Draft Financial Investigations (Northern Ireland) Order 2001

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Mr. Lembit Ipik (Montgomeryshire): Everyone agrees that we must stop people profiting from crime—that is the real issue. The hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) said that we should stop people profiting from other people's misery. I have waited years to hear a lawyer say that! Perhaps I should not joke too much; one never knows when one may have to sup with the devil.

Articles 1, 2, 3, 4 and 8 are clearly uncontroversial. Article 5 is probably okay, on the basis of the Minister's description. Articles 6 and 7 are the most contentious. I share some of the concerns of the hon. Member for Solihull about article 6.

Any decision on how far society should change in order to stop crime is a matter of balance. In George Orwell's ``1984'', the state controlled crime by knowing everything. Winston Smith, the central character, would not be surprised by article 6—he would expect it to go much further. George Orwell predicted that, through gradual measures, we would end up in a totalitarian state.

Although the extension of the powers of investigation in article 6 may seem justified, I am concerned that legislation generally is responsible for the evaporation of privacy. Even though it is always with good justification, such as the apprehension of criminals, there must come a point at which individual civil liberties and privacy are being curtailed to such an extent that we can no longer justify permitting investigation to go further.

Under article 7, an individual could be under investigation for an unlimited period if it can be argued that evidence is being withheld in the process of investigations. I do not question the justification for that if someone is genuinely guilty, but does it not raise the concern that innocent people could have the threat of an investigation hanging over them indefinitely? Although I have sympathy with the intention of the provision, we must be willing to review it to ensure that we do not unintentionally cause misery to the innocent. I would welcome the Minister's comments on that.

Like the hon. Member for Solihull, I have investigated the comments and recommendations of the ad hoc Committee of the Assembly. Given that the Assembly gave majority, but not unanimous, support to the measure, we must respect devolution and allow its decision to hold great sway over what we decide here. I would be loth to contradict the judgment of the democratically elected body serving Northern Ireland.

I thank the Minister for clarifying the Government's commitment to updating the code of practice for financial investigators, and hope that that will be part of the full and meaningful consultation to which the Secretary of State is committed. Further issues may arise as we implement the legislation. The definition of a non-contentious issue is indeed important and needs to be clarified. As the hon. Member for Solihull and the Assembly said, the weakness of the current definition allows scope for vagueness and may unintentionally cause stress.

I have made a couple of points about civil liberties, as did the hon. Member for Solihull. Unlike him, I believe that we need the order. It is unlikely that the matter will go to a vote, but I hope that that is not taken as an indication that all is well in legislation such as this, because there have begun to be incursions into what were previously areas of privacy, such as the relationship between solicitors and their clients. While we all want an end to crime, we must ensure that we do not pay a price that is not worth paying by taking away the freedoms that Parliament fights so hard to maintain.

5.4 pm

Mr. Ingram: I am grateful to the hon. Gentlemen for their contributions in what has been a useful debate. However, I ask both of them what they would suggest, if not the order, as a means of tackling what all hon. Members agree is a serious development in organised crime? Organised criminals are adept at moving the goalposts; they can change their operations quickly, learn about how they are being investigated and put difficulties in the way of investigators.

As I said earlier, the order is proportionate, and we have tried to put as many safeguards in place as we believe necessary. One overriding aspect is the Government's view that it is compatible with the European convention on human rights. If it were not compatible, we would not have introduced it. I have not heard any arguments other than the assertion that the order might be incompatible with the convention. David Capper's submission to the Northern Ireland Assembly ad hoc Committee makes that assertion, but does not back it up with any evidence. In his submission, he stated boldly that it would not be right for papers relating to on-going land or company litigation to be provided to financial investigators. He believed that there would be implications with regard to the European convention on human rights, and that the possibility of on-going litigation being subject to investigatory powers might infringe article 8 of the convention.

It is easy to say that the convention might be infringed, but if our approach had been applied elsewhere and tried and tested through the courts here and abroad, surely David Capper would have cited that. The opinion is not based on any substance other than the view of a senior lecturer at the school of law.

Mr. Ipik: Before the Minister draws the conclusion that I am necessarily opposed to the instrument, let me be clear that I believe that such an order is needed. I raised a strategic concern that, if we passed such an order a thousand times, we would step back later and realise that many civil liberties had been infringed. I acknowledge that it would be hard to see how in principle we could find a different way to achieve the outcomes that he seeks.

Mr. Ingram: We must always consider threats to civil liberties, but our liberties are being challenged all the time by organised criminals, hence the need for legislation such as this order and the Proceeds of Crime Bill. Other countries, such as Italy, have similar legislation, and I have just returned from a study tour of New York and Washington, where I talked to the FBI and the New York police department about how they tackled organised crime. I learned two lessons. First, we must be as determined and willing to change as the criminals when we realise that they are a step ahead. Secondly, we must have a multi-agency approach; we cannot have all the separate Government agencies taking their own route. We must have a cross-departmental approach, which is driven from the centre to achieve the objective of tackling organised crime.

The legal profession will have a role to play as well. That is why I said, as the hon. Member for Solihull recognised, that client-solicitor confidentiality is not an absolute. It is already subject to the good judgment of solicitors as to what they can report, if they believe that criminal actions are being taken by one of their clients. That is right; they should not hold back because they protect our rights by so reporting.

Mr. John M. Taylor: I do not place great weight on what one law lecturer says, and I do not disagree with the Minister's comments about solicitors. My misgivings are deeper. Much damage can be done in the name of getting at the bad guys. Sir Thomas More asked his pupil if he would cut down every law in England to get at the devil. The pupil said that he would, so Sir Thomas More then asked where his pupil would be when the devil turned on him.

Mr. Ingram: I do not disagree with that philosophy, but our actions to tackle the menace will in no way dispense with all the laws of the land. In my job, I see the manifestations of organised crime. I am sure that other hon. Members have their own stories to recount. I see the real devastation that it causes. Organised crime can destroy whole communities, whether through drug activity or other types of activity. In tackling it, we are dealing with the very devil himself.

The problem is not going away, but becoming increasingly international. Therefore, international solutions will increasingly be required. That is another lesson that I learned from speaking to the FBI and the New York police department. As we all know, the USA is a great melting pot of people, and much international crime flows across their shores. That country recognises, as we do, the need for bilateral and multilateral strategies to deal with organised crime.

The hon. Member for Solihull raised the question of contentious and non-contentious business. I do not believe that that is important, because non-contentious business is not used in the order. The types of transaction to which the order applies are listed in paragraph 3(a)(ii) of the 1996 order. Article 6 is limited to confirmation in relation to specific transactions. We are dealing with matters in that way.

In his submission, David Capper said:

    ``It would not be right that papers relating to ongoing land or company litigation should be provided to financial investigators.''

Why not? Does the hon. Member for Solihull believe that such documents should not be provided in cases of money laundering of the proceeds of other organised criminal activity? I do not know whether that is Mr. Capper's view. He does not answer the philosophical question of how we should tackle organised crime, but, of course, that is not his job. He has set out his best legal view, but it is a terse view, running to only two paragraphs and with no real back-up. Unfortunately, Mr. Capper will probably now be in the headlines, because we have dwelt so long on what he said.

We could have dealt in more detail with what the Law Society said. It does not surprise me that it is protective of its relationship with its clients. It, too, must deal with the enormity of the crime with which we are dealing. In Northern Ireland, the situation is even more dangerous, because of the legacy and the present threat of paramilitarism, which is linked to organised crime. Roughly half all organised crime there is associated with paramilitary groups.

The hon. Member for Solihull asked about the status of county court judges in Northern Ireland. They are also Crown court judges and have the same status. I hope that that answers his question.

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