Published: Monday 5th January 2015 by The News Editor
Serious and organised crime in Britain must be fought on many fronts, Theresa May has told MPs as she launched new legislation to crack down on offenders in the Commons.
The Serious Crime Bill, which has already been agreed by peers, creates new powers to seize assets and money from crime gangs.
It offers new options to the National Crime Agency (NCA), which the Home Secretary hailed as a key part of the Government’s success in overhauling the response to serious and organised crime.
Other powers in the legislation relate to computer misuse, tackling drug cutting agents, protection of children and further powers to halt female genital mutilation.
Mrs May said when the coalition came to power in 2010, the existing Home Office response to the issue was “woefully lacking” but had been turned around by the Tory-Lib Dem administration.
Introducing the Bill at second reading, Mrs May said: “While organised criminals operate globally, the effects of their crimes reach deep into our communities, shattering lives and affecting us all in different ways.
“The pensioner who loses his life savings to a sophisticated scam. The family who have their home burgled by someone addicted to drugs. The internet user who has their credit card details stolen.
“The person who buys goods such as alcohol or medicines and discovers they are dangerous fakes. And people who find their insurance premiums inflated because of fraud.
“Organised crime can also relate to disgusting and devastating sexual exploitation of children.
“There are over 5,500 organised criminal groups operating in the UK with 36,000 people engaged in organised criminal activity.
“Organised crime is thought to cost this country at least £24 billion a year and the cost to the UK from organised fraud is thought to be around £9 billion.”
Mrs May told MPs NCA operations had already led to 2,048 arrests in the UK, plus 1,181 overseas, adding it had secured 415 convictions.
She said the agency had seized 213 tonnes of drugs and more than 700 firearms.
The Home Secretary said it had also safeguarded or protected more than 1,300 children since starting work in 2013.
The Bill also includes new measures to tackle female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK, which were added to the legislation in the House of Lords.
To encourage victims to come forward, it provides for lifelong anonymity from the point at which an allegation is made, Mrs May explained.
It also creates a new offence of failure to protect a girl from the risk of FGM as a means of targeting parents and FGM protection orders modelled on the successful forced marriage protection orders.
These proposals are in addition to measures announced in July including the creation of a new cross-Government FGM unit to work with criminal justice agencies, children’s services, healthcare professionals and affected communities.
Mrs May went on: “Together the measures including the changes to criminal and civil law will help to tackle this appalling practice.”
The Bill also outlaws the possession of so-called “paedophile manuals”, namely material that contains practical advice on how to commit a sexual offence against a child.
Mrs May said: “It beggars belief that such things actually exist but regrettably CEOP – the child exploitation and online protection command of the NCA – has seen a number of examples.
“That being the case it ‘s right we act to outlaw the possession of such material.”
She also said the Government was determined to plug all other identified gaps in child protection legislation, reminding the House that last month the Prime Minister announced the Bill would be amended to make it an offence for an adult to communicate sexually with a child.
Amendments will also be tabled at committee stage to strengthen the protection afforded to the victims of domestic abuse by criminalising coercive behaviour.
This will be in the form of an additional charging option where there is a pattern of non-violent controlling conduct, Mrs May said.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said Labour welcomed many of the measures in the Bill, but claimed it did not go far enough.
She told MPs it was “too weak” and “not ambitious enough to deal with the serious crime challenges that face Britain today”.
She added: “Crime is changing and the criminal justice system is still not keeping up.
“The challenge from serious crime is increasing, not falling and more needs to be done. Violent crime is increasing yet fewer violent crimes are being prosecuted or convicted.
“More sexual offences are being reported but fewer are reaching conviction. Reported rapes and domestic violence are increasing yet fewer are reaching conviction.
“Far fewer drugs are being seized on their way into this country and online crime is escalating exponentially and police are not equipped to keep up.
“So the problem is getting worse and not better.”
She asked where in the Bill were the policies for a commissioner to tackle violence against women and girls and mandatory reporting of child abuse.
It should also include provision for compulsory sex and relationship education, she said, ban the use of community resolutions for domestic violence and stop people with a history of domestic violence from owning a gun.
“So many more policies the Government could bring in but are not included in this Bill,” she added.
Mrs Cooper also criticised Mrs May over her handling of the child abuse inquiry.
Ms Cooper also accused Mrs May of undermining a claim made in the Treasury analysis published earlier today, dubbed the “dodgy dossier” by Labour.
She alleged Mrs May was now claiming as Government policy a criminal assets proposal she previously said would cost £19 million.
Ms Cooper told MPs: ” If we can increase the resources that are taken from the proceeds of crime, that can help victims but also help improve and support the criminal justice system too.
“I welcome what you said today that you believe that it will raise additional resources and save money and that you will consider now extending it … to those who owe less than the £10 million currently included on the face of this legislation.
“In fact that is the same policy you this morning claimed would cost £19 million and your own document claimed would not save any money at all because it claims in its assumptions that no-one would change their behaviour at all.
“So she said one thing at noon and something completely different at 5.30 in the afternoon and I’m afraid undermined her entire claims this morning.”
Keith Vaz, Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said he welcomed Mrs May’s work on tackling FGM although insisted the Bill should make it a criminal offence to fail to report it.
He told MPs: “I think what’s missing is one very important part of what the select committee said in our report, which was the focus on the medical profession and one of the things we looked at so carefully when we conducted our inquiry and published our report was the way things were done in France.
“I know it’s not fashionable sometimes in this House to talk about the great things done in other countries but France really does have it right and they’ve managed to get together multiple prosecutions for those involved in female genital mutilation.
“We have managed only two and there have been no convictions since this Act was brought into force.”
He said health workers and medical professionals are the “frontline”, telling MPs: “We thought we should go down the road of making it a criminal offence for failing to report.
“This is not in the Bill but I think the lack of mandatory sanction on those who would discover FGM first, which are the health workers and the doctors, is something that we do need to look at very carefully.
“We were not overly impressed with the evidence that we received from the medical profession. We thought that hiding behind confidentiality as a means of not wanting to tell anybody that a young girl had suffered from FGM, we didn’t feel that was enough.
“We believe they understand the seriousness of this but we felt they were hampered by their professional standing and I think we should go some way towards addressing this issue.”
Plaid MP Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) said: “Female genital mutilation is a scourge on any society which allows the practice to continue – and that includes our own communities here in the UK where too many young girls are forced to undergo this horrendous procedure from which they will never fully recover.”
Tory Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) praised the inclusion of measures to ban so-called paedophile manuals.
He said: “The legislation is an ingenious way of dealing with the use by paedophiles of child pornography which is written… we wanted to fill this gap in 2003 and I have been trying ever since.
“This Government has recognised the activities of people who sexually abuse children using the written word to stimulate themselves. Sometimes the written word in this area is blatantly a how-to-do-it paedophile instruction manual.”
Labour MP for Rotherham Sarah Champion said: “While most of English law treats anyone under 18 as a child, the criminal law for child cruelty – which dates back 80 years – only protects children from neglect or ill treatment until their 16th birthday.
“This makes it much harder to protect 16 and 17-year-olds from cruelty and sends messages they are less at risk of abuse or neglect that younger children.
“As the Home Secretary stated, the current law is outdated… in 2014 85% of 16 and 17-year-olds are actually in full time education or training.
“These children are much more dependant on their parents than when the law was introduced, making them much more vulnerable now to abuse or neglect.”
Democratic Unionist Ian Paisley (North Antrim) said he hoped the Bill would put down a marker that says there i s no hiding place for criminals involved in serious crime, but stressed it could go further.
He called for action to fully implement the NCA in Northern Ireland and tackle fuel smuggling, which estimates show is cheating the exchequer out of hundreds of millions of pounds annually.
Speaking in the debate, he said: “Crime does pay. In my country crime pays handsomely and I think we should stop kidding ourselves that crime doesn’t pay and recognise that if we are going to deal with these matters we have got to ensure that crime doesn’t pay.”
He also told MPs that last year an HMRC official informed him and the chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in private that a “senior” member of staff was turning a blind eye to fuel smuggling.
Worse than that, he went on, it was alleged that others were actively engaged in helping the criminals.
In addition, he said, another three officers, who also gave evidence in private, told him they had left their jobs because of bullying by a boss they believed was involved.
“That should be a wake-up call to this House about just how serious these people are and just how far they will go and how far they can reach into the very officialdom to get help,” he added.
“I have absolutely no doubt that officials are scared stiff of the threat that is upon them because they know these people that are involved in serious and organised crime, yesterday were involved in murder and mayhem.
“It is the same people and this House has a duty to help stop it.
“I have absolutely no doubt it has to come out, evidence will emerge which will show that the previous Government under Mr Blair involved himself and his Government in ensuring that criminals can continue in this business of fuel fraud.
“This Government should stop it. This Government has the power to stop it and knows how to stop it.”
Shadow home affairs minister Jack Dromey said the Bill contained some welcome measures but lacked the ambition necessary to respond to the scale of serious crime.
He also pointed out a number of “omissions” including mandatory reporting of child abuse during his summary of the debate.
Mr Paisley intervened to ask whether Labour would commit to legislating to ensure the NCA becomes fully operational in Northern Ireland.
Mr Dromey said the Government should have dealt with the issue a long time ago, but failed to answer the question directly.
He added: “I understand the concern expressed … we will talk to all parties in Northern Ireland.”
Closing the debate, organised crime minister Karen Bradley said she hoped the criminals would hear the House’s “resounding message”.
“We will pursue you relentlessly and disrupt your activities so that innocent people are protected,” she told them.
The Bill was not opposed and received its second reading.
Published: Monday 5th January 2015 by The News Editor