Here is my speech in yesterday’s debate on whether the National Crime Agency should have a Board or be directly under the personal direction of the Home Secretary:
” My Lords, I certainly do not want to fall into the trap of automatically accepting the Government’s architecture for these proposals. However, the amendment put forward by my noble friend does not necessarily undermine that architecture. The key point of this part of the proposed legislation is the creation of a new National Crime Agency. That is the key concept, and in this group of amendments we are dealing with some of the accountability mechanisms and the arrangements that will be put around the agency to ensure that its governance is of an appropriate and effective standard.
Let us be clear why this is important. The National Crime Agency, as proposed, will be a tremendously significant organisation. It will be responsible for ensuring that as a country we deal effectively with the most serious types of crime. In due course, it may be responsible for dealing with terrorism. This is not some minor government body; it is an extremely important part of the arrangements that we put in place to ensure that our citizens are properly protected against serious crime.
The other fundamental part of the architecture of the Bill, if you are wedded to that architecture, as no doubt the Minister is-no doubt we will come onto this in due course-are the provisions within the legislation that enable the director-general to require from police services around the country various things to happen. There is a potential power of direction-and certainly the expectation in terms of individual operations-that local police forces will work with the National Crime Agency to ensure that certain operations proceed. The relationship between the director-general and individual chief officers of police will be a fundamental one. That is precisely why, when we look at the governance structures and the arrangements that will be put around the director-general, we need to ensure that there are appropriate mechanisms for chief officers of police and those responsible for their governance, in terms of police and crime commissions, to be adequately represented within them.
The Government have to put forward a clear justification as to why this very lean approach to governance has been included in the Bill. As a number of your Lordships have already indicated in Committee, there is a virtue in having a proper governance structure, a group of non-executives and a group of individuals to whom the director-general must report or explain or expand on his or her proposals on how the agency goes forward. That is not to decry the direct accountability to the Home Secretary because it will be the Home Secretary who will, whatever is written into the Bill, have to answer to Parliament as to whether this new structure works. It supports that function and gives the Home Secretary reassurance that all the processes and procedures that any sensible Home Secretary would expect to be around the director-general are in place.
I am not suggesting that the Home Secretary is incapable of providing adequate supervision of the agency. I am simply saying that it is not necessarily the most effective or efficient way of doing it and that some board structure supporting that process is better and more likely to be successful. I have looked for precedents for this sort of one-to-one relationship between the Home Secretary and significant agencies. For 175 years the Home Secretary was the police authority for London and at the end of those 175 years the Metropolitan Police was so well governed, despite the excellent leadership at that stage provided by the noble Lord, Lord Condon, that it did not have a system in place-it was a £2 billion business at the time-for telling whether it had paid a bill more than once. I rather suspect that had the Home Office-I absolve previous Home Secretaries from day-to-day responsibility for this-been doing its job properly proper accountancy systems would have been installed within the organisation. However, the supervision of the Home Office and the Home Secretary was quite properly on the main policing issues, which would have been advised by the noble Lord, Lord Condon, and his predecessors as Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. This was not about the way in which the organisation was run, administered or governed. That is the natural tendency. Home Secretaries are busy people. They have broad responsibilities. They are not going to be involved in day-to-day issues about the robustness or otherwise of governance structures. The history of the Metropolitan Police is not a sound precedent.
More recently we have the precedent of the border agency. Here, the opposite problem seems to have occurred. You seem to have a Home Secretary-perhaps successive Home Office Ministers would be a fairer way of putting it-who wanted certain things to happen and applied pressure on the border agency to do so. You then end up in arguments about what was said to whom by whom because of that one-to-one relationship. In all the fuss that there was a few months ago about whether certain expectations were being bypassed to let people into the country and remove queues, would it not have been better for there to have been a supervisory board between the Home Secretary and the chief executive of the border agency where there would have been a record, minutes, and perhaps an opportunity for dissent to be expressed? All that would be missing in the arrangements for the National Crime Agency, which raises the question of whether we are not in danger of creating a structure where the Home Secretary has too much of a role in respect of a policing body.
In this country, we have always expressed real concern about politicians having direct operational control of policing. That is part of the reason why there was a little bit of debate about the creation of police and crime commissioners, but that debate has moved on and we are now well into the process with the Labour Party having today announced a selection of candidates for those positions that includes my noble friend Lord Prescott. The Labour Party will clearly have an excellent set of candidates and we wait to see whether the Conservative list will be quite as exciting or interesting. The reason that there was some concern about that and there is even more concern about a national agency directly under the control of a single politician is the danger that that power is abused. I am certainly not accusing the present Home Secretary of having any desire to abuse that power. I am simply saying that we are creating a structure where such an abuse is possible and that it might happen in future.
Imagine occasions when there is a considerable threat from some organised crime group or a terrorist organisation, if that is the direction that the new agency goes in, and it is the responsibility of the Home Secretary to direct what the agency should do. The guarantees in the Bill for operational independence do not amount to very much in those circumstances. There is no place for control freakery here. This has to be about a proper system of governance. In a few years’ time, I would not want people to be making all sorts of sinister connections between policing operations that happen under the auspices of the National Crime Agency and saying that there are sinister implications that they have been personally directed or required by the Home Secretary, but that is the danger of the governance model that the Government have created.
My final point returns to what I mentioned in passing earlier. A critical part of this new agency will be the ability of the National Crime Agency to say that it wants local police forces to carry out or collaborate on particular operations. The danger of having a National Crime Agency that is divorced from the rest of the police structure is very real. I recall the discussions that took place over several years to try to get a system that worked on counterterrorism with primacy for one force and the ability to make operations happen across the country. It was not an easy process. The Government are making it more difficult for the director-general of the National Crime Agency if there are not police and crime commissioners or chief officers of police playing an active part in the governance of this new organisation. If they are there, if they are around the table and able to say, “This is a better way of doing that”, or to encourage the director-general to do things in a way that ensures their collaboration, that is surely going to mean that it is more likely that this new agency will succeed.
My noble friend’s amendments, which address precisely those points, are very welcome. There is a slight drafting error in that they make no reference to London, but I am sure that could be adjusted when we return to this at a later stage. The key issue that the Minister has to explain today is why this particular governance model has been put forward and why it is genuinely an improvement on a supervisory board which involves, for example, chief officers of police and police and crime commissioners.”