Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Cameron: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Ian Lucas: I must move on.

We must make it clear that profit from the crime of trade in heroin is so intolerable that we are determined to seek to eliminate it. The mandatory nature of the confiscation procedures proposed is essential. It sends a clear message that there will be no profit from crime. The piecemeal measures taken in the past few years, though welcome, have diluted the message that Parliament must send to the traffickers: "You will be pursued."

The creation of the Assets Recovery Agency is a bold step, expressing the importance of acting against those who profit from crime. We regularly hear press reports of the astronomical amounts made in the criminal drugs industry. I agree that we must set ambitious targets for the sums to be recovered from traffickers. We must find the most experienced and committed staff for the agency. We must monitor the agency to ensure that targets are met and that there is a regime so effective that those who are convicted of profiting from crime surrender all that profit. I would also like the money recovered to be used

30 Oct 2001 : Column 821

exclusively to compensate victims. It should also be used to treat offenders who become victims themselves through the use of drugs.

The creation of a structured basis on which to build action against those who profit from the proceeds of crime is long overdue. It provides the opportunity to proceed against criminals in a systematic and consistent manner within the rule of law. As a former lawyer, I recognise the importance of fairness in procedures and the establishment of guilt before legal action seizing property is authorised, but we must recognise the truth that our present policy against crime profiteers has been ineffective, that a new regime is needed, and that that regime must be rigorous to achieve its aims. The House should take it from me that there is no satisfaction in representing in our criminal justice system the heroin addict who repeatedly offends and is repeatedly caught. There is even less satisfaction in knowing that so-called respectable people in our society are making money from the wrecked lives of their victims.

The Bill strikes the right balance between the rights of society and those of the individual. We must make the criminal realise that he will not retain the profit of his trade if he is convicted; that the days of the drug baron serving a prison sentence and thereafter enjoying the proceeds of his crimes are gone. We must get the message through to these people that their trade is despicable, that they are the target of this legislation and that we are determined that they will be caught and made to pay.

8.8 pm

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): I start from the simple proposition that when a Government introduce a Bill of such size and scale, they must prove why it is so necessary. That is doubly true when liberty is being curtailed. There is no doubt that the Bill curtails liberty in some ways. The briefing that we have all received from Liberty and the Law Society made that point clear.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), although he was rather unfair to those of us on the Conservative Benches when he said that we defended only the civil liberties of bankers, lawyers and rich people. I made a speech two weeks ago in the debate about football hooliganism. I do not want a reputation for defending football hooligans one week and bankers, lawyers and drug addicts—or whatever he said—the next. If one cares about liberty and the rights of the individual as against the state, one sometimes may appear to be defending odd groups of people. Actually, one is defending a principle.

I accept that there is compelling proof—my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) made this point well—that some legislation is necessary. First, the figures provide clear evidence that only a small number of confiscation orders have been served. In 1998, there were 7,000 drug convictions, but less than 18 per cent. of them resulted in a confiscation order. Those figures probably underestimate the true scale of the problem because only the more serious drug offences make it to the courts. One would hope for a much higher percentage. The Minister was convincing on that.

The second reason for legislating is that there is a piecemeal approach to legislation and the bodies responsible for recovering the proceeds of crime. We have

30 Oct 2001 : Column 822

the central confiscation branch within the Crown Prosecution Service, which has just 10 people working in it and a budget of £1 million, and the asset forfeiture unit which is part of Customs and Excise, with a staff of just 13 and a budget of about £1 million. It is easy to get the feeling of a higgledy-piggledy organisation of different bodies that are responsible for recovering the proceeds of crime. Clearly not enough is being done, which is why Conservative Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton and I, welcome a Bill and measures being taken.

The third reason to legislate is the importance of deterrence. Conservative Members very much believe in deterrence. We want people to be frightened of being caught and punished. It is a powerful deterrent if people not only lose their liberty when they are sent to prison, but fear losing their money. We all remember the beginning of "Porridge" when the voice-over says, "Norman Stanley Fletcher, you seem to view prison as an occupational hazard." Many criminals—drug dealers in particular—view prison as an occupational hazard because they know that when they get out they do not need to have another occupation owing to their ill-gotten gains.

No one more than I wants drug dealers—many Labour Members spoke movingly on this subject—stripped of the proceeds of their crimes. Friends of mine have had their lives ruined by heroin. I want heroin dealers to lose their cars, houses and money. When they are convicted, I want them to suffer in the same way as their victims. I do not know, Madam Deputy Speaker, whether you, like me, are a fan of "The Sopranos", but in that magnificent American television series a mafia boss poses as a waste management executive. He has an incredibly lavish lifestyle—an enormous house, a swimming pool and dozens of cars. We want the smiles wiped from such people's faces when their assets are removed once they are convicted, as they should be. That is why we support the concept behind the Bill. There is proof that a Bill is needed, but many Opposition Members want to know whether it goes too far: has the performance and innovation unit got a little carried away?

I am not sure that the Minister completely addressed that concern. When liberty is being removed, we want to believe that he has a grip on every detail and clause that will affect us. We want to feel that pulsing through his veins, but I am not sure that I did. I shall listen carefully to the Under-Secretary's response.

I welcome certain aspects of the Bill. The concept of an Assets Recovery Agency is right. If the agency has clear goals and the resources that Ministers intend to give it, and if it is accountable and publishes its results in reports, it can do better than existing organisations. I also welcome the idea of tidying up current law. That is important because there are anomalies. It is clear that drug trafficking confiscation laws should be extended to all types of crime. At the moment, criminals can plead guilty to non-drug offences, because that enables them to protect the money that they have made from drug deals.

In addition, I welcome many of the new powers mentioned by Labour Members. We want a robust response. However, I have three concerns and a warning of what worries me in the future. My first concern relates to the new process of civil forfeiture. I understand the

30 Oct 2001 : Column 823

frustration at the fact that it is difficult to get the level of proof that is needed. As it says in the briefing document, one aim is to

The problem is simple: we are discussing a civil offence; it will be part of the civil process, and the civil law burden of proof will apply—which is, as we all know, lower than the burden of proof for a criminal offence. As a result, will there not be a danger of miscarriages of justice, especially when we consider—my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) put this well—the scale of the Assets Recovery Agency compared with the scale of the individual? I want to hear more about the safeguards that will prevent miscarriages of justice when there is a lower burden of proof.

Many hon. Members have received the Liberty briefing document. Sometimes when we talk about civil liberties they are too obscure and do not appear real. Liberty states:

That can happen to anyone, not just drug dealers and criminals. Such considerations sometimes have to be brought to life.

My second concern relates to the role of the Assets Recovery Agency. I welcome clarification if I am wrong, but it seems that it is to be both investigating and prosecuting. The power of prosecution was removed from the police and given to the CPS because it was thought that there was a conflict if a body both investigated and prosecuted.

My third concern relates to the confiscation orders set out in part 2. My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset made this point clearly. The judge of a good speech is how many notes get passed from the box to the Minister, and a veritable relay went on at that stage. Notes passed like batons. [Interruption.] I have experience of passing the notes, and I was going to say that it is sad when they do not fly thick and fast when one is speaking.

My hon. Friend made the point, which is clearly set out in the explanatory notes, that the confiscation orders can be triggered by minor offences. The notes state:

I am glad to see that notes are flying thick and fast as I enter the fertile territory that my hon. Friend opened up so brilliantly. We need that concern addressed.

Next Section

IndexHome Page