Today was the Second Reading debate in the House of Lords on the Crime and Courts Bill, which amongst other things creates the new National Crime Agency.
This was my speech:
“My Lords, I should declare my interests as chair of the Audit Panel for the Metropolitan Police and the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, and as an adviser to KPMG, Airwave Solutions, Lockheed Martin UK and a number of other companies that provide services to police forces around the country. It is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Condon, in the debate. I, too, want to speak primarily about Part 1 and the new National Crime Agency.
The Government’s intention to create a National Crime Agency has been known about for almost two years. However, we have yet to hear a clear explanation of what the problem is with the existing arrangements that these changes are required to fix. I am sure that the Government’s policy is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but perhaps it goes a bit further than that by saying, “Even if it doesn’t need fixing, take it to pieces anyway”, because we are not at all clear about which problems will be solved by these reorganisations. Given that the Government’s intentions have been clear for the past two years, we have to ask what has been going on during that period. We still do not have a definitive version of the strategic policing requirement, and we do not see any sign of the NCA framework document, even in draft, although it is pivotal to understanding how the new arrangements will work.
My understanding is that, because of this pending reorganisation, senior people in SOCA and the other agencies have spent the past two years sitting in meetings arguing with officials from the Home Office and other bodies rather than devoting themselves to their main purpose, which is that of fighting serious and organised crime. But all the meetings that have taken place over the past two years seem to have failed to produce anything definitive on how the new arrangements are supposed to work. What we are told about the likely organisational structure suggests that we are going to have a series of silos that are spatchcocked together. If that is all it is, frankly it is not clear why the reorganisation is better than a general injunction on the different organisations that currently exist to work together better. Moreover, there remains a lack of clarity about one of the central issues as to how the agency is going to work—a lack of clarity about the powers of tasking and co-ordination, whether voluntary or mandated.
We spent many happy months in your Lordships’ House discussing the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act. That Act clearly states, as does the policing protocol, that elected police and crime commissioners are responsible for the totality of policing within their jurisdiction and that they alone are publicly accountable for the delivery and performance of policing. That responsibility is placed clearly in their hands on behalf of the electorate.
Under this Bill, directed tasking arrangements allow the Home Secretary to empower the director-general of the NCA and allow the director-general of the NCA to task police forces and other law enforcement agencies to carry out specific activity. While the PCC would have to be notified when such a direction is initiated, this tasking would in practice interfere with the operational independence of the chief officer as set out in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, and interfere with the police and crime commissioner’s responsibility for the totality of policing. My prediction is that, unless this is handled correctly and there is rather more substance to it than is contained in the Bill, conflict is going to be inevitable.
The whole point of these new accountability arrangements created by the Government is that police and crime commissioners will be elected with a mandate to deliver in respect of local concerns. That is what they are there to do. What is going to happen when the elected police and crime commissioner for Loamshire or some such place decides that his or her number one priority is going to be addressing volume street crime in Loamshire and its larger towns and yet suddenly there is a directive to divert resources from Loamshire to somewhere else to help deal with particular problems of organised crime, when for the public of Loamshire—the electorate that elect the police and crime commissioner—organised crime is not a particular issue facing that local community? How that is going to be managed is not clear from the Bill.
Indeed, the whole Bill poses a series of questions. Who is accountable to the public for activity that is being directed? When things go wrong—as they will—is the Home Secretary or the NCA director-general liable for any repercussions from this activity? How is this going to interfere with the PCC’s setting of local strategic priorities and indeed that accountability of PCCs to the public that the Government tell us is so critical? Will the police and crime commissioner for Loamshire or for any other area be able to veto a direction using his or her powers? Presumably that will be the case if it is a voluntary direction because that is my understanding of what “voluntary” means. What if it is not? What are the implications if the chief officer of police accepts a voluntary direction but his or her police and crime commissioner says, “No, I do not think that is in the interests of our local community, which I am elected to defend”? How is that going to be resolved? Who will be responsible under those circumstances?
Of course, the Government have got a let-out clause, as you would expect. I am sure the Minister is aware of paragraph 30 of Schedule 3, which gives the Home Secretary the power to amend the requirement to get prior consent before issuing directions. So we are actually being told that this is not going to be voluntary but there will be this power to dispense with the requirement to have prior consent. I suggest that this is going to create more conflict and more difficulties. Again, perhaps it is not very helpful that the detail has not yet been worked out.
This situation is made all the stranger when you observe that this new agency seems to have virtually no governance arrangements. The director-general reports and is accountable to the Home Secretary, who is in turn accountable to Parliament. There is no board; there are no non-executives; there are not even a few token elected police and crime commissioners sitting in that structure perhaps to provide some coherence with the expressed wish of the local electorate about police and crime priorities. There is no mechanism for scrutinising what is happening. Even the elected police and crime commissioners—which some of us were not hugely enamoured of—had these scrutiny arrangements created within the local authority structure. There is no parallel here.
Of course, the legislation contains promises that the director-general will be operationally independent, but what will that amount to in practice? How will it be enforced, and who is going to scrutinise that operational independence in the absence of any of those governance structures? Let us be clear: operational independence is not all that it might appear or be cracked up to be. It certainly does not apply to policing equipment. I suspect that most chief officers of police would think that their choice of equipment is very much part of their operational decision-making. I do not personally always agree with them on that, but paragraph 1 of Schedule 4 allows the Home Secretary to make regulations on the use of specified equipment and the NCA director-general will be required to comply. There is not much operational independence there. This is the Home Secretary, to whom he or she is accountable, saying, “You will or will not use this type of equipment”. That hardly sounds like operational independence to me.
Then there are the very strange provisions under paragraph 4 of Schedule 5. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will explain to us precisely why these are here. Paragraph 4 creates an advisory panel; a new quango, if you like—from a Government who promised us a “bonfire of the quangos”—and what is this new advisory panel going to do? It is going to give advice to the Home Secretary on whether the director-general has sufficient training to carry out his operational powers. I wonder where they dream up things like this—which cellar in the Home Office is responsible for thinking up new committees to do this sort of thing.
This proposal is certainly not a carry-over from the legislation that created the Serious Organised Crime Agency, because it was not thought necessary to have an advisory panel to decide whether or not the director-general of the Serious Organised Crime Agency had the necessary training to carry out their operational functions. So why is it here? Is it because the Home Secretary is planning to replace the current director-general with an individual whose qualifications are so questionable that a panel is needed to test them? That is as may be, but paragraph 5 explains how the Home Secretary can ignore the advice of that panel under any circumstances.
We have to question what model of organisation was used for devising the governance structures for the National Crime Agency. The best example of that, one with which the Home Office is intimately familiar, is the relationship between the Home Secretary and that paragon of effective service delivery, the UK Border Agency. That relationship has worked so well in recent months, between the Ministers and the people with executive responsibility of the agency concerned—two impossible demands before breakfast and the agency, of course, has to comply.
Finally, I will say a word about Clause 2, which allows the Home Secretary by order—admittedly subject to the super-affirmative procedure—to add counterterrorism to the functions of the National Crime Agency. I have to question whether a decision of that magnitude should properly be done simply by order. Let us also be clear: if counterterrorism becomes part of the functions of the National Crime Agency, it will totally transform the National Crime Agency. This body that has taken two years in gestation merely to talk about a series of organisational silos spatchcocked together will suddenly have spatchcocked onto it an even larger organisation completely distorting and changing the priorities.
As the noble Lord, Lord Condon, said, it may or may not make sense ultimately to have counterterrorism as a function of a national agency of that form. However, having been involved in the convoluted discussions to get the current structure in place, I think you have to be very clear about the case you are making before you embark on those changes and very clear about why you want to go ahead with them. The experience in other countries—according to the FBI, for example—is not always a happy one in terms of relationships with local forces regarding counterterrorism. There is a real danger of divorcing a counterterrorism elite squad from ordinary policing, not only in terms of intelligence but also in managing community relations following operational decisions.
I am sure the intentions of the Bill are fine. The Government had two years to move from intentions to detailed proposals but in those two years we have yet to see the fruits of their labour and to understand exactly how these new arrangements are intended to work.”