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Norman Baker: There are three categories of people involved here. First, there are the criminals who want to hire the best lawyers, as the hon. Gentleman puts it; that is the category that the Government want to pursue. Secondly, there are the hon. Gentleman's constituents, who are entirely innocent and the victims of crime. Thirdly, there are those who may be innocent but who might be swept up by the provisions of the Bill and who may not be able, if the thresholds are set too high, to escape from the one-way street that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield described. That could include some of the hon. Gentleman's constituents. That is the category of people about whom we are concerned.
Looking at amendment No. 57 in terms of plain English, it seems to proposeperhaps I am misreading itthat a defence in these circumstances would be to say, "This money was stolen before the Act came into force, so you can't touch it." That might be a good game for lawyers, but people outside in the real world would regard it as ludicrous. Yet that is what the amendment seems to be all about. The Conservatives seem to want to water down the Bill, to weaken it and to try to draw the teeth from it.
I understand the point about retrospectivity; after all, we must remember that, by his own confession, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield is descended from cattle and sheep thieves and therefore has a vested interest in this matter. [Interruption.] Yes! The other Members on the Conservative Front Bench did not know that, but in his maiden speech he confessed to being descended from cattle and sheep thieves in the Borders. Indeed, as the shadow Home Secretary is here, perhaps I could just mention, Mr. Lord, as it is directly relevant
Mr. Davidson: I take that point. Last week or the week before, when I was coming into the House, I passed the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). He gave me a cheery little wave and said, "I'm off to launder some money." I hope that that will also be taken into account when the future of the said Member is discussed. But it would be irrelevant for me to pursue that matter further, so I shall not do so.
Much of the discussion that we have heard from lawyers has smacked of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I recognise that the issues are important, but hon. Members ought also to bear in mind the wider circumstances outside. We have a responsibility to ensure that we are not overly self-indulgent, and that we remember the people whom we represent. I am quite clear as to what the people I represent want me to pursue: draconian measures against those who blight their lives.
I hope that the Under-Secretary, who, along with his colleague, the Minister of State, Scotland Office, has been extremely agreeable during this exercise today as well as in Committee, is not going to be too agreeable in conceding too much ground. The Under-Secretary has, of course, got form, having been a Whip in the past, and I know that he wants to demonstrate that he is not just a mindless thug. He wants to show that there is actually a heart there, but I hope that he will not do that by weakening the legislation.
It would be entirely out of order for me to observe that SNP Members are at last back in their places here, despite having played absolutely no part in the work of the Committee, because they chose not to apply to the Liberals for a place on it.
Mr. Davidson: Well, well, well: trying to get protection from the teacherthat is an old one. The hon. Lady has not answered the point and the fact is that the SNP did not ask for a place on the Committee. The hon. Member for Lewes, with whom I do not always agree, is shaking his head, so it must be true.
Mr. Weir: As my hon. Friend the Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) pointed out, that matter has been discussed in great detail. I worry about the hon. Gentleman, who seems to have an unhealthy obsession with it. It has been well discussed in the debate and he would do better if he commented on the merits of this matter.
Mr. Davidson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, but I, of course, have been able to discuss the merits of this and other matters at considerable length, because I was a member of the Committee. I volunteered to serve, as did many of my colleagues here, but, unless I am mistaken, there was no nationalist on the Committee. Indeed, not a single one of them asked to be on the Committee. If those remarks are out of order, the Speaker would point it out to me.
Mr. Speaker: Order. I have just arrived in the Chamber. The hon. Gentleman's remarks are out of order, because he is implying that the Committee of Selection got it wrong, and he would not want to do that. He is questioning the Committee of Selection procedure.
Mr. Davidson: I certainly would not wish to question the Committee of Selection in any way whatever. Its members are a fine body of men indeed, and women. I was once a member, but my understanding is that the Committee selects only from those who volunteer or are volunteered. As the nationalists were not volunteered
Mr. Davidson: I shall conclude. I was tempted to say "finally", but, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) knows, when a Member uses that word he is often only 40 per cent. through his speech and wants to give the audience hope.
If people in my community and in the communities represented by many other Members who have considered the Bill are to be safer, action must be taken against the major criminals who curse our society and, indeed, against their collaborators. Those criminals could not survive without the collaboration of some lawyers, accountants, bankers and others in the financial community. The sooner the legislation goes through the House and starts to bite the criminals and their allies, the better.
Mr. Wilshire: I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) and pleased to see that he is back on form. I can only conclude that he has recovered from his beloved Scottish rugby team's defeat at the hands of the English. I am glad that he is better and over it. I am also pleased that he made his little speech about watering down provisions only once, because that means that I have to say only once that the amendment is simply an attempt to make the Bill fair and just and nothing to do with watering it down. I think he understands that, but he prefers to suggest that he does not.
Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that amendment No. 57 specifically aims to water down the legislation by ruling out retrospection? It would therefore give any criminals with an eye on the Chamber plenty of notice and allow them to hide their ill-gotten gains if they so wish.
Mr. Wilshire: I do not agree one little bit. The amendment would introduce fairness and justice, exactly as I suggest, when draconian measures, which are neither fair nor just, are being proposed by the Government. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok made a remark with which I agree: there is a point when a layman's common sense may add to the erudition of the lawyers, who are being technical and wise.
It is blindingly obvious to me, as a layman, that although what we are discussing is entitled "Civil recovery", it is actually all about criminality. We are discussing confiscation and seizure, which are penalties for criminality. Seizing or confiscating in this context is not a civil matter. It is a penalty, arising in this instance from assets acquired criminally. If such assets are to be seized, sooner or later it must be demonstrated that they were the proceeds of crime. As a layman, I am struggling to understand what civil recovery and civil law have to do with criminality.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) gave another reason for supporting the amendment when he pointed out that, under the Bill as it stands, it would be possible to go back 12 years to seize assets. Even if we accept that retrospection should be possible, that is surely excessive. Anyone seeking to defend himself against the seizure of business assetsthe chances are that a business will be involved somewhere, rather than stashes of £5 notes all over the placeis unlikely to have records going back further than six years, because that is the point at which the Inland Revenue says that it is not necessary to keep them.
I hope the Minister will explain in detail why he and his advisers reached the opposite conclusion from the Joint Committee. We are aware that there is a difference of opinion between two groups who have studied the same
Amendment No. 60 also strikes me as reasonable. I do not see it as a watering down; I see it as allowing the courts to do what they are good atusing their discretion on the basis of the facts before them in each case. The Government seem to be trying to make the courts into a rubber stamp. They want to say "We, the Government, wish this to happen; you, the court, will do what you are told rather than what you consider to be just and fair."
As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield said, there might be grave circumstances in which it would be appropriate to increase the burden of proof. Some of the consequences of action taken under civil recovery provisions may involve the loss of irreplaceable assets. Under the Bill, seized assets can be sold ahead of a resolution of the issue. In that event, assets that could not be replaced because they were unique would disappear.
Grave consequences could also arise from the seizure of business assets. The owner of the business might lose tradea part of his livelihoodthat could not be recovered later. That would probably mean the closure of the business even if the attempt to confiscate the assets ultimately failed. In those circumstances, too, the burden of proof should be increased.
In an earlier debate this evening, we discussed the possibility of spouses and children being made homeless. If ever there was something that was grave and serious, it is that. I would argue that the burden of proof in such issues should be higher than is proposed in the Bill.