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Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Will the Minister confirm whether the Government intend to publish a draft code of practice for consideration, as the Bill moves from the House to another place? He was very helpful in Committee in talking about publishing such drafts and, at all stages, the Government have tried their best to provide helpful, indicative guidance. Will he follow that example with the new code of practice?
Mr. Ainsworth: I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that we have made this proposal because of concerns expressed by him, his hon. Friends and others. I will try to ensure that people receive any draft so that they can see it in advance, but I do not know what the practicalities or the time scale for that will be.
Having confirmed that any such order will be subject to the affirmative procedure, I turn to the new clauses and amendments that the Opposition have tabled. New clause 8 would grant anonymity in certain circumstances to the agency's staff. The hon. Member for East Hampshire
We are aware that the Criminal Assets Bureau in Ireland enjoys statutory anonymity, and we are considering the position in the United Kingdom, as we want the agency's staff to be able to carry out their job effectively, to bear down on the proceeds of crime, without suffering from intimidation or reprisals in doing so. However, we must take into account the current provisions that apply to those who deal with the criminal fraternity.
Anonymity is currently only available to police and customs officers in very limited circumstances in investigating terrorism, and civilian staff working for the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office have no statutory right to anonymity. So it would be a big step to allow anonymity for agency staff, but I am fully aware of the situation in Northern Ireland, which perhaps differs from that in the rest of the jurisdiction. I am also aware of the worry that the agency should be able to attract good-quality staff and to do its job effectively in Northern Ireland. I want to reassure Members that, although I do not want to accept the new clause now, we are seriously considering the position.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I appreciate the Minister giving way on that point because not only did we discover that anonymity was effective in the Criminal Assets Bureau, which faces similar troubles, but we discovered today that there are those from England, Scotland and elsewhere who believe that anonymity is important if they are to fight organised crime, which is increasing not only in Northern Ireland but elsewhere. I welcome the Minister's acceptance of the issue, but I ask him not to give too much weight to the views of those who think that it impinges on civil liberties because we have to consider the liberties of the servants of the state who are trying to defeat organised crime.
Mr. Ainsworth: I was about to deal with the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. Not only the agency's staff but those working for law enforcement and asset recovery bodies in Scotland will be involved, and they will do exactly the same job and be answerable to the Scottish Ministers or to the Lord Advocate, so we cannot consider only the agency's staff. Other financial investigators who operate outside the agency in other public bodies will investigate serious offences, and we would not necessarily want an automatic difference to be drawn between those who work for the agency and those other people.
Hon. Members understand some of the difficulties involved. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about not being too concerned about some of the civil liberties arguments. I absolutely recognise the particular circumstances that can apply in Northern Ireland and the fact that we may have to deal with people who commit offences in the rest of the jurisdiction that are as serious as those that need to be dealt with in Northern Ireland, and I seek to assure the hon. Gentleman that such issues will be considered properly and that they will be discussed in another place.
Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman points out some of the complications and difficulties that exist. We will announce our conclusions as soon as we reach them, having listened to everyone concerned and will, if necessary, table amendments in the other place.
Rev. Martin Smyth: I understand that people have a right of appeal if they think that such legislation is used unfairly. That protection would be acceptable, but given that we live in a world where two strikes are allowed before action can be taken, where people are acquitted by the courts and have gone free and where godfathers have not been brought before the courts, does the Minister accept that it is important to consider the lifestyle as well?
Mr. Ainsworth: Yes, and we have got to take seriouslynot only in the Northern Ireland contextthe cross-reference between organised crime, money- laundering offences and terrorism. If that was not apparent to all of us before the events of 11 September to the degree that it should have been, it certainly ought to be apparent to us now. Some serious issues therefore need to be considered. I do not promise the hon. Gentleman that I will be able to square the circle to his satisfaction and that of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, but we shall certainly consider those issues seriously, and we intend to table amendments if we can find a way through such things.
Opposition amendment No. 63 would exclude civil recovery investigations from the offence of prejudicing an investigation. The Government believe that there should be sanctions and that anybody who prejudices an investigation or a prospective investigation by making a disclosure about it or by tampering with documents relevant to that investigation should be subject to the possibility of penalties. I neither understand nor accept the justification or reason for the amendment, and unless I hear something very strange from Opposition Members, I shall be asking the House to oppose it.
Mr. Ainsworth: I respect the right hon. Gentleman's knowledge, but ask him to accept that we considered the civil classification and differences that apply under part 5 for many hours in Committee. In normal civil circumstances, the situation is straightforward: an allegation is made and tested in court, one to one. In these circumstances, the director needs some investigatory powers in order to be able to bring a case in the first place. We are not talking about a straightforward confrontation over an issue as usual in civil litigation.
Effectively, Opposition Members suggest in the amendment that people should be allowed to tamper or interfere with or prevent an initial investigation free from any chance of anyone taking action against them. I do not accept that that should be so. I believe that, broadly, we have cross-party support on bearing down on the proceeds
Mr. Stinchcombe: Will the Minister confirm that there are occasions already where interfering with civil proceedings can lead to criminal offencesfor example, trying to pervert the course of justice in a libel trial?
Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is more knowledgeable then me on the matter, but I can tell him that there are similar criminal sanctions associated with civil investigations in other legislation. For example, under section 177 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, a person can be fined or imprisoned if they produce false or misleading material to an investigator. So, as my hon. Friend's example also shows, the proposed provision is not entirely without precedent.
Government amendment No. 108 will extend the definition of judges who may hear applications in the Crown court in England and Wales. It was tabled in response to an issue raised in Committee. I assured hon. Members that I would revisit it. The amendment's wording is designed to exclude people such as the Lord Mayor of the City of London and aldermen, who are entitled to sit as judges in the central criminal court, but none the less widens the definition as suggested by Opposition Members in Committee.
Under Opposition amendments Nos. 66 and 67, the director of the Assets Recovery Agency would not be able to conduct an interview with an individual under a disclosure order with immediate effect. We discussed that point in Committee. The proposed disclosure order is modelled on the Proceeds of Crime (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, which contains the word "forthwith". The Northern Ireland legislation contains a code of practice in relation to the exercise of the investigation powers. That is one of the reasons why we have proposed under new clause 4 to introduce similar guidance. We will try to address the specific point raised in Committee by covering the whole gamut of provisions, such as access to legal advice and the rest, in guidance.
Opposition amendments Nos. 166 and 167 would do the same in Scotland. Government new clause 12 will require Scottish Ministers to introduce a similar code of practice. I therefore hope that hon. Members will be able to accept that the same logic should be applied to jurisdiction north of the border.
Government amendments Nos. 98 and 99 are technical. I hope that I do not have to waste the time of the House in going over them. We had overlooked the fact that the powers of the High Court in Northern Ireland are more limited. Amendment No. 98 broadens the scope of clause 370, and amendment No. 99 excludes from the clause account monitoring orders made in relation to a civil recovery investigation in England and Wales, as the High Court of England and Wales already has the powers to deal with such applications.
I accept that Opposition amendments Nos. 73 and 75 would introduce similar provisions to those in paragraph 7(3) of schedule 6 to the Terrorism Act 2000, which are exercised under the affirmative resolution. We consider, nevertheless, that given the limited and technical nature of the definition of "customer information" in the Bill, the negative procedure is reasonable and will provide for appropriate parliamentary scrutiny.