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Mr. Davidson: Hear, hear.

Mr. Field: I thought I might receive praise on that point alone from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Davidson: No one is beyond redemption.

Mr. Field: Perhaps I should make it clear that I too am a former lawyer. All that, however, was some years ago.

In a world in which lawyers' influence seems to be ever more intrusive, it is easy to be dismissive of a highbrow defence of the rule of law. However, it is especially in times of such national crisis that the rights of the individual must be defended with particular vigour.

6.52 pm

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): It is a clear comment on our parliamentary democracy that I have the good fortune to follow the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). Although the two of us ostensibly agree on the Government's proposals in the Bill, it would be hard for anyone listening to his comments and then mine to make that connection. I make it clear from the outset that I welcome the Bill, and that I am on the side of the little person who has suffered too much at the hands of the criminal Mr. Bigs who have been getting away with it. The Bill is all about addressing that issue, and that is what we should be concerned about.

I do not know what it is like in Cities of London and Westminster—that inner-city constituency—but one thing that we have to contend with in my constituency is people selling heroin to primary school children at the school gates. They are changing the price of heroin so that it approximates to the price of school dinners to draw children into their net. I want those who are gaining from that marketing activity—the Mr. Bigs who are behind it—to lose their comfortable lifestyle.

As for those who can take over council housing tower blocks and run them as private establishments—they use a panoply of equipment usually associated with security firms for their own intimidatory purposes to operate their drugs markets—I want their equipment confiscated and their ill-gotten gains taken from them. I also want the pubs in Birmingham where people conduct drug deals in full view of the public, using mobile telephones to contact their business masters, to be prevented from carrying on

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that trade. I want every penny that those people and their masters gain from that trade to be taken off them. That is not an unreasonable ambition.

There are other examples in our society that show how people have benefited from illegal activities to enhance their own lifestyle. Anyone who is not familiar with Northern Ireland need only drive round the Holywood area to see the lovely lifestyles maintained by some people to realise why there may be no incentive in certain quarters to ensure that the peace process succeeds. We should try to tackle those who illegally maintain such a lifestyle.

Other hon. Members will have shared my horror when, last year, a container was opened to reveal the bodies of unfortunate people who had been promised a new life but suffocated in their attempt to reach this country. Had they survived they would have been sold into a life of slavery and prostitution. We talk about illegal asylum seekers and the problem of human traffickers, but the truth is that a market and huge financial incentives drive that trade. Some people make enormous profits at the expense of those unfortunate folk. I believe that we are justified in taking any action that we can to ensure that we take that money off them.

The Bill is largely a consolidation measure and parts of it should not surprise anyone. Some earlier remarks, such as some of those of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford), were lost on me as they seemed to be dealing with practices that have already been implemented. It seemed a pointless use of the time available. Nevertheless, there are one or two legitimate concerns about how the provisions will operate in practice. We can make it clear that we support the Bill's fundamental principle of going after those who enjoy a lifestyle that is far too good at the expense of others while questioning how the legislation will operate in practice.

Although I am not sure that I want to associate myself with the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), and I am sure that he would not want to associate himself with me, he drew an interesting analogy between the Child Support Agency and the Assets Recovery Agency. He is not the only Member to have had that thought. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider precisely how the ARA will operate. Does it have as a target the recovery of £60 million by 2004? If it does, can we be certain that it will recover that sum by going after those whom we really intend to catch in the legislation, and that we will not get the soft-touch response for which the CSA was validly criticised in its early days? I ask for his reassurance on that point.

I am also interested in how the agency director will perform his or her functions. Although I am clear that I want the director to have those powers, I do not want him or her to be able to go on fishing trips. Some years ago, when John Stalker, then deputy chief constable of Manchester, was under intense investigation, various such fishing trips were undoubtedly conducted into the business activities of some of his friends and associates, resulting in untold damage. Although I am clear that the agency that we are establishing and its director will not have such powers under the Bill, these provisions will outlive many of us. I am anxious that we make it clear that the agency and its director should not be used for such purposes.

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The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and others mentioned the trade-off between the civil and the criminal route. We have had assurances that the criminal route will be pursued first, and of course that is what I want to hear, but we have not always been entirely satisfied with the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service. Will there be monitoring of which cases take which route, so that we can be clear that there is no temptation to go for the softer option because it seems too difficult to pursue the criminal route?

People will be delighted to know that we are taking away ill-gotten gains, but recovering money is no substitute for justice, which we should pursue first and foremost.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful contribution. Does he think that there should be a target at all? Is a £60 million target appropriate, or should not we simply ask the agency to do its very best to recover assets? Arbitrary targets may have been one of the reasons why the CSA got into so much difficulty.

Mr. McCabe: I do not mind if the Government have a target based on a notion of how much money is available, but I do not want the agency to be tied to that target, in which case the way in which it is achieved might be an issue of dispute.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: To clear up any confusion, the £60 million target is for the asset recovery strategy, which is already being introduced. It is not a target for the agency, which we will expect to target those at the top end to get the highest returns. It will not be tied to the £60 million target in any way.

Mr. McCabe: I am extremely grateful for that clarification.

I am conscious that previous Department of Trade and Industry inquiries have been alleged to have undermined subsequent prosecutions. Can we be certain that the director's powers to compel an individual to supply information and produce documents will not undermine a prosecution because the defence will be able to argue that the individual was forced to produce information under duress?

The hon. Member for Lewes seemed to insist that there would be innocent parties, and I do not doubt that, but my point is that when someone who has taken advantage of and exploited countless people decides to use the ill-gotten gains to pay for school fees, skiing holidays and finishing schools—perhaps through some carefully arranged legacy—I regard the child in those circumstances not as an innocent party but as a beneficiary who is gaining at the expense of people who have suffered a far greater hardship. I am not as concerned as some Opposition Members are to protect the interests of such so-called innocent parties. If one gains in that way, one has to accept that what has been got by unfair means can be taken away just as quickly. I see no problem with that.

To return to a hobby-horse of mine, would clause 11 enable us to recover proceeds from those whose lifestyle has been partly financed by fraudulently obtaining libel damages?

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7.5 pm

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): The SNP-Plaid Cymru group fully supports the thrust of the Bill. The system being established seems to be similar to the Criminal Assets Bureau in the Republic of Ireland, which I understand has seized assets worth £6.5 million in the past three years. By contrast, under the current legislation, confiscations in Scotland have amounted to £1.7 million since April 1999.

It is interesting to note that the vast majority of those confiscations—68 out of 81—have been for drug offences. As the hon. Members for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) and for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) so eloquently stated, drugs are a major menace in all our constituencies, be they rural or urban. The Bill will go a long way towards tackling the problem of assets acquired by drug barons.

We welcome the fact that the Scottish Executive will be the enforcement agency in Scotland, although I have some doubts about the role of the Lord Advocate. We call on both the Scottish Executive and the UK Government to use funds realised under the legislation as additional resources for tackling crime, and for combating drug use in particular. It would not only be justice but poetic justice if the assets of those involved in that vile trade were used to reduce it.

Some have expressed concern about human rights. I, too, have some doubts about the human rights aspects of certain parts of the Bill. As another recent escapee from the legal profession, I raise the matter because I am concerned that we should not get into the situation that arose in Scotland after the passing of the Scotland Act 1998 and the incorporation of the European convention into Scots law. We had severe problems with temporary sheriffs, road traffic cameras and various other matters. We want to get the legislation right so that the people against whom it is targeted are caught and dealt with quickly. We must not leave loopholes that can be exploited.

I have a particular concern about disclosure orders and the role of the Lord Advocate. A person made subject to a disclosure order may be liable to self-incrimination, which might jeopardise the chance of a fair trial. As I understand the Bill, the Lord Advocate will be involved both in the criminal prosecution, should there be one, and in the civil recovery proceedings.

If the Crown Office believed that someone was using assets gained from crime to set up an apparently legitimate business but did not have sufficient evidence to gain a criminal conviction, it could serve a disclosure notice in the name of the Lord Advocate under clause 379 to obtain information for the civil recovery action. However, supposing that during that action information was disclosed that would warrant a criminal prosecution, would there not be a problem with the Lord Advocate being involved in both proceedings? That could create a problem under article 6 of the European convention on human rights. Some thought should go into the separation of the two roles.

The problem will not arise in England, where the Assets Recovery Agency will deal with the civil aspect while the Crown Prosecution Service will deal with the criminal aspect.

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