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Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West): My hon. Friend suggests that trial should preferably be by jury. Does he accept that in many cases of the type that we are discussing, concerning money laundering and major fraud, juries are absolutely incapable of understanding what is put before them? I am afraid that there are too many examples of that already.

Mr. Osborne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He makes a good point about juries in complex financial fraud cases. The central point that I am making is that, regardless of whether it is a complex fraud case and regardless of whether there is a jury, a criminal conviction still has to be established beyond reasonable doubt. What is proposed in the legislation would change that and allow a court to bring a civil forfeiture action, which is simply on the balance of probabilities.

Stephen Hesford: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman missed the snippet in my speech in which I said that this procedure was common practice in the United States. Is he saying that that sophisticated democracy has got it wrong?

Mr. Osborne: I am not familiar with the regime in the United States, but I will take the hon. Gentleman at his word. In the United States there are of course very powerful other protections for the civil liberties of the individual, such as an enshrined Bill of Rights that is enforced by a Supreme Court, and it is a very different system from the system under which we live, which is a common law developed over hundreds of years and which protects our liberties under the law.

I finish by referring back to the Cabinet Office report, which asks a pertinent question. It asks who seriously believes that the police will waste their time putting together complex criminal charges against these people

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when they know that they can pursue a much easier civil route. Therefore, far from bringing the so-called untouchables within our grasp, the new powers will make them more untouchable—more untouchable by the criminal law. Although I support much of the Bill, I will need a lot of persuading by Ministers to convince me that I should support the draconian new powers of civil forfeiture.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Nine hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If each hon. Member who is called takes their full allocation, only six hon. Members will be successful. I hope that the mathematics will be understood by everyone present in the House.

7.43 pm

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to contribute, sooner than I had anticipated, to a debate on an issue of paramount importance to my constituents. Over the summer recess and during the general election campaign, they told me on the doorstep that crime was their No. 1 concern. They wanted the Government to deal with the drug industry, which permeates many families across the black country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) said, they know that, for too many people in Britain, crime does pay, and they expect Parliament to put an end to it. I hope that the Bill will go a long way to meet their concerns.

The recent British crime survey figures, which showed crime falling by 12 per cent. last year, were welcomed in the west midlands, but people recognise that there is still a long way to go. If the Government are going to be tough on crime, they must be tough on the dirty money that funds and motivates crime.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) said that many hon. Members live in a different world from their constituents. For many people in my constituency, organised crime is a strange faraway world that they feel does not relate to them, but it has a strong impact on everyday lives in many communities in Britain.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) vividly outlined how £1 million taken from a drug baron can take 50 kg of heroin off the streets of Britain, and yet, with all the new technologies—the mobile phone drug markets, the complex series of dealers—the Mr. Bigs at the end of the supply chain often evade capture. Yet we all know who these people are. On 18 October, the Sandwell edition of the Express and Star reported that Britain's five biggest drug barons were collectively worth £200 million. The Bill will allow us to tackle the Mr. Bigs of Britain; everyone in the House should welcome that.

The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) expressed his frustration that, for far too long, the police and the courts had not placed a high enough priority on the recovery of criminal assets. When we consider that the proceeds of crime account for 2 per cent. of gross domestic product, we realise that the scale of the problem is so great that we must collectively tackle it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) spoke about the money- laundering industry surrounding General Abacha, worth

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$4 billion alone. However, in 1999 in the United Kingdom, the value of receipts from confiscation orders was only £25 million—a tiny proportion of the overall gains made by criminal gangs. In addition, when drug trafficking convictions are secured, confiscation orders are issued in only one in five cases.

The Home Affairs Committee recommended in 1995 that the Home Office working group on confiscation should continue to keep legislation under constant review. That working group called for a more radical analysis of the case for extending the UK's existing, limited powers for confiscation without a criminal conviction. I congratulate the Government on responding to those recommendations.

I believe that the Bill recognises the scale of the challenges ahead. I welcome the creation of the new Assets Recovery Agency, because if we are to unravel the labyrinthine complexities of the dirty money audit trails, we shall need specialists to do so. As we found with the bin Laden network, Governments must act much earlier to freeze criminal assets before the dirty money disappears. The Bill rightly allows that to happen.

I believe that we have all recognised the responsibility that banks have to their communities to report any suspected dirty money transactions. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) raised a pertinent point when he expressed his concerns for finance industry workers. I know that the finance union UNIFI is concerned about the possible implications of clause 324 in respect of

that a transaction is being made with criminal money. I hope that the Minister will be able to allay the fears of its 160,000 members and persuade them that the law will target hotshot City financiers—like the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field)—who are the accomplices of the criminal gangs, not the front-line staff who work in the banks.

I hope that, as many hon. Members have said, we can send a clear message to civil liberties organisations, especially Liberty, that decent, hard-working people should have the right to live in a society free from the fear of crime and the menace that the drug cartels hold over our communities. We all need to make it clear that honest, hard-working, law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear from the Bill. The shadow Home Secretary may have a problem with certain smaller aspects of the Bill, but most people know who the people involved are.

I welcome the Government's commitment to double the value of recovered assets by 2004, and I hope that the Minister will set far more ambitious targets for the Assets Recovery Agency. The £45 million already pledged for asset recovery and the extra money for the new squad of financial investigators will go a long way to achieve those targets. The investigators will pit their wits against criminal masterminds who move money and assets around the globe, but with their success they will help to break the cycle of crime by cutting the cash that supplies funds for yet more criminal activity.

In conclusion, this is a good Bill. It will go a long way to disrupt the drug supply chains; it will take out crooked accountants; and it will undermine the financial base on which criminal gangs get their ill-gotten gains.

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7.50 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): We on the Liberal Democrat Benches also welcome the Bill, and perhaps with more enthusiasm than some hon. Members on this side of the House. I am quite impressed by the way in which the very limited role of the provisions on profit confiscation will be expanded. It is important that we recognise the interrelation of different sorts of crimes. Crimes relating to drugs offences, money- laundering offences or whatever do not exist on their own; there is a clear and intricate interrelation between the various different species of crime. It is very important for the credibility of the wider criminal justice system that that is recognised and that legislation such as the Bill is put on to the statute book.

Several hon. Members have spoken about the impact of drugs in their constituencies. As I have already said, the important thing about the Bill is that it will take confiscation beyond drugs. However, my constituency is about as different as one could hope to find from those represented by the hon. Members for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) and for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford). It is occasionally thought that we do not have a drugs problem in the northern isles, but I assure the House that, although we may not be as far down the road as some urban constituencies, we are very much on that road and we look with horror to see what awaits us unless something is done. I therefore welcome the Bill as part of an overall package.

Hon. Members will be aware that many of the Scottish provisions in the Bill are the result of a Sewel motion passed by the Scottish Parliament. In passing, I would say that a mechanism must be devised to incorporate more effective accountability, or the involvement of Ministers in the Scottish Executive, when that happens. Some of the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) about the rights and position of innocent third parties could quite easily be assuaged if answers on the availability of legal aid could be given, but they are obviously not presently available to hon. Members. I simply put that down as a marker for future modernisation of the procedures.

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