward. So far we have talked a lot about the strategic direction of the new crime agency and how it will be influenced by different partners. The amendments speak to the agency’s day-to-day operational protocols and how they will work, in particular the way in which it will use a new power that it will have on tasking. That is not the multi-tasking of being able to play “Angry Birds” and listen to the Committee in detail at the same time, but directing police forces and how they use their resources.

The power that the organisation will have is a new one that SOCA does not have. SOCA had the ability to make voluntary and directed arrangements under the direction of the Home Secretary, but clause 4 will empower the director general of the NCA to require police forces directly to co-operate with him and other law enforcement officers. There will be a reciprocal duty on crime-fighters and members of various agencies to assist NCA officers to discharge their functions. The NCA will be able to enter specific arrangements, and the amendments speak to how those powers will be used and what implications they may have for how the agency operates and how police forces around the country operate with the agency.

Let me be clear about the powers that we want to test the Minister on in order to understand how he sees them working. Clause 4(2) says that the director general may request a chief constable to perform a task that would assist the NCA to exercise its functions. In doing so, the director general

“must explain how performance of the requested task would so assist in the exercise of those functions.”

Schedule 3 sets out the nature of the resources that may be requested. They include equipment, officers, constables and members of staff at any UK law agency. However, paragraph 17 of schedule 3 reads:

“That does not limit the kinds of assistance that may be provided or required.”

Clearly, that is a substantial and possibly costly power for the new director general. It is therefore important to test what is meant by that and to satisfy all of us that it is not open to what might be termed mission creep by the director general.

That the Bill does not set out how the director general should explain why a performance would be requested, only that it must be explained, only further highlights the need to set out clearly in Parliament what sort of explanation should be given and who should be informed of the use of the powers if they are used. There is potentially no limit as to what may be requested.

The Opposition recognise that there is a need to limit bureaucracy and to ensure that new working relationships are set in place from the get-go of the NCA, to ensure that it is effective, but it is the operation of the powers that concerns us. Schedule 3 resembles Jiminy Cricket in  his rendition of “I wish I may, I wish I might”, in the way that it says the director general may interact with the chief officers of police forces. Paragraph 4(1) requires the director general to keep chief officers informed of any information obtained by the NCA that he considers to be relevant to the exercise of a function of a chief officer, but paragraph 4(2) reads:

“This paragraph does not require the Director General to keep the chief officer…informed of information which appears to the Director General to be information obtained…from that chief officer or any other member of that police force.”

I am not sure quite what the Minister’s intention is, and I would be grateful for clarity on how he sees the day-to-day operational liaison role and how it will influence how crimes are investigated.

The Minister spoke eloquently on Tuesday about how the NCA might be involved in working with police forces on gun crime, particularly looking at the importation of guns through ports such as Dover that might be used on the streets of London or further afield as part of an organised gang’s dealing in drugs. Clearly, in the course of investigating and prosecuting such crimes, a number of pieces of information would come to light about the ways in which serious organised gangs operate in the UK. It would be interesting to know whether the Minister, under the schedule, intends that the NCA would only talk about the gun crime in that situation, or whether there would be a point at which officers in the NCA would liaise with officers and police forces about more minor crimes that might be associated with the Serious Organised Crime Act 2005, or with other individuals who might be involved and would be implicated in the course of their investigation, but were not the primary target of the investigation.

We are trying to test issues about how the NCA will operate in practice, in particular—the elephant in the room, of course—how those day to day operations will be impacted by the election of police and crime commissioners. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East pointed out on Tuesday, there is no mention of police and crime commissioners in the Bill. It seems rather strange to Opposition Members, simply because we heard the Prime Minister call it a big and important Government reform for policing. A Home Office Minister stated:

“From 15 November onwards, any development in crime prevention, policing and criminal justice will need to engage PCCs and they will be key in its implementation.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 November 2012; Vol. 740, c. 689.]

We know that police and crime commissioners now have a statutory duty to secure the maintenance of the police force for their area, yet despite that, the Bill gives the director general wide powers to require a police force to perform a task of unspecified magnitude, scope or significance without regard to the police or crime commissioner or indeed vice versa. We could get to a situation where a police and crime commissioner would not know if a request for resources had been made or was affordable or, vice versa, that a chief officer, rather than dealing with an issue in their own patch, could ask for the NCA to intervene without involving the police and crime commissioner in discussing that request and whether it was appropriate.

When that argument was made in the other place, the Government rejected it, saying that notifying police and crime commissioners might interrupt a time-critical operation and might amount to political interference. Indeed, they even argued that talking to police and crime commissioners about requests for resources would be entirely discretionary. They gave the example that if a kidnapping were to take place in a jurisdiction, the police and crime commissioner might have their phone switched off and therefore working with them on such a major issue in their local area was immaterial to whether the investigation should take place. I find it surprising that the Government think it would be political interference rather than simply a good working relationship to ensure that all those responsible for the operations of the police are involved in discussions on major issues such as that.

We have talked about the fabled framework document. Again, it makes no mention of police and crime commissioners, nor does it set out how day to day operational relationships will work, yet as the Minister said earlier, that is exactly what the framework document is supposed to do. He said that the framework document should be informed by the debates that we have in Committee. I am mindful that the amendments clearly speak to a debate that the Home Office itself must have been having. Otherwise, why did it issue a taskforce fact sheet about the Bill and the very way the tasking power of tasking would operate, which states:

“If the Director General issues a direction to the Chief Constable of a police force in England and Wales to perform a task or to provide assistance, the Director General will then notify both the Home Secretary and the relevant Police and Crime Commissioner. This obligation will be set out in the NCA Framework Document. This ensures that the Police and Crime Commissioner can properly hold their Chief Constable to account for cooperating effectively with the NCA as set out in the Strategic Policing Requirement. It also ensures that the Home Secretary can hold the Director General to account for issuing a direction.”?

In tabling the amendments, the Opposition are trying to help the Home Office and Ministers clarify their own intentions, because it seems that they are rather confused about the relationship they see the police and crime commissioners having under the powers. It would be helpful if the Minister would set out which is correct. Is it the fact sheet the Home Office has put out about the Bill and how it sees it operating, or the framework document, and perhaps his comments on Tuesday about whether it was worth involving police and crime commissioners in the day to day operations of the National Crime Agency?

We see the amendments as simply tidying up and making good on the aspirations of the fact sheet and some of those within the Home Office about the way police and crime commissioners will be involved in the day to day operations of the National Crime Agency and how police forces will co-operate with them.