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New Clause 2 - Regional organised crime task forces

Part of Crime and Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 12th February 2013.

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Photo of Jeremy Browne Jeremy Browne The Minister of State, Home Department 11:00 am, 12th February 2013

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.