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Mr. Harris: My understanding is that the unit in the Scottish Executive that will be entirely responsible for civil recovery will be answerable exclusively to the First Minister and not to the Lord Advocate.
Mr. Weir: My understanding was that it would be dealt with through the Crown Office and the Lord Advocate. If the hon. Gentleman is right, there may not be such a problem. However, if the matter is under the remit of the Crown Office, there may be a problem. In the Bill, there is provision for a separate director for Northern Ireland, and some thought should be given to the situation in Scotland.
Mr. Foulkes: I am grateful for the opportunity to make a standing, rather than sedentary, intervention in the debate. The First Minister will designate the Lord Advocate as the appropriate person to pursue these matters, but he will be acting as a Minister and not as a Law Officer. The hon. Gentleman will know that Lords Advocate in the past have had to separate these two roles, and have done so pretty well under different Administrations. Also, information obtained in relation to civil proceedings would not normally be disclosed in criminal actions. I hope that those two points reassure the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Weir: I am grateful to the Minister, although some thought still has to go into this matter. Given the previous problems with the human rights provisions, we do not want the Bill to get bogged down.
I wish to refer to clause 94, which is central to the confiscation process and lays down the conditions that the court must take into account in dealing with confiscation. However, it does not make the prosecutor bring before the court at that point the statement of information that is necessary under the subsequent clauses that deal with the situation where matters have to be reopened at a later date. This matter has been referred to by the Law Society of Scotland, and perhaps the provision could be brought forward to an earlier date so that all information is before the court before there is a decision to proceed.
I wish to refer also to the question of funding. The Minister talked about £45 million being set aside for the proposed Assets Recovery Agency. However, I note that the agency will not operate in Scotland, apart from on Inland Revenue matters. I hope that sufficient funding will be available in Scotland to enable the Bill to proceed. That may ultimately be a matter for the Scottish Executive, but I ask Ministers to raise the matter with the Treasury to ensure that the proposal does not fall foul of the problems of underfunding. This is not a matter that should be taken lightly.
The hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) talked about drug traffickers in Liverpool. [Hon. Members: "Manchester."] I apologise; I am getting my English cities mixed up. One of my colleagues in the Scottish Parliament highlighted the case of a person convicted in Scotland of heroin dealing who was sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment and made the subject of a confiscation order under the present law, which is largely to be re-enacted under the Bill. This person was reputed to be worth some £4 million but, after a brief court hearing, was reported to have punched the air with delight when he was ordered to pay just £32,000.
It was said at the time that the Crown Office had just two full-time staff dealing with the seizure of criminal assets and that it had neither the time nor the resources to get to the bottom of that person's finances. As has been made clear today, the finances of those involved in serious crime, particularly drug-related matters, can be complex, and sufficient funding is needed to investigate them.
Under clause 109, there is a power to reopen the matter within six years if new information comes to the attention of the prosecutor. I have to ask what chance there is realistically of matters being reinvestigated in the future if there are insufficient resources to undertake the original investigation. Funding is crucial in this matter.
Why does clause 94 give the power to make a confiscation order against someone who has been given an absolute discharge? I find it difficult to imagine a situation where a court would grant an absolute discharge and then seek to impose a confiscation order. I appreciate that the provisions on criminal lifestyle may have a bearing on that.
Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman touches on an interesting point. My understanding is that, in English lawand, I suspect, in Scots lawan absolute discharge is normally given in circumstances where a person is held to be blameless, though technically guilty, of an offence. It is being used here as a device to introduce that person into the confiscatory mechanism. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that is correct in principle?
Mr. Weir: In terms of Scots law, the hon. Gentleman is slightly wrong as to whether the person is blameless. The point about an absolute discharge is that a person is guilty of the crime, but that it does not count as a criminal conviction; that is not quite the same thing. I cannot imagine anyone convicted of crimes who is given such a discharge then being subject to a confiscation order.
Mr. Davidson: Can the hon. Gentleman not envisage circumstances in which a strong prosecution case collapsed because of a mistake, because time had run out or because the evidence had been collected wrongly, but in which the accused was clearly as guilty as sin and was able to get away with it? Should the accused be allowed to keep their ill-gotten gains? I hope that that is not the position of the Scottish National party.
Mr. Weir: That was not the point I was making. The hon. Gentleman misunderstands what an absolute discharge is. The point is that a person is convicted of a crime, but the court decides that it was of such a minor nature, or that there were such special circumstances, that it does not count as a criminal conviction. In the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman sets out, there will still be civil recovery. I would have no qualms about that; the whole point of the proposal is to deal with such circumstances. The hon. Gentleman spoke earlier about problems with drugs in Pollok. Had he been here when I started my speech, he would have heard me say that that is a problem throughout Scotland, in urban and rural areas.
I support the Bill wholeheartedly, but I am anxious that we should not get bogged down in legal technicalities and allow people involved in serious drug offences or other serious crimes to get out on technicalities.
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) on his maiden speech. I am sure that, like his predecessor, he will serve his constituents in this place to the best of his ability, and that that ability will be much to the benefit of everyone in his constituency.
Crime, especially organised crime, has the potential to affect each and every one of us, whether in this place or in our communities. We all have experience of constituents coming to our constituency offices to complain bitterly about dubious individuals who live in the same neighbourhood and seem to have a more than reasonable lifestyle. Often, we hear, "Who says that crime does not pay?" or, "Don't tell me that honesty is the best policy." Such statements have a hollow ring to them and people leave our constituency offices extremely upset and angry because of what is happening in their communities.
I very much support the Bill. At long last, we can take forward what can only be described as a battle against organised crime and the criminals who perpetrate it. Right across the country, decent, honest and law-abiding citizens will be delighted that we are looking to tackle head-on those whose only motive is profit. That profit, and its provenance, is immaterial to criminals. It does not matter to them that they are involved in pushing drugs or trafficking in them, in smuggling goods or in dealing with illegal immigrants, as long as money is collected and paid to them so that they can boost their bank balances and improve their already excellent lifestyles. The misery suffered every day by individuals, families and communities is the last thought on the minds of the people coining the cash.
Much of the publicity surrounding the Bill has centred on drugs and drug barons, and all of us have a fair idea of the impact of drugs on modern society. Some would call drugs modern society's scourge, and would say that we have to live with them and battle against them. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) described what goes on in his constituency, and his was a true portrayal of what is happening across the country. The only difference between what happens on council estates and on private residential estates is that violence is present on the council estates.
Neighbours complain about drug pushers and suppliers, and their lives are turned upside down by the disturbance and disruption caused by cars coming and going all evening, early and late, and all through the night. People who push and supply drugs have an altogether different lifestyle. They sleep through the day and conduct and transact business in the evenings. The culprits party all night, as a constituent of minean elderly gentleman of nearly 80told me recently. He said that he and his wife were at breaking point. His wife could no longer leave their house, but had to go to bed in the day to try to get some sleep. This constituent visited me three times and, on the third occasion, he told me that his doctor had prescribed Valium because what was going on had left him such a wreck. The woman next door to this constituent was making lots of money. She was not interested in him or any other neighbour.
To a degree, I blame the local authority: the police have tried their best to clamp down on the trouble, but the local authority's housing department has not helped at all. The result is a terrible environment for our children. I have
Drugs and drug abuse create all sorts of misery. I worked in a drugs initiative group in my constituency for a short time, and I recall a police officer telling us one evening about how witnesses of drug abuse in the family undergo something that resembles bereavement. I am sure that all hon. Members know that bereavement is difficult to overcome, but watching a household member who is heavily into drugs is like watching that person die. Not much can be done to help: families try to pull together, but what they suffer is almost the same as bereavement. We have to try to prevent the spread of drugs through our communities.
Other hon. Members have spoken about figures and statistics. Those statistics give a true picture of the misery that 1 kg of heroin can cause on the street, and what it costs people, families and communities.
I was fortunate enough to hold an Adjournment debate 11 months ago on the smuggling of tobacco and alcohol. I said that the problem went beyond those visitors to the continent who purchase an extra 200 cigarettes or bottle of spirits, or the peoplebusiness men and women, or lorry drivers, for examplewho carry back a small amount of goods for friends or relatives. The problem has to do with bootleggingthe process by which tobacco and alcohol products are purchased on a large scale in countries with lower tax rates, and then illegally sold to people, distributors and retailers in the UK. The white van trade, as it is called, appears to account for about 25 per cent. of smuggled goods.
I said earlier that criminal activity can affect all of us. By its nature, bootlegging can lead to the closure of those small corner shops that are so much needed in many rural constituencies. Criminals generate profit by cornering the market, and local people lose the convenience of having a shop in their villages.
It is reassuring to see that the Bill contains a range of measures to assist police and courts with the confiscation of the proceeds of crime. The establishment of the Assets Recovery Agency is to be welcomed, and the agency's mechanisms will prove helpful in providing the expertise necessary to carry out investigations and confiscate criminal assets.
The agency will have powers, similar to those granted to the police, to investigate, freeze and confiscate. That, too, is welcome, but the agency will have to pull together the work of investigators, accountants and lawyers. In that regard, I do not envy those in the agency charged with securing the co-operation of accountants and lawyers. When I hear hon. Members condemn each other for having been either an accountant or a lawyer in a previous life, I worry about what they think of one another.
In the past, it was all too easy for criminals to move assets when they came under pressure from the law, but the Bill will allow assets to be frozen at the beginning of an investigation, rather than when a person has been charged. I am pleased about that, although I know that some hon. Members are worried about the provision. However, we need to be bold in order to move matters forward. Banks will also be obliged to report the accounts of people under investigation to the police and customs.
Other provisions in the Bill include the power to seize substantial sums of cash derived from crime, or intended for use in crime. That money can then be forfeited in civil proceedings in magistrates courts. I see nothing wrong with that, nor with a civil recovery scheme that will give the Assets Recovery Agency the power to sue people in the High Court to recover property derived from crime. In my view, there is nothing wrong either in tackling the tax position of convicted criminals by giving the Assets Recovery Agency the power to assess a person's tax position and issue what I hope would be a substantial tax demand.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) made the plea that money should be returned to communities that have suffered at the hands of despicable criminals. I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will clarify the matter. I believe that the Bill provides that money confiscated from criminals can be used again in our communities.
Many people in our communities see what is going on around them. They know that something is desperately wrong when a person who seems to be unemployed and living on benefit runs around in several cars, all of which have personalised number plates. That person may have a large American camper van at his door, and may also own a boat. There is something sadly wrong with that. I am sure that the Bill will improve our communities, and I shall very much support it during its progress through the House.