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Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West): I want to speak on new clauses 8 and 9, which I tabled along with the Chairman and other members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. We do not intend to press the new clauses to a vote. None the less, they outline issues that are clearly worthy of serious debate.
Before I deal with the substance of those issues, I shall explain why I propose the new clauses. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee had a pre-arranged visit to Northern Ireland in pursuit of its inquiry into the financing of terrorism, and it was not anticipated that members of the Committee would return in time for this debate. Unfortunately, the timetabling of the debate was such that the original arrangements could not be altered. Having said that, some members of the Committee, whom I understand have taken an early flight back from Belfast, are present for this debate. Although I am still beholden to make our case, it is a reflection of the seriousness and concern with which they regard this issue that they have made such an effort.
The Committee's objective was to pinpoint the key sources of paramilitary funds, and to examine ways in which the Government and law enforcement agencies could cut off those money flows. The Committee is still taking evidence and I am therefore restricted in what I can say. However, I can say that we learned very early in our consideration of the subject that there is an increasingly strong connection between paramilitary organisations and organised crime. As a result of that discovery, the focus of our inquiry has shifted to a certain extent.
We recognise that the Bill is directed at more conventional criminality than paramilitary-linked outrages. Nevertheless, the added benefit of the Bill is its potential for cutting off the finance that fuels the flames of violence in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has an Organised Crime Taskforce to tackle the problem, but the proposed Assets Recovery Agency will be an important and welcome addition and support.
Although the Committee's examination of these issues has been in Northern Ireland, there can be no doubt that some considerations are common to fighting criminality anywhere in the UK. Above all, those who are subject to financial investigations are likely to be ruthless and vicious people, whether or not they have paramilitary links. The closer that such investigations get to the targets,
The Criminal Assets Bureau is the Irish equivalent of the proposed Assets Recovery Agency. We were told that the formation of the bureau in the mid-1990s arose from widespread public concern about the growth of organised crime, and especially about the murders of a policeman, Garda Jerry McCabe, and the investigative journalist, Veronica Guerin. Those two murders illustrated most clearly the potential dangers of the work that must be done. Over and above that, we heard other tales of intimidation, threats and violence against officials working on issues such as drug trafficking and social security.
When inviting people to take posts as financial investigators or when staff of other agencies are involved in investigations, we must recognise that we are exposing people to risks for which they may never have been trained. The success of the agency will depend to a great extent on staff with professional skills who may never have envisaged being in the forefront of the fight against organised crime. In such circumstances, it is necessary to give them maximum protection. It seemed to the Committee that if we are to pursue serious criminals effectively, we need to provide officials who do so with a measure of protection. That protection will allow them to go about their work with confidence that no harm will come to them as a result. They and their families must also feel secure that no harm with come to their relatives.
In the Republic of Ireland, that protection has been provided to civilian staff of the Criminal Assets Bureau through the statutory provision of anonymity. When staff participate in searches, they may be identified to the respondent only as "a member of the bureau staff", provided that they are accompanied by a member of the local Gardai. When letters are sent out about unpaid tax under the revenue Acts, they can be signed off merely in the name of the Criminal Assets Bureau, and not in the name of the individual conducting the investigation. Furthermore, it is an offence to identify publicly any member of the bureau's civilian staff or any member of his or her family. Staff of the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform have stressed to us just how important they believe that protection is in enabling the bureau to pursue the recovery of criminal assets effectively.
The assets and money recovered are a measure of the bureau's success. So far, 50 cases brought under the Republic's proceeds of crime legislation have been taken through the courts successfully. As a result, 21 million punts have been frozen and a further 28 million punts taken in tax. Given the time scale involved, there will be further returns from assets that are currently frozen.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee recognises the potential for the Assets Recovery Agency to play a similar role in pursuing organised crime. We want it to be as effective as the Criminal Assets Bureau in the Republic of Ireland, if not better. Protection for the staff of the new
We tabled new clauses 8 and 9 because it was not apparent to us that such protection would be provided under the Bill. We do not claim that the new clauses provide all the answers to all the questions posed.
Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire): I thank the hon. Gentleman for speaking to the new clauses so ably on behalf of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I wrote to the Minister on behalf of the Committee when we published our special report and, as a result of receiving a generous response suggesting what he might say tonight, we discussed the issue when the Committee met in Belfast this morning. We concluded that his reply was as far as we could expect a Minister to go given the short notice and the circumstances. We welcome the suggestion that he will consider the matter closely and sympathetically. That is why the Committee decided that we should not press the new clauses to a vote.
Mr. Bailey: I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. As a member of the Committee who was not in Belfast, I am glad that by a process of intellectual osmosis I was able to reach the right conclusion.
I welcome the assurances that my hon. Friend the Minister gave in his opening remarks and his constructive engagement with this issue. I accept his genuine desire to find a way forward to overcome some of the legal obstacles. On the basis of that, I thank him and hope that he will take seriously the comments made in the debate and will do everything within his power to address the issues that have been raised.
Norman Baker: I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey). He put his case with moderation and probably convinced nearly everyone in the Chamber of the validity of his arguments. I also welcome the fact that the Minister has been good enough to say that he believes that there is merit in those arguments and that he will consider them. As the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) said, that is as much as we can expect of a Minister at this stage.
New clause 8 has considerable merits. Liberal Democrat Members support it and my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), our Northern Ireland spokesman, expressed his support when I discussed the matter with him earlier. It seems sensible not to press the new clause to a vote, and I must point out to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), with whom I worked on and off in Committee, that we are working under a guillotine. Therefore, if a Minister says that he will consider a new clause carefully, it is not a sensible use of time to spend 15 minutes in the Division Lobbies, not least because a Division now might persuade Labour to vote the wrong way when we want them to vote the right way after they have had a chance to consider the matter.
One point that I would make in passing about new clause 8 is that it is paramount that, if the safety of an individual is compromised or could be compromised, anonymity should be provided for the individual. Equally, checks and balances must be in place to ensure that the facility for anonymity is not misused. If there is a choice
Another point occurs to me but it probably goes beyond this debate. It is important to ensure proper co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Criminal Assets Bureau in the Republic. If we are to make the Bill work properly, a concordat or a similar measure should be in place to ensure co-operation. Perhaps it takes place already, but Northern Ireland Members will know more about that than I do.
I am sorry to return to the arguments of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, but it is not fair to criticise the Government for the time that they have allocated to the Bill. Such criticism is not appropriate. They provided 39 stepsif I may call them thatin Committee and a great deal of time. If members of the Committee did not reach the amendments that they wanted to discuss, we should look to ourselves and the way in which we used our time instead of blaming the Government.
I am not particularly convinced that amendments Nos. 67, 66, 167 and 166, which were tabled by Conservative Members, are the appropriate way forward. I am not sure that they make sense. Amendments Nos. 66 and 67 would delete the words "either" and "or at once" in clause 352(4)(a), which is the paragraph that deals with answering questions, but the same words also appear in subsection (4)(c), which covers the production of documents. As far as I can seeI might have misread the amendmentsthe words are not deleted in that paragraph. Therefore, if the Conservative amendments are approved, there would be no requirement to answer questions at once, but there would be a requirement to produce documents at once. That might be the intention of Conservative Members, but it appears a little inconsistent.