Annual reporting: Adequacy of resources

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury) 10:45 am, 22nd November 2016

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.