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Vera Baird: I join colleagues who have complimented the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, particularly its Chairman, on the convincing, honest and straightforward way in which the Committee presented its arguments.
I shall deal briefly with amendments Nos. 66 and 67, which would amend clause 352, under which a judge can make a disclosure order which might require someone to answer questions at a time specified in a notice at a place specified in a notice, or at once. I agree with the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) that amendment
Mr. Grieve: I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady, but I disagree with her slightly. If the words "at once" were removed, the court would have to infer reasonableness in the way in which the order was defined. I would consider it unreasonable for an immediate demand to be made, when it is clear from the rest of the clause that a time and place to be specified ought to give the person at least time to prepare himself. Removing "at once" removes a mischief.
Vera Baird: I take the hon. Gentleman's pointhe does have a pointbut bearing in mind the tenor of the power in clause 352, I am less sanguine that the courts would necessarily connote that reasonableness involved the opportunity to delay. That is my concern about the entire clause. Whether the power to order answers at once is express or implied, that difficulty arises. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can help me with that.
I do not believe that there is a breach of the human rights convention and article 6.3. There is no human right not to answer questions. What matters is the use to which the answers are put thereafter. Of course, under clause 49 the director can pass on information which has been obtained by means of those unique powers. That may cause a difficulty, but it is the subject of a later debate.
Mr. Hawkins: Both my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and I are listening carefully to the hon. Lady. Does she recognise that those of us who have practised in the courts are familiar with the many occasions on which the standard police warningthe cautionis given: "You are not obliged to say anything, but anything you say will be taken down and may be used in evidence"? The new procedure has no provision for cautioning. Does the hon. Lady consider that if we leave the words requiring somebody to answer questions at once, without taking any advice at all, there is cause for concern? I appreciate that, in part, she supports us on the matter.
Vera Baird: It is obviously a long time since the hon. Gentleman was in practice, if he thinks that the caution takes that form any more, or has done for the past decade. I do not accept entirely what he says about caution and the absence of a caution from the clause. There are powers in the financial services provisions and in the fraud provision to require answers without the need for caution. The limitation is on what the answers can be used for.
The dilemma is this: whether, at common lawleave out human rights entirelythere ought in all realism to be a right to take legal advice. Even my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) does not imagine that the wealthy criminals whom the Bill attacks keep their lawyers in a box, drinking wine and waiting in case the director should come to call. How will the power to demand answers at oncewhether that power is express or, as I suggest it would be, impliedbe consistent with giving people their basic right to be advised? The Minister will recall that the matter was raised in Committee, but it was never resolved. That remains my anxiety.
I shall follow on from the earlier point about the interrelationship between crimes. Just as the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee explored the subject of petrol smuggling in Northern Ireland directly, so indirectly did the Public Accounts Committee. That discussion made clear the extent to which drugs, petrol smuggling and other crimes were all tied in together and all involved money laundering. Interestingly, it also showed how the outwardly respectable are clearly involved in illegal activities.
In the case of petrol smuggling, there is no doubt that the large oil companies are major players in the field. They supply enormous amounts of fuel to petrol stations just over the border in the Republic, knowing that such quantities of fuel will not be consumed in the immediate area. They are, so to speak, fuelling the smuggling trade by providing enormous quantities to those who they know, or ought to know, are using it for illegal purposes, in the same way as the tobacco companies collaborated in smuggling in various locations.
The words "at once" are an important element of the clause, in terms of providing both documents and answers, but particularly documents. Over the years, I have been surprised by the number of businesses in trouble which have fires in their offices. That is obviously entirely coincidental and nothing whatever to do with any suggestion of malpractice, but if the police or other authorities have an interest in documents, it is clearly important that they are produced at once, before they spontaneously combust.
Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman may have been temporarily absent when it was made clear that we have not sought to amend the provisions of the Bill in relation to documents. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) said that to be consistent, we ought to have done so, and we pointed out in response that there is a difference. It is perfectly well understood in the law that one must produce documents at once. Our amendment seeks to avoid the obligation to answer questions at once.
Mr. Davidson: I was sure that even the Conservatives would not have the gall to suggest that documents should not be provided at once in the circumstances, even though, from their conduct in the Committee, it seemed possible that we were moving in that direction. All the parties represented in the Chamber, with the nationalists, who were not on the Committee, will be aware of the approach that the Conservatives generally took.
I return to the matter of providing verbal answers at once. I have a difficulty with the prospect of people being tipped off that the authorities want to investigate some matter, and preparing an alibi and the lies that they will tell. That is as true of lawyers, accountants and bankers as of anyone else. There should be a provision for answers to be demanded at once. I fear that to delete such a provision would in some circumstances be to draw the teeth of the legislation. I accept that, if possible, it would be better to allow people time to prepare and to lift their lawyers, who may or may not have been drinking wine, out of the box, but there will be circumstances in which that is not in the public interest. The provision should be
Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I shall be brief. I am not seeking to offend anyone, but as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) read his prepared script and appeared not to have listened to any of my comments on the amendments, I do not see any reason why I should say the same things again. The hon. Gentleman asked whether recorders were covered. That is precisely what was sought in Committee; they are covered, so they will be available and able to help.
We discussed the term "at once" in Committee and I accept that it is exercising people. I do not want to go into detail on what the guidance will cover; indeed, I do not think that I can do so. The guidance that we envisage in new clauses 4 and 12 is designed to deal with the concerns raised in the amendments. That is our purpose and intention. It is not our intention to override people's rights to representation. However, some hon. Members appear to be encouraging me to preclude the ability to question people at once. Such questioning can be a very useful tool and I want to try to leave it available for use in appropriate circumstances, but yes, I also want to make certain that people have the right to advice, representation and the rest. Those are exactly the issues that I shall seek to cover in the code.
Mr. Ainsworth: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment; I notice that his hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), who raised concerns in that regard, is temporarily out of his seat. Disclosure orders cannot lead to criminal proceedings, so some of his comments were unnecessary and uncalled for.
Mr. Grieve: Clearly, the code of practice has the potential to be very helpful. However, if, as I think is likely, the code says that somebody who is required to answer questions should be given timeit may not be very long; even half an hour might be specifiedto understand and check their legal position, will not that be the most compelling of reasons to remove from the Bill the extraordinary two words, "at once"? The term is simply unnecessary and imposes a fetter through its insistence on immediate repliesan insistence that could turn out to be incompatible with the guidelines that I suspect may be produced.