Financial Investigations (Northern Ireland)

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Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Is the Minister satisfied that the order will cover many alleged cash transactions—when people arrive with a suitcase of readies to do business—that occur when accounts are not held?

Mr. Ingram: The order relates specifically to criminal investigations or matters arising from criminal convictions. It also relates to the draft proceeds of crime Bill, which lowers the burden of proof to the civil requirement and gives greater power to the investigating authorities in pursuing that type of activity. The precise answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes. We will have more powers once the rest of the Government's intentions are put into law.

I was setting out the range of responses that we and the Northern Ireland Assembly have received to the draft order. All the responses have been helpful. It would not be appropriate for me to deal with the various observations that have been made because, clearly, we must look at them in the round. We must then look at possible ways of amending the order in the light of relevant observations. In considering the responses already received, I should also like to take into account any issues that are raised in Committee today. We have already made a decision in respect of one part of the order, and that is in response to a suggestion made by, among others, the Northern Ireland Assembly about the code of practice for investigators. That will need to be revised and updated.

I am aware that a number of concerns were expressed during the consultation about the human rights aspects of the proposed legislation. Many of those concerns were misplaced and did not take fully into account the rights of ordinary, law-abiding people. I am conscious that the Government have an overriding duty to protect people's right to life and the right of liberty and security of person. All that is put in jeopardy by the actions of organised criminals. The proposals are a proportionate response to the threat to human rights posed by crime and criminality and are no more intrusive than is necessary.

Individuals' rights will be protected in several ways. For example, before a financial investigator can be appointed, a county court judge must be satisfied that doing so is justified. Before a general bank circular or a general solicitors' circular can be issued, investigators must have reasonable grounds to believe that a person may have benefited from serious crime. The order's provisions are designed to help ensure that individuals are correctly identified, and the code of practice governing financial investigations will be revised to assist in that.

The draft Order in Council is just one of a number of elements in a wider strategy that will put further pressure on criminals and the resources that they control. The power to issue a solicitors' circular is unique to Northern Ireland. Reservations and concerns have been raised about that, not least by the Law Society of Northern Ireland. I understand those concerns but I believe that the order is proportionate, complies with the Human Rights Act 1998 and, importantly, addresses the wider needs of society in tackling the scourge of organised crime.

I am grateful for the responses that we have received. I know that hon. Members have a keen interest in the matter. Coming from Northern Ireland, they can see the effects of some of the things that I have mentioned. I look forward to hearing their comments on the order. We will seriously and genuinely take on board all substantive points. We must make work not only the order but the wider strategy of tackling organised crime in Northern Ireland today.

2.48 pm

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): It is a pleasure, Mr. McWilliam, to have you back in the Chair this afternoon. You are getting plenty of Northern Ireland business today. We shall try to make it as easy as we can for you and not stray out of order.

We are now seeing one of the offshoots of devolution to Northern Ireland, as this aspect of the law is not one that falls under the control of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The financial order was referred to the Assembly and the Ad Hoc Committee produced a report, which went before the Assembly. It is curious that, although the Secretary of State referred the order to the Assembly, the consequences of its investigations and discussions were not to return to the Secretary of State. Perhaps they were transferred to the Secretary of State via the Assembly. We must get the matter cleared up. It is a shadow-land problem which we have seen before as the work of various devolved institutions has developed.

The Minister was right to declare that there is always a conflict between the protection of individual rights and what is good for the community. That issue is likely to be aired in Committees again and again. It takes two to tango, but only one to raise a row and keep it going. We all know that that is true, and not just with respect to Northern Ireland.

This is our second sitting today and I want once again to express my disappointment that Members of two of the major parties in Northern Ireland—the Democratic Unionist party and the Social and Democratic Labour party—are absent from our proceedings. I was under the impression that we were elected to represent the interests of all constituents under the Parliament of the United Kingdom, where the ultimate responsibility for governance of the Province lies—especially regarding aspects of life that we are debating today, for which responsibility rests solely with this House. I am sorry that hon. Members from those two parties have forgotten that fact and I hope that the electors of Northern Ireland will take account of it when they cast their votes in the coming weeks.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): I endorse what my hon. Friend says, and I remind him that Sinn Fein Members who were elected to this Parliament have never turned up and never played a constructive part in its affairs. When the election is called, the electorate should also remember that.

The Chairman: Order. Can we return to the subject of our debate? Recent remarks have been irrelevant to the order.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): On a point of order, Mr. McWilliam. Have you received any indication from either Conservative or Liberal Front Benchers about whether they intend to turn up this afternoon?

The Chairman: I have received an apology from the Conservative Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), who has a pressing and prior engagement, which he was unable to break, although he stayed to ensure a quorum before leaving.

Mr. Ross: As you will recall, Mr. McWilliam, it was formerly the responsibility of the Government to ensure a quorum so that they could get their business through the House. If the Opposition have any responsibility, it is to forsake the Government if they think fit—as they often do. I am pleased that for this sitting the Government have provided sufficient Members to maintain a quorum.

On behalf of my political party, I welcome the order. We hope that it will strengthen law aimed at preventing criminals profiting financially from their illegal activities. No one with real knowledge of Northern Ireland in recent times can be unaware of the extent of problems connected with moneys illegally obtained. The order can therefore be recommended as a genuine attempt by the Government to improve matters.

In recent weeks, we have had a dreadful reminder, reinforced today by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in County Louth in the Irish Republic, of where criminality can lead. There are large, serious and unforeseen financial consequences for the whole nation of such activity. Clearly, sheep brought into Northern Ireland for illegal purposes led to the initial outbreak in South Armagh, which is now spreading God knows where. That illegal act had illegal downstream consequences; people engaged in such criminal activity cannot be as forthright with the authorities as one would wish. Therefore, the spread of the disease is greatly helped.

Existing legislation provides enforcement authorities with more powers at all stages of the confiscation process. Confiscation procedures in courts have been enhanced and enforcement powers once a confiscation order has been made have been improved. The provisions were initially relatively successful when implemented in 1996. However, time passes, and those intent on criminal activity develop means of subverting new laws. They have done so on this occasion.

It is essential that the Government do all that is possible to ensure that convicted criminals are deprived of the profits of their activity. Not only must the perpetrators of crime be brought to justice, it is only right that their ill-gotten gains should be taken away from them. It is no good sentencing a man to two or three years in prison for drug dealing or robbery if he can walk out at the end of it straight into a life of luxury and reap the financial benefits of his dreadful activities, which brought misery to many people.

The 1996 law, uniquely to Northern Ireland, provided for the appointment by the county court of a civilian financial investigator to aid police in their investigations. The provision is unique to the Province solely because of the presence of terrorism and of illegally obtained paramilitary-held money in our society. A court case in Dublin recently, which arose from the murder of a journalist, was not paramilitary but drugs-related. Perhaps the matter goes beyond paramilitary activity right into the drugs scene and the violent crime that has become such a prominent part of society in Northern Ireland—and, indeed, in the rest of the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

Because of the involvement of paramilitary groups, which are the main driving force behind lucrative organised crime in Northern Ireland, we must never underestimate the importance of tackling issues of finance. It is only by making organised crime less profitable that we can ever hope to remove it from our streets.

In recent times, the number of so-called punishment beatings—mutilations and so on—by paramilitary groups has risen to record levels. In the current political process, the groups have largely been left alone to housekeep in their communities. What the communities think of that is of course a different matter. It would be naive to believe that in such an environment only beatings have increased. Drug dealing, smuggling and myriad other forms of racketeering have had far too much freedom to thrive, and they have done so. The problem is not getting smaller, it is growing, and the law must become more comprehensive to match it.

The order does not explicitly mention terrorism, but it should. However, it does take us in the right direction. Current legislation is no longer as effective as it needs to be. It must be strengthened, and that is why we welcome the order. Criminal elements are moving beyond what was legislated against in 1996. Traditionally, banks were used as the chief means of money laundering, but that has now spread into the real estate—or property—sector and into the realm of solicitors. We need tougher legislation to combat a tougher, more dangerous and more diverse situation.

Due to time constraints, I shall limit my references to what I regard as the most contentious issues in the order. Articles 1, 2, and 8 are almost entirely procedural and I need not refer to them. Articles 3 and 4 merely extend the powers already available to appointed financial investigators, thus enabling them more effectively to carry out investigations in the pursuit of justice. They extend rights of access for financial investigators to those currently afforded only to the police. That is a wholly sensible step. They also bring closer together the authority of police and customs officers in conducting financial investigations. That should increase the effectiveness of our law enforcement bodies and it is to be welcomed. Especially welcome is the closer co-operation that it should bring about between the Revenue and the police.

As the Minister knows, one of the largest sources of illegal wealth is the smuggling of all sorts of fuel. Despite the slight changes made by the Chancellor in his recent Budget, it will not stop. It is an horrendous problem, and the sums of money that go astray can only be guessed at. Whenever we try to obtain firm figures from the Treasury, we are told that nothing can be produced that makes sense. Perhaps the numbers are so astronomical that they do not make sense to normal human beings.

Article 5 broadens the powers available to a financial investigator to demand and be entitled to receive information from anyone carrying out relevant financial business in connection with the individuals under suspicion. It is hoped that that measure will make the detection and proof of financial irregularities much more straightforward. I know that some will argue that such a provision would limit the individual's right to a private life, but even the European convention on human rights recognises that the prevention of crime is sufficient reason for interfering with the right of criminals to a private life.

Article 7 extends the time limits within which prosecutions must be brought if false information has been provided or if information has been withheld. In those circumstances it seems only reasonable and logical that the available time be increased. If the time limit is too short, those under investigation will be more likely to provide false information and true information is more likely to be withheld.

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