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Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I did not comment on that.

Mr. Grieve: I assumed that the Minister had not spoken to that amendment, and that he was going to do so subsequently. If not, I shall deal with it now.

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall seek clarification, but I thought that we were going to discuss that amendment separately when we had disposed of this one.

Mr. Grieve: I apologise to the Minister. That is what I had assumed, and that was how I was treating the matter, but I wanted to make sure that I was not failing to take the opportunity to deal with it.

I shall refer to the other amendments in the group that the Minister has spoken to, which relate to the public interest tests that he introduced in respect of investigatory powers. [Interruption.] Again, the Minister will remember that in Committee we went to great lengths to point out that we did not think that the Human Rights Act 1998 on its own should be relied on. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. To avoid any further exchanges and confusion, I refer hon. Members to the list of amendments that was published. These two matters are put down separately.

Mr. Grieve: The issue of the public interest test is simple. We think that there should always be a public interest test, and the Human Rights Act should not be used as a fallback position to justify passing legislation that does not include the safeguards that would ordinarily apply. I am extremely grateful to the Minister that, having debated that subject at enormous length in Committee and on other occasions, he has now provided those safeguards. I believe that that greatly improves the Bill. I am delighted that the other place saw fit to introduce that measure through the Government, and that we can accept it.

7.45 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes): I welcome the amendments tabled by the Minister and his colleagues that have been brought back from the House of Lords. It is sensible to have a £5,000 de minimis level. The Minister neglected to mention that that was in amendment No. 280 that was discussed on Tuesday 4 December 2001. If I am not mistaken, it was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) and me. [Interruption.] The Minister laughs, but the record will show that to be the case.

On that occasion, when I suggested that £5,000 was not a large figure, he said:

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Clearly, the Minister has accepted the thrust of my comments on that occasion, although he did not care to mention that in his introductory remarks. Perhaps he was concerned that the Prime Minister would accuse him of wrecking the Proceeds of Crime Bill, as he has accused others who have sought to improve it.

This is a sensible measure. A de minimis level is the right approach. I shall not wind up the Minister further for fear that he will withdraw the amendment or do something else with it.

While on de minimis levels, it is a pity that the Minister did not find a way of dealing satisfactorily with the points that we raised the other day on secure creditors. I shall be out of order if I go on about that for too long, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I would just say that a de minimis provision would meet some of the concerns that Members have expressed. I hope that, even now, the Minister will consider whether that is a practical way to deal with that point.

The public interest provisions are equally welcome, and it is sensible to introduce them at this stage. Without wishing to be unkind to the Minister, I must say that had the provisions on the £5,000 de minimis level been brought forward earlier, there might not have been the amendments in the House of Lords that have caused him and his colleagues some difficulties. I hope that that shows to the Minister that he should sometimes pay attention to the wisdom that comes from Opposition Members. When he was making his comments about the £5,000 de minimis level, I noticed that his colleagues were nodding sagely as if it were a wonderful proposition. They are the same Members who howled down the proposal when it was made in Committee.

On that note of agreement, I am happy to support the Government in this group of amendments.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I welcome hon. Members' comments as far as they go. They are right that this is the most significant amendment that they have achieved, but its significance should not be exaggerated. As I said in my opening remarks, and as was said in Committee—I cannot remember in what context the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) raised the £5,000 de minimis issue and I cannot be bothered to check—in practice, confiscation proceedings for offences such as a missing rear light, which was repeatedly mentioned in Committee, would never be used. This measure puts that assurance in the Bill. If Opposition Members want to believe that it does something significant, they are welcome to do so.

With regard to the public interest, the situation would have been covered by the European convention on human rights. It is now in the Bill. If that makes hon. Members here and in the other place feel more comfortable and able to drop their more significant objections that would have seriously damaged the Bill, I welcome that as well.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.

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Clause 375

Making of Order

Lords amendments Nos. 43B, 43C, 43D, 43E, 43F, 43G, 43H, 43J and 43K in lieu of Lords amendment No. 43 to which the Commons have disagreed, agreed to.

Clause 229

Criminal lifestyle

Lords amendments Nos. 73B to 73D, in lieu of Lords amendment No. 73 to which the Commons have disagreed, agreed to.

Clause 2

Director's functions: general

Lords amendment: No. 110B, in page 2, line 21, at end insert—
"(6) The guidance must indicate that the reduction in crime is in general best secured by means of criminal investigations and criminal proceedings."

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

The amendment addresses the feeling that the bringing of criminal prosecutions is preferable when normal evidential and public-interest tests have been satisfied. We have always said that prosecution will remain the priority, and that the director of the new agency will pursue civil recovery or use his taxation powers only when prosecution is not appropriate. There has, however, been nothing in the Bill to that effect.

The amendment will ensure that the guidance given to the director by the Secretary of State under clause 2 will make clear that criminal investigations and criminal prosecutions will in general best secure the reduction of crime. I hope that that will allay any fears that civil recovery might be used in cases in which criminal proceedings should properly be brought.

Mr. Grieve: I welcome the amendment without hesitation. It is clearly a step in the right direction, as it would insert in the Bill a hierarchy of preference, thus providing at least some leverage to ensure that the civil recovery system was not abused in certain circumstances. I am thinking of circumstances in which it might have been open to the prosecution to go down a criminal route but it chose not to do so, for reasons relating not to the quality of evidence but simply to the ease involved in carrying out recovery measures.

As the Minister will know, what exercised those in the other place and, indeed, those of us who served on the Committee was the enormous problem—I think that it is still an enormous problem—that it would be possible to make an allegation of criminality against the person in possession of the money in some if not all cases. If the allegation were proved, that person might face all the opprobrium involved in having committed, or being held to have committed, a serious criminal offence that would result in confiscation or civil recovery of his assets, even if he had not been convicted of any offence. I feel that what has returned from the Government in the Lords is second best.

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Given the way in which the House of Commons handled the matter, the Minister should count himself fortunate that we got anything back from the Lords. If he read the Hansard report of the debate there, he will know that there was amazement and criticism about our success in rejecting the original amendment moved by Lord Lloyd without any debate in this House. I say that to the Minister in all friendliness, as he had no part in this—save, I suppose, for his role as a Minister.

I must say that I was a little surprised to read that Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney-General in the other place, had said there that a programme motion had been agreed with the Opposition here before the debate took place. It was an agreed programme motion, he said; the Government had not insisted on it or forced it on us. It is true that we did not divide the House. If we had, we would have been fiercely criticised for reducing yet further the time available for us to consider these important amendments.

I hope that, when he has an opportunity to do so, the Minister will tell his noble Friend about the normal procedure in this House, and about the fierce criticism that he and other Ministers—and Whips—have heaped on the Opposition for dividing the House on programme motions. There was no agreement: it was the Government's decision to take the risk of trying to get the business through in the very short time available.

For that reason, it is especially regrettable that we have exposed ourselves to ridicule during our dealings with this important Bill because of the way in which an extremely serious amendment moved in the other place was treated here. It is lucky for the Minister that the other place, respecting its constitutional duty, decided that in the circumstances it would seek another amendment to which we could agree.

Let me put this on the record. I understand that such was the anger generated in the other place by the lack of scrutiny, it is rumoured—obviously I cannot speak for those in the other place—that if the same thing ever happens again the Lords will reject any amendment to a Lords amendment rejected by this House without debate. That was communicated to me, and the Government may have to heed it if they wish to achieve compromises at the end of the passage of long Bills.

As I said, I welcome the amendment, although whether it is sufficient only time will tell. Whether Lord Lloyd was right in his original amendment—to which he adhered, but which was defeated when it returned to the Lords—will have to depend on the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords. All I can say is that following the statement on the front of the Bill—couched in such redolent terms—that the Home Secretary is satisfied that the Bill complies with the Human Rights Act 1998, he may have to eat humble pie. Indeed, I will go further: given that he was put on notice repeatedly during our debates on the Bill about anxieties in regard to whether it complied with the Act, he might see fit to resign. If I were in his shoes, I would feel that that was the only course open to me.

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