Financial Investigations (Northern Ireland)

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Mr. Thompson: Can the Minister tell us how many prosecutions have resulted from those activities? We hear about lorries being impounded and illegal activity, but we do not hear so much about anyone being prosecuted for it.

Mr. Ingram: Many of the seizures are of recent vintage and in some cases charges have been proffered but convictions have not yet resulted because of the time taken to deal with cases in court proceedings. I share the hon. Gentleman's view that, where possible, there should be convictions on the back of those seizures. He has my assurance that I will continue to monitor and press for such convictions.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry asked about article 6 and client-solicitor privilege, which has generated comment. Let me set out some of the background to that. The 1996 order provides that the powers will be used only when a county court judge is satisfied that they will enable a police or Customs and Excise investigation to be carried out more effectively. The current proposal also ensures that the financial investigator will issue such a circular only where it appears to him that a specified person has benefited from serious criminal conduct. The information that the solicitor is required to provide is in the first instance limited and the 1996 order already requires solicitors to furnish names and addresses of clients, so in that sense the power will not be an entirely new step. Only when a solicitor's response suggests that one or more of the limited transactions specified have been carried out may an application be made to the court for access to that information.

The proposal recognises the importance of protecting legal privilege as far as possible, and provides that such applications will give notice to the relevant solicitor, thereby enabling any issues of legal privilege to be determined by a judge. The hon. Gentleman asked whether we have met the Law Society of Northern Ireland. No such meetings have yet taken place—they are being arranged—but it gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Assembly and was consulted by the Northern Ireland Office on the order. However, we must remember that the Law Society does not own the law—it belongs to us all—and should not have a veto over what the Government want to do. It does not want that particular veto, and those who have read the evidence it submitted for the Assembly's consideration of the order have found it to be helpful.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the proposals could undermine the relationship between solicitors and their clients. I do not accept that. I recognise the importance of solicitors' principles and that client confidentiality and legal professional privilege are important. However, as the Law Society admitted to the Northern Ireland Assembly, if there is any question of furthering criminal intent, that would not be covered by privilege or confidentiality. The right safeguards have been built into the proposals to ensure that clients can continue to trust their solicitors to preserve confidentiality. The obligation on solicitors to report to the police or NCIS any suspicious transactions as defined by our current money laundering offences has effectively weakened the duty of confidentiality that solicitors owe to their clients. Therefore, there has already been an acceptance in law of the need to tackle organised crime. That has been accepted by the Law Society, which is obliged to recognise that we are all affected by criminality. That should have primacy in our consideration of the order.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of fraud against the public purse—benefit fraud for example. I agree that we need to tackle such fraud, and the RUC recently undertook a survey of criminality against the public purse. The social security system is now devolved, and it no longer falls to the Secretary of State or me to take on his suggestion about the need for centralised records. I am sure that he will make his views on that known to the Assembly.

Mr. William Ross: Some parts of the system have been centralised to Newcastle and other parts to elsewhere, so it is not a question of it all being devolved to Northern Ireland. Certain things for the whole of the United Kingdom are centralised in Great Britain.

Mr. Ingram: I accept that. I do not claim to be an expert on all aspects of social security, but I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has introduced specific measures to tackle benefit fraud. Everyone is aware of its extent, and we need more sophisticated systems and tracking approaches. That will not come overnight. It needs careful consideration and resources, but the Government's intention is clear: we are determined to stamp out fraud. I know that the hon. Gentleman would agree about the important role played by the RUC to date in conducting the survey into criminality in the public sector in Northern Ireland, which will help all agencies—not only in Northern Ireland, but in a wider net. Initiatives that are taken in Northern Ireland might help the UK in general; equally, matters developed elsewhere in the UK might assist us in Northern Ireland.

We have had a useful, albeit short, debate. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's acceptance of the order on behalf of his party. He is right that we wish those with responsibility for taking forward the investigations and the implementation of the order well in their endeavours, because it will help every one of us and make Northern Ireland a better place in which to live.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the proposal for a draft Financial Investigations (Northern Ireland) Order 2001.

        Committee rose at twenty-four minutes past Three o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
McWilliam, Mr. John (Chairman)
Beggs, Mr.
Browne, Mr.
Ellman, Mrs.
Godman, Dr.
Jackson, Helen
McIsaac, Shona
Moran, Ms.
O'Brien, Mr. Bill
Pound, Mr.
Ross, Mr. William
Taylor, Mr. John M.
Thomas, Mr. Gareth R.
Thompson, Mr.
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 109(4): {**c**}
Dowd, Mr. Jim (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury)Ingram, Mr. Adam (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)

 
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Prepared 22 March 2001