Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.24 pm

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): At the risk of incurring the wrath of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson), I must confess that before entering the House I spent 16 years practising at the criminal Bar. The only saving grace is that sitting between my hon. Friend and me is another lawyer, my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who I am sure will come to my aid if necessary.

I have another confession that may upset my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok, who seems to have survived the first. I strongly agree with the tone and the sentiment of his speech. I want to help the system to help his and my constituents, who bear the brunt of the war against drugs.

I have practised in Manchester. I know that other Members have practised there too, and will know of cases such as those with which I have dealt. A nine-year-old on Moss Side would be delivering heroin on his BMX bike; a 12 to 16-year-old would be either forcing or cajoling him to do it. They would be armed with automatic weapons: there would be gangland warfare, with boys shooting each other. Sadly, I represented a number of those kids, and I do not believe that one of them is alive now. That is the limit to which the drug problem can take us.

Behind such tragedies were the Mr. Bigs. They lived in another part of Manchester, in the big houses to which my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok referred, with no other visible means of support. I would back any legislation intended to disrupt that chain of human misery, and I believe the Bill is intended to do precisely that.

I confessed to the shadow Home Secretary in an intervention that I was mystified about the source of his thinking. A White Paper was published in March, and there was heavy consultation on it. I see that his colleague, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), is now deep in conversation, but I hope that we shall be told in the winding-up speech whether any of the pedantic little points made by the shadow Home Secretary filtered through during that consultation. As I think he admitted in the end, they are really points for the Committee stage rather than for a debate on the principle of a Bill. It is a shame that there cannot be a more positive approach to such important legislation. I welcome the approach of the Liberal Democrats, woolly though it was, as usual.

Mr. Grieve: I note that, like me, the hon. Gentleman is a practising member of the Bar. Does he really think it pedantic to highlight areas in which, if the Bill does not work as it is intended to work, it will cause grave injustice? Are such points merely pedantic rather than points of general principle?

Stephen Hesford: If there is a point to be made, it should be made in Committee; but, with respect, I do not agree that a point was being made.

I merely ask Opposition Members to reflect on whether they warmly welcome the Bill. I suspect that some do, but I hope that we shall hear a more positive announcement in

30 Oct 2001 : Column 798

the winding-up speech. I want to know why they support a Bill to protect the communities that Labour Members want to protect.

In many ways, the Bill is a consolidating measure. It is complex—it has more than 400 clauses—so it is not surprising if there are some errors of drafting, but, again, this is not the time or place to discuss them. The debate is more about the principle.

Drug trafficking is an evil. It is a black economy. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) said that it accounts for 1 per cent. of GDP. My understanding is that it accounts for 2 per cent. It is a disgrace if, in a civilised country in the 21st century, we cannot get our hands on that money and put it to better use. That is what the Bill is about.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman will obviously be familiar with the way in which the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986 has worked. One of the things of which he is likely to be aware, as I have been in practice, is that over the years the amounts that have been assessed for confiscation have consistently turned out to be higher than the assets available for seizure. Does anything in the Bill make that less or more likely to happen? If the Bill is to work, we will have to make assessments that lead to the money being seized, rather than, as has happened under the Drug Trafficking Offences Act, less and less money being taken year by year.

Stephen Hesford: I do not want to get bogged down, but in my experience the procedure under the Drug Trafficking Offences Act was cumbersome. No one really believed in it. This Bill has been introduced not only to consolidate measures, but to make the procedure work better. I welcome that, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman does so too. Rather than just nit-picking, Conservative Members should look forward to procedures coming into operation that will make the principle work better in practice in our courts.

The Bill will change the culture. The culture of court life, if I may put it that way, must change in two ways. The judicial culture must change. Often, half the judiciary were not interested in chasing assets, and the other half—the hon. Gentleman, in a sense, made the point—were ham-fisted in doing so. They overkilled the case and brought the procedure into disrepute.

More important, there must be a change in culture among defendants. I mainly defended when I was at the Bar. I can probably count on one hand the defendants who genuinely thought that their assets were at risk; many brought a soul-destroying smugness to the court process. I want to see the smile wiped off their faces. If the Bill, in changing the culture of the court, gets anywhere near doing that it will perform a major service.

Part 1 sets up the Assets Recovery Agency. I welcome that, but I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to deal with the following point either in his winding-up speech or in due course. The aim of the procedure is to make the recovery of criminal assets work better, but I worry whether agencies will speak to each other sufficiently clearly that they will know which one is doing what. I understand from the outline in the Bill that not only the director but the Director of Public Prosecutions, Customs and Excise and the Crown Prosecution Service can make an application. There should be clear demarcation about

30 Oct 2001 : Column 799

who will make the application. The director may be the best person to do so, but in practice smaller cases may be devolved to the other agencies. I see the Minister nodding. That is helpful, but there is a potential problem: cases may fall between two stools. Otherwise, I welcome part 1.

Part 2 deals with confiscation. One of the key things is the timing of the application. Clauses 4 and 7 make an important change: confiscation orders can now be made at the beginning of the process—I welcome that emphasis—rather than at the end. That is a significant change in focus.

Some of the wording in the Bill is novel in terms of criminal legislation that I am used to dealing with, but that is not a criticism. It may be a welcome change, but I raise a question about the phrase "criminal lifestyle", which may be slightly problematic. Perhaps the concept of criminal lifestyle needs tightening. Otherwise, I welcome the principle of including the phrase "criminal lifestyle" in the Bill.

I welcome clause 29, which deals with the absconding unconvicted offender who sees the writing on the wall and, along with his assets, disappears to the "Costa del Crime". If it is properly administered, clause 29 will be a major bonus.

Mr. Grieve: I am sorry to take the hon. Gentleman back a moment, but I noted with care his comments about criminal lifestyle. Would he care to amplify what gives him cause for concern? It is defined under "Interpretation" in clause 75. Is the interpretation causing him concern or some other matter?

Stephen Hesford: It is a new concept. My concern is a general one. If we are going to introduce a new concept, let us get the thing nailed down so that it works. That is the point that I am making. I hope that that helps the House. Clause 41, which deals with restraint orders, will be particularly significant.

Part 5 deals with civil recovery of proceeds and brings us into line with jurisdictions such as the United States of America and Australia. The United States has particular expertise in going after drug cartels. If it can set up a civil recovery of proceeds procedure, it is no bad thing that we should go down the same route.

I welcome the redefinition of money-laundering offences in part 7. As other right hon. and hon. Members said, it simplifies the system, which must be a good thing in terms of getting Mr. Big.

If the Bill does work—I believe that it will if we get it right—it will change the culture and it will enable criminal proceeds to be recycled, to the benefit of us all. I look forward to that.

6.39 pm

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I suppose we should be grateful that the Government have deigned to engage Parliament in its much heralded war against terrorism. After all, judging by the stream of policy announcements made by the Home Office to favoured newspapers in recent weeks, a stranger to House procedures might conclude that the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs and the Home Secretary had unfettered authority over domestic affairs.

First, we have seen the nonsense of proposals for compulsory identity cards for all. It was then unilaterally announced that there will be a seven-year sentence for

30 Oct 2001 : Column 800

anthrax hoaxers, and 10 days ago it was decided that incitement to religious hatred would be made a criminal offence. Perhaps this debate, and I hope others in the future, will be a timely reminder to the Home Office that we live in a parliamentary democracy.

I may be one of only 166 Members of the official Opposition, but I am certain that the people of Cities of London and Westminster sent me to this place to stand up for the ancient freedoms of the people of this country and to hold this increasingly illiberal and intolerant Government to account. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may laugh. I realise that, whatever I say today, this Bill will almost certainly become law in some form or other, but I hope that there will be careful scrutiny in Committee. I know that in the years ahead, I shall look back upon my contribution to this debate with a sense of honour, whereas I suspect that many Labour Members will feel a sense of shame when they realise how they have allowed themselves to so cravenly approve many of the measures.

I should remind the House that this legislation was originally published as long ago as March and was intended to prevent criminals from laundering the proceeds of their offences.

Next Section

IndexHome Page