Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Ainsworth: That is nonsense, and the hon. and learned Gentleman ought to know it. I have been a Member of Parliament for 10 years and I do not know how many times I have seen at my surgery women who claim that their husband ran up debt on a credit card, in a credit agreement or in payment for a car without them knowing anything about it. They are not responsible for that debt, but they end up being jointly and severally liable and losing their matrimonial home as a result. That happens all the time, and the hon. and learned Gentleman must know that. Although there is no joint responsibility for credit card bills, there is a joint responsibility to pay the mortgage, and if people cannot do so they lose their home. If the hon. and learned Gentleman can tell me that that does not happen, I will be more than happy to listen to him.

Vera Baird rose

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall give way to my hon. Friend in a moment because I want to deal with some of the points that she made.

What about a person who loses their job? How is that the fault of the spouse? Yet the spouse becomes liable for the financial situation that results. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough must know that the circumstances that apply to the innocent spouse in that case are the same as those that apply to the innocent spouse of a criminal. Hon. Members are saying that we should provide protection in one case but not the other. I think that my honest constituents who find themselves in that situation would find it offensive if we gave protection to the spouses of drug peddlers that they themselves are not entitled to.

7.15 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) expressed concerns about time for payment. I refer her to clause 12, which says that if a defendant shows that he needs time to pay, he can be provided with six months, which can be extended to 12 months. Clause 62 provides that any person who may be affected by action that the receiver proposed to take can apply to the Crown court, which can give them extra time to pay. The receiver has discretion, where there are enough assets, to choose which to go for. I suggest that in those circumstances the spouse would be in a situation no worse than that faced by many of our constituents.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Ainsworth: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael).

Mr. Carmichael: I am not quite the Minister's hon. Friend. He makes a compelling case for reforming the law on debt and on the removal of family members as a result of heritable repossession. I look forward to considering the legislation that will no doubt flow from that. As ever,

26 Feb 2002 : Column 623

the Minister makes the case on the worst-case scenario—that of the drug dealer, whose trade must be perfectly obvious. I suggest that many cases will involve not a drug dealer but a person who, to all intents and purposes, appears to be a perfectly respectable member of the business community. An example was given earlier of someone who runs a tanning studio in Glasgow, a scrap business or a security company—something with a high cash turnover. In those cases, it may be difficult to establish the facts, but surely it should be open to innocent members of the family to seek protection, and that is what our amendments aim to achieve.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman knows that this provision applies to criminal confiscation and to individuals who have criminal convictions. He knows that the circumstances that we are discussing will probably arise in cases in which a criminal lifestyle assumption has been triggered, and he will know which offences, or pattern of offences, trigger the assumptions procedure. Otherwise, we would be talking about confiscating only the proceeds of a particular crime. We are not talking about cases in which there has been no pattern of criminal activity over a period or evidence of a lifestyle offence being committed. I mentioned drug dealing because it is a lifestyle offence, as the hon. Gentleman will know. We are talking about the homes of convicted criminals.

Vera Baird: My hon. Friend said some time ago that we are talking about cases in which the home has been acquired, lock, stock and barrel, through the proceeds of crime, but that is absolutely the opposite of the situation that we are talking about. Clause 101 protects only those matrimonial homes that have not been obtained from the proceeds of crime, so with great respect to my hon. Friend, what he said was not right.

I agree with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) that my hon. Friend makes a good case for providing protection for families in cases where mortgages are to be called in. If, however, the relevant law is wrong, duplicating it in the Bill will not improve it.

Forgive me for making a long intervention, but may I just ask one more question, Madam Deputy Speaker? My hon. Friend referred to clause 62, which allows any person to make a further application to the Crown court. However, under the Bill the Crown court does not have any power to respond to the application by an injured spouse.

Mr. Ainsworth: The power relates to the time to pay; I am sorry if that point was not clear. My hon. Friend made much of the fact that she did not think that it was possible to make representations, and was concerned that there would not be time to pay. There is both discretion and time to pay; it is possible to make representations. Hon. Members have said that I have made a good case for the reform of debt and that we should not be making matters worse. However, we would make things worse if we gave protection to family homes where the family had got into debt, because that would have wide ramifications. I do not know what would be the position of different parties and individuals in the house, but it would not be within the scope of the Bill.

As I have explained, we are not changing the law, which has operated for a long time in the jurisdictions of England and Wales. The power has been in existence

26 Feb 2002 : Column 624

throughout the time when confiscation legislation has been in place; if we are going to talk about the issue in relation to debt, this is the wrong starting point.

Vera Baird: My hon. Friend's point about the law having been in existence for some time is relatively minor, given the vast extension of the power to seize the proceeds of crime that the Bill will rightly introduce.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend knows about, and supports, the real need for legislation given the massive problem that we face. The Bill would not be necessary or deemed proportionate if the problem did not exist. I accept that, as a result of historic precedents, different circumstances apply under the three jurisdictions, but to say that because something applies in Scotland it must apply in England and Wales is a strange construction to put on devolution, and would give us real problems.

The other amendments in this group apply only to Scotland. Amendment No. 207 seeks to extend to same-sex partners the protections that are available to the spouse. Clause 101 provides a degree of protection for the accused's spouse or former spouse and replicates the Proceeds of Crime (Scotland) Act 1995, which in turn mirrors section 40 the Bankruptcy (Scotland) Act 1985. The law makes different provision in different contexts for spouses, cohabitees and dependants. In the 1985 and 1995 Acts, and now the Bill, the main question under Scottish jurisdiction is balancing the rights of creditors or the public against the needs of children and spouses. The protection does not extend to cohabitees, whether they are same-sex or not. Spouses have agreed to financial obligations to each other in a way in which cohabitees have not.

The Scottish Executive are to issue a draft family law Bill based on the Scottish Law Commission's 1992 report. The commission did not propose that protection against the owner of the family home selling it or giving up the tenancy should be extended to cohabitees, whether same-sex or otherwise.

Mr. Carmichael rose

Mr. Ainsworth: I know that the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene, and I would like to give way to him, but we have a lot of important amendments to discuss. We have spent a lot of time on this group and I have already taken a lot of important interventions.

Any changes in this area of the law should not be made piecemeal; they need to be part of a coherent package. I hope that I have explained to Members what, I accept, is a difficult area of the law. However, anomalies would be created if we went down the tempting road of simply examining the issue superficially. I hope that Opposition Members will not to press their amendments to a vote for the reasons that I have given. If not, I hope that my hon. Friends will be prepared to vote them down.

Mr. Grieve: I am sorry to hear the Minister's response to what, I hoped, were serious and constructive proposals. I hope that I may be forgiven if I did not detect that in advancing his arguments the Minister was not partly persuaded of the merit of the case that I tried to make, and felt that there were intervening factors that required him to make a contrary case.

26 Feb 2002 : Column 625

I shall pick up a couple of the Minister's points, which highlight the oddity of the Government's position. First, a telling and learned point was made by the hon. Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) about the fact that the proposal has nothing to do with situations where we are certain that assets that are the proceeds or benefits of crime have been used to purchase a house. In those circumstances, there would be no exception, but in circumstances in which the director has not satisfied the court that the person's interest in his family home has been acquired as a benefit of his criminal conduct, new clause 2 kicks in. The idea that, as a result of our proposal, an individual could leave his wife and children in a £5 million house somewhere in Surrey is far-fetched. As we examine clause 102, which applies to Scotland—I am asking that it apply to England, Wales and Northern Ireland—we can see that the court has enormous flexibility and the ability to

I can envisage a situation in which, while there ought to be enough money to provide a house, it will not be in leafy Surrey. The new clause is fair, decent and proper, and the provision that it makes is distinct from the question of mortgages and debts. We have strong views because sometimes mortgages are foreclosed in painful circumstances, but at least they concern private property rights. If a person does not honour those rights, they will not receive any money. Courts have powers of postponement, which they sometimes exercise, but eventually the trap door opens, or closes, and people go.

We are putting together a policy designed to attack criminals, which the Opposition support. Indeed, there is universal support in the House for the principles of the Bill, but we are seeking to mitigate its harshness. In those circumstances, a different set of rules should apply; we should differentiate the rights of the state upholding the rule of law from those of the person to whom the state should sometimes show mercy.

Next Section

IndexHome Page