New Clause 2 - Regional organised crime task forces

Crime and Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 12th February 2013.

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‘(1) The Secretary of State may make arrangements for the establishment of regional organised crime task forces.

(2) Such bodies will comprise representatives of—

(a) the NCA;

(b) local police forces;

(c) HM Revenue and Customs;

(d) the UK Border Agency;

(e) local authorities;

(f) business; and

(g) the Police and Crime Commissioners.

(3) Each regional organised crime task force will make its own arrangements for—

(a) administration; and

(b) chairing the body.

(4) The purpose of the Regional Organised Crime Task Force will be to—

(a) encourage and support joint working to counter organised crime; and

(b) increase public awareness of the causes and impact of organised crime.’.—(Paul Goggins.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The great thing about this Christmas tree Bill is that we fly from one subject to another with great variation and speed; my own comments will be speedy. The intention behind new clause 2 is to press the Minister to share with the Committee his thinking about the framework for tackling organised crime at a level between the national and the very local. Clearly the National Crime Agency will spearhead the national and international effort on organised crime in the United Kingdom, and police forces will focus on organised crime as it shows itself at local level, but there is an argument for taking a more strategic, regional view in relation to organised crime. New clause 2 would provide a framework for doing so.

Ironically, given the Committee’s recent discussion on Northern Ireland and the legislative consent motion, or rather the absence of a legislative consent motion, the model that I am proposing is based firmly on the experience of the Organised Crime Task Force in Northern Ireland, which has operated very effectively for the past decade. It is now chaired by the Justice Minister David Ford and has within it representatives of the police, at the moment of SOCA and in future, one hopes, of the National Crime Agency, the UK Border Agency, various Government Departments, the private sector—in other words, the whole sweep of organisations and agencies that may have an interest in and an angle on organised crime. By bringing them together, the impact is there to be seen.

Every year the Organised Crime Task Force publishes a threat assessment and an annual report of its achievements. It is instructive to look at the priorities that have been set out in the most recent threat assessment. It includes many issues that we would be very familiar with: drugs and money laundering, for example, but it  also includes issues that are specific to Northern Ireland, for example tiger kidnapping, which is a particularly difficult problem which is faced by law enforcement there. It is able to focus on those issues which are common to other areas but specific to Northern Ireland.

The achievements are commendable. Last year more than £30 million-worth of drugs were seized, 33 potential victims of human trafficking were rescued; £4.44 million of criminal assets were seized. The Justice Minister has done a lot to make sure that a substantial amount of those assets is returned to the communities where the greatest harm is done by organised criminal gangs. More than 23 million counterfeit and smuggled cigarettes were seized.

The model as it has operated in Northern Ireland has been able to focus on those issues which are real issues there, but also to achieve some significant results. Reflecting on the absence of a legislative consent motion, I find it deeply ironic that the enthusiasm for asset recovery in Northern Ireland has been greater than any other part of the United Kingdom. When the previous Government decided to close down the Assets Recovery Agency and put it in with SOCA there was a public revolt in Northern Ireland. I am sure the hon. Member for North Antrim will remember it; such was the level of public feeling.

For most of the rest of the United Kingdom, many people did not even realise there was an Assets Recovery Agency, but it was very high-profile there. SOCA has been a very effective partner within the Organised Crime Task Force ever since it came into being in 2006. So, it is working and the decision not to give legislative consent to the new framework would prevent the many successes that are already taking place.

On new clause 2, I am suggesting three things to the Minister. In subsection (2) I list the various agencies and organisations that ought to be members of a regional organised crime taskforce. For the rest of the United Kingdom, obviously the local police forces would need to be involved. The framework may look different in different regions but would clearly go beyond one particular police force area. I would want to see Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs involved. Obviously the National Crime Agency would be represented. The local authorities from that particular region should be there, because it could be that signs of organised crime are picked up by trading standards officers and other officials within local authorities. Of course, the police and crime commissioners for that particular region should also be involved. I would be interested to know whether the Minister thinks that list is deficient. There may be other agencies, organisations and sectors that he would like to include that I have not included. I would be very happy to hear if he has further suggestions.

My proposal is that the regional taskforce be left to its own devices in terms of organising its own administration and deciding who should lead and chair the taskforce. That is best left to them rather than to Ministers to decide. Crucially, subsection (4) sets out the purpose of the regional organised crime taskforce. That is to do two things. One is to encourage joint working, which is very important particularly in getting law enforcement and the private sector to work closely together. If, for example, there is a specific problem of cash in transit robberies within a particular locality, it is vital that the  police, the National Crime Agency and the banks should work together in order to make sure that they can deal with that issue. The idea of the regional structure is to promote that greater sense of partnership and joint working.

The second purpose is to increase public awareness of the causes and impacts of organised crime. Even though successive Ministers have done their best to highlight the causes and impacts, too little is understood by the general public. For example, when someone is tempted to buy, because it is cheaper, a dodgy or cut-price DVD that is clearly counterfeit, they may not realise that they are putting money into the hands of drug and people traffickers, who reinvest in their criminal enterprises in a way that is deeply harmful to many people. It is very important that at regional level, law enforcement, public authorities and the private sector take on the task of raising public awareness about the causes and impact of organised crime.

Three things are proposed in new clause 2: the make-up of the organised crime taskforce for each region; the way it should be organised and chaired; and its purpose in encouraging joint working and a greater understanding among the public.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 11:00 am, 12th February 2013

I was a member of the OCTF in Northern Ireland under the chairmanship of the right hon. Gentleman. It was a unique opportunity to gain insight into the needs and requirements of the OCTF on a regional basis. I support the points that my colleague has made. I believe that the lessons learnt should be applied across the rest of the UK. Indeed, this is an opportunity when such lessons can be applied.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. He reminds me that he would have represented the Policing Board on the Organised Crime Task Force. The Policing Board was another body that was bound into the work of that particular group.

I put my suggestions to the Minister to be helpful and I look forward to his comments. He will agree that we have to combat organised crime at every level. We have a new agency that will spearhead that work, but it cannot simply be left to operate at national level. We have to reinforce the work of local police forces and find new and strategic ways of tackling criminal gangs who operate at local, regional, national and international level. We must be absolutely unstinting in our efforts to bring all sectors together in the fight against organised crime. I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

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

I support my right hon. Friend’s proposal. There is certainly merit in hearing from the Government about how, on a regional basis, the role of the NCA will fit in with the roles of agencies such as Revenue and Customs, the Border Agency, local authorities, businesses and police and crime commissioners. I accept that some of those will come under the jurisdiction of the NCA. My right hon. Friend’s proposed new clause gives us a chance to look at the matter. Local authorities have roles and responsibilities for trading standards, which can look into counterfeiting and the confiscation of illegal goods, and we have the Government’s innovation of police and crime commissioners. I am keen to know how they will mix in with the work of the NCA on a regional basis.

My right hon. Friend’s proposal for the establishment of a regional organised crime taskforce provides the opportunity to bring together the NCA and its various streams of work on a regional basis and allows us to look at some of the other major players. Local authorities, police and crime commissioners and businesses in the area are major players. I support my right hon. Friend’s proposed new clause.

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

I strongly support the basic instincts that underline the new clause proposed by the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East. In the relatively short time that I have been a Home Office Minister, an area of policing and law enforcement that I had previously not been sufficiently aware of, but have become more aware of—I have become more impressed as a result of becoming more aware of it—is the need for enhanced regional capacity.

Before we get on to other organisations—border forces and others that have a law enforcement role—there is clearly a big disparity between the larger and smaller police forces. Some of the larger forces have the capacity to deal with serious and organised crime, because, of course, they tend to have more serious and organised crime, which means that they develop greater expertise. However, they also have more critical mass in terms of budget and people, compared to small police forces that do not typically have either the accumulated experience or the number of people to deal with serious and organised crime, particularly when a one-off incident or group of incidents disturbs their normal pattern of work.

It is important that we have a National Crime Agency that can, in Home Office jargon, dock effectively with different parts of the law enforcement landscape, to use another bit of jargon, because we want to ensure that the NCA is properly connected, that there is the capacity and the right level of expertise in the system to respond meaningfully to requests for collaborative work, and that the flow in both directions is as effective as possible.

Committee members will be forgiven for suspecting that this level of thinking really applies only in Northern Ireland, given the debate up to now. However, we have 10 regional organised crime units in England and Wales. I visited the one in Derbyshire, which is widely regarded as the most effective in England and Wales in terms of co-ordination of activity. The 10 regional organised crime units in England and Wales are embedded in local policing and accountable to police and crime commissioners. They include seconded officers from SOCA, HMRC, the UKBA and a number of other agencies—the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East made the point that the units are not made up exclusively of police.

Regional organised crime units co-ordinate the fight against organised crime at regional level and provide specialist support and expertise to police forces and other agencies. Such support ranges from producing regional threat assessments to mounting technical surveillance operations against organised criminal groups. Again, I make the point that there is obviously more capacity for that type of activity in a force such as Greater Manchester police than there would be in a small rural force. Their mission is simple: they must tackle both organised crime groups causing the greatest levels of harm to communities in their region, and organised crime that is occurring across local boundaries, including county or force boundaries.

Regional organised crime units have grown and developed over a number of years and are making a real contribution to the overall response to organised crime. Their key strength is their understanding of how local communities are affected by organised criminality and their consequent ability to tailor their law enforcement response accordingly, alongside their importance in linking upwards to national agencies—the docking mechanism I mentioned a moment ago. We see merit in the bottom-up rather than top-down element, because responses to organised crime may be different in the south-west of England from those in another part of the country where there might be bigger forces or cities, or less dispersed rurality. Law enforcement agencies will have different ways of applying the same lessons in different parts of the country.

Rather than replacing the agencies with a new structure prescribed in legislation, as the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East intends through his new clause, we are supporting them to become better. In any case, the Government’s organised crime strategy sets out a clear commitment to turn the regional units into a more integrated network with greater consistency and interoperability. Through the publication of the strategic policing requirement, we have put into statute the expectation that all forces have or have access to a specific set of capabilities to tackle organised crime and other national threats, and the expectation that forces collaborate, where appropriate, to deliver these capabilities. Building on those clear expectations, the police and partner agencies have agreed a set of core capabilities for the regional organised crime units in order to achieve greater consistency in the current arrangements. All chief officers are being encouraged to formalise those arrangements by signing collaboration agreements.

The Home Office is actively supporting that work. We already provide £16 million of direct funding to those units to fund some of the core capabilities, and we are looking at ways to increase that funding and provide a more stable funding model for units in the future. Our focus is on improving what exists and what has grown up organically, making it more effective and more co-ordinated and learning from better practice, without having a new structure set in statue that has too much of a one-size-fits-all feel to it.

The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East proposed that the new taskforces should have representation from a list of bodies, but those bodies are already able to engage with the work of regional organised crime units under the existing non-statutory arrangements. I hope I can assure all hon. Members by setting out how the system works at present. As I said, the regional units are made up of officers drawn from a number of agencies including police forces, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the UK Border Agency. Police forces are already plugged into their local communities, community safety groups, businesses and other interested parties in their locality.

In summary, the idea is a good one, and something we want to see more of. Critical mass is afforded by region-level capacity; with 5 million or 6 million people, it feels as though a gap would be filled between the National Crime Agency and some of the smaller, and in many cases more rural, forces, which without collaboration  would not have that type of capacity. I know that the new clause is probing and in any case, it only states that the Home Secretary “may” do things, rather than compelling her. This short debate has been useful and this area of policy development will continue to be of interest to Members.

We do not have a finalised institutional architecture yet—if there ever can be one. Some regions are seen by the police as more effective than others in learning from best practice. As I said, what applies in one region does not necessarily apply so well in another. It depends, for example, on the relative size of the different police forces in that region and their experiences of working collaboratively in the past. We are trying to improve standards of service delivery, while making sure that each region is accountable to the people of that region and provides a service that is tailor-made to be most effective in that region. With that, I ask the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East not to press his new clause, and to be confident in the knowledge that the Government share his enthusiasm for further policy development in this area.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Labour, Wythenshawe and Sale East 11:15 am, 12th February 2013

I am encouraged by what the Minister said about the regional organised crime units. It is good to hear about their work and it is good to hear that they will continue under the National Crime Agency to be a major focus for organising law enforcement efforts.

I will make three points. First, I do not intend to press the new clause. The Minister is right; the issue needs to be left to the discretion of local arrangements, because what works in one area may not work in another. In the north-west of England, which is my neck of the woods, we would have to debate what we meant by “region”, because in Manchester we would think of ourselves as being the Manchester city region, but in terms of organised crime, law enforcement would want to look at what was happening on Merseyside as well as in Manchester. There would be debate about the appropriate regional level for an organised crime taskforce.

Secondly, as the National Crime Agency begins its work, once the law is enacted and we move into the new phase, it is important that the regional units look to broaden the partnerships and do not just leave it to law enforcement. The units should try to engage with local authorities, the private sector and others who know about the impact of organised crime, whether it be on their business or on local communities. There has to be breadth to those partnerships, and I hope the Minister will take that forward in any discussions that he and his ministerial colleagues have with Keith Bristow and others at the National Crime Agency, as well as at local policing level too.

Thirdly, it is the important job of the units and local police forces to ensure that public attention is drawn to the causes and impacts of organised crime. I gave the example of a cut-price counterfeit DVD seeming an attractive proposition for somebody who is fairly hard-up, but the money goes into the hands of organised criminal gangs. We have to get that message across to people at community level. Many of the good community leaders in community safety groups and so on should be brought into that work where possible.

I hope that the Minister and his colleagues, in discussions with the NCA, will take forward those issues about partnership and public awareness. Once again, they  show that organised crime cannot be left to one level alone. It operates at many levels where the system—our law enforcement agencies and others—needs an appropriate framework to fight back. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

New clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

I suspend the Committee until 11.25, at which point I will adjourn, as Mr Burrowes is not present—unless someone else speaks to new clause 3 in the name of Mr Burrowes.

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

As Mr Burrowes left the Committee to attend to other urgent business, he asked me if I would speak to new clause 3.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

In that case, Mr Goggins, we now come to new clause 3.