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8.38 pm

Mr. Grieve: I echo the thanks extended by the Minister. I had a brief opportunity in Committee to thank the officials of the House and the civil servants who helped us, but I should like to repeat that tonight and in addition thank all hon. Members who participated in the Committee, not just my hon. Friends. I was mindful that throughout the proceedings the Minister and the Minister of State, Scotland Office, went to a great deal of trouble to ensure that our concerns were properly addressed and, if they were thought to be legitimate, acted on. Above all, there was the spirit of co-operation that I had hoped for when I said on Second Reading that our conduct in Committee might be a model of its kind. I am aware that we did not always get things right—certainly the guillotine sometimes came down at the wrong time—but there was an effort to ensure proper scrutiny. I hope that the Bill has been improved as a consequence.

I assure the Minister that we are at one on the key issues. We know why the Bill is needed. We understand the pernicious problem of criminality which, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) has made clear many times, affects the poor much more than the wealthy. It destroys communities, especially in respect

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of drugs, and the most disadvantaged are usually at a greater risk of the predatory activities of those who make money from crime. We are mindful of that and have no hesitation in believing that the Bill is necessary and desirable. Indeed, as the Minister acknowledged, the genesis of many of the measures that we have considered was under Conservative Governments.

It is equally clear that during our deliberations on this enormous Bill, which now stands at 450 clauses, we changed what had been an add-on to the normal criminal justice system into an administrative law system for the confiscation of criminals' assets. At no time should an Opposition be more resolute in its defence of civil liberties and the rights of the individual than when the state takes upon itself, for whatever good reason, such enormous extra powers. I make no apology for the fact that in Committee we spent our time probing, asking and trying to understand what the Bill's consequences might be in practice, and making suggestions when we thought that it could be improved.

I disagree entirely with the Minister on one thing: the Bill's efficacy in seizing the assets of criminals would not have been reduced one iota had he accepted the amendments that we pressed to a Division. He might care to reflect on that if he re-reads the amendments. I am prepared to concede, however, that if the Bill is properly administered—for which the Executive and the director of the Assets Recovery Agency will have a great responsibility—some of the fears that are reflected in our amendments may not be realised. I distinctly hope that they will not be. We have tried to ensure throughout the process that the framework provides a balance between the desire to seize assets and the civil rights of individuals, not just those from whom the assets are to be seized, but the third parties, be they spouses, children, partners, business associates or, in some cases, innocent bystanders who are caught by the procedures.

The Bill has undoubtedly been improved. I thank the Minister for the amendments tabled on Report. They ensure that the problem of legal professional privilege, which was overlooked in some parts of the Bill, has been properly addressed. The restrictions on disclosure of information to foreign Governments, which the Minister has undertaken to consider further, are important because some Governments have mixed motives when they decide to pursue individuals for assets and do not have the standards of probity that we enjoy in this country. The provisions on confiscation increase the duties of the director to provide information in cases of injustice. That went a long way to meeting many of our concerns in Committee.

That said, anxieties remain and the Minister will forgive me if I highlight them as a reminder. We need to be sure that part 2 offers adequate protection to prevent injustice. The lack of safeguards in respect of families, spouses and children pains me, and the amendments that we tabled yesterday in that regard were modest. A similar system exists in Scotland, and Scottish MPs—even those on the Government Benches—have made no attempt to gainsay it or to get rid of it, which suggests that it provides good protection. I hope that, even at this late stage, that issue might be reviewed in another place. The law can be very hard, and tempering such harshness is one of our responsibilities as parliamentarians.

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I am also concerned about compensation. I heard what the Minister had to say on that, but because compensation will be available only in cases of serious default, and not of negligent default, those who are wrongly taken through a process and subsequently found blameless will be obstructed in their efforts to recover any resulting consequential losses. Perhaps that issue should be examined further.

On civil recovery, we need to consider compensation for third parties in respect of the actions of receivers. I find it difficult to understand why we cannot require the director, before initiating proceedings, to have reasonable grounds for believing that there are assets to be recovered. It has struck me throughout that that modest measure would provide reassurance and remind the director of his duty. Is it not the responsibility of Members of Parliament to remind those who execute its authority of where their duty lies? If we do not do that, nobody else will.

Although the part of the Bill that deals with money laundering is undoubtedly one of the most important—indeed, I hope that it will reap great dividends—onerous duties and requirements are, as the Minister knows, nevertheless being placed on law-abiding and blameless individuals who seek through their work in the financial and regulated sector to help others in a perfectly proper way. I am sure that they will wish to shoulder those burdens cheerfully, but it is sometimes difficult to do that when a sword of Damocles is hanging over one's head, and one slip after a bad night—however innocuous or innocent—could lead to a five-year prison sentence. That is one aspect of the Bill that has given me particular cause for concern.

On the part of the Bill dealing with international matters, it is absolutely vital, as I have said, that the system of co-operation be transparent. First, the House must be aware of what is being done, which gives rise to the question of affirmative and negative resolutions—we did not have time to discuss them today—and the framework established by Order in Council. Secondly, there should be some monitoring of the way in which the system works, to ensure that foreign Governments do not use it for unintended purposes. Parliament has a duty to ensure that the rights of individuals are protected against foreign Governments who may not have our standards.

That said, I congratulate the Minister on his Bill. He has handled it cheerfully, skilfully, with good humour and—I am satisfied—with the best of intentions. In that regard, I am also satisfied that the Government's intentions are transparently honest and correct, and that the aspiration that underpins the Bill is worthy. For that reason, we give it our support, mindful that it may be possible to reconsider and correct in another place some of the aspects that I have touched on, and which continue to give us some cause for anxiety. On that basis, we welcome the legislation and give it our support.

8.49 pm

Mr. Stinchcombe: I, too, welcome the Bill, and I do so warmly. I believe that it could lead to a sea change in the fight against acquisitive crime. For that reason, I was delighted to serve on the Standing Committee. I am pleased to have been able to participate in the debates on Report, and I am grateful to the House for the opportunity to make a brief contribution on Third Reading.

Throughout our deliberations, we have heard much from Tory Members about their concerns for human rights and the need to ensure that the Bill properly reflects the

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Human Rights Act 1998 and properly respects the European convention on human rights. I share some of their concerns, as I made clear in Committee, but I would give greater credence to the arguments that have come from their mouths if any of them had voted for the Human Rights Act in the first place. Many Conservative Members vehemently oppose that Act. At least one of them supported it, but he did not have the courage to vote for it—the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who has led for the Opposition in the debates on the Bill.

I spoke in favour of the Human Rights Act 1998, and I voted for it. If called upon, I will vote for this Bill, and I would do so for an identical series of reasons. I genuinely and passionately care about human rights. I believe that they should be protected against violation, but that the most important of our fundamental human rights is not the right to protect the secrecy that surrounds our dodgy deals, but the right to live free from fear and free from crime. The Bill will do more than virtually any other measure that has been enacted while I have been a Member to tackle our fear of crime and protect that fundamental human right.

In the past two months, I have visited an old lady in my constituency whose skull had been caved in during broad daylight by a young thug with a golf club. I was visited by another elderly lady whose arm had been broken when a bag was wrenched from it, again in broad daylight. I have talked to the police about a phone call received in the evening from an eight-year-old boy who was concerned because his father had been marched upstairs at gunpoint.

Why do my constituents—in middle England, in Northamptonshire—suffer from such crime and why do they live in such fear? I believe that it is because 10 per cent. of the young adults in my constituency from some of the estates are addicted to drugs, because heroin is available at £5 a wrap, because crack cocaine is now found in my constituency, because of the needles that I can find everywhere and because many of my constituents have to steal to feed those habits. We have made it harder for them to burgle, so they have now taken to street crime.

It is imperative that, in the House as well as elsewhere, we do everything that we can to fight that crime and street violence. We have to do so in many ways—by getting more policemen on the beat, by intelligent policing and probably by using more tagging—but we also have to tackle the drug trade itself, and we have to do so at both ends: the supplier and the user. As for the users, I want more to be done about drugs rehabilitation than we have ever tried to do, especially in prison. As for the suppliers, I want the profit to be taken out of crime, so that they cannot make their millions, or even their thousands, by peddling their filth and ruining the lives of innocent people. The Bill will help to tackle that, which is why I welcome it so warmly.

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