Prime time crime

Angela Smith

Angela Smith on the government’s shambolic handling of its flagship crime Bill

Today, the Lords begins the final stages of debates and amendments on the government’s flagship piece of legislation on crime, the Crime and Courts Bill that will set up the new National Crime Agency (NCA).

After announcing the creation of the NCA over two years ago, and having had the Lords Committee stage of the Bill back in June, you would think that by now Ministers would have dotted the ’i’s and crossed the ‘t’s’, with all of the information in place that would allow Peers to effectively scrutinise the plans.

I wish it were so.

Despite repeated requests, the government still hasn’t produced anything more than an outline of the key Framework Document that, in the words of the previous minister on the Bill, is “a very important document setting out how the National Crime Agency is to operate.” It is this document that will set out what the NCA does, and how it will do it. But it’s still not available. 

We’ll be pressing the government for more information, but it seems unlikely that they have worked out all the details and are just failing to share it. A more worrying scenario is that Ministers can’t present the document to Parliament because it hasn’t been written. ‘Shambles’ has become a well worn phrase for observing how this government is conducting business, but there’s no other way of describing the handling of this Bill.

The most concerning part of the plans up for debate today is the proposal to transfer the responsibility for Counter Terrorism from the Metropolitan Police to the new NCA.

The first duty of any government is to keep its citizens safe. If the UK’s Counter Terrorism functions are to be moved to a new Agency then a strong, well thought out case has to be made and as much evidence as possible presented as to why this will provide improved protection.  

Despite my initial scepticism, in time, this may be judged to be the way forward. But Ministers have to make the case to Parliament and not, as they are doing with this Bill, seek to avoid full parliamentary scrutiny of such proposals by using what is known as a ‘Henry VIII Clause’. This is used to describe the situation when a government puts a clause into a Bill that will allow it to change or repeal the legislation after it has become an Act of Parliament, rather than, as is normal, by further primary legislation. (It follows the 1539 Statute of Proclamations, which gave King Henry VIII power to legislate by proclamation.) 

The issue is one of scrutiny: if Parliament has approved legislation then surely the same degree of scrutiny should be used to repeal or change it?  

Now there may be circumstances where it is appropriate for a government to seek such a power – but transferring the responsibility for Counter Terrorism to a new agency for which we don’t yet even have the details of how it will operate is not one of them! Indeed, if a strong case can be made for the NCA being more effective in dealing with Counter Terrorism then it should be made with the arguments, the justifications and the detail being presented to Parliament.

Only then can Parliament make a full and informed judgement.

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

Published 27th November 2012

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