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New Clause 6


'In this Act (except in section 448(1)) a reference to an enactment includes a reference to—
(a) an Act of the Scottish Parliament;
(b) Northern Ireland legislation.'.—[Mr. Bob Ainsworth.]

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

Order for Third Reading read.

8.22 pm

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

As I did not have the opportunity to say the usual words at the end of the Committee stage for reasons that are understood—we can blame nothing but the system—I should like to record my thanks to a few people at the start of the Third Reading debate. This is the first Bill for which I have had responsibility and it has been like jumping in at the deep end. I want to thank my hon. Friends for their considerable support in Committee. The outrider, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson), was ever reminding me of the need for these measures and tried to ensure that I did not go soft or make them ineffective. I also thank my other hon. Friends who have considerable legal experience and brought their expertise to the Committee.

I genuinely thank both the Opposition parties that were represented in Committee for the way in which they handled matters. We have had our differences, which I will touch on briefly, but we gave the Bill proper scrutiny and have made a number of amendments. I am enormously grateful for their work and effort. I know how hard it is to do so from the Opposition Benches and the amount of time and effort needed to give such a measure proper scrutiny. I thank my officials and the officials of the House as well.

I should like to remind the House of the need for the Bill. The Bill is about crime. Catching criminals and putting them away is not enough—if crime is profitable, they are quickly replaced. Unless hon. Members are content to allow that situation to continue, they must support effective measures to remove the profit from crime. Recovering the money deprives crime of its working capital, increases the deterrent by taking the profit away and addresses the lack of public confidence in the rule of law.

It is to everyone's detriment that over the years this country has been lacking in terms of recovering the proceeds of crime. The majority of offenders go through the criminal justice system with little or no attempt made to apply confiscation. Only 1,200 drug traffickers and fewer than 200 other offenders had confiscation orders made against them in 2000-01. Enforcement of confiscation orders is poor. In the same year, orders to the value of £50 million were made and receipts were only

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£20 million. Restraint is rarely used—about 250 orders per annum were made. It is not available early enough, so prosecutors often wonder what on earth is the point as the money will have disappeared.

In the absence of criminal proceedings, there is no means of challenging the possession of criminal assets, no matter how blatant or powerful the evidence. The 1999 survey of law enforcement agencies showed that £440 million of suspect assets was held by 400 individuals. If that is evenly distributed, we effectively have 400 criminal millionaires living in our midst.

Much organised crime is still based on cash. The police are often unable to intervene when they can identify suspect cash being carried or on premises. The seizure of such cash and its forfeiture in summary civil proceedings can have a major disruptive impact. That measure is currently not available other than at borders.

Financial investigators need more help to trace criminal proceeds and gather evidence. Customer information orders and monitoring orders will help us to even the odds in the fight that we need to carry to the criminal fraternity.

Money-laundering regulations offer unnecessary loopholes. Defendants are hardly ever prosecuted and even when they are, acquittal rates are well above the average for many countries in similar situations.

There is continuing evidence of slackness in the reporting of suspect transactions. Last year's report to the Financial Services Authority on the Abacha case proves the point. The UK cannot comply with a request to freeze criminal assets until criminal proceedings are imminent in the requesting jurisdiction. That factor impeded the UK's ability to assist the Nigerian Government in the Abacha case.

Because of the powers that we are taking, we have tried to ensure that we have given sufficient concessions and safeguards. I believe that the Bill is now effective and balanced. We gave a commitment this evening to look at protecting the anonymity of staff in the Assets Recovery Agency in appropriate circumstances, as proposed by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. It will not necessarily be easy, but it is worth examining the matter seriously.

I was surprised by the position taken by Conservatives Members, and I continue to be so. I was convinced that the Liberal Democrats would adopt the position that they did indeed adopt, but I was surprised at the position of Conservative Members, which perhaps goes to show that naivety can continue well into one's forties—[Interruption.] I am talking about myself.

I entered into our consideration of the Bill believing that the main thrust of the Conservative Opposition would be that it is not as effective as it should be and that some measures should be strengthened. I was therefore surprised by the tabling in Committee of substantive amendments that would have weakened the Bill. [Interruption.] I happily acknowledge that some of the proposals that were made in Committee were useful and potentially make the Bill more effective, easier for us to pass into law and more compliant with the European convention on human rights. However, others would have punched great holes in our confiscation and assumptions proceedings. Measures in existing legislation that were enacted when the Conservative party was in power were suddenly considered to be too draconian and in need of watering down.

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In response to debate, we have undertaken to insert the proposed list of lifestyle crimes into the Bill, retaining the power to update it from time to time by order. For unlisted offences, the Bill raises the number of convictions that are required before the burden is placed on the defendant to show how his assets are not the proceeds of crime. We are retaining the serious risk of injustice proviso—the measure to which the House of Lords attached such great importance in rejecting last month's appeal on the Rezvi and Benjafield cases.

Mr. Davidson: I thank the Minister for saying that, like many of us, he was surprised by how soft the Conservatives appeared to be on collaborators with crime. They consistently sought to weaken the Bill in various ways and threatened to try to get measures reversed in the House of Lords. Does my hon. Friend welcome the fact that the Opposition Front-Bench boss has now arrived, hopefully to keep the apprentices in order and to ensure that they support the Government more fully in future? Does he think that the shadow Home Secretary was probably unaware that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) was descended from sheep and cattle thieves and therefore had a domestic interest in the matter?

Mr. Ainsworth: More importantly, the shadow Home Secretary was fully aware of the position that was taken by Conservative Members on the Committee on behalf of their party, and is therefore largely responsible for it. My lips are sealed about the source of that information, and will remain so until such time as I come to write my memoirs, if I ever do. It is all part of the touchy-feely operation that the hon. Gentleman is putting in place on the Conservative Benches.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I am most grateful to the Minister for his charming efforts to introduce me into the conversation. I hope that he can satisfy himself that he was not unduly naive. He is merely wholly misinformed about the view taken by myself and my hon. Friends about the role of a responsible Opposition. We believe that the only way in which the rule of law will be preserved is if people have sufficient confidence in our legal system, and that that will exist only if there is an appropriate balance between the rights and the protection of the innocent and the pursuit of the guilty. The Minister and I should be joined in that view.

Mr. Ainsworth: I totally agree. That is exactly what we tried to achieve through the way in which we managed the Committee proceedings and listened to the genuine concerns that were raised by Conservative Members and Liberal Democrats.

I remind the shadow Home Secretary that there are two classes of innocents. First, there are those who wind up being accused of crimes that they did not commit or who face having profits taken from them which are not the proceeds of crime. Secondly, there are the victims in our constituencies who wind up living with the consequences of money laundering, drug peddling and other organised crimes and the profits that flow from them. I sometimes feel that Conservative Members want to give that a lower priority than do I and my hon. Friends.

I do not want to prolong the debate or to prevent any hon. Members from having an input into Third Reading. I could go through different parts of the Bill to point out

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the need for the measures that are being taken and to show how we have tried to ensure that they are balanced and proportionate. We have heard the views of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, some of which did not take into account the full balance of the issues concerned. For example, it was prepared to come down against aspects of the assumptions proceedings without fully considering the safeguards that the Bill provides. It suggested, without the support of recent case law, that the provisions on civil recovery are wrongly classified.

We have safeguarded the traditional position of the matrimonial home in Scotland, leaving ourselves open to allegations about the regime in England and Wales. That issue was flagged up by the Human Rights Committee. However, it did not properly address the fact—it will have to do so—that the provision deals with the position of families who find themselves in danger of potential action against their matrimonial home as a result of measures against the proceeds of crime. Families may often find themselves in that situation during the normal course of their lives owing to debts or loss of work.

I shall draw my conclusions to a close. I hope that we have sent the Bill to another place in a better state. I am pleased that we received so much support for many of its provisions. I sincerely hope that we can all look back many years from now with a degree of satisfaction that the measures have been effective and have made a difference. In Committee we looked back at comments made by Home Office Ministers of many years ago about the effectiveness of the measures that they were introducing. In many cases, we have had years of experience of seeing that they have not been effective. We bring our democratic process into disrepute if we introduce measures that promise effective action on things that are important to the people we represent which are not capable of delivering the change that is expected. I hope that we have made the Bill sufficiently effective so that it makes a difference and so that we can be pleased with our role in bringing it into effect.

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