Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). I also wish to register my concern regarding the qualifications of the person who is appointed as director. The Bill is lengthy, and it will arouse worries about the agency's powers among many people who work in the City of London. The recent events involving Railtrack have revealed that the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions does not fully understand the practices of the City of London. Apparently, it takes seven or eight days to prepare a 71-page document—but I have spent most of my career in the City of London, and anyone who has worked there knows that a 71-page document can be turned around within a matter of hours, especially when one is dealing with the global financial world.

I do not expect clause 1 to contain a determination of what professional qualifications the director should have, but we must ensure that that person has credibility with regard to the financial markets, and an understanding of current practices in the City of London. Given the real and extensive regulatory burdens on financial institutions, law firms and accountants, we need someone who will have credibility and an understanding of current day-to-day practices in the City of London. My concern mirrors concerns that the Opposition have expressed about other regulators, and it is all the more important to ensure that someone of genuine calibre and weight is appointed to this position. What thoughts does the Minister have about the absolute minimum professional qualifications that would be expected of someone who took on such a role?

Mr. Ainsworth: I appreciate the comments of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. As we progress through the Bill, we shall consider the issues that he raised in more detail.

I have a dilemma on this subject, because the hon. Member for Beaconsfield is worried that the director will be subject to political control and will not have a free hand, while the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) questions whether the director should have a totally free hand in relation to those whom he appoints. We are trying to achieve total operational freedom for the director in pursuing cases, and it would be wholly wrong if the Home Secretary had the capacity to interfere in that process. The director is not a law enforcement agency but a person who is appointed to pursue the proceeds of crime. Important differences therefore exist between this agency and a law enforcement agency.

Mr. Wilshire rose—

The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman speaks, I remind the Committee that although hon. Gentlemen may remove their jackets, they should ask permission before doing so. Hon. Ladies do not need to ask.

Mr. Wilshire: On my own behalf, and on behalf of one or two of my colleagues, I grovel, Mr. McWilliam. I consider myself told off; I shall leave my colleagues to say how they consider themselves in due course.

I cannot have been making myself clear, as the Minister appears to think that I was saying that there should be a restriction as to whom the director appoints. I was not saying that. I suspect that some people will be appointed or engaged to provide services who should not have the powers that the independent director will have. I do not want to limit what the director does, only how far down the line such powers extend.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am glad to have that clarification. The hon. Gentleman is making many of the same points made by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) about the appropriateness of the chosen director and his credibility with various institutions, and about the staff. Clearly, it is important to have an appropriate person who has the capacity to command respect, and the skill and ability to run the agency. The people appointed will be drawn in from many areas. In the early days of the agency, it will be necessary to second people from other agencies to provide those skills. Over a period of time, a core of capacity will be built up within the agency, and, I hope, a high degree of credibility, which will enable it to do exactly what we ask of it.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) that there have been discussions with the Scottish Executive about the moneys that will need to be made available for the functions that will not be carried out directly by the agency in Scotland. There is not too much room for disagreement on that, and as we progress, I shall try to make sure that he is made aware of exactly what those arrangements are. The agency has the power for taxation in relation to its role under part 6 in Scotland, and an appropriate interface is necessary. I hope that my hon. Friend will find that the note that I have passed around will explain how that interface will operate with regard to how and when the director uses his powers under part 6—

11 am

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman should address the Chair.

Mr. Ainsworth: Sorry, Mr. McWilliam.

I hope that that explains how and when the director will use his powers under part 6, and how he will make sure that there is a proper interface with the Scottish authorities before he does so. The Bill also includes provision for enforcements made in England to be enacted in Scotland and vice versa. It will therefore be possible for the many millions of rogues of English extraction to be chased into Scotland and properly pursued if appropriate, and the reverse will also be possible. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be comforted by that thought.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1

Assets Recovery Agency

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 257, line 27, leave out from `targets' to end of line 28 and insert

    `and the basis of such performance targets;'.

I join the other hon. Members who have welcomed your chairmanship of our proceedings, Mr. McWilliam. The Opposition feel that there is a need to amend paragraph 8(3)(b), on page 257, because we are concerned about the way in which performance targets are used, and what performance targets there should be. We have bitter experience of the way in which the Government have used—or, as we would say, misused—performance targets. That relates to some of the concerns expressed in the previous debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster. Like him, I worked for several years in the City of London and in business generally before coming into this House in 1992, and I have stayed in close touch with the business world during my nine and a half years in the House. Anybody who has experience of business, at whatever level, knows that any sensible business might have three, four, five or six performance targets that the senior management would be asked to pursue. It is crazy for any organisation to be given 58 performance targets.

Labour Members, especially those who are new to this House, may wonder why I chose that number. There is a very good reason: 58 is precisely the number of performance targets that the previous Home Secretary gave chief constables and police authorities. The chief constable in Surrey said to me, ``This is crazy. No sensible organisation should have 58 performance targets.'' Chief constables all over the country said the same thing to the previous Home Secretary a year or so ago. To be fair to him, I must add that the previous Home Secretary, who is now Foreign Secretary, responded. He agreed to reduce the number of performance targets. However, instead of reducing them to a sensible number—three, four, five or six—he reduced them from 58 to 43. As the chief constables would say, that was a distinction without a real difference. It was still nonsense.

In no way can any sensible organisation respond to 43 performance targets. History is going to repeat itself—and, as everyone knows, it repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. There should be a control in the schedule to ensure that there are not too many performance targets. What is the basis of them all? Parliament should have some opportunity to scrutinise them. When the Minister responds to my remarks in his usual dignified way, he will no doubt say, ``Of course it will all be dealt with sensibly, and everything will be motherhood and apple pie.'' However, we are suspicious, and we have good recent reason to be. We need to know a great deal more about what the Government are providing, because one of our worries, to which we shall return repeatedly, is that the Bill gives wide powers and discretion. One problem is that much of what it does throughout its 444 clauses and its schedules is to provide for powers that we shall come to know about later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield rightly thanked the Minister for providing us with some guidance, albeit at a late stage—although we had sight of it before our sitting started, which was helpful. However, we want more safeguards written into the Bill. Conservative Members are always suspicious about Home Secretaries or directors being given draconian powers that Parliament will not have the right to scrutinise, and which may appear later in the form of guidance, much of which will be administrative and will not require a debate in the House, not even on a statutory instrument. It is true that some aspects of the Bill will give the Home Secretary the power to introduce further measures in the House under statutory instrument procedure, but by no means all of them will do that.

The Chairman: Order. I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I have given him a lot of latitude—but the amendment would not result in the measures for which he is arguing.

Mr. Hawkins: As always, I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. McWilliam. I shall return to the specific terms of the amendment, but we should all flag up some of our general concerns in the early stages of the Committee, after which we shall restrict ourselves more tightly to the Bill.

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