Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420 - 439)



  420. In the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland the Social Security Agency has its own separate information pillars, will the same apply to the devolved administration of Northern Ireland?
  (Mr Stadlen) The question of access to social security information is still under review. The Social Security Agencies are not currently listed in the Bill either for the mainland or for Northern Ireland as permitted persons. However, the Bill provides an Order making power which allows the Secretary of State to add to the list of permitted persons. The Bill therefore makes it possible for additional bodies to be added to the list after Royal Assent.

  421. Would that be possible within the devolved framework, did you look into that?
  (Mr Stadlen) We have worked throughout in close consultation with the Northern Ireland Office. We believe that the gateway provisions will enable information to be disclosed as effectively in Northern Ireland as in England and Wales.

  422. I am sure you are aware that the two reasons the CAB give for their success, one is the mood of public support, the second thing is the lateral linkage between information pillars and their access to them. Therefore I do not think it can be under-estimated how important those are, do you agree?
  (Mr Stadlen) Yes.

  Mr Pound: Can I just ask another quick question bearing in mind the clock is ticking. What about anonymity for your officials, what thoughts have you given to that?


  423. Mr Pound, Rev Martin Smyth wants to ask about anonymity. You will recall my colleague, Mr Bailey, spoke in the House about it and we thought got a very positive answer from Mr Ainsworth. Would you like to tell Rev Martin Smyth in further questions how that has gone?
  (Mr Stadlen) If the question is can I inform the Committee of any developments since the Minister gave his answer during the debate, the answer is no but the matter is as the Minister said. The Minister is very well aware of the Committee's concerns at this point and takes them very seriously. I would expect the Government's conclusions on this point would be made known during the Lords proceedings on this Bill.

  Chairman: Sorry, you have had your fox shot by two of us.

  The Reverend Martin Smyth: Just to get on the record. You are aware that when representatives of the Inland Revenue met us they have approached the whole thing very, very positively but they did express some concern on the parts of members of the staff who may have difficulties as a result of investigation.

  424. When you say there has been no progress, do you really mean that? Whatever it was, it was a month ago.
  (Mr Stadlen) If I said there was no progress, I do not think I should have expressed it in that sense. What I meant was—

  425. There is no conclusion.
  (Mr Stadlen) I have no news to give you today.

Mr Clarke

  426. Switching to a different subject—that of confiscation—we note that in the year 2000 the average rate of collection for assets ordered to be confiscated stood at 30 per cent, so historically the enforcement of the compensation orders has been very poor. Could you tell us, in your planning, what you have done first of all to ensure that that previous historically poor record is improved in respect of the operation of the Assets Recovery Agency?
  (Mr Stadlen) I think there are a number of things to say. First of all, as is indicated in the asset recovery strategy, the better enforcement of confiscation orders is a point of major priority. As a first step, a new protocol is being drawn up by the Home Office and other departments, including in consultation with the prosecution and law enforcement agencies and the Justices' Clerks Society. We think that better procedures have the capacity to make a significant difference to performance in this area. In addition to that, the Bill itself will support the enforcement of confiscation orders in a number of ways. One thing that it will do is that it will make it easier to restrain assets at an earlier stage in an investigation, and where assets have been restrained it is easier to enforce confiscation orders. The other thing to mention is that the Bill gives the Agency a role in the enforcement of confiscation orders, and the Bill is drafted in such a way that the Agency can be identified as the enforcing agency not just in its own cases but in confiscation cases which other agencies have initiated.

  427. Could I ask you to go as far as to tell me whether or not the Home Office has set targets for improving on its previously poor record of 30 per cent, not just in the Assets Recovery Agency but elsewhere, and, if so, what those targets are?
  (Mr Stadlen) The asset recovery strategy identifies improved performance in this area and is an important issue. There is not in the current version of the strategy a quantified target, but we have said, and the strategy makes clear, that there will be performance setting and target setting for the director of the Agency when the Agency is set up.


  428. How do you—that is, the Government—intend to build and maintain public support for the work of the Assets Recovery Agency?
  (Mr Stadlen) As part of the planning for the Agency, a communications plan will be an element of the planning process, and Ministers will, I am sure, be wanting to think about what arrangements they should make for informing the media and the public about the Agency when it is ready to begin functioning. I imagine that the director of the Agency will also be very concerned about public relations. There is every reason to think that the public are very supportive of the concept of asset recovery.

  429. That is certainly the case in the Republic of Ireland, and that is the experience we have. I think that is partly because they have never lost a case. This is obviously going to be a matter for the director when the time comes, but are you taking steps to ensure that you get at the assets, certainly to start with, which will give you pretty good results?
  (Mr Stadlen) I am sure that the director will be very well aware of the importance of early results in terms of early successes, in terms of the public impact of the Agency's work.

Mr Tynan

  430. I would like to ask you a question regarding the Recovered Assets Fund and how that works at the present time. I know it was established in October 2001. How is that working at the present time?
  (Mr Stadlen) The Fund inherited about £2 million from the Confiscated Assets Fund which it replaced. The first round of bidding was opened, and bids were invited by the middle of January for the first round. We had 130 applications, which is a very large interest. The total amount of money that people were bidding for was very much larger than the sum available. That was very encouraging, because it showed that the Fund was attracting interest and fulfilling a need. Ministers will be taking decisions about this, selecting bids for the first round, within the next month or so. We had a second round of bidding which closed at the end of March. That will be for money available in the current financial year to the Fund. We have had over 300 applications, and again the amount of money that people would be able to use for the projects that they have drawn up is much greater than the money that is likely to be available. So the Fund is over-subscribed, but that is good because it should mean that we will be able to select good projects to use the money.

  431. So what type of initiatives are being funded at the present time, or are you still in the process of looking at those initiatives and the applications and deciding which ones to fund?
  (Mr Stadlen) Two asset recovery initiatives are already under way. One of them is a project to identify a sort of harmonised approach; it is a project to make it easier for prosecutors who are handling confiscation cases, and there are suggestions for template procedures. The project is being used to research and develop template procedures which would facilitate the process of handling confiscation cases. There is also a project to assess the value of having the services of accountants available to police financial intelligence units. The project will test that in three different police forces. So these two projects are currently under way and, as I say, we have had 130 applications which are now being assessed.

  432. Obviously a public perception of the success would depend on how they see a link between the Fund and the asset itself. How do you see that taking place?
  (Mr Stadlen) I think it was partly with that in mind that the Recovered Assets Fund serves a number of different purposes. It is partly available to pump-prime innovative law enforcement projects and asset recovery projects, so it is there partly to help law enforcement agencies and encourage law enforcement agencies to do more asset recovery work. In addition to that, though, the Fund is available to support community regeneration projects, local crime reduction partnership projects. These are things which will be immediately beneficial to, and known to, people in the local communities.

  433. So if the local communities make an application—and obviously there could be some within the 130—it would depend on the funding and the decision that would be taken on what initiatives were going to be awarded the money in order to benefit the communities. On that basis, do you expect to see an increase with regard to opportunities for communities to make money from that Fund in the future, depending on how much money is taken and recovered?
  (Mr Stadlen) Certainly the more money is successfully recovered from crime through the various powers and through the Bill, the bigger will be the base line for the Recovered Assets Fund and the more money will be available for that purpose.

Mr McCabe

  434. Good afternoon, gentlemen. It may be a relief to you, or not, but I want to move away from the Assets Recovery Agency and ask you some questions about sentencing. Do you happen to know what the average sentence handed down in this country is for those offences that we most commonly associate with paramilitary activities? I am thinking about things like distortion, armed robbery, counterfeiting, those kinds of things.
  (Mr Dawson) I am afraid I am not aware of what the average sentence is for those offences. Certainly in England and Wales we would, I think, be made aware of what the average sentence is, but if your question is in the context of Northern Ireland, I am not aware of that.

  435. In that case could I put it to you that if I put the question now, could we seek some written response? What I am interested to know is what is the average sentence for offences like extortion, counterfeiting and robbery in Great Britain, and what is the average sentence for the same crimes in Northern Ireland? Also I would like to know how those sentences, in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland, compare with the maximum sentences provided by law? I think that for the Committee's time it would be as well to leave that bit there. The other thing I wanted to ask was, I am sure you are aware that under the Powers of the Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 there are provisions in this country where crimes which have a racial motive or racially aggravated component to them can lead to either a sentence higher than the tariff in the case of a racial motive or a sentence beyond the maximum in a case where it is proven that there is a racially aggravated component. Is there any similar provision where the offence has a paramilitary motive as an aggravated factor?
  (Mr Dawson) Do you mean specifically in Northern Ireland?

  436. No, I mean in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
  (Mr Dawson) No, in Great Britain the sentencing in such cases is a matter for the independent part of the judiciary, and the court can take into account aggravating and mitigating factors. It has discretion to impose, for example in respect of a terrorist finance conviction, a sentence up to the maximum, taking into account various factors, and it is likely to do so in respect of an offence which perhaps does not appear in the Terrorism Act, such as the ones you have already identified.


  437. The courts have power to sentence up to the maximum in any case, have they not?
  (Mr Dawson) Yes, they do.

  438. You said in a terrorism case they have a power to sentence up to the maximum, but they do in a non-terrorism case, do they not?
  (Mr Dawson) Yes. The point is, it is an aggravating factor, because terrorism is identified as being a factor in a non-specific terrorism offence.

  439. The point of Mr McCabe's question, to put it very briefly again, is that when something is racially aggravated they can go over that which can be initiated when it is a paramilitary activity. There is no provision, is there?
  (Mr Dawson) No, not at the moment.

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