Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Grieve: The Minister did not take the opportunity on Second Reading—and he has not yet taken it in Committee—of telling me that my analysis of tachograph offences is wrong, although he might decide to do so later.

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough): I am interested in the point about the tachograph, and the arguments about compulsion and discretion.

Clause 6 ensures that, before it would be possible to go down the route that has been described, the prosecutor or director would have to ask the court to proceed, or the court would have to believe that it would be appropriate to do so, and in any event the court would have to be satisfied that there was a criminal lifestyle, as defined in clause 75.

Mr. Grieve: That is a circular argument, because someone can acquire a criminal lifestyle by incurring three tachograph offences in a six-year period.

Mr. Davidson: Sometimes, it is a pleasure to listen to the hon. Gentleman. With regard to his argument about tachographs, there is a pearl in his mollusc. I am heartened to learn that people can be prosecuted for tachograph offences under the legislation, because constituents of mine have been killed by lorry drivers who have broken the tachograph regulations—and some drivers have been forced to do so on pain of dismissal.

The Chairman: Order. We are straying from the basis of the amendments.

9.45 am

Mr. Grieve: Many Labour Members' past record in consideration of serious cases, especially when they were in opposition during the early 1990s—I hope that they have not completely lost their fire—showed their belief in civil liberties and anxiety about individual cases. They championed cases in which the individual had been treated badly. I want to ensure that such cases are minimised, which is the reason for tabling the amendments. Of course, it is serious if a person commits even a tachograph offence. However, there is a difference between committing an offence that is serious in itself and an offence that justifies the confiscation of a person's assets. Most people may not associate such offences with a criminal lifestyle.

I have spoken at greater length than I intended, largely because of interruptions. Perhaps I should be grateful for those—they are what a Committee is all about. I am pleased that we have initiated a discussion. I look forward to the Minister's full response and participation from other members of the Committee who may enlighten me about their views and persuade me that I am wrong. However, at the moment, I believe that the amendments would do much to improve the Bill.

Norman Baker (Lewes): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien.

The past 45 minutes have been interesting, and the contribution of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield was important and raised matters—almost of philosophy—that deserve to be considered by the Committee. Although the amendments are modest, their implication and importance go beyond the lines in the Bill to which they relate. They deserve to be taken seriously, and my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and I have subscribed to amendment No. 8.

On Second Reading, I raised a matter that is relevant to the amendments. We must strike a balance between putting a system in place that makes it impossible for a criminal to escape when undertaking activities that we wish to see curtailed and constrained and, on the other hand, having a system that limits the power of independent voices outside the prosecution authorities and has the capacity to entrap people because of its escape-free nature. No member of the Committee would want people to be entrapped in that way, so we must ensure that sufficient safeguards are in place. Legislation always strikes such a balance. Traditionally, in our country, we have sought to ensure that safeguards are prominent. If that means that a person who we want convicted escapes the net, that is a price worth paying, should the alternative be that innocent people are caught in the net and wrongly convicted. We must strike that balance.

I am worried about the proposed removal of judicial discretion. In our unwritten constitution, judicial discretion is an important counterweight to the Executive's power, which is exercised through a House of Commons in which the majority party at any time is elected with a minority of votes from a minority even of those who choose to turn up at the polling stations. The Government may railroad through huge amounts of controversial legislation under that system, as happened with the poll tax. In such circumstances, an independent judiciary with powers is important. Otherwise, mistakes that a Government make may not be corrected.

I question why the power is being removed in this case. It is almost as though the Government are saying that they do not trust a judiciary to do the right thing, and are therefore removing from it the discretion to consider the matter. I hope that that is not so, but an element of that is involved. We are dealing with a balance. In a democratic society, the opportunity to exercise power must be spread—throughout the United Kingdom with devolution, down to local level through councils, and shared between the Government and the judiciary. I am worried that we are witnessing a move towards the concentration of power in one element of our constitution in order to push through an objective that I am sure that we all share but are nevertheless worried about how it is being achieved.

A different tension is involved, too, which the amendment and the Minister's comments raise—that between devolution, to which the Government and my party are strongly committed, and a desire to have a United Kingdom solution imposed on the Bill. Of course, these matters are properly devolved matters for the Scottish Parliament, which has agreed to allow a Bill to be introduced on a UK basis to deal with them. However, that does not mean that any differences between the practices proposed for England, Wales and Scotland must be eliminated and that we must have a uniform approach throughout the United Kingdom. As the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok has previously, and rightly, said, we do not want criminals to have the opportunity to play one end of the country against the other. If anything in the Bill allows that to happen, we want to ensure that it is supported. However, that does not mean that if the judiciary is given slightly different powers in England from those for Scotland it will necessarily allow criminals to have that opportunity.

Mr. Hawkins: For clarification, the hon. Gentleman, who makes an extremely important and serious point, may have inadvertently made a mistake. He said in response to the anxieties expressed by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok that it was important not to have criminals playing one end of the country against the other. He went on to say that if anything in the Bill does that it should be supported. I think he meant to say that if anything in the Bill does that it should be rejected.

Norman Baker: If I said that, that is entirely correct. I am grateful for evidence that the hon. Gentleman listened to my contribution.

Mr. Stinchcombe: The hon. Gentleman voiced a suspicion that Labour Members are afraid that the courts may not take appropriate action. I wonder whether that is right. Under clause 6(3), the court has the power, if it believes it appropriate to do so, to satisfy that condition. It is given the discretion to trigger the provisions. The only additional provision is that the prosecutor or the director also has the power to trigger that condition being satisfied. Does the hon. Gentleman not trust the prosecutor or the director?

Norman Baker: I do not suggest that the Bill entirely removes all freedom from the judiciary. Nor do I suggest that an amendment should be introduced to give the judiciary absolute control over what happens and that the director of the Assets Recovery Agency should be left with nothing. However, it is a question of individual powers and balance. That is what I am trying to draw attention to through the amendment.

Mr. Foulkes: I am a strong supporter of devolution. Many of the Bill's provisions take account of different procedures in Scotland and allow the Lord Advocate to carry out functions that in England and Wales will be the Assets Recovery Agency's responsibility. On the policy issue, it is, as the hon. Gentleman said, important that criminals have nowhere to hide, anywhere in the United Kingdom, and that we have the same policy in pursuing them. This mandatory provision is an important policy issue throughout the United Kingdom. We respect the position of the Scottish Executive and had detailed consultation with them before agreeing to a policy change.

Norman Baker: I absolutely accept that point and that, rightly, differences exist between the Scottish provisions and those for England and Wales. I also accept that if measures are necessary, on a UK basis, to prevent criminals from escaping to other countries, they should be supported. I am not yet convinced—we have not heard much from the Minister this morning—that the flexibility proposed in the amendment would have the undesirable result about which the Minister is worried. Perhaps the Minister will convince the Committee later. I do not want to overplay this point, but the wish to have devolution creates a tension. It will necessarily lead to a different approach, in a range of areas, up and down the country, which many of us welcome. That was an argument for devolution—what may be appropriate in Aberdeen may not be appropriate in Penzance. Sometimes, there is a wish to undo that in certain respects, and say, ``Here is a UK solution.'' We need to be careful to bear in mind the rights of the Scottish people to have their say to the Scottish Parliament, and not necessarily say, ``This is what we think in Westminster, we should try to persuade other people to do the same.''

I welcome the fact that the Minister has listened to his Back Benchers, which is the reason for the policy change this morning. I look forward to Ministers listening to Back Benchers even more, as they seem to show a great deal of common sense on matters such as the private finance initiative, Railtrack, privatisation of air traffic control, fox hunting and many other matters. I look forward to more influence from Labour Back Benchers in the future.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield has raised important philosophical issues, which I have tried to amplify. I hope that the Minister will respond to those serious points.

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