National Crime Agency: Report on staff training

Criminal Finances Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 22nd November 2016.

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“Section 3 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 is amended as follows, after subsection (7) insert—

‘(8) The National Crime Agency must make an annual report to Parliament on the provision of training to persons under this section.’”.—

This new clause would require the National Crime Agency to make a report to Parliament about the training it provides to its staff in financial investigation and the operation of the Proceeds of Crime Act.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Crime and Prevention)

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss

New clause 5—Accredited financial investigators: Recovery of training costs—

“(1) The Secretary of State shall have a duty to work with enforcement authorities to ensure that enforcement authorities have in place training cost agreements with staff who are trained by the enforcement authority to be accredited financial investigators.

(2) For the purposes of this section

“Enforcement authority” has the same meaning as in section 362A(7) of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002

“training costs agreement” means an agreement requiring an employee who has been trained as an accredited financial investigator to repay the cost of their training if they voluntarily leave the employment of the enforcement authority within 3 years of their training being completed.

“accredited financial investigators” has the same meaning as in section 47A(2) of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.”.

This new clause would place a duty on the Secretary of State to work with enforcement agencies to ensure that the agencies have appropriate HR arrangements in place to recover the costs of training accredited financial investigators where the AFI leaves the employment of the agency within 3 years of completing their training.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Crime and Prevention)

New clause 2 would ensure that the National Crime Agency makes an annual report to Parliament on the training it provides to enforcement agency staff who are defined under both this Bill and the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 as having the power to exercise civil recovery proceedings. We selected the National Crime Agency to be subject to the proposed duty because it is the sole body responsible for the training of other enforcement agencies with such powers under POCA.

Our main reason for wanting to introduce a duty on the National Crime Agency to make an annual report is that new clause 2 is nothing new. All this stuff was in the two influential Select Committee reports—the report by the Select Committee on Home Affairs on the proceeds of crime, and the report by the Public Accounts Committee. The report by the Home Affairs Committee showed that there is a lack of understanding at enforcement level regarding confiscation orders. There is sometimes confusion about where the buck stops.

The Home Affairs Committee report makes it clear that that misunderstanding is manifested in a number of ways, and I will give two quick examples. Some enforcement staff are not aware of their power to exercise civil recovery procedures and/or actions to that end, and confiscation orders are regularly not factored in at the beginning of criminal investigations—that is on page 13 of the report. The Home Affairs Committee alleges that, as a result, criminals regularly have time to hide their assets and that that has contributed to the poor recovery rate of confiscation orders. We know there is a lot wrong with those orders and that a lot of money falls through the cracks. According to the Committee report, as of last year there was a total of £1.6 billion in outstanding debt from confiscation orders.

The Public Accounts Committee also recently reported that administering the orders costs £100 million, yet £175 million was recovered through the orders last year. I am not arguing that that is solely down to staff training or a lack of knowledge among the staff, but the Home Affairs Committee report makes it clear that a number of causal factors contribute to the poor rate of recovery. Those factors include, but are not limited to, the overworked ELMER IT system for suspicious activity reports. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East eloquently mentioned that several times in the debate on the Floor of the House. The creaking IT system is overloaded and overworked as it is. I cannot account for where he is now, but I am sure that he will be there when needed. That is one factor. There is also a reluctance among barristers and judges to specialise in asset recovery law, as the Home Affairs Committee report also mentioned. Arguably, there is a lack of specialist confiscation courts.

Obviously, we are not arguing that the amendment would suddenly wave a magic wand to remedy those problems, but building in the audit mechanism through an annual report would allow us to identify weaknesses in the context of training provided by the National Crime Agency. One problem contributing to the poor recovery rate for confiscation orders, as I mentioned earlier, is that they are not factored into the very beginning of criminal procedures. The Minister talked about behaviours. If there were a regular report, we could identify similar behaviours and remedy the problem. In theory, we would increase the rate of recovery. To that end, Labour see the duty to report as being a cost-effective performance enhancer. There is nothing quite like the fear of having to make a statement that must be relayed on the Floor of the House orally or in writing or both, and it would focus the mind on the tasks at hand.

Regular reporting would allow Parliament to assess in real time the necessity of adjusting NCA training—that form of crime and the techniques underpinning it change in real time. Since the Proceeds of Crime Act 2000, 16 years ago, we have seen technology change how such evil crimes are effected—hopefully, they are ineffective. To that end, I draw Members’ attention to the debate on whether NCA training should be mainstreamed or extended to new enforcement agencies. Detective Superintendent Clark, head of the economic crime directorate at the City of London Police, has been positive about the idea of mainstreaming National Crime Agency training, so that some of it can be taken over. That is on page 9 of the Home Affairs Committee report.

That level of detail may be for another day, but the point I am trying to make is that regular reports to Government would allow the House to keep a closer eye on the quality and quantity of training provided. The reports could then be factored into more well-informed discussions at a later date about things such as mainstreaming training. Whether or not we are now living in an age of austerity, everyone in this House wants best value for money from our public services, particularly when budgets are tight. When it comes to underperforming services, we can all agree that making institutional or procedural change, rather than just throwing money around in an unfocused way, can help to drive up standards. I believe that regular, up-to-date, detailed reports would provide this and future Governments with the ability to make such changes.

The amendment is not intended to be political; it is technical. I know that the Minister is a reasonable man, and I think that he will agree that it is fair and reasoned. Everyone in the House appreciates the great work done by the NCA on our behalf, but it is only fair that we monitor and have an up-to-date understanding of the training that it provides.

Dr Huq, would you like to speak to new clause 5 at the same time?

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Crime and Prevention)

Yes. New clause 5 is simple and does what it says on the tin. We want the Secretary of State to work with the enforcement agencies, using accredited financial investigators, to hammer out some form of agreement whereby if an accredited financial investigator chooses to leave his post within the first three years of qualifying as an AFI, they must repay the cost of training before doing so. There are some figures.

In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, the Serious Fraud Office noted:

“Experienced accredited financial investigators with the skills to deal with complex financial crime are scarce within the public sector, and their skills are increasingly attractive to financial institutions in the private sector.”

Since its establishment in 2009, the SFO has employed 15 senior financial investigators. Of those, six have left the SFO and the resulting recruitment campaigns, according to that Home Affairs Committee report, had very “limited success”.

This could be done through, for example, the illicit wealth that they have confiscated or that they have been instrumental in confiscating. The Home Affairs Committee report had some quite startling statistics showing that AFIs are routinely subject to what it described as private-sector poaching. Another alarming feature of the Committee’s report was that AFIs are working for organisations where one could reasonable suspect that their skills may not be put to the most ethical use. I mentioned the other day that some of them have gone over to, for example, the gambling industry—something we do not want to encourage. It is wholly unfair for the state effectively to subsidise their training costs when they then scurry off to the private sector. It is a time of budgetary restraint and belt-tightening: we need to be getting value for money. It is only fair that those who benefit from the state’s generosity should repay it in kind.

Secondly, the Government are wholly aware of this issue. In fact, I believe there was meant to be a working party on recruitment and retention of key financial staff. Whatever happened to that? Sometimes these things get swept under the carpet or become a talking shop, so I would be curious to know what happened to that. It was a Whitehall working paper—we have not heard any concrete suggestions come out of the other end of that about how this problem is to be remedied. The Government’s plan on this is as mysterious and as tightly under wraps as the PM’s plan for Brexit, but let us not be political. I would like to ask the Minister whether he is opposed to this new clause—I would have thought he was a sensible man; it is quite sensible stuff. If he is opposed to it, can he please explain what he will do to stem the poaching of accredited financial investigators?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security) 10:45 am, 22nd November 2016

The Government recognise the importance of ensuring that investigation and prosecution agencies have sufficient expertise and resources to carry out their functions under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Section 3 of the Act places a statutory duty on the National Crime Agency to provide a system for the accreditation of financial investigators who use the powers under POCA. This is done through the National Crime Agency’s Proceeds of Crime Centre. The accreditation system includes provision for monitoring performance and, importantly, accreditation can be removed from an investigator who fails to meet the accreditation standards.

The training can be lengthy and expensive. The Home Affairs Committee, during its recent inquiry into asset recovery, identified the risk of the private sector poaching trained resources with the promise of better pay and benefits. It was a good report. I read it in full as well as the Public Accounts Committee report.

The NCA already publishes statistics on the training activities undertaken by the Proceeds of Crime Centre in its annual report. Their last report showed the delivery of 95 training courses, support for 760 delegates through that training, and the completion of 1,400 registrations and re-accreditations. Those statistics are already published annually.

New clause 5 provides for the use of agreements to tie accredited financial investigators to their agencies, so that they would pay the cost of their training if they voluntarily left the employment of the agency that has funded their training. However, these agencies have tried such agreements and found them difficult and costly to enforce. In most cases, the benefits of such agreements are minimal.

Even if an effective and enforceable form of cost training agreement could be found—I do not want to dismiss the idea out of hand today—making it a requirement in primary legislation would not be appropriate. The operational agencies who use financial investigators should be given the freedom to manage their workforce according to their needs.

In line with the hon. Lady’s concerns, the criminal finance board, which I chair with my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, commissioned a working group to examine the retention and training of financial investigators. It has not gone away or been swept under the carpet; I assure hon. Members that nothing is swept under the carpet in my Department. There is no conspiracy either—we do not do conspiracies in my Department; we are the conspiracy, according to some. That group is also considering what actions can be taken to incentivise investigators to stay and develop their career within the public sector.

The hon. Lady also referred to ELMER—the database of the suspicious activity reports IT regime. We have committed to replacing the SARs IT regime by October ’18, but in the meantime we have taken steps to upgrade and maintain it as part of the SARs reform package. We have not finished reforming the SARs programme, and before we roll out a new system we need to know what the new suspicious activity reports will look like, because if we are going to have a software database in order to cope with that effectively, we need to know what we are planning to cope with.

I am therefore alive to the issues and will be following the issues raised by the right hon. Member for Leicester East. I will visit to look at the system directly; I will have to bring my 1980s computer knowledge up to date to see whether I can remotely understand what I am looking at. I will certainly make sure that it is on because, like the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton, it is not my or the Government’s intention for the system to grind to a halt. It is very important.

It is also important that we register that we are keen to make sure that all those people who benefit from that system—not just the Government but the banks and the other people who use it—perhaps make a contribution towards the new system. That is important. It is for their benefit as well for the system to work successfully and efficiently.

I hope that demonstrates to the hon. Lady that I take both matters seriously. I think the training has already been dealt with, because it is published in the National Crime Agency’s annual report. I hope she is inclined to withdraw her motion on that basis.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Crime and Prevention)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 3