[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Home Affairs Committee on 14 October 2014, on the work of the National Crime Agency, HC 688. Written evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, on the work of the National Crime Agency, reported to the House on 14 October 2014, HC 688.]
I beg to move,
That this House condemns the increasing number of illegal activities being carried out by organised criminal gangs in Northern Ireland; notes police assessments that more than 140 such gangs operate in Northern Ireland; and calls for the implementation, in full, of proposals for the National Crime Agency to help deal with this problem, which is particularly prevalent in border areas.
This is an extremely important debate given the context of criminal activity right across the United Kingdom, but particularly in Northern Ireland. In recent months, the police in Northern Ireland have given their assessment that there are between 140 and 160 criminal gangs operating in the Province. The police have also indicated that they would like the utmost co-operation right across the community in dealing with these criminal gangs and attempting not just to stop and stifle their activities but to seize any proceeds from their illegal activities.
Last year the Police Service of Northern Ireland stated:
“It is the PSNI view that if the NCA is unable to operate fully in Northern Ireland, this will have a detrimental impact on our ability to keep people safe…It remains our view that the NCA should only work in Northern Ireland alongside the PSNI, so that operational control ultimately remains with the Chief Constable and nothing proceeds without agreement. There must be complete transparency for PSNI of the NCA’s intelligence, investigations and operational activity. Through such arrangements, the Chief Constable can be held accountable for NCA operations via the Policing Board.”
My reason for quoting that statement at some length is that there have been some “concerns” in Northern Ireland about accountability measures and how they will apply to the operation of the NCA. In fact, the Social Democratic and Labour party and Sinn Fein have indicated, thus far, their lack of preparedness to endorse the NCA.
In addition to that PSNI statement, the Chief Constable has had a number of meetings with various political representatives in order to reassure them that the accountability measures needed are currently in place—he is absolutely clear about that. Therefore, given the scale of the number of criminal gangs that are operating—there are up to 160 of them—and what they could do, not just in Northern Ireland, but in the rest of the United Kingdom, one would have hoped for, and expected to see, total support for the full implementation of the NCA in order to deal with them.
I appreciate the fact that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter. Does he agree that there is also a financial cost—not just for Northern Ireland, but for the UK more widely—because civil recovery has been affected by the NCA’s inability to operate fully in Northern Ireland?
Following on from the important point raised by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), given the absence of the wonderful and excellent Assets Recovery Agency, which used to operate in Northern Ireland but was, unfortunately, eaten up and extinguished by the Serious Organised Crime Agency, and given that the NCA does not apply to Northern Ireland, what powers of assets recovery do organisations, particularly the PSNI, have in Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman has referred to my party. The SDLP has vigorously opposed any form of criminality at every stage. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify and outline the depth and intensity of accountability he sees in respect of the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the Chief Constable?
I understand that the Chief Constable has had at least one—possibly even several—meetings with the SDLP and has assured it on the issue of his role and co-operation with the Policing Board by repeating what was said in the May 2013 statement that “nothing proceeds without agreement” in connection with the work of the NCA, and that the Chief Constable is
“held accountable for NCA operations via the Policing Board.”
The hon. Lady will know that members of her party and of Sinn Fein serve on the Policing Board.
Does my hon. Friend not find it odd that the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) has raised the issue of accountability for the NCA when her party signed up to policing at a time when SOCA had no degree of accountability through the Policing Board? The SDLP had no objections then, but now that we are discussing SOCA’s replacement apparently the whole issue of accountability is important.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The point of today’s debate is to say that, while discussions between the Chief Constable and the SDLP continue, there are 140-plus criminal gangs operating through the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland and the UK and smuggling not millions, but tens of millions of pounds-worth of illegal drugs. Some of that activity could be prevented by the full operation of the NCA.
The situation goes even further. According to the police today, there has not been one single civil recovery of a crime asset since the NCA took over, because the PSNI does not have the surge capability to do that. We are actually losing our ability to make civil recoveries.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, which is a damning indictment of those who still hold back from offering support for the full implementation of the NCA. I note from recent reports that, while meetings between the police and the SDLP continue—they do not appear to have come to a satisfactory conclusion—Sinn Fein has not responded to requests from the Department of Justice for a meeting about the issue. That is the scale of the problem we face.
The Bill that established the NCA received its Second Reading almost two years ago and this issue was raised by every member of the Bill Committee. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the Government have a duty of care to bring the parties and the Minister of Justice together to discuss and finalise the issue?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question. I agree that the Government have a responsibility because, while the delay and failure to fully implement the NCA continues, our young people—not just in Northern Ireland; I will come in a moment to how far this penetrates—are suffering as a result of criminal operations.
Further to the point raised by the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), does my hon. Friend share my frustration that when the Government here are asked to comment on these issues, their view often seems to be, “Oh, the parties in Northern Ireland can’t get this matter sorted out”? The Library briefing paper notes that the Secretary of State has referred on a number of occasions to problems within the Northern Ireland Executive if they cannot agree. We should put the truth out there: the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of parties want to make progress, except for the two nationalist parties.
I agree entirely with the right hon. Member for Delyn and with the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). I happen to think that there are some very good people—indeed, they are my friends—in the SDLP. I may disagree with them, but generally I think they are decent people. I thought, however, that they took the Labour party Whip, so does not the Labour party have a responsibility to put a little bit of pressure on its friends?
I look forward to the discussions between the SDLP and the Labour party resulting in that pressure being applied. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for specifically indicating, when he was in office, where the problems were in relation to this matter. I hope that that will be repeated by those on the Government Front Bench today.
In my previous intervention, I asked the hon. Gentleman to specify the level of accountability between the NCA, and the Policing Board and Chief Constable. So far, he has not specifically dealt with that request, but perhaps he will do so in his further comments.
I repeat what I said on the previous occasion. The Chief Constable and the Policing Board appear to be totally content with the level of accountability and co-operation that will exist. I am afraid that the onus is on those who say that there is a lack of accountability. After having been reassured that there is no such lack and after it was indicated at several meetings that there is no reason or rationale for continuing to object to or oppose the implementation of the National Crime Agency, there is an onus on those who say that to explain why it is the case.
I now want to turn to a very relevant, important and topical issue that demonstrates the nature of the problem we face. Last month, a combination of security services boarded a yacht off the Irish Republic and detained the people on it, who had up to €80 million-worth of illegal cocaine. The cocaine was bound in part for the Irish Republic, but informed sources from the Irish Republic have indicated that the vast majority of it was for the United Kingdom. Of course, as we all know, the Republic of Ireland has a land border with the United Kingdom. Part of the reason why the authorities in the Irish Republic were able to apprehend the haul successfully in international waters off their coast was the co-operation of the National Crime Agency.
As a result, I tabled a question to the Justice Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly last month. I asked him what the response would be if a similar consignment were to arrive on our shores from Northern Ireland waters, and we endeavoured to get the same level of co-operation to ensure that it did not reach land on the North Antrim or the County Londonderry coast—[Interruption.] Or anywhere—even the South Down coast. His written answer states:
“In a situation such as that outlined in the question I would expect the PSNI to be involved. There may also be a role for the NCA, the UKBA and HMRC to play. The role of the NCA would be limited, if the operation was in Northern Ireland territorial waters, as drug operations fall into the devolved sphere.”
The Northern Ireland Justice Minister is absolutely clear that if we have another consignment that comes close to our coast like the one I mentioned—it has not been the largest such consignment—the National Crime Agency will have severe limitations in helping to deal with that haul.
Is it not the case that if drugs of that nature land in Northern Ireland, it is not a matter just of having an effective response to organised crime, but of the young lives that are being destroyed by the paramilitary organisations that continue to act as organised gangs, including in the constituency of the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie)?
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. In a number of significant PSNI investigations at the moment, the key and pertinent criminal associates, their infrastructure and organisation are based outside Northern Ireland. The NCA is much better placed to take the lead on those issues because it obviously has an international reach, but it currently cannot do so. Does he agree that that not only compromises investigations in that it limits the role of the NCA, but that it stretches the PSNI’s resources at a time when they are already extensively stretched?
I thank the hon. Lady for that comment, which is very true. Only in the past two weeks has the Chief Constable indicated the scale of reductions in normal policing in Northern Ireland that result from the budgetary changes that he has to implement. That will further compound the issue.
Some six years ago, a consignment arrived, also via the Irish Republic, that totalled €700 million-worth of cocaine. That of course predated the National Crime Agency; it was when SOCA was in operation. I mention those drug operations for the reason given by the hon. Lady. These drugs are doing untold harm to people not just in Northern Ireland, but in the entire United Kingdom. The Republic of Ireland market would not have provided even a toehold for €700 million-worth of cocaine. The report on 7 November, when the haul was located, said that the vast bulk of the cocaine was bound for the United Kingdom market.
The problem does not just apply to a small part of the United Kingdom; it will be felt in every constituency across this United Kingdom. On the streets of our cities, young people will be sold dope or illegal substances that have come from the shores of the Irish Republic and through Northern Ireland to the GB market. There is therefore an onus on everyone, particularly the SDLP and Sinn Fein, to sign up to the implementation of the National Crime Agency. I must say that Sinn Fein may well have associates who benefit from the failure to implement the National Crime Agency. I fully accept it when the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) says that the SDLP has no such hang-ups and no such associates, and that is all the more reason to sign up to the agency that will help to stop the problem.
That is a very pertinent question. When that question has been put to the police, the response has generally been, “Very many of them”, although I have not seen any figures indicating exactly how many the police believe are so linked. Many paramilitary groups have stopped their so-called politically inspired campaign and have now moved on to money laundering, illegal fuel and, of course, drug smuggling.
Will my hon. Friend add the misery of human trafficking to that list? As he is aware, the Assembly passed a Bill that has put Northern Ireland ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom in tackling human trafficking, but we have a back door through which this human misery and this crime is being perpetrated. We really need all the parties to sign up to closing that back door.
It would be extremely difficult for an efficient organised criminal gang to operate in any part of Northern Ireland without at least the tacit support, acknowledgement and say so of the paramilitary groups on either side. Whether there is a specific connection, an endorsement or just an allowance for the gang to continue, that is certainly the case.
Bearing in mind the seriousness of the implications of what we are discussing for all constituencies in Northern Ireland, is it not significant that the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) has been left on her own? The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who is always here, and the leader of the SDLP are absent. Does that not send a message in itself?
I look forward to the full participation of all SDLP Members. I hope that they will appear before the conclusion of our deliberations.
To conclude, many members of the paramilitary groups, who were engaged for almost 30 years in brutality, murder, mayhem and destruction, have moved on to issues of a more financial nature, such as how they can glean their illegal and ill-gotten gains from various darker sides of society. The police are reasonably sure where and how those people operate, and are fairly confident that they can inhibit their activities. However, they can do so only when they have not just the full support of the entire community, which I am confident they have, but all the resources and manpower and womanpower they need to tackle such activity. The knowledge, expertise and information of the National Crime Agency will be a central part of that. It has knowledge of the international community and international policing. The two examples to which I have alluded are the tip of the iceberg. The €80 million last month and the €700 million six years ago were from just two operations that were apprehended. The police believe that many more operations are ongoing or have got through the net. The net needs to be tightened. The organisation that can help tighten it is the National Crime Agency.
I hope we will send a message today to peace-loving and law-abiding people in Northern Ireland and across the UK that the net is tightening. More importantly, we will send a message to the criminal gangs, the drug dealers, the human traffickers, those who break the law, those who depend on loopholes and those who depend on political parties that should know better allowing them to drive a coach and horses through those loopholes that their days are numbered.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. I had hoped, given my previous role as Minister of State for Northern Ireland, that this debate would not be necessary. I am sure that all Members across the House held that hope. I have the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland beside me and the former Minister of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), behind me. We have all worked hard to avoid getting to this position.
It is important that the tone of this debate is correct, because what we are trying to do is to protect people. I will talk about protecting people not just from terrorists, but from paedophiles. I want to protect people’s children from the abhorrent things that are going on. We have not been able to help Northern Ireland with those matters as we have other parts of the country.
I do not want to speak for too long, because the debate started slightly late owing to the urgent question and it is important that everybody who needs to speak has time to do so, particularly those who represent Northern Ireland constituencies. However, it is important that I set out, particularly for the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), the guarantees that have been given on how the NCA would operate in Northern Ireland to ensure that it protects all the people of Northern Ireland, just as it protects everybody else in this great nation of ours.
I say strenuously that there have been huge negotiations over a protracted period. I left the Northern Ireland Office more than 18 months ago. There have been many discussions, many of them bilateral, not only within the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, but with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office.
I pay tribute to the excellent job that David Ford has done. I worked closely with him when I was Minister of State for Northern Ireland. He was open and honest, and his intention is purely and simply to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland have the best police force and are safe in their homes, no matter where they come from. I also pay tribute to Matt Baggott, who was an exemplary Chief Constable. Since becoming the Minister for Policing, I have heard from other police forces around the country that people literally stand up and applaud when he walks in the room. That very often happens when any officer from the Police Force of Northern Ireland walks in. That is a tribute to the work that they do. I pay tribute to their bravery and the work that they do, just as I pay tribute to all police officers across the United Kingdom.
We have made it clear that the director general of the NCA would not be able to task the Chief Constable of the PSNI directly. We have provided that the director general of the NCA cannot be designated with the powers and privileges of a constable in Northern Ireland. We are committed to consulting the Department of Justice for Northern Ireland on the preparation of the NCA’s annual plan, so that it knows exactly what we are doing. We have provided that the Home Secretary must consult the Department of Justice for Northern Ireland before setting any strategic priorities or changing the NCA’s framework document.
The negotiations in Northern Ireland have gone much further than the Crime and Courts Act 2013. Police primacy in Northern Ireland would remain with the Police Service of Northern Ireland if the NCA operated there, and its agreement would be needed before the NCA operated. The NCA would be answerable to the Northern Ireland Policing Board. These details have been set out before, but it is important to set them out again today. When operating in Northern Ireland, the NCA would be subject to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland. The NCA would need the agreement of the police force prior—I stress, prior—to the use of covert techniques, such as covert human intelligence sources.
The accountability of the NCA in Northern Ireland will be completely different from that in any other part of the United Kingdom in order, understandably, to address the concerns within Northern Ireland.
I thank the Minister for outlining in great detail the degree of accountability the NCA would have in Northern Ireland. Will he compare and contrast that with the scrutiny the NCA faces in other parts of the United Kingdom to illustrate just how far the Government have gone on this point?
As I said, the way in which the NCA operates in the rest of the country is set out in the Crime and Courts Act 2013. The matters that are specific to Northern Ireland, to which I have just alluded, have come from the negotiations with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the work of David Ford. That is different; those sorts of understandings are quite specific and I wanted them put on the record. The issue has been debated extensively in Northern Ireland, and I want to put any fear away once and for all in this debate and address Northern Ireland’s concerns, because those issues are specific to Northern Ireland.
I am grateful that the Minister—an outstanding former Minister in the Northern Ireland Office—is replying to this important debate as the Minister of State for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims. Given the assurances that he has already outlined about the accountability of the National Crime Agency if it were to operate in Northern Ireland, does he agree with the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland that the Social Democratic and Labour party and Sinn Fein are being completely irresponsible? I apologise to the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) for saying this, but her party has left Northern Ireland in the position of becoming a honey pot attracting drug dealers, human traffickers and criminal gangs to that part of the United Kingdom.
I hope that during the debate I will convince the hon. Members for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Foyle (Mark Durkan) that the right thing to do, with the assurances that are in place, is for their constituents and the people of Northern Ireland to take this issue on board. As I continue with my remarks I will elaborate on why it is so vital to the people of Northern Ireland to have the NCA there.
May I re-emphasise what the hon. Members for North Down (Lady Hermon) and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) have said? The director general of the National Crime Agency, Keith Bristow, recently appeared before the Home Affairs Committee. We see him at most only twice a year, so the settlement in Northern Ireland is much better as far as the accountability of the NCA is concerned.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. His lending weight to this argument is ever so important.
The continuing peace process in Northern Ireland cannot stand still; it must progress and go forward. Some political parties in the five-party coalition in the Executive have concerns, and we have heard examples of the effects of not having the NCA in its full capacity—it does operate with some capacity—in an area of the United Kingdom that has the only land border. I do not mean that criminalisation in the Republic of Ireland is different from any other part of Europe, but that the situation is fundamentally different because of our open border with the Republic.
We have heard about the number of gangs—that is the polite word for them these days—and people who come together to disrupt, corrupt and sometimes brutalise our communities, whether in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. As has been alluded to, however, it goes further than that. Organised gangs are smuggling cigarettes or diesel—I hope the new marker works as it is important for the economy of the Province to prevent such smuggling. Where do the profits go? As a former Northern Ireland Minister, I know where some of that money goes, and it is truly frightening. As we have seen, a paramilitary organisation—it loves to call itself the new IRA, although I always found it difficult to call it that—wants to continue to disrupt the peace, and kill and maim innocent people in Northern Ireland.
When I was Northern Ireland Minister I did not see any evidence of that. It was alluded to on many occasions, but I did not see any evidence. Earlier we heard about the views of some individuals, but I will not be drawn on that issue at the Dispatch Box as I do not think it will be useful to the debate.
Whether it is smuggling or old-fashioned thuggery, we know that organised crime takes place in Northern Ireland, and in many ways differently from other parts of the United Kingdom. Let me turn, however, to one area that is close to my heart. I did not manage to get to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham—the first time I have missed my party conference in many years—because I was in Washington at a conference of the global alliance against child sexual abuse online, which was about protection from paedophiles. It was, I think, the most serious event in my political career at which I have sat down, debated, and worked with other countries. We know that Operation Notarise has exposed a huge, unbelievable number of people who are willing not only to watch unbelievable images, but to participate in and help fund such abuse of children.
While at that conference, a figure was given to us by experts, I think from Canada—I think this will be the first time this figure has been mentioned in the UK—which is that 1% of the sexually active male population of the world has paedophilic tendencies. Online, this issue has affected every community in this country. Operation Notarise managed to pass to police forces around the country evidence and work from the NCA that has resulted in more than 600 people being arrested, but that did not happen in Northern Ireland. The importance of the work that the NCA does touches every family in this country. It would be able to touch every family in Northern Ireland, but it cannot at the moment.
I agree with the Minister about the need for Northern Ireland to be involved with the National Crime Agency on that issue. On the number of incidents of online child abuse reported to the NCA, a range of press reports have mentioned 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 or 50,000 cases. In the interests of transparency, will he help the House by detailing how many cases he believes have been given to the NCA, as well as the numbers of those who have been prosecuted?
I think the best figure was given to the Home Affairs Committee yesterday, and a huge amount of work needs to be done. As the head of the NCA said only yesterday, it is unrealistic to say that we will be able to go after, prosecute and convict in every single case—the honesty was refreshing, but we will continue with that work. The figure given yesterday of 50,000 was not definitive. I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman is pushing the issue as that figure is public and in most of the papers today, and it is not relevant to the situation with the Northern Ireland NCA. Today’s debate covers work that is perhaps not in traditional areas, such as the gang culture, paramilitaries and so on.
I say to all political parties in Northern Ireland, and to its people whom we represent—as a member of Her Majesty’s Government, I represent everybody in that way, whether we have devolution or not—that we must look enormously carefully at what the NCA could do. Rather than looking at the problems that it might possibly cause, we should consider what is factually correct.
In those last remarks, is the Minister not illustrating the point that was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds)? This is not an issue for the people of Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland want the National Crime Agency. This is not even a matter for the parties generally in Northern Ireland. It is a matter for two specific parties. Why is the Minister not willing to name them and shame them?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am neither shy nor bashful in naming those who are responsible. The two political parties that have so far not agreed are the SDLP and Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein is not here. That is its choice, at the end of the day. I hope that the SDLP, in response to the debate and the careful, rational way in which we have put the special provisions in place in Northern Ireland, can be convinced—the other party may be listening to the debate elsewhere—that this is harming constituents. It is harming the people they are put in place to protect. Rather than having such an ideological position—we need to wipe away the ideology—we need to get the NCA working in Northern Ireland like it does in the rest of this country. We need to stop funds going to people whom we do not want them to go to, and we need to protect the children. That is what we are elected to do and that is what the public expect from this debate. I want to put it on the record now that Her Majesty’s Government will support the motion. This is a very important debate.
I, too, welcome today’s debate. For the avoidance of doubt, I am very pleased that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) tabled the motion. Like the Government, the official Opposition want to see the motion implemented and will support it should there be a Division. We have been bringing this matter to the attention of the Government for a number of years. We did so during the passage of the Crime and Courts Bill in the House on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, and have done so on regular occasions since then. I have no doubt that the PSNI—under Matt Baggott and, since June, George Hamilton—is doing its best in difficult circumstances, but we want to see the motion implemented.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I should have said this during my remarks. I pay tribute to the shadow Minister and the former shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We worked very closely on many issues and there was no party politics. I think it is right and proper to say that we had many discussions on this matter while I was in office and I am sure they continued after I left.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. As a former Northern Ireland Minister and Policing Minister, I know there have been a number of occasions when there has been cross-party agreement. Indeed, today there is cross-party agreement on a number of real concerns about the lack of NCA operation in Northern Ireland. There is agreement on the fact that organised crime brings fear and violence to our communities. Overall, it costs some £20 billion to £40 billion each year.
There is a specific problem in Northern Ireland. David Ford, the Justice Minister who chairs the Organised Crime Taskforce in Northern Ireland, has said that there are potentially up to 180 gangs—even more than the figure mentioned by the hon. Member for East Londonderry—operating in Northern Ireland. Criminal gangs in Northern Ireland are not just involved in, dare I say, traditional criminal activity, but are now turning to computer-based cybercrime and are dealing in rural areas. Gangs that have historically strong links to both republican and loyalist paramilitary groups are involved in criminal activity that impacts on not just the daily lives of constituents in Northern Ireland but constituents across the United Kingdom as a whole.
The Organised Crime Taskforce compiled a range of findings. It found that criminal gangs in Northern Ireland are involved in drugs, human trafficking, fuel fraud, killing, abusing and preying on society. There is an increase in the number of incidents of online extortion. Individuals are being targeted. Dissident republican groups, which continue to be a threat to the peace process and to the stability of Northern Ireland, are heavily dependent on organised crime. Members of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association are involved in extortion, loan sharking, robbery, drugs, burglary, theft, money laundering, ATM thefts, food waste crime, food fraud and plant theft. All of those are organised crime issues that Matt Baggott and George Hamilton, as Chief Constables in Northern Ireland, have addressed and continue to address. However, the NCA would bring an additional layer of support and international co-operation across the whole of Europe, and national co-operation across the United Kingdom.
The right hon. Gentleman will not receive many compliments from me of course, but I respect him from his time in Northern Ireland and since. I think he is a very sincere person. There is not a scintilla of difference between us on this issue. He has been raising it since before I had even heard of it, so I pay tribute to him for that. Surely his party can have some influence on its sister party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, which takes the Labour Whip. Surely it would be a good step forward if the SDLP, which as far as I am concerned is a legitimate and decent party, signed up to the NCA now and put aside its bewildering objection.
I take what the right hon. Gentleman says. I have said publicly and privately to my hon. Friends that I think they need to sign up to the NCA operating in Northern Ireland. I respect their opinion. From my time in Northern Ireland I know how difficult policing issues are, and how difficult it has been over many years to get Sinn Fein and the republican movement involved in policing in Northern Ireland. The main thrust of my argument is that we are where we are and we have been where we are for some time. There is a duty of care on the Government, as well as on Justice Minister David Ford, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the political parties, to get resolution on this issue. I will quote from the Belfast Telegraph this week:
“David Ford: NCA impasse leaves children at risk of sex abuse…Justice Minister David Ford said that the PSNI is being put at a ‘distinctive disadvantage’ in the fight to keep young people safe due to the limited powers of the National Crime Agency here.”
If that were only the case now then it would still be of crucial importance, but that was the case 12 months ago.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and for referring to me as his hon. Friend. That is very kind of him indeed. I am very pleased, as other hon. Members will have been, to hear him publicly invite the SDLP to accept the full remit of the NCA in Northern Ireland, as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he, as the shadow Policing Minister, and his colleague the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, have also sought and held meetings with Sinn Fein and their absentee MPs to encourage them privately—and publicly if he puts it on the record this afternoon—to accept the full capacity of the NCA in Northern Ireland?
May I just help my hon. Friend by saying that I am the shadow Immigration Minister? Owing to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) being elsewhere and the debate being Home Office-led, I have drawn the important straw—not the short straw—to deal with this issue today.
I will confirm that to the best of my knowledge, since I left responsibility for this area 12 months ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington and our Northern Ireland team, my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) and for Bury South (Mr Lewis), have been engaged with all political parties to try to resolve this issue as a matter of some urgency. We do so because 12 months ago, when the NCA began operations, David Ford was saying the same thing as he said last week. On 7 October 2013, in a report by BBC Northern Ireland, he said:
“I haven’t lost hope that we will get full political agreement that…will…see the NCA operational and discussions are ongoing to see if we can get that political agreement”.
What has been happening these past two years? If I had been Northern Ireland Minister, as I was proud to be for two years, and this had been coming down the line, I would have been driving forward with my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for South Down (Ms Ritchie), with Sinn Fein Members, who do not attend the House but are still involved in discussions, and with other parties to resolve this matter, and I certainly would not have abolished the Serious Organised Crime Agency. The Crime and Courts Bill, which abolished SOCA, had its Second Reading and Committee stages two years ago and has now been in operation for a year. I would not have gone through all that without reaching agreement. I appreciate the Minister’s tone, but how urgently are he and the Northern Ireland Office working to get the parties round the table to reach an agreement on the measures Mr Ford has announced?
I sat on that Committee with my right hon. Friend, and we proposed that the Government set a deadline and that if the parties could not agree they implement the NCA anyway. This was subsequently raised in the Select Committee, and the Northern Ireland First Minister agreed with the strategy, yet still the Government have not pushed to deliver it.
So does the shadow Minister believe that the Government should implement the NCA provisions without the negotiation, which would have consequences for devolution? I believe the matter is serious enough that it ought to happen. There have been negotiations with the Department of Justice and the Government and proposals are in place for addressing the issues of accountability. The problem is simply the complete unwillingness of other people to recognise that things have shifted in the interim.
I shall try to answer the hon. Lady’s question and the question from my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) in a helpful way.
Since the Bill was published in the 2012 Queen’s Speech, we have had two and a half years of public negotiations. We had the initial debate, Second Reading and the Committee stage; it went through another place; it was implemented; and the NCA has now been in operation for one year. As was mentioned, we need to recognise that the NCA not operating in Northern Ireland is not just a matter for Northern Ireland; it is a matter for my constituents in north Wales and for constituents in Liverpool, Hertfordshire and everywhere. If there is a gap in our defences, asset recovery and coverage, it affects everybody, because criminals know they can operate from Northern Ireland with more chance of not being caught.
I am not the Minister, so it is not for me to decide, but there are serious questions about how we take forward these discussions with the Minister, the NIO and the political parties to reach a conclusion. As the Minister helpfully outlined, David Ford has, in this year of impasse, come up with proposals that could address some of the concerns of my hon. Friends and others. He said that the NCA, unlike its predecessor, did not have constabulary powers and that the authority and primacy of the PSNI needed to be maintained, so he proposed that the agreement of the Chief Constable be in place before the powers are used. In addition, he said that the director general of the NCA could be called to attend the Policing Board—more than we have with the police and crime commissioner in my patch in north Wales or elsewhere—and that there be consultation and consent for the implementation of the annual plan. He also proposed that the Police Ombudsman cover the NCA, which was welcome.
Those are all difficult areas touching on the reasons for devolving policing in the first place. Concerns about security were raised at the time and were addressed in government by me and my late good friend Paul Goggins. I hope, however, that the assurances from David Ford, which were negotiated and are now on the table, will be open to further discussion. Only last week, in a discussion with the modern slavery Minister about modern slavery issues, we heard how the NCA could not operate on issues as important as people trafficking.
I am trying to challenge the Government in a helpful and friendly way.
First, I hope that my right hon. Friend will confirm that in the Modern Slavery Bill Committee some of us proposed amendments to make the situation in Northern Ireland much more joined-up with laws and practices here at different levels, but that the Government resisted those amendments. Secondly, may I assure him that the proposals from David Ford arose from negotiations with my party and that we are committed to pursuing them to a successful end?
I am grateful for the support my hon. Friend gave the Opposition in that Committee, and yes he acted in a way that said he wanted the Bill to operate in Northern Ireland as well.
It is important to remember that my hon. Friends the Members for South Down and for Foyle, as well as absent Sinn Fein Members, have signed up to policing matters in the past. The proposals from David Ford would extend effective policing to tackling serious and organised crime. What extra steps can the Minister and the political parties take to get the NCA operating in Northern Ireland? He told us what happened in the past, but he did not set out a clear road map that will get us from David Ford’s proposals to an agreement to sign up to the NCA; to a legislative consent motion in the Northern Ireland Assembly; and to implementation of the relevant NCA provisions already on the statute book.
What steps are the NIO and the Home Office taking to discuss David Ford’s proposals further with the political parties? As mentioned, might they set a deadline? Occasionally, deadlines do work. We set one for the reintroduction of the Northern Ireland Assembly in the St Andrews agreement. We reached it at about one minute to 12, but reach it we did. I mean no disrespect to Northern Ireland Members, but deadlines sometimes focus minds. So is the Minister prepared to consider a timescale and possible future steps? When will the next set of talks take place between the NIO, the Home Office, the political parties and Assembly representatives? Is David Ford convening such a meeting? Will the NIO and Home Office be present? What is the timescale for concluding the discussions?
In Committee, the then Policing Minister, the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), said that the Government were
“carefully considering the part 1 provisions to see how they can best be modified to give the NCA some functionality in Northern Ireland but in a way that does not require a legislative consent motion. We will aim to introduce any necessary amendments to the Bill on Report.”––[Official Report, Crime and Courts Public Bill Committee, 29 January 2013; c. 174.]
That was on 29 January 2013 but we are no closer to implementing the NCA. I say to the Minister that we need a plan—it need not necessarily involve a deadline, but it could—so that we can see what Ministers and the parties are going to do to take this matter forward.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for taking a second intervention. The right hon. Gentleman has served with distinction in Northern Ireland and he has carefully listened this afternoon to the assurances that the Policing Minister has very carefully articulated about all the additional accountability points relating to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, so what exactly does the right hon. Gentleman expect the British Government to give away to Sinn Fein in addition to all those accountability issues? Why cannot the right hon. Gentleman simply call on Sinn Fein publicly—as he did for the SDLP—to accept the role and the total competency of the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland?
I thought I had been very clear that I want the National Crime Agency to operate in Northern Ireland, in Belfast and every community represented here today on the same basis as it operates in my constituency, and as soon as possible. I have argued for that. I want Sinn Fein, along with my hon. Friends, to sign up to it as quickly as possible. The assurances given by David Ford should be subject to a positive response on those issues. I say to the hon. Lady that I am not the Government. If I were the Government, what I would be doing is looking at how to convene a meeting with the relevant parties to see if there are genuine outstanding differences, to see if resolutions on those differences can be reached, to look at what we do with the David Ford proposals and, if necessary, to look at setting a deadline against which consideration of these matters would take place. That is what I want the Government to look at and respond to. The vital point is that the National Crime Agency needs to operate in Northern Ireland to protect people from crime in Northern Ireland, as it does in Wales, Scotland and England.
My right hon. Friend has said again that he wants the NCA to operate on the same basis in Northern Ireland as it does in his constituency. Clearly, the ongoing discussions and negotiations suggest that that is not so in terms of accountability, the level of engagement with the police or the level of its own automatic authority. Those are all significant improvements and concessions consistent with the Patten principles around policing. This is about making sure that whatever happens in any quarter of policing in Northern Ireland is consistent with those Patten principles.
I understand and accept that. The hon. Gentleman will know that during my two years in Northern Ireland, we had to deal with very difficult issues around the very point of trying to get policing devolved, along with a range of other measures, including the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I understand the sensitivities. I am simply making the point that the David Ford proposals provide the basis, I believe, for agreement on the operation of the NCA in Northern Ireland. It is incumbent on somebody—whether it be David Ford, the Northern Ireland Office, other Ministers or whatever—to try to convene a meeting to see if there are any outstanding issues and to provide some resolution as a matter of urgency.
The shadow Minister is indicating, in good faith, that no meetings are taking place with Government Ministers and that we have not been trying to push this forward over the last few years. That is fundamentally wrong. He understands, not least because he was highly involved in the devolution settlement, that if we have devolution, politicians have to make difficult decisions for their communities. Governments can help, but it is for the devolved Assembly to get on and do this.
I hope the Minister does not take what I say as being hypercritical. I am trying to provide some perspective. We have had two and a half years and we have to work through this. I know how difficult it is; I have been there. I am looking for further impetus to get a resolution.
I thank the shadow Minister for the way in which he has addressed the issue, especially to the SDLP. Does he agree, however, that most people will find it rather strange that the slavish adherence to the Patten principles goes beyond the protection of children from abuse—whether it be on the internet or from other predators on children—and that the SDLP counts the Patten principles as more important than the protection of children in Northern Ireland?
I think that the operation of the NCA is essential for dealing with child pornography, trafficking, drugs, fuel and money laundering, particularly in the Northern Ireland context where highly organised criminal gangs operate on the fringes of the republican movement and the loyalist movement. The motion under discussion says that we want to sign up to the NCA and it has my support. The Minister has my support and that of the Opposition Front-Bench team to reach such a resolution. I simply want to see additional energy—I know the Minister will provide it—to ensure that this matter is brought to a conclusion as soon as possible.
Order. I remind those wishing to participate in the debate that we have approximately two hours left before we start the winding-up speeches. I am not going to set a time-limit at present, but I ask for contributions of 10 minutes or less—otherwise setting a time-limit will be necessary. I have also assumed, with apologies to the Front-Bench teams, that the concluding speeches need to be 10 minutes. If that is not sufficient, someone should let me know. I ask Members to take fewer than 10 minutes for their contributions, which should help to ensure that everyone is able to participate.
It is customary to say at the start of a speech that it will be short and not detain the House too long. I shall try very hard to achieve that, and ask my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), who is on my right, to start coughing very loudly or even to kick me once or twice at the 10-minute point.
I agree with almost everything in the contribution of the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), given as he said in a “helpful and friendly” way. He is quite right that the Government have the responsibility to get involved, and I remind him again that his party has leverage with the SDLP. Let us all use all the leverage we have, and if we end up with Sinn Fein being totally isolated, so be it. That would be my answer.
I want to speak, I hope briefly, about one specific area—south Armagh, which I visited in the summer. I was in Dublin when a charming member of the Dail said that he had driven through Forkhill the previous week and had seen the shocking prospect of endless fuel tankers there. I said to my police officers that I wanted to go to south Armagh; I had never been there before; I had never served there. Back in the days of the troubles, south Armagh was known as bandit country. A distressing number of my friends were killed there, and I saw their names on the memorial in Crossmaglen police station and elsewhere. The Police Service of Northern Ireland looked after me very well. We went out with four vehicles scattered around—what I think we used to call “multiple patrolling”—and there was a helicopter overhead once we left Newry police station, showing the level of concern. I visited one or two IRA memorials down there. It was probably unusual, possibly unique, to see an SAS tie at an IRA memorial, and I hope it was appreciated.
The particular issues that took me down there were diesel smuggling, fuel laundering and the removal of markers from diesel. This is not a little thing done by a couple of farmers; it is serious and organised crime making thousands and thousands of pounds for crooks. Frankly, I would recommend that members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to go down and see it. Driving around these little lanes in south Armagh, one keeps on bumping into huge fuel tankers. We do not get that in my constituency of South Leicestershire and I doubt whether they would get it in north Wales.
I respect my hon. Friend for that. As I was saying, it is worth going down there to see what it is like. It is extraordinary. Lots of HGVs are scattered around the place, too. I do not know what was being smuggled, but it was difficult to get down some of the lanes because of the sheer number of vehicles. People should go and see that as well.
Stolen electricity is another huge issue. I should like the Northern Ireland electricity board, or whatever it is called, to tell us how many electricity bills are paid, because it seems to me that very few people do pay. Do not ask me how they manage it, but it is something to do with magnets: they get the meters going the wrong way. This is a major issue because, if someone is not paying for the electricity that he is using, someone else will be paying for it.
Benefit fraud across the border is big business. It is not just a question of a few people stealing a few pounds. As one drives around South Armagh, one sees staggering new homes—plush new buildings—all of them built during a time of recession. Where is the money coming from? A huge number of brand-new Mercedes cars can also be seen on the roads of south Armagh. I wish I had one of those. Where is the money coming from? These are huge rackets, as the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) knows, because her constituency borders on south Armagh.
I am sorry to say that the rule of law does not apply in what used to be called bandit country. I pay tribute to the PSNI, which is under constant threat in the area, and I thank it for the work that it has done. As for the Government of the Republic of Ireland, under Enda Kenny, they are absolutely on side. They do not want to have this criminal area on their border, because there is an overspill. So we have to ask who is against allowing the NCA, which would deal with this serious and organised crime, to operate in Northern Ireland, and why.
The SDLP has been mentioned. I get on well—I hope—with its Members. I think that they are honest and decent people, and I do not want to reopen the old arguments, but I am bewildered as to why they are opposing the NCA proposals. I really think that they should examine the reasons for their opposition. I fear that we may be seeing the scourge of sectarianism yet again. I understand what Sinn Fein are up to, and I would not describe Sinn Fein as a party with which I would wish to do business. We know the background of many of its members. I will say that I think Martin McGuinness has travelled a very long way, and that he behaves almost like a statesman.
I do not think of Gerry Adams in the same way. In any event, we know the background of members of Sinn Fein, and we also know the background of many of the people who are operating in south Armagh. Everyone who ever served in the Army there—in fact, nearly everyone who ever served in the Army in any part of Northern Ireland—knew the name of “Slab” Murphy. Well, he is still there, and he is still up to his old crooked business. I think that he has been to jail in the past, but what is he doing with his money? That is the question we must ask. Well, some of it is going into new houses, some of it is going into Mercedes cars, and some of it is probably going into villas in Spain, but who is funding political organisations?
I must say to Ministers—or, rather, to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who is the only Minister still in the Chamber—that I fear she will find that quite a lot of the money that used to go to the Provisional IRA is now going, through the back door, to Sinn Fein. I cannot see it going anywhere else, and I want the NCA, which deals with serious and organised crime, to go and examine that funding as well. If it is not able to do that, it damn well ought to be able to. Twenty years ago, these people were in organised gangs. They are still there, and the proceeds of crime still exist. Where is the money going? We need to be taking back those proceeds of crime.
I am trying to stick to my 10 minutes, and the hon. Lady has already said one or two things.
South Armagh is still bandit country: there is no question about that. The rule of law does not run there. We need the NCA, backed by the PSNI and by HMRC, to get down there and find out what is happening.
That is extremely kind and generous of the right hon. Gentleman.
The right hon. Gentleman has referred, in very general terms, to the people of south Armagh and to “bandit” territory. I represent the people of North Down, but I have had occasion to visit, privately, families in Crossmaglen and elsewhere in south Armagh. I ask him, very gently, to put it on record that the vast majority of people in south Armagh are law-abiding, decent citizens. I am only sorry that their public representative—their Member of Parliament—does not take his seat in the House and represent them.
The hon. Lady is quite right, and if I gave a different impression, I apologise. Of course the overwhelming majority of people want to live with the rule of law, although why they vote for Sinn Fein is beyond me. It is the same anywhere in the world. Decent people who see crooks getting away with things are as appalled as anyone else.
I do not know where we go from here, but I think that the Government have responsibilities. I think that the Opposition have responsibilities as well. I think that all parties have responsibilities. Perhaps we should consider whether devolving policing and justice was the right thing to do if the Northern Ireland Executive are not up to dealing with this matter. That is not Government policy, because I no longer speak for the Government. However, I really do think that until the NCA operates in south Armagh and in the rest of Northern Ireland, we shall have the most huge problems with serious and organised crime.
I am glad to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe has not yet started coughing.
I am very pleased to follow the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), and I appreciate his plain speaking on this and, indeed, other issues. I have no doubt that we shall hear more plain speaking from the Back Benches.
This is an important debate about an issue that our party raised in the Northern Ireland Assembly just a couple of weeks ago. Like our debate, it has focused on the prevalence of organised crime gangs—particularly in border areas, but throughout Northern Ireland—and has stressed the need for it to be dealt with. That need arose a long time ago. The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) called for the setting of a deadline. I should be interested to hear, perhaps during the Opposition wind-up, what he thinks should happen if that deadline is not met.
The right hon. Gentleman seemed to be suggesting that the Government should deal with the issue themselves, because the NCA is a national agency. He rightly pointed out that this is not just a matter for Northern Ireland, but a matter that affects constituents and citizens throughout the United Kingdom. We cannot afford a situation in which Northern Ireland is the one part of the United Kingdom that is seen as a safe haven or bolthole for criminals and their illegal criminal assets and activities. It is an outrage, in the 21st century, that that should even be considered.
Given what the Chief Constable has said, given the overwhelming weight of opinion among ordinary people on all sides of the community in Northern Ireland and in all the Northern Ireland political parties apart from Sinn Fein and the SDLP, and given the views that have been expressed in the House, it is time to act. I am all in favour of appeals to common sense and appeals for people to sit down together and go through the arguments, but that has been going on for a long time, and there comes a point at which, in the absence of agreement, action must be taken. As we have heard again today, it has been reported that the SDLP has been engaging in talks with the aim of making the NCA more accountable. I should be interested to hear what issue is still outstanding, because it seems to me that all the issues have been addressed, and more than addressed. As we have heard, the current proposals go far beyond anything else that exists in the United Kingdom.
Even if the SDLP signs up to the proposals, I understand that Sinn Fein is not engaging in the discussions. The Minister of Justice made it clear in the Assembly that it had not even responded to invitations to speak about the matter. When Sinn Fein was challenged in the Assembly a couple of weeks ago on what should be done about criminal assets—and the figures are startling: some £12 million, £13 million or £14 million of criminal assets apparently cannot be seized because the NCA is not operating in Northern Ireland—its answer was that we should set up a bespoke system to deal with them. Another of its suggestions is that, at a time when we are facing massive budgetary deficits and welfare penalties are being imposed, more money should be spent. It has not said where the money will come from. It is an impossible demand, unfunded—we have no idea where the money will come from—but rather than actually introduce the NCA, it wants the Northern Ireland Assembly to have these bespoke arrangements. In terms of making arrangements to fill the gaps if the NCA does not operate in Northern Ireland soon, Minister Ford was asked about the cost implications of doing it ourselves and he replied:
“I think the technical term is ‘quite horrific.’”
What the costs to Northern Ireland would be if we had to go down this road are unimaginable, and the Sinn Fein attitude is reckless, irresponsible, bizarre and totally obnoxious. Its attitude is, “We’re not going to do it, we’re not going to speak about it, and we just do it ourselves whatever the costs may be, and we do not know where the money is coming from.”
This is the National Crime Agency, and I know policing has been devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, but if we do not get resolution on this, which is in the interests of everyone, surely we ought to start thinking of imposing it in these circumstances, for the good of everyone in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which I was coming on to. Whatever happens in the interminable discussions between the SDLP and the Government, I have to repeat to the SDLP the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). By putting the preference, and the emphasis, on implementing Patten and all of that rather than protecting children from online abuse, the NCA, with every day that passes, is unable to bring its expertise, help and assistance to bear. The UN has already criticised Northern Ireland in that regard. We have criminal assets being smuggled and used in a terrible way, benefiting paramilitary and other gangs, and every day we have this wittering on—dancing on the head of a pin—from the SDLP about accountability issues, which have already been addressed, yet people are suffering.
Even if the SDLP overcomes its objections—whatever they may be, and it is a matter for it to explain to the people how it can justify all of this—we will still be left with the problem that without Sinn Fein’s agreement, we cannot make this work in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein shows no signs whatsoever of being prepared to sign up—maybe for some of the reasons mentioned by some Members already about the gains it gets from some of this. Because this is a national matter that affects not just Northern Ireland but the entirety of the United Kingdom—it is about our ability to combat criminal gangsterism across the entire United Kingdom—there comes a point at which the Government at Westminster have to face up to the issue. For the sake of the children and for the sake of the citizens who are being victimised and denied the protection and defence other people throughout the United Kingdom are being given, there comes a point when we cannot simply keep appealing to the better nature—if there is one—of Sinn Fein to recognise reality, and instead we must take action.
I simply want to make that point very strongly and leave it with the Government. I look forward to hearing their response and to getting a very definite answer on that issue.
Serious and organised crime is not just a threat; it is a daily reality that can affect everyone and costs the overall economy of the United Kingdom approximately £24 billion each year. I want to focus on the serious and organised crime threats we face nationally and show just how valuable the National Crime Agency is in countering serious and organised crime. The NCA covers a wide variety of criminality, and we have already heard some aspects of that, but I want to concentrate on the issues of money laundering, drugs, organised immigration crime and human trafficking, and the criminal use of firearms.
The single cross-cutting issue that has totally changed the landscape for serious and organised crime is the growth of the internet. On the internet, there is real-time child sexual exploitation and abuse. Over the internet, firearms are obtained and cyber-techniques are enabling so-called traditional and other crime to proliferate. Using the internet, the movement and supply of drugs are managed. In addition, the internet is increasingly being used for attacks on Government services such as tax collection and for fraud. More than 80% of identity theft also involves the internet. Finally, illegal immigration and modern slavery crimes increasingly rely on the internet, of course.
The scale of the laundering of criminal proceeds, despite the UK’s leading role in developing international standards to tackle it, is definitely a strategic threat to the UK’s economy and reputation. Some of the same financial transfer systems used by serious and organised criminals in the UK are used by terrorist groups both domestically and overseas. It is also clear that the UK and its dependent territories are the destination for billions of pounds of European criminal proceeds. Many hundreds of billions of pounds of international criminal money is almost certainly laundered through UK banks, including their subsidiaries. The high transaction volume—estimated at trillions of pounds a day—and the language, developed financial services industry and political stability of the UK make our financial system particularly attractive to money laundering despite the measures to identify and stop it.
Most proceeds of UK serious and organised crime are laundered through UK banks, wire transfer companies and other regulated businesses, including money service businesses and cash-rich businesses. Thereafter a large proportion is sent abroad, where profits are often ultimately invested in real estate. Importantly, a proportion is reinvested in criminal activity in various stages. Like many of my friends the hon. Members for Northern Ireland constituencies, I know from personal experience, as does the late Minister—
I will just reach out and check. I am so sorry; I mean my right hon. Friend the former Minister. Both of us know that cross-border crime really does support paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. If the NCA were used properly there, what great benefits would accrue to all the people of Northern Ireland, including those who supported Sinn Fein Members of Parliament.
On the drugs trade, the supply of heroin from Afghanistan and amphetamine processing and production in the United Kingdom are on the increase. Although most of the opiates consumed in the UK originate in Afghanistan, heroin continues to be imported from Pakistan. It also appears that Turkish-controlled trafficking is increasing. The Turkish national police report increasing seizures of heroin in Turkey; apparently they are almost back to pre-2009 figures, which correlates with a dip and then an increase in poppy production in Afghanistan. Heroin trafficked via Pakistan to the UK is most often sent directly by parcel, air courier, air passengers or maritime container, and the traffickers often have family links to Bradford, the west midlands and south Manchester.
Cocaine consumed in the UK mainly comes from Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. It is imported into the UK from the Caribbean using all forms of transport, but west African countries are also a major hub for moving cocaine to Europe. Nigerian nationals in particular have increased their involvement in the cocaine trade, to the extent that they are now on an equal footing with Latin Americans in their ability to source, finance and transport both bulk and smaller quantities of cocaine. However, the Netherlands and Belgium continue to be the primary source for amphetamine and MDMA, which is used in the UK. There are also some indications of an increase in amphetamine processing in the UK. Despite an increase in the amount of skunk cannabis being grown domestically in illegal farms, cannabis resin is still imported from Afghanistan and Morocco.
We all know that human trafficking is a significant global problem. Clearly, it is linked to modern slavery. In 2013, there was a 47% increase in reports of slavery in our country compared with 2012, and these are just the victims we know about. Slavery’s hidden nature means the actual numbers are likely to be far, far higher. Once in the UK, illegal immigrants provide a pool of people whom serious and organised criminals can exploit by selling them forged or counterfeit documents to support fraudulent applications for leave to remain in our country.
The national strategic assessment of serious and organised crime suggests that the supply of firearms to the UK marketplace is increasing. Obviously, there is also concern that weapons, whether from illegal or legitimate sources, might find their way into the hands of extremists. The latest Home Office crime figures show that firearms have reportedly been used in 11,227 recorded crimes in 2010-11 in England and Wales. Thankfully, that is on the decline: there has been a 13% decrease in the use of firearms. Most criminally used firearms are found in London, Merseyside, Manchester, the west Midlands and west Yorkshire, and the majority of shooting incidents are of course perpetrated by members of urban street gangs.
All the most serious crime threats are transnational and rely on unstable countries. This applies to trafficked people destined for modern slavery, as well as to fraud and cybercrime. Most of what I have outlined has been culled from the national strategic assessment of serious and organised crime 2014, which I read in preparation for this afternoon. It is a chilling document which I hope other Members will read in order to understand the severe challenges that our National Crime Agency faces.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and I congratulate him on his knowledge and breadth of experience of these issues. I was so impressed that I shall remind him that there is a vacancy on the Home Affairs Committee; I hope he will put his name forward. I also want to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), a fellow Leicestershire MP, who has announced that he is stepping down. He has been in Parliament almost as long as I have, and does not look like “the late Minister”; he is still moving about. I wish him a career outside the House that will be suitable for his skills.
Two documents produced by the Home Affairs Committee—written and oral evidence—are tagged to the motion before the House. On behalf of the Committee, I fully support every word of the motion, which was eloquently expressed by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and his colleagues. I was going to say that this is an unusual debate for Northern Ireland politics, but I do not know because I do not attend many of them. However, it is great to see unanimity in this House—so far, anyway—on the issue of the National Crime Agency. Unfortunately, I cannot stay to the end of the debate, so I do not know what others will say, but I will of course come in for the wind-ups.
The Home Affairs Committee is clear that this is a national crime agency. We have just begun a review of the NCA’s work, one year on, and only last week we took evidence from Keith Bristow, its director general, who is responsible to the Home Secretary. Of all the changes in the landscape of policing, the long-lasting one will be the National Crime Agency. I thought I got a hint from my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), the shadow Home Office Minister, that the next Government—if it is his Government—will support the retention of the NCA. If so, I welcome it, because the creation by the Home Secretary of an organisation that deals with the fight against organised crime, online crime, gangs and serious and organised crime has been extremely important. Even after a year and a half, it is doing better than its predecessor organisation, the Serious Organised Crime Agency.
I am not clear whether the landscape of policing will be as uncluttered as the Home Secretary would like in the end—when the dancing stops and everyone looks at the bits before and the bits afterwards—but this organisation has certainly won support and done a very effective job since its inception. However, as we said to Mr Bristow last week, we were concerned that an organisation that has cost the UK taxpayer £500 million has so far seized assets of only £30 million. We felt that a lot more work needs to be done.
Perhaps one of the reasons is that obstacles are being put in the way of the NCA’s operation by some in Northern Ireland. I went for a brief visit to Northern Ireland at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley). I visited the Gallaher factory in his constituency, which sadly will close shortly, with the loss of many jobs. I also went to the constituency of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), where we met a number of his local police officers. I also met Matt Baggott, to whom I want to pay tribute for his work in Northern Ireland. He was a very low-profile chief constable in Leicestershire and did not interfere to any great extent in too many things. When he got the Northern Ireland job, I said, “Well, you won’t be able to do that in Northern Ireland”, but he has proved to be a very effective Chief Constable and I wish him well.
I discussed with Matt Baggott and colleagues the effect of the difficulties being put in the NCA’s way on the work of the police in Northern Ireland. Although he was extremely charming and careful in what he said to me, I got the feeling from the discussions that this was going to be a major problem. Although arrangements have been made, I doubt whether they are sufficient.
Accountability—an issue raised by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson)—is much stronger in Northern Ireland for the NCA than it is even in our Parliament. We will get to see Mr Bristow—not that he wishes, I am sure, to see the Home Affairs Committee that often—most probably once or twice a year. He is of course a civil servant and will therefore be responsible, first and foremost, to the Home Secretary. However, the arrangements put in place in Northern Ireland for scrutiny of such an organisation are better than one could ever have expected.
If we send out a strong message to those who are putting obstacles in the way of the National Crime Agency, they will understand that the fight against organised crime, which has been very well elucidated by the hon. Member for Beckenham, the Minister for Policing and the shadow Minister, can only be enhanced if the writ of the NCA is to run in Northern Ireland in the same way as it runs in Leicestershire, Northamptonshire or Avon and Somerset. That will allow the organisation, which we all support, to do its work effectively and to catch those criminals who are doing their best to undermine the values of our society. That is why I fully support this motion. It is clear in the Home Affairs Committee’s reports and in the evidence we received that the obstacles should be removed and the NCA’s writ should run in Northern Ireland in the same way it does in the rest of the United Kingdom.
As the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, I feel as though I am the only Member outside Northern Ireland to share a land border with another member state of the European Union, given that Folkestone is the home of the channel tunnel. We have close cross-border co-operation between the security services and between the Kent police and the French police. We also have the enhanced role of the Border Force, which has been given additional resources by this Government, including the recruitment of an additional 400 people.
As a Member of Parliament for a constituency on the frontier of this country and on an international border, I would hate to see us being handicapped by not having the support of important agencies such as the National Crime Agency. I feel strongly about that in Kent, so I can understand why Members from Northern Ireland feel just as strongly on behalf of their own communities. If we need the NCA here on the mainland, we certainly need it in Northern Ireland too.
I unequivocally support the motion before us today. The issues that the NCA deals with—including smuggling, gun-running, people trafficking, child sex abuse—are among the most serious issues that we face. Many of them have a peculiar resonance for Northern Ireland as well, which is what makes the work of the NCA so important. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made that clear in a statement last week, when she said that
“the inability of the National Crime Agency (NCA) to operate to its full extent in Northern Ireland means there will be proceeds of crime that are not seized and criminals who are not apprehended.”—[Official Report, 14 October 2014; Vol. 586, c. 24WS.]
The situation could not be more serious than that.
In his opening address, the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referred to the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) Bill that was going through Stormont. I was interested to read an article in the Belfast Telegraph on that Bill, which was pertinent to this debate. It was quite critical, stating:
“While Stormont tinkers about drafting its own ineffectual legislation, the key agency charged with preventing trafficking across the UK can’t operate in Northern Ireland because of opposition by Sinn Fein and SDLP MLAs.”
That could not be clearer.
I agree with what the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said earlier. Yes, the Government are right to say that these issues are devolved, but that does not mean that we do not have a view on them. The Minister made it clear that we want the NCA to be fully operational in Northern Ireland. I agree with the right hon. Member for Belfast North that, although these matters remain devolved in terms of decision making, we should not pretend that all the parties are of the same view. It is clear that the Democratic Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist party and the Alliance party strongly support the motion. I hope, given what the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said earlier, that the Social Democratic and Labour party will support it as well. I was pleased to hear him say that the SDLP’s position was to continue the talks, taking the view that they would have a positive outcome. That is crucial.
These matters are so serious that we cannot allow delays to occur. We need these powers to be in place now, and we cannot allow feet to be dragged. This is far too important for the people of Northern Ireland to allow that to happen. The Minister also made it clear that we are not looking for the same implementation of the NCA in Northern Ireland as we have in the rest of the UK. The NCA will be fully accountable to the Northern Ireland Policing Board, which should provide the desired level of accountability.
Sinn Fein Members feel that there should be more scrutiny and questioning. I believe that there can be no better illustration of the poor service that they give to their constituents than the fact that they are not here in this Chamber to take part in debates of such grave significance to the people of Northern Ireland. If they were here, they could raise those points and ask those questions themselves.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), said nothing that anyone could reasonably disagree with. However, the impression should not be given that progress is not being made because not enough meetings are taking place or because there is not enough dialogue between this Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Rather, it is because one or two parties—but particularly Sinn Fein—are refusing to engage properly with the process. We should state that very clearly.
It has been said in the debate that the proceeds of criminal activities linked to gangs operating in Northern Ireland are a fundamental concern. This also has a bearing on the peace process. Whether the evidence is there or not, the suspicion will remain that the people who are making money from drug trafficking and other criminal offences are using it for other things, such as organised crime or other, more sinister, security-related purposes in Northern Ireland. Until this can be cleared up, and until the NCA is fully operational in Northern Ireland, those debates will persist, which can only be damaging to the talks that are part of the ongoing and dynamic peace process.
The fact that the NCA is not fully operational in Northern Ireland does not mean that there cannot be any co-operation in policing and security matters. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referred to the cocaine seizure off the coast of Cork involving co-operation between the NCA and the naval service of the Republic of Ireland, but we want to see such operations taking place all around the UK. We would not want an operation off the coast of Northern Ireland to fail to take place because the NCA was unable to assume the necessary role to ensure that it succeeded.
I will not take up the House’s time for much longer, because this is principally a debate in which the Members from Northern Ireland should be given the maximum opportunity to express their views. I fully support the motion before the House. The time has come for the NCA to have the same powers in Northern Ireland as it has in the rest of the United Kingdom. That is what the people for Northern Ireland deserve, and the parties that are preventing that from happening should get behind it now.
The Belfast Telegraph got it right when, on 14 October, it stated:
“The opposition from the SDLP and Sinn Fein to the National Crime Agency operating in Northern Ireland would be farcical if it was not so serious.”
I repeat: it would be farcical if it was not so serious. The Police Service of Northern Ireland and the relevant authorities throughout Northern Ireland are doing their best to eradicate organised crime, but it is a well-known fact that anything from 140 to 180 gangs operate across the Province and into the Republic of Ireland—by the end of this debate, there could be 200—and the crux of the matter is that the National Crime Agency currently does not have sufficient powers to tackle the problems. Those problems include drug smuggling, human trafficking, money laundering, sexual exploitation, fuel laundering and many other crimes that cross international boundaries.
We have heard today of Lord Morrow’s success with the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) Bill in Northern Ireland. That legislation is ahead of its time and it represents a great success for Northern Ireland. I hope that it will help a lot of the individuals who are being trafficked. Unfortunately, however, there are still many people out there who will continue to commit this heinous crime. There is a lot of money to be made from it. We have three major industries in the world today: gun-running, human trafficking and drugs.
Some time ago, I started a forum in the schools in my constituency to assist with the issues of cyber-bullying and online pornography that were affecting young people. That has been successful and all the schools have taken it on board. However, these problems can lead to greater financial difficulty for the health service. Self-harm and suicide affect young people under pressure, and the criminal rogues are making life miserable for those who are trying to get on with their everyday lives. A criminal gang in my constituency that is involved in extortion has burnt 39 vehicles in one town this year alone, and damaged homes have made families’ lives miserable, yet the police do not have the resources to take effective action. As we have heard, Drew Harris, the deputy chief constable, recently told the Policing Board that about £13 million-worth of assets accrued by criminal gang bosses, mainly loyalist paramilitaries in east Belfast, cannot be seized because the PSNI does not have that power, as it resides solely with the NCA.
We know the position of the Social Democratic and Labour party. I hope and trust that today’s debate will challenge its conscience when it comes to the protection of children, which is more important than political views. We need to protect the young people and senior folk within our society—that is important. Sinn Fein, and where the money may be going for it, has been mentioned. In my constituency, Sinn Fein councillors have recently said, “The Brits will not dictate to us what we do on this,” and so we are back to the old tribal issue of republicanism and the Brits. That is the bottom line; they will not be dictated to. Unfortunately, it is time that Sinn Fein’s supporters stood up to the facts and, in places such as west Belfast, where families are being put under pressure and young people are being used in all ways, put pressure on to say, “Enough of this. We need to get it resolved.”
My hon. Friend touches on the important point that in every constituency, including those represented—or not represented—by Sinn Fein MPs and Members of the Legislative Assembly, there are young people who are under threat and being actively targeted by these gangs selling drugs to them. So Sinn Fein’s community, its supporters and its voters are suffering as a result of its opposition to this move.
My hon. Friend has made the point clearly: young people are being forced into drugs, prostitution and other activities. I have again recently visited REACT, an organisation that works from bandit country right up to parts of my constituency. It has highlighted to me the number of young people coming to it who are being forced by criminal gangs not only to take the drugs, but to sell them on the streets. We also have to deal with fuel laundering, whereby tens of millions of pounds are coming out of the British Exchequer and the ordinary individual families have to pay for that.
The situation is unacceptable and it has been ongoing—someone mentioned a time scale of 18 months. It is time that decisions were made on this. If that means the Government need to take action, they need to do so. The situation cannot continue, with young lives and older lives affected. It is extortion from one end to the other, and it cannot continue and must be resolved.
I am pleased to be able to participate in this debate to outline, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), the SDLP position. May I say at the outset that the SDLP has consistently and persistently opposed all forms of violence, at times when it might not have been popular to do so and at times when others promoted violence? Leaving that aside, may I also say that when we signed up to the new policing measures and the PSNI in 2001, it was to those Patten principles of inclusivity and respect for political difference, and it was about accountability and oversight mechanisms? Those were clearly embedded back in 2001, when the new Policing Board, to which the police are accountable, was established.
Earlier, the hon. Lady intervened on the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), asking him to be specific about the accountability issues and what accountability mechanisms were in place. Would she like to be equally specific about where the gaps in those mechanisms are, because some of us are at a complete loss on that?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. If I am allowed to make a little progress, I will be able to explain those things.
Let me also say at the outset that it was due only to the SDLP’s efforts in ongoing negotiations that others are now talking about accountability and oversight; it was because of our efforts that those things are now taking place. For the avoidance of doubt, let me say that nobody should gainsay or deny that. We are concerned about the lack of proper oversight mechanisms, and we are in discussions and negotiations with the Minister of Justice. Two weeks ago, during the debate on the issue in the Northern Ireland Assembly, he freely acknowledged that and took on board our concerns. I would like to highlight those—if I am allowed—as will my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle.
The SDLP is not opposed in principle to the NCA. We are opposed to violence of any kind, and we are opposed to child abuse and the other various matters that have been raised. However, I wish to raise certain issues. We have been given indications from Opposition Members and from DUP Members that questions have been raised as to the effectiveness of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and now the NCA. Why, despite the efforts of the PSNI, SOCA and other agencies on the island of Ireland, has almost nobody ever been before a criminal court in relation to such matters? For us to support the NCA it has a responsibility to us—to everybody—to prove that it will go after those fuel launderers. We have to see the evidence that it has worked heretofore. One of my colleagues, the former Minister of Environment, pursued many of these issues to do with national crime, through the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, with a measure of success, and he probably did not receive that much help from SOCA. So those issues have to be taken on board.
If I am allowed to make a little progress, I might be able to help the hon. Gentleman.
Let us consider what we need in order to make progress in these negotiations to a positive outcome and to have an organisation embedded with the principles of inclusivity, respect, accountability and other such issues. The hon. Gentleman never addressed the issue of accountability that I raised in my interventions. I hope that that is not because of glibness on the DUP’s part, and I am sure they will clarify that issue. I would like the Minister in today’s debate to work with the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland to clarify: that accountability of the NCA is to the Chief Constable and to the Policing Board; that covert operations would take place only with the agreement of the Chief Constable and subject to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000; and that issues of national intelligence would be carried through only for England and Wales.
If I may continue, I would be happy to give way in a minute. I wish to address a couple of other things that we see as being missing from the current NCA. It is further proposed in the helpful paper from the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland that the conduct of an NCA officer comes within the remit of the police ombudsman. It is not, however, stipulated that the power would be enshrined in statute, although a commitment to that effect appears to have been given to the Policing Board—clarification could be given on that—or that the standard of conduct would, as a result of statute, be that of the PSNI code of ethics. In the latter case, there may be some difficulty in circumscribing an NCA officer by way of the PSNI code of ethics as it may conflict with that officer’s own code of conduct by which he or she is bound according to their contract of employment or service. In respect of covert powers and the remit of the Policing Board, it is proposed that the PSNI be accountable to the board for giving its agreement to the NCA’s operations. However, there may be an issue over the extent to which the board can hold the Chief Constable to account—for example, for giving agreement or for all that follows from that agreement.
Clearly, we have certain issues on which we need clarification. We call on the Minister to hold immediate discussions on those issues with the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland. We will continue with those discussions because we support the principle of the NCA, but we are awaiting clarification of the issues around accountability and the oversight mechanism to ensure that everything is perfectly in order and that there is nothing untoward in relation to that organisation.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), but I hope to correct some of the things that she said in her speech.
Real difficulties are being faced by law enforcement agencies because of the ongoing situation with the National Crime Agency. Northern Ireland may be the locus of the problem, but the difficulties that we face affect crime right across the UK and indeed internationally. As Members have said, we are talking about transnational operations.
The history of the NCA has been well outlined today. It has been in effect from 7 October 2013, and yet some parties in Northern Ireland have yet to reach agreement on extending its powers fully with appropriate accountability mechanisms in place, and that is despite every effort being made to meet those parties’ requests. The Alliance leader, David Ford, who is the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland, was absolutely clear with the Home Office from the outset that any operation of the NCA in Northern Ireland would have to adhere to the accountability mechanisms that fit within the justice devolution settlement. That was made crystal clear from the beginning, and was not something that was said in response to complaints from others.
The Minister of Justice has been holding talks with most of the Executive parties on a proposal paper that he has put forward. There is a significant gap in Northern Ireland's law enforcement effort, as anyone who has read a recent article by the Chief Constable in the Belfast Telegraph will have seen—many Members have quoted liberally from that article this afternoon. It is of increasing concern that we do not have access to NCA skills.
The hon. Lady has just said that there is no access, but I feel almost sure that when the NCA gets intelligence that affects Northern Ireland, it will not sit on it; it will pass it on to the PSNI, even though it does not have officers operating in Northern Ireland.
The point that I am making is that we have no access to the skills, and I will go on to outline what that entails. We are talking here not about minor crime, but about serious and organised crime. Others have already mentioned the 140 to 160 organised crime groups that are active in Northern Ireland. It is estimated that there are 800 active criminals engaging in drug dealing, fuel laundering, waste dumping and the increasing problem of cybercrime.
Northern Ireland is used as a transit as well as a destination country by human traffickers. Once criminals start operating across jurisdictions and international boundaries, as many crime groups do, the PSNI needs the active support of the NCA. As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) pointed out, the Irish authorities recently benefited from that support to seize a yacht carrying a very significant amount of cocaine. It is beyond ironic that the Garda Siochana is currently willing and able to benefit from the support of a UK law enforcement body that the UK region of Northern Ireland cannot yet fully access.
The PSNI needs to be able to tap into NCA resources to undertake or assist operations. If it cannot access those resources, its officers will be taken away from other local policing work in order to replicate a model in a less effective manner than is already available elsewhere.
There are examples of where the PSNI has not been able to access resources, and I trust that they will answer the question of the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). The PSNI needed support from the NCA on a number of occasions, including on Operation Notarise, which was about online child abuse. It could not get the same support as British police forces. Let me be clear as to why that was. If the predicated offences are devolved in nature, it is not possible for the NCA to assist in the financial investigation, and no Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 powers can be exercised by NCA officers in respect of those crimes.
There have been a number of occasions when the PSNI has sought financial investigator assistance from the NCA in relation to money-laundering investigations, but because they were predicated on a crime of cannabis cultivation, it was unable to access the assistance because it was a devolved matter.
The hon. Lady is making a strong point, but, as she knows, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, of which she is a member, is holding an inquiry into on-the-runs. Does she feel that if the NCA had been in existence in Northern Ireland there would have been no excuse for the PSNI and the Metropolitan police not to know that the letters had been sent out, effectively allowing terrorists to go free?
I do not think that the NCA would have had any impact there, not least because the NCA followed the locus and time of when those issues took place. However, close co-operation is important.
There have also been times when the NCA has been the correct authority to take a lead in a situation, as opposed to just providing support and skills to the PSNI. For example, there have been issues around drug distribution in Northern Ireland from supply chains across England and Europe, and the NCA has been unable to take a lead on the ground.
The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) talked about where the gaps in the service exist. On one occasion, the NCA had to request PSNI assistance to search the homes of Northern Ireland drug suspects who were involved in a wider crime investigation. The PSNI officers in question were diverted to another more serious task at the time, leading to a delay in those searches, which could have jeopardised the inquiry into the criminal gang. That has to be dealt with. The PSNI is already losing officers from local police work to cover work that could be passed to the NCA. As the current Budget cuts kick in, the effect of that on the ability to provide the services the public demands will become more and more evident.
Those examples show that delays occur when the NCA has to go through the PSNI because of lack of constable status, and that could compromise UK-wide and international investigations. That situation will get worse as the resources become more strained.
The NCA is also the United Kingdom's centre of expertise in many specialist areas such as cybercrime and child exploitation—areas in which we should all be aiming to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland have the best protection available. Support in the form of advice is available because the director general of the NCA is making every effort to work around the current impasse, but the PSNI does not have access to operational assistance. For example, in the absence of constabulary powers, the NCA can only provide support to the PSNI and it is restricted to assistance in relation to British or international issues. It cannot intervene on the ground.
Then there is the issue of civil recovery, to which I alluded in an earlier intervention: that is, the ability to target the assets of local criminals and disrupt their work and cash flows. That ability has been lost in respect of devolved criminality since 7 October last year. Unlike other areas, that is not being hampered or reduced: it is lost.
Those are all reasons why dealing with the National Crime Agency is urgent. The proposal paper that the Minister, my colleague David Ford, has put forward after working with the Home Office, the Northern Ireland Office, the police, the NCA and others sets out clear and extensive accountability arrangements in line with local requirements and represents a sound and final proposal to enable progress. Additional accountability arrangements proposed by the Minister of Justice include: the accountability of the NCA to the Policing Board, as the director general would have to attend meetings when requested, consult the board on his plans for Northern Ireland to secure its prior consent and take into account the Policing Board’s plans; the fact that the NCA could not exercise constabulary powers or covert investigation powers without the agreement of the Chief Constable, who is, of course, accountable to the Policing Board; and the fact that unlike for SOCA, complaints about the NCA’s functions in Northern Ireland would all be subject to investigation by the police ombudsman.
On the question of things not being placed in statute, I can confirm that it is absolutely the case that the offer to place this in statute is a real offer that will be followed through. There has been no question about that other than the one raised with no evidence to back it up in the House today. There is no question of insufficient accountability. Indeed, the accountability arguably exceeds that of the PSNI and certainly exceeds that of the NCA in any other jurisdiction of the United Kingdom.
These are matters of some great urgency. We have now waited for two years to have the support and assistance of the NCA and to play our full role as a region in protecting the citizens of this country and many other countries from the work of organised crime gangs. It is time for those who are dragging their heels to move forward, have this implemented and do the right thing by the global citizens who are affected by these crime networks.
The NCA is the UK’s leading agency against organised crime, human, weapon and drug trafficking, cybercrime, and economic crime that goes across regional and international borders, but it can be tasked to investigate any crime. The NCA has a strategic role as it looks at the bigger picture across the United Kingdom, analysing how criminals operate and how they can be disrupted. To do that, it works closely with the regional organised crime units, the Serious Fraud Office and individual police forces.
In Northern Ireland, where police assessments indicate that more than 140 and perhaps even 180 organised criminal gangs are in operation—that is those that are known—the NCA is unable to operate owing to the intransigence of the nationalist parties, namely Sinn Fein and the SDLP. The need for the National Crime Agency to have full powers extended to cover Northern Ireland is recognised by many interested parties, including the agencies responsible for administering justice and the courts and those involved in policing. Of course, we in the Democratic Unionist party strongly support that extension.
As someone who represents a rural constituency in the heart of Northern Ireland, I am well aware of the impact criminal gangs have on our rural communities by creating victims of crime, and their negative impact on the rural economy. We have seen audacious attempts by many gangs to carry out all sorts of crimes, including the exploding of ATMs on the forecourts of garages, the laundering and selling of illegal fuel, the stealing to order of valuable machinery, and the worrying trend in the theft of cattle, and the illegal slaughter and sale of those animals in the Republic of Ireland and certain areas such as south Armagh. Those incidents illustrate the need to have at the PSNI’s disposal the expertise and assistance of the National Crime Agency. As we all know, criminals do not respect borders or victims in their illegal pursuits.
The work in which the NCA is involved not only relates to the crimes that I have outlined but, importantly, has a significant role in the area of internet-based crime. Members will be aware that the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed its strong views on the protection of children online. The UN committee is rightly concerned, as we all should be, about the lack of NCA powers in Northern Ireland, as that means that the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre is not fully operational in Northern Ireland. The entire House should be alarmed about that. Our children are at much greater risk owing to the fact that the NCA is not operational. I challenge the nationalist parties to explain to the public why they have adopted a negative stance on its implementation in Northern Ireland given the UN report and its ramifications.
I certainly feel that the issue is directly affecting a broad range of people, from the rural farmer who has valuable machinery stolen to order to those involved in the detection of online crime, such as the serious and sickening issue of child pornography. The National Crime Agency is a body that Northern Ireland simply cannot do without. It operates in other regions of the UK and, at a time when our policing budgets are under severe pressure, it makes complete sense to allow the PSNI to have the necessary assistance of the NCA to carry out its investigative duties. I also believe that the ability to seize assets is vital in the fight against gangsters who think that they are untouchable.
The reluctance of Sinn Fein and the SDLP to accept the necessity of allowing the NCA to operate and the PSNI to avail itself of its expertise in the fight against crime internationally puts Northern Ireland and its citizens at a severe disadvantage. The two nationalist parties continually bleat about equality, but once again those calls fall short of ensuring that our communities have the very best security and that the organisations tasked with their protection have the very best intelligence and powers at their disposal.
I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman is saying. Many people will understand why Sinn Fein might not want to enter into this, because it does not actually want Northern Ireland to be successful, but what does he think is really at the bottom of the reluctance of the SDLP, which has worked very closely with all parties in trying to take Northern Ireland forward?
I have to say to the hon. Lady that I am still trying to work that out. I listened very carefully to the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), but there is no genuine reason whatsoever that she can give her constituents—she certainly did not give one today—for why she and her party are standing in the way of introducing the NCA in Northern Ireland.
On that point, was my hon. Friend as disturbed as I was that one of the arguments that the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) seemed to advance was that the NCA, in her view, had not performed as well as it should have and needed to step up to the plate? In fact, one of the reasons it cannot do what it wants to do is that the SDLP will not allow it to operate. It was a bizarre argument and, along with the other stuff about accountability, lays bare the total vacuity of the arguments advanced by the SDLP.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. In fact, it lays bare the bankruptcy of the SDLP’s argument on the matter. There certainly has to be some other reason—a hidden reason—why it is unwilling to take forward the NCA in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister has highlighted that the NCA’s limited powers in Northern Ireland place an extra burden on the PSNI. While the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom—England, Scotland and Wales—have the expertise of the NCA, as a result of the Belfast agreement the people of Northern Ireland are held to ransom, because concessions to nationalists meant that policing was subject to a far higher degree of community oversight and monitoring than in any other part of the United Kingdom. Therefore, in Northern Ireland we are left with a shadow form of the NCA that can carry out only its border and customs functions, but not its other crime-fighting roles.
In her sixth statement to this House on the security situation in Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State said that the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland remains severe, compared with the threat in Great Britain, which is moderate. The Northern Ireland Justice Minister has warned that the PSNI is already facing pressure with the threat from dissident republicans and loyalist street violence and therefore does not need extra burdens placed on it when there is a fully equipped national agency able to deal with those duties.
The inability of the NCA to operate to its full extent in Northern Ireland means that a back door is open to organised criminal gangs in areas of drug enforcement, human trafficking and other forms of serious criminality. However, the nationalist parties in Northern Ireland do not seem to care about the most vulnerable in our society. This House should be aware, however, of the duplicitous nature of the nationalist parties, as this week in the Northern Ireland Assembly they voted for the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Further Provisions and Support for Victims) Bill, introduced by my party colleague Lord Morrow, which would ensure that the perpetrators of the crimes of human trafficking and slavery are caught and appropriately punished for the suffering they have inflicted, yet they carelessly oppose the NCA having the ability to administer those powers. Furthermore, the House should note that a number of years ago the nationalists approved the devolution of justice, with SOCA in place, without any caveats.
Even though there is more accountability in Northern Ireland than in any other region of the United Kingdom, it appears that the nationalist parties simply do not like the NCA, and here is the reason: it is a UK-wide agency and they are on a crusade to block anything that is British and remove it from Northern Ireland. It is high time nationalists and republicans stopped using excuses and faced up to the reality of the world we live in and the necessity of such an agency to keep the people of Northern Ireland—their constituents as well as mine—and particularly the most vulnerable, safe.
I am glad that two things have emerged during this debate—first, that this is not some esoteric discussion among the parties in Northern Ireland who cannot agree on some issues and therefore dance around the various points. As members of both Front-Bench teams and other speakers have accepted, the subject has huge implications for the constituents of all Members of the House. If Northern Ireland becomes, as it is becoming, a back door for serious international crime, that impacts on the streets and the people in the rest of the United Kingdom.
The second theme that I hope has come through in this debate is that despite the enormity of the issues at stake, the objections, as described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), are vacuous. I want to deal with some of the objections raised today by the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and the reasons why the SDLP has blocked the proposals.
Many people in Northern Ireland and in the House will find it rather odd that, because of the inability of the NCA to operate fully in Northern Ireland, people who abuse children are getting away with it, people who are laundering money are getting away with it, people who are smuggling drugs are getting away with it, people who are engaged in the smuggling of fuel and so on are getting away with it and building up vast empires. People who are engaged in all these activities are able to keep their ill-gotten gains because of the absence of the NCA.
What is the objection? The SDLP claims that it wants to make sure that the Patten principles are adhered to, it wants to ensure that the accountability mechanisms are all in place, and it wants clarification that there is no clash in the code of ethics. Meanwhile the criminals, who do not give a stuff about Patten principles and all the rest of it, are walking off free. That is the importance of what we are debating here today. Let us look at what is being asked for.
As has been pointed out, we want to make sure that the ineffectiveness of SOCA, which has been described, is not repeated in the National Crime Agency. Of course, there is already a mechanism for doing that. The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee has pointed out that there is far more accountability in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom. If there is concern about the effectiveness of the NCA, let us remember that it must bring its plan for the year to the Policing Board; it cannot just say, “This is our plan.” The NCA can then be questioned about the implementation of the plan. Not only that, and just in case the National Crime Agency decides, “Well, Northern Ireland is only small beer and we are not too worried about it,” it is required to show how its plan marries up with the Policing Board’s plan for policing in Northern Ireland.
So if the SDLP is concerned about how to ensure that the National Crime Agency will be relevant and effective in Northern Ireland, there is the accountability mechanism. The fact that the NCA has to go along to the Policing Board, which comprises members of the SDLP, my party and all the other parties in Northern Ireland, as well as independents, means that there is every opportunity to make sure that the plan it is putting forward will be effective in Northern Ireland. The NCA will certainly not be effective if it cannot even operate in Northern Ireland. In the absence of full implementation of the Patten principles, whatever that means, that seems to be the alternative that the SDLP is suggesting,
That is always the danger. The more levels of accountability are put in place, the more bodies may be restricted in their operation.
The next point made by the hon. Member for South Down was that we have never addressed the issues of accountability. Let us look at what is in place. Before the NCA operates its statutory powers in Northern Ireland, it has to get that cleared by the Chief Constable, who, in turn, is accountable to the Policing Board. If something goes wrong and there are complaints, the NCA is totally accountable to the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland. That is the same degree of accountability as for any other police officer. Once we examine the idea that the issue of accountability is not being addressed, it is seen to be clearly incorrect. It is nonsense. It is a case of dancing on the head of a pin while the criminals walk off with their ill-gotten gains.
The hon. Lady’s next point was about whether covert operations will be subject to the RIPA— Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000—requirements, and so on. Again, covert operations will have to be notified to the Chief Constable, who will be aware of the conditions under which those operations will be undertaken.
If I had got to my next sentence, that is exactly the point I was going to make. The Chief Constable goes along to the Policing Board on a monthly basis and can be questioned on all the issues that the board is concerned about and all the issues that concern him.
The last point that the hon. Member for South Down made is that all this has to be wrapped up in statute. An assurance has already been given; I have heard the Justice Minister give it. Indeed, when I was a Member of the Northern Ireland Executive, the assurance was given not only that there would be a legislative consent motion here establishing the powers of the NCA, but that any additional statutory changes that were needed in law would go through the Northern Ireland Assembly.
It is not the case that the conditions of accountability are not being met. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) asked for an explanation of what is happening. I do not want to take the worst possible explanation, but there are only two interpretations I can think of: first, that the SDLP is so scared of Sinn Fein that it will not take a courageous step on an essential element of policing; or secondly—this is even more petty and childish—that because the term “national” is in the name, the SDLP cannot accept it. We could either batter SDLP Members into submission in this debate or persuade them, but even if we did persuade them by the end of the debate, the situation would not be resolved: given the way the Northern Ireland Assembly works, Sinn Fein has a veto on any legislation because it holds a certain percentage of seats on the Executive.
I have a challenge for the Government. If, even after all the safeguards that the nationalists have said they want have been put in place, there is still a refusal, do the Government have the courage to say, “If you’re going to put the security of people in the whole of the United Kingdom in jeopardy, if you’re going to allow Northern Ireland to be used as a back door for international criminal gangs, and if Northern Ireland is to be the bank for criminal gangs, we are going to put an end to that by putting through legislation—we will take it out of your hands.” That would be a real step of courage, and that is the test.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely important point which follows the earlier point that, whatever the SDLP says, the critical issue is the attitude of Sinn Fein, which is not even prepared to engage on the issue. The Government here at Westminster cannot avoid this issue and, as with a number of issues in Northern Ireland, they are going to have to step up to the plate in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland on both sides.
It is, of course, in the interests of not only the people of Northern Ireland, but the people of the whole of the United Kingdom. That is the challenge. If Sinn Fein are dancing on the head of a pin, the Government must stop pussy-footing around them and make a decision.
In fairness to our friends in the SDLP, would it not be very helpful if either the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) or the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) took the opportunity to intervene on the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) in order to confirm that the SDLP is courageous enough to allow the full remit of the National Crime Agency to extend to Northern Ireland without Sinn Fein? Will they confirm to the House that they have that courage, which I would like to think they do?
I am coming to the end of my speech, but I would certainly be happy to give way to either of those two SDLP Members if they would like to intervene. At the end of the day, the important thing is that we get the opportunity to get proper arrangements in Northern Ireland to ensure that criminality is not rewarded. We are one year on since the start of the National Crime Agency, but the only people in Northern Ireland who are celebrating are the criminals who are escaping the long arm of the law because of this impasse.
When the legislation to set up the National Crime Agency went through this House, I was one of the Northern Ireland MPs who actually participated in those debates. Many of the others who have spoken today came nowhere near those debates. I made it clear then that the Bill’s provisions for the NCA would cause problems for Northern Ireland because they did not take account of the Patten architecture of policing. I also made it clear that we were not raising those points in order to try to prevent the NCA or anything else from coming into being. The basis of our argument was that more needed to be done to make sure that any new addition or change to policing architecture in Northern Ireland should be entirely compatible with the Patten prospectus. That was the point we made.
The issue before the House at that time related to references to the fact that the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland had agreed various things and that they would have to be satisfied with various things. It centred entirely on the Minister of Justice—that is where the focus was—not on the Policing Board, the Chief Constable or anything else. That is not a criticism of the Minister of Justice for Northern Ireland, because, as I said at the time, he was caught in a situation whereby Whitehall, which dealt with the issue, was able to talk to him but he was not able to talk to the Policing Board or anyone else in advance of the legislation. Therefore, the first the Policing Board knew about the legislation—indeed, the first some senior people in the PSNI knew about the legislation—was when it emerged in this place.
There is a lesson there: such sensitive issues should not be conducted in that way in future. A devolved Minister should not find himself locked in like that. Since then, the Minister has, rightly and helpfully, engaged with a number of the concerns that we and others—not just we and Sinn Fein—have.
I should also point out that when the whole idea of the NCA was brought up, the Labour party had issues with whether it would properly and adequately replace SOCA. Those are valid concerns. It is not the case that people were stepping in the way to try to stop the NCA. Moreover, Jim Gamble, who has offered distinguished service as a police officer in Northern Ireland and to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, had serious reservations and misgivings about how the NCA’s work would be carried forward overall. He is on the record as agreeing on several of the issues raised by the SDLP on questions of accountability and—
No, because I did not intervene on any Northern Ireland Members. I heard an awful lot about us on all sorts of questions, and I want to deal with those points and to set the issues in context.
Hon. Members have suggested that the SDLP has wilfully set out to stop the NCA and is still somehow vetoing it. We pointed out issues that needed to be addressed and could have been addressed when we considered the legislation. Many people then dismissed those issues, saying, “It’s impossible. You can’t have the National Crime Agency make anything available to the Policing Board. You can’t have it working with the Chief Constable in such a way. They can’t operate differently in Northern Ireland from how they operate anywhere else.” Lo and behold, we now have proposals for those things to happen, but those who wasted time in dismissing our concerns—saying that they could not be met, but were impossible and specious—now accuse us of having a vacuous position. The fact is that if our views had then been properly pursued and followed by others, we might not now be in the impasse that we have been in for too long.
I want to make a point about child protection. Hon. Members have referred to the recent Assembly legislation on human trafficking. When I sat on the Public Bill Committee on the Modern Slavery Bill, I was at pains to make sure that the legislation in this House was in a better state so that it was properly compatible with the Northern Ireland legislation and there were no jurisdictional or other gaps. That included ensuring that the new anti-slavery commissioner—a UK appointment; potentially a British appointment—could, under the legislation in this House, review and make recommendations on matters in devolved areas if the devolved Administrations opted any of their services into the scope of the anti-slavery commissioner’s work. It is not therefore the case that the SDLP has said that nothing at British or UK level can be applied or that we will have no part of it.
It has been suggested that the SDLP is somehow reluctant to do things on policing that Sinn Fein does not do. Let us be very clear: we committed to Patten. We went on the Policing Board, and we drove the delivery of Patten when Sinn Fein refused to do so and attacked us for our position on policing in council chambers and at every political level. We did not need Sinn Fein then. Even before that, we supported the creation of the Assets Recovery Agency, which Sinn Fein completely opposed, and we supported its work when it was attacked and demonised by Sinn Fein. When SOCA was created, we had concerns that it might not carry forward the good work being done in Northern Ireland by the Assets Recovery Agency, and some hon. Members from other parties shared those concerns. They were not opposed to the existence of SOCA; like us, they had concerns about whether the work would be properly carried forward. People can raise concerns about agencies such as the NCA without being opposed to good law enforcement.
There is no question of our needing to know where Sinn Fein is going before we take a position on the NCA or on anything else. Equally, we differed from Sinn Fein on another aspect of policing. Annex E of the St Andrew’s agreement covered the provisions that basically allowed MI5 to get around the accountability mechanisms provided in Patten. It ensured that what happened with the Mount Vernon gang report by the previous police ombudsman could not happen again, and that no question that touched on or took in aspects of national security and the performance of MI5 could be examined by the police ombudsman. We opposed annex E at the time, and we were the ones who were isolated. We therefore have no problem in differing with Sinn Fein on policing issues. We have done it regularly. We have, however, been absolutely consistent in opposing—
I will not give way, because I want to answer several questions and challenges.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) mentioned issues of statute earlier. It is true that commitments have been given that certain provisions will be set in statute, but we need to see the statutory provisions. Any Member of the House would say that the commitment to put something in statute is not enough and that they want to see it. There was exactly that character of exchange recently in the Modern Slavery Public Bill Committee. The Government have committed to table amendments in new areas. We welcome that, but we will judge the amendments when we see them.
Similarly in this matter, we are not telling people, “No, do not draft any statutory provisions or show us what they might look like.” We were told that the statutory provisions will ensure that the ombudsman can look at things. We want that to be properly framed in statute, because we do not want the role that has been promised for the ombudsman to be got around by something in the style of annex E of the St Andrews agreement, which allowed the Government to get around the issue of MI5.
On the issue of MI5, I have asked questions of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in this House about how MI5 could conduct operations in Northern Ireland in ways that seem to abuse the role of SOCA. I have spoken to her privately, outside the Chamber, about the cases of people who have supposedly been put under pressure using SOCA powers, on the basis that, “That will go away if you turn for us, work for MI5 and join dissident organisations to be our agent.”
We do not want the NCA to be used and abused in that way under the new arrangements. We want clarity on that. That is one reason why we want to ensure that the role of the Police Ombudsman is absolutely clear. When people come to us with those sorts of problems, there must be a proper channel through which they can take their case and their evidence. And evidence they have. I gave the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland the phone numbers of those who were ringing people up and pressing them. They were stopping people in other parts of the world and taking them into custody in hotels. That is the sort of thing that is going on currently using the MI5 position and the SOCA role. We want to ensure that none of that will apply to the NCA. Those good and proper standards for our constituents are not a lot to ask.
We have engaged with the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland. In the past, I have acknowledged that he has done good work in this area and has taken some of these issues forward. I also credited his special adviser, even though politicians are not meant to acknowledge special advisers, for his good work and engagement on these issues. We need to take this matter forward. We want there to be no hiding place in relation to any aspects of crime.
Let us be clear that it is not just people in the SDLP who have questioned whether SOCA and all the other agencies to date have been as active and assiduous in relation to whole areas of organised and commercial crime in Northern Ireland as they should have been. The NCA has powers in non-devolved areas such as customs, and there are a lot of things that it could be doing.
When the Crime and Courts Bill was going through the House and we were identifying the problems, some of us said that provision could be made for the PSNI to access and use the resources and insight of the NCA. Other people said, “No, it is only constabulary powers that will work. It cannot work in any other way.” We also made it clear at that time that we were worried that there might be discontinuity in the pursuit and recovery of assets because of the difficulties that had been created. We made it clear that we did not want to see that and that we did not share any of the objections or anxieties that appeared to be coming from Sinn Fein in relation to the pursuit and recovery of assets. It was other people who made those choices. We made it clear that we did not have any issue with that and did not want to stop it in any way. We wanted to ensure that the provisions would be proper and robust.
I refute the insinuation that the SDLP is wilfully blocking the good work that the NCA should be doing. On the Modern Slavery Public Bill Committee, I have argued for future-proofing the provisions to anticipate that the NCA will have a role. That proves that this is not a case of wilful and persistent obstinacy for the sake of it, but a matter of principle. Our principles can be put into good practice. Other people have disputed that, but they now tell us that they have the last word and documentation on how to do it. I think that that so-called last word needs a little more work, and that we will get there.
It is always a pleasure to speak on issues of such importance, and for the Democratic Unionist party to get the opportunity to debate an issue of such regional and national importance.
As we know, the National Crime Agency became fully operational last October, and it was set up to work alongside law enforcement organisations to tackle serious and organised crime. It boasts of a national and international reach covering areas such as sexual exploitation, drugs, human trafficking, fraud, cybercrime and organised criminal groups, to name just a few. The NCA delivers its national response through four pillars: pursue, prevent, protect and prepare. That all sounds well and good, but it cannot pursue, cannot prevent, cannot protect, and cannot prepare in Northern Ireland as it can in the rest of the United Kingdom—and as it would like to—and as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) said, the whole United Kingdom will suffer from that. The NCA sounds good, but it cannot deliver its promises or cover the areas that it claims to cover.
While I have great respect for the hon. Members for South Down (Ms Ritchie) and for Foyle (Mark Durkan), I cannot agree with what they are saying. We have great difficulty trying to understand exactly why they, as members of a nationalist party, cannot agree to support the NCA and move things forward.
On Monday the NCA claimed that the system cannot realistically prosecute all 50,000 sex offenders. That is what it stated: 50,000 sex offenders are free to act as they wish in Northern Ireland because of the intransigence of the nationalist parties. That is particularly worrying as “child sexual exploitation and abuse” is the first “crime threat” listed on the NCA’s website—my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) also referred to that. Furthermore, recent years have seen a number of historical cases of child abuse come to light throughout the UK, from those involved with TV and radio, to those in responsible positions in children’s homes. That makes the latest statement from the NCA truly worrying.
Ultimately, owing to the huge scale of child sex crime in Britain, some paedophiles will escape prosecution as police target the most dangerous abusers among the 50,000 regularly viewing indecent images of youngsters. Just this week, Keith Bristow said that it was unrealistic to expect the criminal justice system to deal with every child sex offender, and that it was time to start “thinking differently” about how the police pursue less dangerous offenders. Several things sprang to mind when I read that in the news. The NCA is crucial for accountability, and we need it to be active in Northern Ireland, to make its case, and for us to have its protection as well as its experience. What does it say for our system that child sex crime in the United Kingdom is so large and widespread? We all know about the disturbing evidence across the whole of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland that shows that it is a clear issue.
I took a lot of comfort from the words of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). To me he suggested that some things have changed and that there was a possibility that the SDLP would now consider the matter. That is the way I read the speech. Perhaps I am wrong—[Interruption.] He is nodding, and that is exactly the way I read the speech. There is a possibility that we can get agreement from the SDLP, which is fantastic.
It has taken SDLP Members two years to come to that position, but it is always good when they eventually arrive at it. We will wait to see what happens in the next week or two when the talks proceed. There is now even less of a deterrent for criminals when it comes to those areas not covered by the NCA in Northern Ireland.
I thank my neighbour, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for giving way. Does he agree that it is other people who are now coming to our position on the issue of accountability, and that it was through our intensive efforts on that issue that we have now achieved that particular position?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but the fact is that the parties who have spoken for this matter are the parties that are moving forward. We are very happy to drag the SDLP along screaming to the process, if that is the way it has to be, and make it feel part of it. If the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) feels that things have moved forward that is great news, but we have to see the evidence. Accountability is here. We do not think there is any need for delay.
Does my hon. Friend agree that two things remain outstanding as of today? Even if the SDLP has moved, the point is that drug dealers, illegal fuel launderers and other criminal gangs are still able to operate without the sanction that the NCA could provide. Even if the SDLP eventually agrees, Sinn Fein will not agree. We are still left with that impasse.
My hon. Friend clearly puts the focus on the issue at hand. Unless the SDLP signs up to the accountability process already in place it will fail to convince any of us of the fullness of its potential.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry referred to drug dealers, and there are others who are classed as extremely dangerous: those involved in protection rackets, fuel laundering and drugs, whether legal or illegal. We need the NCA in place. We need its contribution. We need its experience and ability. We want it to go after everyone who is breaking the law and we want to make available the money for that to happen.
Members have referred to the fact that the NCA is not active in Northern Ireland because of nationalist intransigence. At the same time, we have the difficulty of welfare reform which has also restricted money. It is almost a double whammy: the nationalists say we cannot have the NCA and that we do not have the money to resource the policy fully either—nationalist intransigence on both counts.
Recent times have not been great for the NCA in terms of child sex abuse. Last week, the organisation had to make a public apology after the body tasked with tackling the most dangerous paedophiles in the UK sat on information about 2,345 potential abusers which had emerged from an operation carried out by Canadian police. We need to have the resources available and we need to ensure that all internet companies, the police and the Government do everything they can to make people more accountable.
It is important for anyone who has been a victim of child abuse to speak, particularly those who were placed in homes. Reference will be made to Kincora in an Adjournment debate later today, but I want to speak briefly on the vile abuse that took place in Rubane House in my Strangford constituency. The ongoing inquiry estimates that 200 of its 1,050 former residents have made allegations of serious sexual or physical abuse. The inquiry is ongoing, but we need the input of the NCA to deal with child sexual abuse across the whole of the United Kingdom. These cases are often—I mentioned the input from the Canadian police—not just provincial or national, but international. A total of 13 Northern Ireland institutions are being investigated. More scandals will come to light. We do not want paedophiles or criminal gangs using Northern Ireland as a backdoor to the United Kingdom and the rest of the world.
A recent investigation in the UK has resulted in 660 sex offenders being arrested. It was the biggest operation for more than a decade. That is fantastic news, but we need the NCA in place to ensure that those who think that Northern Ireland is a place where they can carry out their evil activities can be caught. As some have put it, the NCA has become a victim of its own success, because it has uncovered more than the courts can deal with. We have to ensure that that is not the case and be assured that our police and courts have the relevant resources to arrest and imprison these criminals. Each of us has a responsibility to make sure that this happens, so that people face justice and are no longer on our streets or a threat to our children.
Initiating the operation of the NCA in Northern Ireland will be a giant step in making criminal gangs accountable. Accountability is already in place. There is no acceptable excuse for nationalists to say no. They cannot pay lip service to the police and the rule of law, while at the same time standing against the operation of the NCA in Northern Ireland.
Tomorrow, when people pick up the Belfast Telegraph and the News Letter, they will not recognise this debate. Invariably, a photograph will be published of Prime Minister’s Question Time and a packed House, and then a picture will be published of fewer than 20 Members in this debate, and people will say, “Look how uninterested the House was.” That would be a calumny, however, because this has been one of the most interesting Northern Ireland debates in recent times, and has been well attended from across the House: more than 25 Members in attendance, at most times; 16 or 17 speeches; and the same again in interventions. It has shown the wide interest among hon. Members and the drive to debate the matter properly and flush out some of the excuses we have heard regarding the NCA.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) for his presentation of the issues and for posing the important question: what good reason is there not to have the NCA operational in Northern Ireland? At the end of the debate, I think we can all truthfully say that no good reason has been presented to the House. We have heard hot air, excuses, explanations and raised voices, but no answer nailing why the NCA should not be operational in Northern Ireland. The Government need to move forward immediately, therefore, to ensure that the NCA becomes operational as quickly as possible.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) mentioned annex E to the St Andrews agreement, which of course contains a reference to the operation of MI5 in Northern Ireland. The excuses presented concern accountability, but let us be clear: we are talking about the operation of a significant arm of the delivery of law and order services in Northern Ireland, and there is no accountability for MI5 because it is a national issue. I know that some camouflage has been put in the window and that from time to time the Policing Board calls in the head of MI5 and questions him, but that is an informal arrangement agreed between the head of MI5 and the board; there are no formal accountability arrangements, yet every political party in Northern Ireland plays the game because they are supposed to be committed to the rule of law.
The issue of the NCA is just as important, if not more so, when it comes to dealing with everyday organised and serious crime, yet we have seen deliberate obfuscation and attempts to prevent the delivery of this service. These excuses should be set to one side immediately. Since this debate started, there will have been people trafficking, the smuggling of illicit goods—in the last year, we have had issues with illicit food products being smuggled and presented for sale across Northern Ireland—and other criminal activity, yet no serious answer has yet been given to the question: why are we not implementing the NCA in Northern Ireland? It is wrong.
As the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), a former Minister, made clear, certain friends of a certain organisation appear to be benefiting from the current situation. The right hon. Gentleman, a distinguished Member of the House, would probably know, because he has just left government and I am sure papers have crossed his desk showing what is happening. If so, it is the strongest reason why the Government should implement the NCA over the heads of the Assembly and say, “You’re not up to it. You’ve had two years to play around with this. We’ve given you every opportunity.”
The opportunities were given in 2012. In September 2012, the hon. Member for Foyle asked the Secretary of State if she would undertake a comparative assessment of the compatibility of the NCA with the Patten report, and the Secretary of State came back quickly and said it was compatible. She indicated that it was reflected in the Crime and Courts Bill, maintained the primacy of the Chief Constable and provided for local accountability. If the SDLP’s questions, which it was entitled to asked, have been answered, why then does it continue to object to the NCA being put in place?
I wish I had not given way. There was some explaining to do outside the Chamber.
I appreciate the comments made from the Labour Front Bench. The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) made it very clear that this issue will not threaten the peace process. No one here is going to have their bluff called on that any more. People can keep pulling that one out of the drawer and saying, “Oh, if we do not do this right, the peace process will be in crisis,” but we have got to recognise that that can no longer be used as an excuse. The objections to implementation are, as the right hon. Gentleman said, bewildering. I think that, having listened to the hon. Members for Foyle and for South Down (Ms Ritchie), Members will remain bewildered, bewitched and bedevilled that we have not yet got the answer. We wish we could have that answer. The SDLP Front-Bench spokesmen need to sign up; it has taken them more than two years to act. I hope that after today and after what some Members have taken as comforting words from the hon. Member for Foyle, we will see action as well as just words about these matters.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), the leader of our group, made it very clear in his clarion call that it is time to act. With all the discussions we have had, it is now time to see action. We deliberately proposed this debate so that the Government Front-Bench team can give us an answer: will we now see action taken on these key issues?
I was very pleased with the comments of the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, who made it clear that when it comes to accountability, we have a better deal in Northern Ireland. I want to put on record the fact that I welcome the accountability that has been achieved. I sat in the Public Bill Committee, together with the right hon. Member for Delyn and others, where we argued for additional accountability and it was achieved. The trouble is that, two years later, nothing has been done as a result, despite all the assurances having been given. When we hear the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee saying that accountability is much stronger in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK and casting a jealous eye over Northern Ireland’s accountability arrangements, I think we should take that as credit for Northern Ireland and say that that sort of accountability arrangements should pertain in the rest of the United Kingdom. The arrangements for scrutinising this type of organisation are altogether better.
All of us, with the exception of two Members, indicated their support for moving forward immediately, but some of us have taken comfort from the fact that the SDLP appears to be more in tune and is now in line with history on this particular issue and not on the wrong side of history, as has often been said. Irrespective of whether we can persuade SDLP Members on these issues—the party has its own issues to address—two matters remain important.
My hon. Friends the Members for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), I think, and for Upper Bann (David Simpson) put their finger on the nub of the problem, which appears to be sectarianism—an unwillingness to get over the issue of the word “national”. It appears to be as petty as that, but I hope that is not the case, because unfortunately the people who are suffering are innocent children. At the behest of these criminals, people are having their pockets robbed daily, and our country is being held to ransom. Northern Ireland has become the soft underbelly of the criminal world, which of course causes us great concern.
Even if we address those petty concerns, the objection from Sinn Fein remains. Sinn Fein has an elected mandate; it is the second largest party in Northern Ireland; it has strength in the Northern Ireland Assembly. That being the case, the Government have a stark choice to make. Do they implement over the heads of Sinn Fein, as was asked for by the First Minister in the Select Committee, and as has been asked for again in this House by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) and others, or should they allow this to dribble on and on with countless crimes continuing to mount up? I hope that the Government will, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North said, act—and act now.
It is a pleasure to wind up this important debate on behalf of the Government.
As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, the Government are committed to ensuring that the National Crime Agency can operate fully in Northern Ireland. In my capacity as Minister for serious and organised crime, I have observed at first hand how important the NCA’s role is in disrupting organised crime groups—more than 5,000 of which are operating in the United Kingdom—and how important it is for us to ensure that the maximum skills and territorial reach are available to it, so that we can protect the citizens of the United Kingdom and disrupt these criminals.
As has been pointed out a number of times today, Northern Ireland is currently losing out because the NCA cannot operate there with full powers as it does elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It is only right for the people of Northern Ireland to be afforded the same protection in the fight against serious and organised crime. Organised crime is a threat to our national security. The NCA has national and international reach. It will always have a level of capability and specialism that cannot be achieved at force level. It can operate across jurisdictional boundaries in a way in which local law enforcement cannot. Serious and organised crime groups do not operate in isolated pockets in each region. They do not respect borders or false boundaries, as the recent Tilbury incident demonstrated. We need to be co-ordinated, because otherwise it becomes easier for serious and organised criminals to exploit the gaps and pull at the seams.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland recently estimated—these figures have already been mentioned a number of times today—that between 140 and 160 organised groups are active in Northern Ireland. That amounts to an estimated 800 active criminals. Nearly a third of those groups have been assessed as having links to international criminality, and a further third have been assessed as being linked to criminality in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Important points have been made about the reach of those organised crime groups, and the extent to which we in the wider United Kingdom are exposed to them as a result of the NCA’s lack of capability in Northern Ireland.
Owing to its limitations, the NCA is unable to target serious and organised crime groups in Northern Ireland that are involved in activities that require policing powers to tackle. They include groups that are involved in the supply of drugs, the supply of firearms, fraud, cybercrime, human trafficking, and the sexual exploitation of children. An international approach must be taken by everyone if we are to tackle that crime. Irrespective of the debate in Northern Ireland, if the United Kingdom does not opt into the 2014 European justice and home affairs measures, there will be very serious implications for the way in which the threat in Northern Ireland is tackled. Those measures are hugely important to cross-border co-operation between the UK and Ireland on licensing and criminal justice. They include the arrest warrant, the European criminal records information system, SIS II, and other important capabilities of which we need to be part.
Our strategy approach needs to be tightly co-ordinated to counter the threat, because otherwise, as I said earlier, it will become easier for serious and organised criminals to exploit and pull at the seams. We need to ensure that there are relentless measures to disrupt serious and organised criminals, stop people getting involved, and strengthen our protection against organised crime. Leading that fight is the National Crime Agency, with its crucial national and international reach. It has already become an integral part of law enforcement in Great Britain, but, as has been said many times today, that is not the case in Northern Ireland.
I shall deal with the point raised by my hon. and gallant Friend shortly, but let me first say that we respect the devolution settlements in the same way that we must respect devolution settlements in regard to a number of matters. That can apply to something as trivial as a planning decision made by one’s local council, which one may not agree with as the Member of Parliament, but which one must respect because it was made by the people who were given the authority and competency to make it.
I want to be clear: I am talking about trivial examples of how we respect devolution in order to show the many ways in which devolution is respected across the United Kingdom, whether in the devolved Administrations, with the powers and competences devolved to them, or our local councils. We must all respect that, and recognise that point.
The Minister should be under no illusion. We have not called lightly for her to intervene. This is the only issue on which the parties have united to call for the Government to intervene. We respect the devolution settlement—we are part of it, and we helped negotiate it—but there are times when there is a logjam and the Government of our nation must act.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will get on to the specific points about that. I accept the points he makes, and they have been made throughout the debate, but I will get to those specific points shortly.
The consequences of not acting are potentially devastating. This is about drugs and violence on our streets, children being abused and vulnerable people defrauded. Organised criminals make money out of other people’s misery and undermine the fabric and cohesion of our communities. That threat costs the UK more than £24 billion a year, and it is not just the financial cost—it is the emotional and physical cost, and the impact on families and communities. We should not underestimate the importance of the threat.
The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) opened the debate very well and made a number of important points, some of which were followed up later. He set the scene very well and his example of drug smuggling and the co-operation required on that powerfully highlights the importance of this matter.
The shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), and I spent many happy hours in the Modern Slavery Bill Committee recently. I am pleased to say that he, like us, is supporting the motion before us today. He wanted to know what extra steps the Government are taking, and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and others asked about that, too, including the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). The UK Government have been fully involved in the discussions, rightly led by the Northern Ireland Justice Minister David Ford, and in developing the package and supporting the discussions. The package represents a sound proposal to enable progress and it has the Government’s full support. We remain ready to support David Ford in those discussions, including by meeting the parties if they would find that helpful. I will pass back to the Justice Minister the comments that have been made about setting deadlines.
Comments were made about whether the UK Government should legislate for the NCA in the absence of agreement, and I want to be absolutely clear. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said recently:
“Be in no doubt, it may have ‘national’ in its name but the UK Government completely accepts the crucial importance of ensuring that NCA’s operations in Northern Ireland are fully consistent with the devolution settlement.”
We have to accept that devolution settlement. That is what this Westminster Government agreed to do when that settlement was set up by the previous Government, and we must continue to respect it in order to maintain that settlement.
No, please forgive me.
David Ford has also been clear that this cannot go on indefinitely. He said we are now at the end of the road. His proposed package is comprehensive and gives clear, transparent and significant local accountability, which we fully support, but if agreement is not reached we will have to draw a line under it for the foreseeable future and we will need to assess how that affects law enforcement here.
Policing is devolved in Northern Ireland and we respect that. We have been, and are, fully supportive of the discussions being led by the Justice Secretary to address the concerns around accountability. These discussions remain ongoing—David Ford is trying to meet Sinn Fein and Keith Bristow, the director general of the NCA, has met the parties to address their concerns and offer assurances. If agreement is not reached, we will have to accept that the NCA will not be fully operational for the foreseeable future. I therefore urge all parties—
No. I am sorry, I need to make progress. My right hon. Friend, a former Minister for Northern Ireland—there should be a collective noun for former Ministers of Northern Ireland, because we have many in the room today—explained clearly the importance of the issues in the light of his great experience. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) pointed out that, in a way, he has a land border with another member state—the only such non-Northern Ireland Member in the room—and expressed clearly the need for the NCA to operate throughout the whole of the United Kingdom.
A number of Members, including the hon. Members for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham, talked about the need for proceeds of crime measures to be extended to Northern Ireland. I very much agree with those points. Depriving organised criminals of their assets makes it harder for them to return to crime and perhaps acts for many as a bigger deterrent than jail. I refer Members to the changes we are putting through in the other place through the Serious Crime Bill, which will assist us in dealing with asset recovery. Clearly, extending those provisions to Northern Ireland would be very important in improving that recovery rate.
The hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) talked about the oversight mechanisms, and usefully clarified her party’s concerns about accountability. It is probably useful if I make some points now about the accountability proposals. There are no statutory mechanisms, about which she asked, providing for NCA accountability in Northern Ireland at the moment, but David Ford’s proposals provide that the NCA director general will attend meetings of the Policing Board on request—including urgent meetings, with reasonable notice—and this will be in statute. NCA officers will need the agreement of the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to exercise policing powers in relation to an offence, and the PSNI will then produce a community impact assessment.
On covert techniques, in all cases the NCA will obtain the agreement of the PSNI prior to their use, save for where the request is related to a case of police corruption. That would be enshrined in a memorandum of understanding, made under schedule 24 to the Crime and Courts Act 2013. The human rights adviser of the Northern Ireland Policing Board will have access to the surveillance commissioner’s report on the NCA, in a non-redacted form, in connection with the NCA work associated with criminality in Northern Ireland.
Dr McCrea, we both know that that is not a point of order. The bottom line is that I clarified the position: it is exactly in the Minister’s hands and quite rightly; she will choose whether she wishes to give way or not. She has given way already, and it is the choice of the Minister.
Returning to covert techniques, NCA officers will be required by the Justice Secretary of Northern Ireland to have an appropriate level of training, including on ethical issues and human rights, through the general authorisation.
The question was asked whether the NCA’s being subject to the police ombudsman will be put on a statutory footing. Yes: an order under schedule 24 to the Crime and Courts Act can substitute the reference to SOCA in section 60ZA of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 with a reference to the NCA. That would make the NCA subject to the police ombudsman.
One final point on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000: the National Crime Agency is bound by the RIPA codes of practice, and existing accountability mechanisms under RIPA and the Police Act 1997 would apply, including oversight by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners and the ability of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal to try to determine human rights claims about the unlawful use of covert techniques regulated by RIPA.
The threat from serious and organised crime is national and international, but its devastating impacts are felt locally. Northern Ireland is not exempt from that. The National Crime Agency is committed to assisting the Police Service of Northern Ireland in tackling serious and organised crime in Northern Ireland as far as the restrictions on its powers permit, but those powers are limited at the moment.
The Government fully support the discussions being led by the Northern Ireland Justice Minister. He has listened to people’s concerns and worked closely with the Home Secretary, with me and with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as well as with the National Crime Agency and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, to address them. The package of proposals that he has developed is a good one; it provides the accountability that people want. We hope that the Northern Ireland Justice Minister’s discussions will lead to agreement of all parties on the terms under which the NCA could take on its full role in Northern Ireland. This would strengthen the fight against serious and organised crime and better protect the people of Northern Ireland.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House condemns the increasing number of illegal activities being carried out by organised criminal gangs in Northern Ireland; notes police assessments that more than 140 such gangs operate in Northern Ireland; and calls for the implementation, in full, of proposals for the National Crime Agency to help deal with this problem, which is particularly prevalent in border areas.
I now have to announce the result of the deferred Division on the motion in the name of Mr William Hague relating to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The Ayes were 384 and the Noes were 18, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. There are five Sinn Fein Members of this House who do not take their seats. What constitutional authority do they have? They do not speak in this Chamber and have not spoken in this debate, yet they have an effective veto over national legislation being extended to Northern Ireland.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. When I spoke to Madam Deputy Speaker earlier, she said that the first debate was to finish at 4.45, yet the Minister would not take an intervention even though she had four minutes left. I think there was a suggestion that she was hiding; she certainly was.
We have discussed this matter already and I have ruled on it. It is not a point of order and, in fairness, it is up to the Minister to decide what to do with the time allowed, and that was absolutely correct. We have now allowed extra time for the next debate, which is well subscribed.