How not to launch a flagship Bill

Angela SmithBaroness Angela Smith of Basildon is a Shadow Home Office Minister in the Lords

For a major flagship piece of legislation, the Crime and Courts Bill contains little that is new, is light on detail and offers nothing to deal with the rising crime in our communities, such as personal acquisitive crime – up 13% in the past year.

The Bill has to be seen against a back drop of increases in certain crimes, a drop of 16,000 police – with cuts of 20% when the HM Inspector of Constabulary and the Audit Commission warned that anything over 12% was unsustainable and would lead to a worse service.

And here we have a Bill that, as its headline, changes the architecture of how we tackle serious and organised crime – restructuring the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, the Child Exploitation and On-line Protection Centre, and the National Police Improvement Agency. It’s not enough and is in fact a lost opportunity to tackle the issues the public tell us hurts them the most.

Although bringing the functions of these organisations together in a new National Crime Agency (NCA) could well be very effective, the Government has to understand that such major changes at a time of deep and unprecedented financial cuts increase the risks in making those changes.

Also there are significant points of detail that the Bill fails to address, as well as issues that give cause for concern. The Government has had 2 years to work out their proposals but has now brought forward a Bill, which while it may be worthy in principle lacks the detail that underpins those principles.

Indeed, the ‘Framework document’ which will outline the way in which the NCA will operate including functions, governance and finance isn’t yet available and won’t be until after we’ve had our detailed committee discussions on the Bill. Its absence raises many questions.

The Bill also deals with the Court system and the Government’s much heralded proposals for what it calls Community Sentencing. But all it does is allow the Secretary of State to make regulations to bring in non custodial sentences.

Why? Because the Government hasn’t finished its own consultation on the matter.

So, at some later date, months after the Bill’s introduction, beyond the summer recess when the Bill Committee has otherwise concluded its deliberations, Ministers will have to table new amendments to add further clauses.

Not the greatest launch for a flagship.

After two years in Government, it’s hard to understand why this Bill is so ill prepared. I suspect however, that the timing has been partially driven by clauses that provide for the abolition of the police Improvement Agency, when its dismantling is already taking place, before legislative changes have been made.

There are a number of important issues in this Bill. In addition to the establishment of the NCA and changes in the administration of justice, there are also new powers for immigration officers with restrictions on the rights of appeal in some cases and a new offence of drugs and driving.

All these issues deserve full consideration – and Labour will ensure they receive it. But as a package, the Bill in the round is inadequate.

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