Clause 1 - The Agency and its Director

Proceeds of Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:30 am ar 13 Tachwedd 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 10:30, 13 Tachwedd 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 7, after `Director)', insert

`and a deputy Director for Northern Ireland'.

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Llafur, Blaydon

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 6, in schedule 1, page 256, line 23, leave out `senior official' and insert `deputy director'.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I can tell the Minister that we intend, in so far as we can, to scrutinise such a massive piece of legislation in a reasonable time, and to be as concise as possible when discussing amendments. As the Bill is so substantial, it will require close scrutiny and we shall focus on the aspects of it that cause us anxiety. Its first five clauses are some of the least controversial and we shall therefore endeavour to get through that part of the Bill as soon as possible, because later clauses are much more controversial.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 6 relate to the position of the agency and its director. Yesterday we received a helpful document from the Home Office that detailed, as had not been done previously, how it was expected that the director would carry out his functions. That has undoubtedly been extremely useful in preparing for this morning's debate, but it raises several questions that need to be answered.

Amendment No. 1 is about the director's role in relation to Northern Ireland. This may seem an obvious place to start, but clearly the director's functions are considerable. He will have considerable discretion and power, and his remit extends to England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Bill makes provision for the appointment of a deputy director, but no specific reference is made to anyone, apart from an official, having responsibility for Northern Ireland. However, as the Minister knows, Northern Ireland has a separate judicial system, with its own chief justice and judges, which it may even be hoped may become part of the devolved responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Assembly at some point. I am therefore bound to flag up the fact that I am slightly surprised that Northern Ireland is not given the separate status of having a deputy director, especially as the director's powers are so considerable.

This is a matter of accountability. As the director has delegated functions, and as in Northern Ireland those functions will presumably be exercised wholly by the official nominated, failing to give him the status of deputy director seems to us to be a mistake. Doing so would emphasise his distinctive role. As the Minister makes clear in the documents that he sent us yesterday, the official will have to operate in the closest possible liaison with the law enforcement authorities in Northern Ireland, which effectively have a separate structure. A separate deputy directorship should be set up, while allowing a single Assets Recovery Agency to function. That is a simple but important point, and we commend the amendments to the Committee.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Amendment No. 1 would require the Secretary of State to appoint a deputy director of the agency for Northern Ireland. Amendment No. 6 would require the appointment of a deputy director for Northern Ireland rather than, as is currently proposed, a senior official, but it would not require that appointment to be made by the Secretary of State.

The Government are committed to combating crime in Northern Ireland and to ensuring that the agency operates effectively there. The possibility of a separate agency for Northern Ireland was considered with colleagues from Northern Ireland before the Bill was introduced. It was agreed that there should instead be a single agency with a unified management structure, and that is reflected in the Bill.

It may be helpful if I explain how we envisage the agency being structured in Northern Ireland. We envisage that it will have a presence—an office and operational staff—in Northern Ireland, which can be achieved administratively. A senior official in the agency will have the specific responsibility of exercising the director's functions in Northern Ireland. Schedule 1 states that the director will appoint that official, and will also be required to make specific references to Northern Ireland in his annual plan. The Secretary of State must approve the annual plan as a whole. We envisage that the Home Secretary will take the lead on that, but approval will not be given without consultation with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We also envisage that the director will keep both the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland informed of the plan's progress. Although the Home Secretary will be accountable to Parliament for the agency, we expect that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will give answers relating to Northern Ireland.

That is the background against which we should consider the amendments, which raise two questions. First, should the agency have an official with the title of deputy director for Northern Ireland? If the answer to that is yes, the second question is whether any such deputy director should be appointed by the Secretary of State rather than by the director.

The Bill requires that the agency's staff must include a senior official with specific responsibility for exercising his functions in Northern Ireland. That is set out in paragraph 4 of schedule 1. The director will make that appointment, just as the director will appoint his deputy. Do we need the official appointed to the Northern Ireland office to be termed a deputy director rather than a senior official?

It is important that the agency's work in Northern Ireland is given the high profile and the priority that are necessary. However, it is not appropriate to specify that there should be two deputy directors of the agency. The deputy to the director, for whom provision is made in paragraph 4(a), will—following the normal use of the term ``deputy''—act as a substitute for the director in his whole range of functions when called upon to do so. The role of the officer with responsibility for Northern Ireland will be far narrower. The term deputy director should not be used, because that could cause confusion.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Obviously, we have not explored the national structure of the agency—the Minister touched only briefly on that. However, he laid down a broad hint that there will be an office in Northern Ireland for Northern Ireland, and I suspect that there will be one office in England and Wales for England and Wales. Does not the geographical separation of the two offices emphasise the need for a deputy director with enhanced status, because of the different judicial system under which he would operate?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

As I said, it is our intention to have a separate office with a specific official appointed to run it. The title that we give to that official is not set in stone. I am happy to reflect on how we give appropriate recognition to that role and to the priority of the work that must be done in Northern Ireland. However, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that deputy director is not the appropriate title. Perhaps we should reflect on whether there should be a named senior official, or perhaps an assistant director, for Northern Ireland. The title should be appropriate and should send out the right messages. The amendment to make the title ``deputy director'' could lead to confusion and make people believe that that role influences matters beyond Northern Ireland, which is wider than expected. I will consider the matter, and will, before Report stage, reflect on the hon. Gentleman's point that the senior official's title should reflect the priority given to work done in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether the Secretary of State, rather than the director, should appoint the Northern Ireland official, whatever his or her title. That arrangement would not be the best way to achieve the management accountability necessary for the agency. If the official for Northern Ireland were appointed by the Secretary of State, he or she would be the only member of the agency's staff not appointed by the director. That might create confusion as to whether the Northern Ireland official is accountable to the director or to the Secretary of State.

The official will exercise the director's functions in Northern Ireland, and will receive his or her powers from the director. It makes sense for the director to make the appointment in order to preserve the unity of the agency's management structure. The director will retain overall control of his functions in Northern Ireland. Ministers will be involved in the appointment process, and the director will have to consult the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when making the appointment. We reject amendment No. 1, because the title

``deputy Director for Northern Ireland'' could be confusing. We reject amendment No. 6 because it would make management accountability in the agency difficult. For those reasons, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 10:45, 13 Tachwedd 2001

I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. I was interested to hear of the consultation that he says will take place with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the subject of the appointment. Such a consultation would help to address the anxieties that led me to table amendments Nos. 1 and 6. The question, as always, is what we should put in the Bill and what we should leave out. The Minister says that the consultation will be held, but there is nothing in the Bill to specify that the consultation must take place, and must involve those Ministers. We may have to revisit that issue.

The notion of a consultation gives me some reassurance, but as the Minister knows, if any area in the United Kingdom needs reinforcement against racketeering, it is Northern Ireland. Success in Northern Ireland is likely to be the benchmark that tells us whether the Bill works adequately. We must ensure, as a priority, that the Northern Ireland official is seen to have sufficient status, and that the consultation mechanisms work. Subject to that, and subject to the Minister's promise to think of ways in which to emphasise the Northern Ireland official's role, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

We must consider the role of the director, and his or her functions. The extent to which the director is an independent law enforcement officer or an officer who does the bidding of the Home Secretary is ambiguous. I flag that up, because the point is important.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, for example, has complete independence. The Attorney-General cannot interfere with the exercise of his discretion, and nobody would suggest that that should be the case. However, a hybrid product is being created, and I am concerned about that, as the explanation provided is unclear. Will the director be left to get on with the job, with the exercise of his or her discretion ring-fenced from any influence from others, or will the director merely play an executive role by carrying out the will of the Government in respect of the proceeds of crime, confiscation and civil recovery? The document that the Minister provided suggested that the director would not have as much autonomy as the DPP. The Committee will return to that matter as it discusses the legislation further, but I want to flag up the fact that I wish the Minister to clarify the role that the Home Secretary will play in exercising influence over the actions of the director.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Ceidwadwyr, Spelthorne

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said.

I wish the Minister to keep in mind a different matter, which might become serious—although at the moment it may seem petty and silly. Subsection (5) states:

``Anything which the Director is authorised or required to do may be done by—

(a) a member of staff of the Agency, or

(b) a person providing services under arrangements made by the Director''.

The director is entitled to appoint people all the way down through the system—to the office cleaners, for example—and he is entitled to arrange services, such as those provided by the outside contractors who do the catering for his staff. I am sure that the Government do not intend to allow such people to deal with some of the highly sensitive matters that the Bill addresses. Is the Minister prepared to register that point, and if Members from my party choose to revisit it, will he clarify the fact that certain services or activities should be handled only by senior people? It might be necessary to ask for changes to be made.

Photo of Ian Davidson Ian Davidson Labour/Co-operative, Glasgow Pollok

I seek clarification from the Minister about the way in which the Assets Recovery Agency will co-operate with the Scottish authorities. I am unclear about how it will be guaranteed that there are no gaps between the Scottish jurisdiction and the ARA. It is essential that hordes of English villains—there are millions of them—cannot flee north of the border to a jurisdiction where the ARA cannot follow them. Will the Minister describe the liaison arrangements, and will he address the issue of the funding that will be provided to the ARA and the appropriate authorities in Scotland? I especially want him to clarify what funding has been set aside for Scotland to create or enhance the asset recovery unit and the civil recovery units at the Crown Office.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Ceidwadwyr, Cities of London and Westminster

I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). I also wish to register my concern regarding the qualifications of the person who is appointed as director. The Bill is lengthy, and it will arouse worries about the agency's powers among many people who work in the City of London. The recent events involving Railtrack have revealed that the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions does not fully understand the practices of the City of London. Apparently, it takes seven or eight days to prepare a 71-page document—but I have spent most of my career in the City of London, and anyone who has worked there knows that a 71-page document can be turned around within a matter of hours, especially when one is dealing with the global financial world.

I do not expect clause 1 to contain a determination of what professional qualifications the director should have, but we must ensure that that person has credibility with regard to the financial markets, and an understanding of current practices in the City of London. Given the real and extensive regulatory burdens on financial institutions, law firms and accountants, we need someone who will have credibility and an understanding of current day-to-day practices in the City of London. My concern mirrors concerns that the Opposition have expressed about other regulators, and it is all the more important to ensure that someone of genuine calibre and weight is appointed to this position. What thoughts does the Minister have about the absolute minimum professional qualifications that would be expected of someone who took on such a role?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I appreciate the comments of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. As we progress through the Bill, we shall consider the issues that he raised in more detail.

I have a dilemma on this subject, because the hon. Member for Beaconsfield is worried that the director will be subject to political control and will not have a free hand, while the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) questions whether the director should have a totally free hand in relation to those whom he appoints. We are trying to achieve total operational freedom for the director in pursuing cases, and it would be wholly wrong if the Home Secretary had the capacity to interfere in that process. The director is not a law enforcement agency but a person who is appointed to pursue the proceeds of crime. Important differences therefore exist between this agency and a law enforcement agency.

Mr. Wilshire rose—

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Llafur, Blaydon

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman speaks, I remind the Committee that although hon. Gentlemen may remove their jackets, they should ask permission before doing so. Hon. Ladies do not need to ask.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Ceidwadwyr, Spelthorne

On my own behalf, and on behalf of one or two of my colleagues, I grovel, Mr. McWilliam. I consider myself told off; I shall leave my colleagues to say how they consider themselves in due course.

I cannot have been making myself clear, as the Minister appears to think that I was saying that there should be a restriction as to whom the director appoints. I was not saying that. I suspect that some people will be appointed or engaged to provide services who should not have the powers that the independent director will have. I do not want to limit what the director does, only how far down the line such powers extend.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am glad to have that clarification. The hon. Gentleman is making many of the same points made by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) about the appropriateness of the chosen director and his credibility with various institutions, and about the staff. Clearly, it is important to have an appropriate person who has the capacity to command respect, and the skill and ability to run the agency. The people appointed will be drawn in from many areas. In the early days of the agency, it will be necessary to second people from other agencies to provide those skills. Over a period of time, a core of capacity will be built up within the agency, and, I hope, a high degree of credibility, which will enable it to do exactly what we ask of it.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) that there have been discussions with the Scottish Executive about the moneys that will need to be made available for the functions that will not be carried out directly by the agency in Scotland. There is not too much room for disagreement on that, and as we progress, I shall try to make sure that he is made aware of exactly what those arrangements are. The agency has the power for taxation in relation to its role under part 6 in Scotland, and an appropriate interface is necessary. I hope that my hon. Friend will find that the note that I have passed around will explain how that interface will operate with regard to how and when the director uses his powers under part 6—

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Llafur, Blaydon 11:00, 13 Tachwedd 2001

Order. The hon. Gentleman should address the Chair.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Sorry, Mr. McWilliam.

I hope that that explains how and when the director will use his powers under part 6, and how he will make sure that there is a proper interface with the Scottish authorities before he does so. The Bill also includes provision for enforcements made in England to be enacted in Scotland and vice versa. It will therefore be possible for the many millions of rogues of English extraction to be chased into Scotland and properly pursued if appropriate, and the reverse will also be possible. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be comforted by that thought.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.