Annual reporting: Adequacy of resources

Criminal Finances Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 22nd November 2016.

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“(1) In Part 12 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (miscellaneous and general), after section 455, insert—

(1) A relevant authority must, no later than 1 June in each calendar year, prepare an annual report on the adequacy of the resources available from money voted by Parliament for the exercise of any functions of that authority—

(a) under this Act;

(b) in connection with investigations into terrorist financing offences under the Terrorism Act 2000;

(c) under Part 3 of the Criminal Finances Act 2017.

(2) In this section, “a relevant authority” means—

(a) the National Crime Agency;

(b) the Director of Public Prosecutions;

(c) the Director of the Serious Fraud Office, and

(d) Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

(3) The reports prepared in accordance with subsection (1) shall be sent—

(a) in the case of the National Crime Agency, to the Secretary of State;

(b) in the case of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Director of the Serious Fraud Office, to the Attorney General, and

(c) in the case of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

(4) The person receiving annual reports in accordance with subsection (3) must lay those reports before each House of Parliament in the form in which they were received no later than 30 June in the same calendar year, together with a statement on plans for future resources to be provided from money voted by Parliament.”.”

This new clause would require the National Crime Agency and other agencies to report annually to Parliament on the adequacy of its resource to fulfil its functions relating to combating financial crime.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

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

This is not a technical clause. It goes to the heart of transparency of resources for the enforcement agencies concerned. It is crucial that they are adequately funded, given the nature of the task that they are dealing with. They are chasing billions of pounds of evaded tax in relation to crime, with a particular emphasis on concerns around terrorism, and it is therefore perfectly legitimate for Parliament to be directly reported to on the adequacy of resources. That is the starting pitch.

In the evidence session, I, along with other Members, in particular the hon. Member for Portsmouth South, as I recall, asked many questions of witnesses about the resources available to law enforcement agencies. To Detective Superintendent Harman, who heads the national terrorist financial investigation unit at the Met, the hon. Lady asked:

“Are you confident that the enforcement agencies will have sufficient resources to make full use of the new powers in the Bill?”––[Official Report, Criminal Finances Public Bill Committee, 15 November 2016; c. 9, Q8.]

“Yes” was the response from the police officer and the witness accompanying him. I have to say, it is a pleasure to have the police helping us with our inquiries, rather than the other way around.

Clearly, the adequacy of resources goes to the heart of the ability of enforcement agencies to stamp out and tackle abuse within the financial sectors, particularly that which is linked to crime and terrorism. It is self-evident that, if the resources are not there, or if they are not used forensically and wisely, the agencies concerned will certainly not fulfil the intention of the Bill. It is worth reminding hon. Members of the intention of the Bill, as set out in the explanatory notes—I alluded to this in the evidence sessions last week—namely,

“to give law enforcement agencies, and partners, the capabilities and powers to recover the proceeds of crime, tackle money laundering and corruption, and counter terrorist financing.”

It is fair to say the Government could not be any more plain on this matter. The measure is, after all, the Criminal Finances Bill, so the clue is in the title. Given that we all agree with the Government’s intention as set out in the overview of the Bill—in the section relating to its mission—it is incumbent upon us to establish whether the resources are available to effect that good and laudable intention, notwithstanding the view expressed by the superintendent and his colleagues that they felt that they had enough money.

One way of holding the Government to account is to ensure that those intentions are backed up with the wherewithal to carry them out through a parliamentary annual review, given the crucial nature of these issues. All those who were asked about the adequacy of the resources to do the job agreed that the intention of the Bill was sound, and I do not dispute that. However, aside from the enforcement agencies themselves, which felt that they had enough to do the job—I am not sure whether that was in hope rather than in expectation—it is fair to say that most of the other witnesses’ enthusiasm for that element of the equation was not quite as clear-cut, although I would stand corrected and am challengeable on that.

For illustration purposes, Members may recall that when I asked the witnesses representing the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, Corruption Watch, Global Witness and Transparency International a question about whether they felt that—in their experience—the resources were available to do the job, there was a bit of a tumbleweed moment, with sideways looks at one another. I read the clear body language—and you do not have to be an experienced psychologist to have spotted it—that in their experience they felt that there clearly were not enough resources, and that they felt that that would hinder the enforcement agencies in doing their job. In response to the question from my hon. Friend for Ealing Central and Acton about the adequacy of resources, the director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies Mr Keatinge said:

“Resourcing is clearly a major issue. Cynically, one of the reasons for involving the private sector is to harness it to do some of the work…I do not believe we have the resources that we need.” ––[Official Report, Criminal Finances Public Bill Committee, 15 November 2016; c. 69-70, Q150.]

I accept that that is a view, but it is a view that has been reached after asking expert witnesses. We at least have to listen to them and take on board some of the concerns that they had. Moreover, when I followed up with the representative from the Metropolitan Police Authority, the National Crime Agency and the National Police Chiefs Council earlier the response to the hon. Member for Portsmouth South, I felt that they had begun to row back a little on their own equivocal answer to the hon. Lady.

That is why it is paramount that the professionals, and those whose day to day job is to tackle financial crime adequately, are adequately equipped with the resources to do the job. That is why we have to challenge them, and it is our responsibility to challenge them. In a sense, it is Parliament’s responsibility to challenge the Government and the Executive, and one of the best ways of doing that is for the information to be reported directly, rather than articulated through some sort of pontifical process to Parliament. I can inform Members now—I do not think I have to, but I will—that the people the law enforcement agencies are trying to catch are ahead of the game in relation to the crimes that they are committing, and we need to ensure that the enforcement agencies have the resources to do the job.

A clear example of where annual reporting would be effective is in the oversight of the IT system for SARs, which I know the Minister has referred to as being revamped or changed. As far as I am aware, ELMER is designed to process up to 20,000 suspicious activity reports; it is currently processing up to 381,000 of them. Of those, only 15,000 are looked at in detail, as was noted in the Home Affairs Committee’s fifth report of the 2016-17 Session, “Proceeds of crime”. That raises the question of whether reporting that many SARs is simply over the top, and borne out of caution on the part of banks. If so, then that approach wastes a good deal of time for those doing the reporting, and for the receiving agencies, who have to search through the haystack. Alternatively, if the reporting numbers are, to all intents and purposes, a reasonable reflection of concern that has reached a mutually agreed threshold, that raises another question: why are so many reports being ignored, brushed aside or not acted on? The Minister has reassured us that they are not under his office carpet.

The next question, unsurprisingly, is whether there is a resource deficit that dare not speak its name, especially for witnesses from one of the enforcement agencies that kindly gave evidence to us last week. It is not unreasonable to suggest that, as a result of the Government’s funding levels, SARs are now seen by many private regulators and bodies as a box-ticking exercise that underperforms, at the very least. I recall some witnesses alluding to that. Although the Government have committed to replacing the system, annual reporting to Parliament would ensure that its replacement is effective. If that had been instituted earlier, no doubt it would have shown up the inadequacies of the system, but we are where we are.

It is up to the Minister to take us where we would all like to be. We need well resourced agencies that are able to deliver the tasks set out for them in the Bill. Ultimately, the new clause would allow Parliament to hold the Government to account, through annual reports from professionals and experts on the ground, on their funding of enforcement agencies, and on the impact of that funding on the ability to prevent and disrupt attempts to hide the proceeds of crime. Given the seriousness of the issue we face—the loss of billions of pounds to the Exchequer—that is not too big an ask of the Government.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security) 11:00 am, 22nd November 2016

In my response to the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton on new clauses 2 and 5, I explained what we are doing to assess the capacity and capability of investigator resource. The new tools in the Bill are a key part of strengthening our response to economic crime. The Government continue to invest in law enforcement agencies through the asset recovery incentivisation scheme, which returns recovered assets back to the frontline. A top-slice of £5 million has been set aside every year until the end of this Parliament to fund key national asset recovery capabilities, and I can announce today that we are going further. We made a manifesto commitment to return a greater percentage of recovered assets to policing, and we are implementing that commitment by investing in policing the whole Home Office share of amounts above a certain baseline collected by the multi-agency regional asset recovery teams. That will give the agencies greater financial resources, if performance continues to increase—100% of the Home Office share, rather than the 50% that they currently get. There we are: an announcement in a Bill Committee—a new way of venturing forward.

Let us be honest: I say to the hon. Member for Bootle that in Government, we never have enough resources across all our priorities, because different priorities are preyed on by events such as flooding in the west of England, or issues for the Home Office such as a surge in terrorism. I therefore question the use of the word “adequacy” in the new clause. We can scrutinise accounts or budgets, but asking a police officer whether he feels he has enough is like asking, “How long is a piece of string?” Of course we never have enough for crime fighting across the country. If I had millions of pounds, I could find things to spend that money on immediately, and so could every Member in this Committee Room.

I am concerned about whether it would be right and fair to publish a report to Parliament, as the new clause demands. The agencies that use their powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act already report on their resources and results through the departmental annual accounts, which are subject to scrutiny from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee. The use of criminal justice tools and powers is also subject to scrutiny by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and, in the case of terrorism legislation, by the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation. The criminal finances board also closely monitors performance and resourcing issues. I hope that the hon. Members for Ealing Central and Acton, and for Bootle, can see that there is already significant scrutiny of resourcing. I invite the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton to withdraw the motion.

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

I was interested to hear a groundbreaking announcement in this Committee. I completely get the Minister’s point that we will never feel satiated, and that there will always be inadequacy, but my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle made a really powerful case. He mentioned SARs and the ELMER IT regime. Originally, 20,000 SARs were anticipated, but there are now 381,882—my hon. Friend said there were “up to” 381,000 of them, but there are even more, and the figure is rising.

I want to mention the NCA’s ability to cope with the greater workload. It takes an increasing length of time to get investigations into the courts. We have heard that it could take more than 200 days, with the new SARs regime. The NCA was created as a successor to several different organisations. The budget of those it replaced was £812 million, but the NCA’s new annual budget was £474 million. Those figures put the situation into context. The Government have cut that budget even further since the NCA’s creation; it received £411 million in 2015-16. I accept that there was a one-off £200 million cash injection last year, but the agency needs steady long-term funding to carry out its functions effectively. It is no good just sprinkling blockbuster sums now and then; it needs a consistent funding model.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bootle made some powerful points. For effective crime fighting, we should not have agencies that are overworked and under-resourced. The announcement that 100% of assets will go to the Home Office conflicts with an amendment that we have tabled.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

Not the Home Office; it is going to the law-enforcement agencies.

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

Okay, so it is within the system. We have tabled new clause 20, which is about repatriating assets to the jurisdictions they came from. Some charities—Christian Aid and all those people—are saying that third-world health budgets get robbed when someone buys a house in Hampstead with such proceeds. Are we going to—

Would the hon. Lady please face the Chair?

Photo of Richard Arkless Richard Arkless Scottish National Party, Dumfries and Galloway

I would like to make a very small point about the Minister’s comments on new clause 3. He rightly suggests that if we were to ask any police officer or public servant whether they had enough resources, the answer would clearly always be no, but the new clause does not seem like a generic question about whether there is enough generally. The hon. Member for Bootle is asking whether adequate resources are available for specific functions to be exercised under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. That is a marked departure from asking any Department the generic question, “Have you got enough, guv?”, to which we would almost certainly know the answer. The new clause is about activities undertaken under the Act, and I do not think it is fair to categorise the suggestion as the Minister did.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

Perhaps I can clarify some of the issues. Obviously the word “adequate” is subjective. We heard evidence in Committee from members of the law enforcement agencies, and they did use the word “enough”. My point is that we scrutinise the accounts in this place, and then compare that with agencies’ performance and outcomes. That is how we come to a decision—subjective, often—on whether there are adequate resources. It is not necessary to put that in primary legislation.

Perhaps I could clarify for the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton the issues around asset recovery and where those funds go. At the moment, if we recover assets from drug dealers, for example, the money is split, with 50% going to the Home Office, and 50% to the Crown Prosecution Service and all the other agencies—the National Crime Agency or the police—involved in that operation, so that they can invest it in their capabilities, and use it to increase their ability to fight crime. I can say today that further to our manifesto commitment, in future, instead of having that 50% of the cake, they will be able to keep 100% of the amount coming in above the baseline, which was set in 2015, if I am not mistaken. They have a very strong incentive to ensure that they are rewarded for their good work, and to make sure that we go after big sums as well as small. That is important.

On the point the hon. Lady raised about returning money that is stolen—we will come back to this—we sent back £27 million to Macau recently. Where we identify the ownership of stolen assets that we can return to a foreign country or wherever, we will, and we have already done that. My colleague the Minister for Immigration signed a memorandum of understanding with the Nigerian Government in August to make it even easier for us to return stolen property or assets to a country’s people. It is absolutely our intention to do that.

Across the money laundering piece, we can identify the owners of certain assets and take steps to return them. Other assets that accrue because of the high margins in the illicit trade of, say, drugs may be harder to return. In fact, the people who contributed to those sums may have committed a crime themselves, so there is a difference there. I recently saw in Mombasa some confiscated stuff that we will be returning, as soon as we can get through the paperwork. It is not our intention to divvy up the proceeds from the house in Knightsbridge and hand them all over to the National Crime Agency, and rob the third country from which the money was stolen.

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

I wanted clarification on just one other thing. The Home Affairs Committee report wanted ELMER replaced by the end of December. Am I right in thinking that the Minister referred to October 2018?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

No. As I said earlier, we have spent money updating and making sure that ELMER is maintained, but we are also in the process of drawing up a SAR reform policy. There are a number of reasons why there are so many referrals—380,000-odd—but the Bill will hopefully cut that number. We want quality, not quantity. At the moment, we are getting quantity, partly because in the suspicious activity regime, if a body makes the report, its defence is halfway there—that is the tick-box bit that is highlighted in the report. Also, many institutions currently report a fragment of the transactions, because they say that they are unable to report the complete transaction due to data-sharing barriers. That is why this Bill removes those barriers. Hopefully, instead of 15 pieces of a transaction being reported as 15 separate SARs, we will get one, because one institution will be able to report the transaction from beginning to end.

We are already taking steps to reduce demand on the system. The system is working; people should not think it has stopped working. The challenge is the analysis, and making sure that we act on the suspicious reports and are quick enough to discard the ones that are not, because we want quality, not quantity.

This time last year, we agreed a £200 million capital improvement budget for the National Crime Agency between 2016 and 2020. That is a huge sum of money for it to spend on a whole range of capital projects to bring them up-to-date. We all have lessons to learn—Labour Governments and Conservative Governments—from rushing into IT replacement projects that cost much more than anyone envisaged. It is therefore important we get the new SARs regime right before we replace the system. I assure hon. Members that that is at the forefront of my mind. We are not going to fall over—that is the main thing—and we will make sure that when we replace it, we do so with the right system, so that we are not all back in this Committee Room in a few years’ time saying, “The SARs regime is not working.” I hope that clarifies the point for the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury) 11:15 am, 22nd November 2016

I started by talking about Parliament being able to have reports from the agencies concerned, given the seriousness of the issue facing us. The Minister, reasonably, told us that 100% of the proceeds will go to the appropriate agencies and be divvied up as appropriate. I completely accept that, in good faith, and repeat the point made earlier: that he is a reasonable man. I do not challenge the Minister’s reasonableness; my challenge is based on the fact that Parliament, given the nature of this issue, is perfectly entitled to receive reports from agencies—no doubt articulated through the Departments in some fashion—on their resources. A definition of “adequacy” is that something is proportionate, or sufficient for its purpose. That is a matter for Parliament to discuss. It will not necessarily be able to do anything other than discuss it, but the discussion may produce views and experiences for the Minister to consider.

As to the Minister’s point that this is not something to go into primary legislation, about this time last year I was on the Committee that for 17 sittings considered the Housing and Planning Bill. There were all sorts of things in that Bill far less important to the health and integrity of the nation. Indeed, in the past, local government Acts—primary legislation—have even included provisions on how many hours off a person in one local authority can have, compared with a person in another. Primary legislation can be used in a range of ways. It is for the Government of the day to say, “We have nothing to fear from the reports coming before Parliament, from openness and transparency, or from challenge.”

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

Anyone who is a victim of financial crime takes that crime incredibly seriously; the same goes for victims of violent crime. The National Crime Agency has a number of threats to deal with, including drugs, firearms, child sexual exploitation, financial crime and foreign national offenders. Our police forces deal with a range of threats. Are we to say, on the principle that the hon. Gentleman has set out, that primary legislation should require our law enforcement agencies to produce a report every year, under each heading across the whole range of crime, on whether they believe they have adequate funding to do their job? If so, I envisage that our law enforcement agencies will be full of people doing reports all year, arguing about whether resourcing is “adequate”, and submitting them to Parliament, rather than getting on and prosecuting the people we need prosecuted.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

That is a fair point, but we know that, every day, Parliament debates issues that are far less important for the body politic, security and the safety of the country. The point that I am trying to make is that the issue is of great importance and significance. It is so different in degree as to be different in kind. My hon. Friends and I therefore say that Parliament should have this opportunity. This is not a technical proposal. I repeat that, given the nature of the threat to the country, and the importance that people place on the safety of the country, we would like the report to be made to Parliament.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 5, Noes 8.

Division number 1 Christmas Tree Industry — Annual reporting: Adequacy of resources

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

New Clause 6