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Public Bodies (Merger of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Director of Revenue and Customs Prosecutions) Order 2014

Volume 752: debated on Monday 24 February 2014

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Public Bodies (Merger of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Director of Revenue and Customs Prosecutions) Order 2014.

Relevant Documents: 17th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 27th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.

My Lords, the purpose of the draft order is to give legal effect to the administrative merger that took place just over four years ago, on 1 January 2010, between the Revenue and Customs Prosecutions Office, which was the prosecuting arm of HM Revenue and Customs, and the Crown Prosecution Service. The decision to merge the CPS and the RCPO was announced in April 2009 by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, who was the Attorney-General at the relevant time. The purpose of the merger was to create a strengthened prosecution service, to safeguard and improve the high-quality work done by both organisations in serious and complex cases and to provide efficiency savings. Those objectives have to a large extent been achieved.

The merger that took place in 2010 did not involve legislation. Sir Keir Starmer, who was then DPP, was appointed Director of Revenue and Customs Prosecutions as well. Since that date, the person holding the positions of both DPP and Director of Revenue and Customs Prosecutions—now Ms Alison Saunders—has been running the two offices under one umbrella. There is a single management structure and cases investigated by HMRC are now prosecuted by a specialist fraud division of the CPS.

Although the administrative merger has been a success, there are disadvantages in the two organisations still existing as legally distinct entities. First, it might give the appearance that the merger is incomplete and could readily be reversed. This might call into question whether the change is intended to be permanent. Secondly, it has practical implications for how the organisations work. The Government consider that a legal merger would bring about greater efficiency and effectiveness. That is why we are bringing forward the present draft order under the Public Bodies Act 2011. The Act provides for the functions of certain public bodies—listed in the schedules—to be abolished, merged or transferred. The effect of this draft order is to transfer the functions of the Director of Revenue and Customs Prosecutions to the DPP, thus putting the existing merger of the RCPO and CPS on a statutory basis.

As there is a requirement for Ministers to consult on proposals before laying a draft order under the Act, a consultation exercise took place in 2012. Views were sought on the proposal that legal effect should be given to the administrative merger and on whether the proposed approach would achieve the desired effect. Those organisations and individuals who commented—only eight did so—either supported the proposal or did not object to it. There was concern that the specialist expertise of the RCPO should not be lost; the Government agree that this is an important aim. As the consultation response explained, cases investigated by HM Revenue and Customs are handled within the CPS by the same specialist casework division that prosecutes the most complex and serious fraud and corruption cases investigated by the police.

An order made under the 2011 Act must serve,

“the purpose of improving the exercise of public functions, having regard to (a) efficiency, … (b) effectiveness, … (c) economy, and … (d) securing appropriate accountability to Ministers”.

I am grateful to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its careful consideration of the draft order, and I welcome its conclusion, which was expressed in these terms:

“the Government have demonstrated that the draft Order serves the purpose of improving the exercise of public functions and complies with the test set out in the 2011 Act”.

I do not think that your Lordships would welcome a detailed description of the draft order, which—as is so often the case—is by no means as brief as my summary of its effect might suggest. As for its effect, I cannot do better than quote these lines from the Scrutiny Committee’s report:

“The Government present a convincing argument that the overall effect of the transfer of the responsibilities of the RCPO to the CPS will result in streamlining the process by including it in a larger group where economies of scale can be identified from using prosecutors and administrators for a wider range of duties. Although the economies realised by this Order are comparatively small, the improvements to efficiency are more substantial, with the potential for the more flexible structure possible under the new arrangements”.

I commend the order to the Committee. I beg to move.

My Lords, perhaps I can insert a few words of welcome for the measure. I used to prosecute in the High Court of Justiciary in Scotland as an advocate depute. From time to time, cases arose north of the border where the Revenue wanted to prosecute in the High Court. As the Minister will know, in Scotland all prosecutions are in the hands of the Lord Advocate. I remember having to deal with officials from the then Inland Revenue and, separately, HM Customs, who were somewhat upset that they could not conduct those prosecutions themselves but had to hand the papers over to me or my colleagues so that we could conduct the matters on their behalf.

Of course, the order has nothing to do with the position in Scotland, which is quite unaffected, and it is unnecessary to do anything about it because it is well established that prosecutions will continue to be handled by the Crown Office under the overall supervision of the Lord Advocate. As the noble Lord said a moment ago, my experience was that efficiency was promoted by combining the prosecution element—the exercise in presenting the material in accordance with the best use of the courts—in one body. It seemed to me at the time rather odd that, south of the border, there was this division of functions, which gave rise to uncertainty in my mind as to exactly why it was necessary for there to be a separate prosecution system at all in the hands of the Revenue or HM Customs.

So, from a rather unlikely quarter, I admire what is being done administratively and entirely approve of the Minister’s suggestion that it should now be endorsed in legislation. I am sure that this is a good measure to promote efficiency.

I must begin by apologising to the noble and learned Lord. I had not noticed that he was here and obviously intended to speak; I apologise for that.

As I said, try as I might—and I certainly tried—I cannot find anything much to object to in the 19 pages of the order or, indeed, the 134 amendments embodied in it. The principle is clearly right and it is sensible to combine the two positions. However, although this does not quite fall within the Minister’s brief, there are still questions to be asked about the operation of the service as a whole, particularly in relation to staffing.

Of course we are only talking about part of HMRC for the purposes of the order, but within HMRC there have been significant staff reductions. To be precise, 1,697 staff left in 2012-13. That forms part of a significant reduction in funding of HMRC amounting to about £2 billion, or 16.5%, by 2015. The Chancellor’s reinvestment, as it were, of £154 million, which was announced with a flourish a couple of years ago, will not make much of an impact on that massive cut.

The question arises, therefore, about the implications for staffing on what had been the HMRC function. Will the staff be protected, or will there be reductions? The record of HMRC in recovering moneys is clearly not very good. The Public Accounts Committee criticised it for collecting more than £1 billion a year less in December 2012 than it would have done, had it had the relevant staff.

Another question in relation to staffing is: will those who will be employed in the completely unified structure be paid comparably to those with whom they will no doubt be locking horns in the private sector? For that matter, is there much of a two-way flow between the department as it is now constituted and the private sector? I am not talking about the prosecution side thus far, as far as I am aware, but concerns have been expressed about people coming to work for the Inland Revenue from the private sector and then going back to the private sector and so on. I am not asking the Minister to answer this today, but it would be helpful if he would let us know the position in relation to movement inward and outward of staffing, particularly on the Inland Revenue side.

One of the concerns raised—I do not think with any great force in the consultation—was about the need to maintain within the prosecution side expertise of Inland Revenue matters. The Government seem to be satisfied on that, and I am not challenging that assertion, but it underlines the need to keep an eye on matters. No doubt the Government will be reviewing the situation as it progresses.

A further point relates to the third arm of prosecutions in this country, which is the Serious Fraud Office, which comes under the aegis of the Attorney-General and is separate from the DPP and HMRC, which we are now discussing. Given the somewhat challenging history of the SFO in recent years, I wonder whether it might be opportune at some time to consider a further merger between that department and the structure that we are formally approving today. I am not suggesting that the Minister can give an immediate response to that, but it is something that his colleagues could look into. In principle, it might seem sensible to have a seamless prosecution service dealing with serious fraud and tax fraud and the other matters that come under the direct surveillance of the DPP.

Having said that, we certainly do not object to this order and wish the fully combined departments well in their endeavours on behalf of the public and the taxpayer.

My Lords, I am grateful for the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for bringing to the debate his experience from Scotland and for endorsing the desirability of this move from that vantage point. As well as making certain economies, we think that it will prevent potential demarcation disputes of the sort to which he referred.

The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, as ever, probes slightly beyond the scope of the statutory instrument, as I am sure he would be the first to accept. On the question of staffing and training, there is perhaps one aspect with which I can help the Committee. The legislation removes the barriers to the staff of the CPS and the staff of the RCPO from working on mixed duties.

The question of training is relevant. The HMRC prosecution work will remain for the immediate future within the CPS central fraud division, which prosecutes cases nationally. Expertise already exists within the division and the new staff are trained internally. Where any HMRC work is to be devolved, this will be managed carefully and appropriate training and support will be provided.

I am given to understand that RCPO is entirely separate from HMRC, and there have been no staff reductions as a direct result of the merger. I anticipate that the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, was talking of staff reductions more generally, but I can confirm that, in so far as the issue of the statutory instrument is concerned, there are no such reductions.

As always, I will take back his remarks and observations generally about the Serious Fraud Office and whether or not further consolidations might be made with profit, as well as his observations generally about staffing and the involvement of the private sector. I am grateful for those contributions.

We submit that the draft order is a modest but worthwhile measure. In effect, it will complete what was unfinished business and should enable improvements and efficiency to take place. I commend it to the Committee.

Motion agreed.