Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Davidson: I should correct myself and make it clear that our draftsmen are undoubtedly the most wonderful people that we employ. I hope that they get the Davidson amendments correct. The Minister may have a more generous view of Scottish judges than I, but we shall not pursue that today.

There is a difficulty with the arguments put forward by the Opposition. I welcome the fact that they have substantially retreated from their ideological opposition to ``must'' to the argument that they are probing only for the exercise and the Government's good. I recognise that lawyers are experienced in arguing things that they do not believe, but as a more simple soul I believe that it would be helpful if we had more honesty from the Conservatives and they told us whether they are in favour of gutting the Bill or keeping it tough.

Mr. Grieve: As we said on Second Reading, we support the recovery of assets of criminals who have benefited from their criminality. We are much more dubious about the possibility of the net being cast to recover assets from large numbers of people who have committed relatively petty crime, under an onerous confiscatory system that seems to shift the burden substantially against those people and which could give rise to injustice. That is why we want to explore all the possibilities, of which the amendment is one, to try to prevent that from happening.

I have never said that this is the central, vital amendment. As I explained earlier, the problem could be approached in other ways. However, I say to the Minister that, having listened to all that has been said, I am not optimistic about future amendments and that is why I shall stick to this one—if not like a mollusc, like a limpet.

10.45 am

Mr. Davidson: Despite the hon. Gentleman's eloquent pleading, I still believe that he is soft on such matters. I do not find that particularly surprising because I understand that his family has past form in dishonesty. His ancestors were cattle and sheep thieves in the borders, from where my family comes. I suppose that cattle and sheep thieving does not these days provide a great deal of money, which must be why he became a lawyer. My ancestors were too poor to have cattle and sheep.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): Somebody stole them.

Mr. Davidson: That is right. Those were the days before the invention of cardboard and so we did not even have a cardboard box to put in the middle of the road. Indeed, we were too poor to have roads.

I pick up the point that one of my hon. Friends made about inconsistency and insufficiency. The existing system is clearly unsatisfactory. I was distressed when the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said that pursuing some criminals for their assets would be, if I remember correctly, completely pointless. I would welcome clarification from the hon. Gentleman about which criminals he believes it would be completely pointless to pursue for assets.

I confess that I was also shocked and disappointed—though it is always a helpful experience because it confirms some of my prejudices—when the hon. Gentleman said that he had been spending time on a six or seven-week drugs case and that, if I heard correctly, the prospect of discussion and debate about investigating and seizing assets would be too much to thole.

Mr. Grieve rose—

Mr. Davidson: If the hon. Gentleman wants to withdraw that statement, I am happy to give way.

Mr. Grieve: We confiscated £1.5 million in the case with which I was involved. Whatever we may have felt at the conclusion of that six or seven-week case, I as the prosecutor, and those instructing me, did the job that was required to recover those assets. I have never discovered whether the full £1.5 million was ever seized, which brings me back to the point about sometimes having doubts about matching the sums and the reality.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I was not making a point about my own participation in that, but I accepted the point made by another hon. Member that the exercise sometimes seemed time-consuming. I said earlier that the return from the exercise is perceived as much less than it could be and that fact may have made people more reluctant to embark on it. However, in the case that I was citing, we were successful and, on paper, £1.5 million was due to be seized and recovered.

Mr. Davidson: The hon. Gentleman is rowing back a bit from what I understood him to say earlier, although he still gives the impression that the case was a bit of a chore. I am in favour of penalties and deterrents, whether or not they are time-consuming, because of the impact that the drug problem has on my community. The hon. Gentleman would do well to be of that mind. I do not know whether he has ever stood for election in a constituency such as mine or whether Beaconsfield was his first go at an election. I have not had time to read about him.

Mr. Grieve: I stood for Norwood in 1987, where I was vice-chairman of the police community consultative group. That seat took in the whole of the front line—Railton road, Coldharbour lane and most of the area in which the major drug dealing in south London took place.

Mr. Davidson: How can a man have had so much opportunity and learnt so little? If the hon. Gentleman saw all those things, I find it surprising that he did not learn anything from them.

Mr. Stinchcombe: I too lived in Beaconsfield and my children used to go to school there. One difference between that constituency and the one that I now represent—where I live and where my children go to school—can be summarised by explaining that when I recently visited a primary school in my constituency, every child aged between six and 10 to whom I spoke had found needles on their estate.

Mr. Davidson: That was a valuable contribution.

Opposition Members criticise the fact that we have a catch-all procedure. Presumably, the alternative to that is a do-not-catch-all procedure. May I have clarification of the people who should not be caught? Who should we not pursue? [Interruption.] I shall come to tachographs in a moment.

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman needs to reflect on how some of the matters to which he referred rose. When my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield referred to his experience, he was responding to one of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends who, as Hansard will show, originally raised the matter of the cumbersome existing procedure. The matter was not raised only by Opposition Members, because Labour Members said it.

The hon. Gentleman asked who should not be caught. We should try to catch everybody. However, there are difficulties with having draconian procedures that may lead to serious worries about civil liberties for people who such anti-drugs legislation was not intended to target.

Mr. Davidson: This is the tachograph case, as I understand it. I reiterate a point that I made earlier. I am greatly heartened at the prospect of people who commit tachograph offences being caught by the Bill because, as I mentioned, some of my constituents have been killed by drivers who drove beyond their permitted hours. They were under pressure from their employers so that more money could be made from the equipment that the employer purchased at enormous cost—I understand the commercial pressures. Therefore, the drivers were driven to commit offences by their employers. The penalties that were imposed on the lorry owners were utterly derisory. If there was the prospect of the seizure of the lorry, employers would be more inclined to ensure that tachograph rules are obeyed. That is a valuable point, and I hope that it will be incorporated in the Bill.

Mr. Tredinnick: What the hon. Gentleman says about businesses encouraging drivers to work longer hours may be valid. However, when the tachograph system was introduced, the unions opposed it on behalf of the drivers, who wanted to work longer hours in order to make more money. The problem does not concern only employers, but employees.

Mr. Davidson: That is an interesting point. I opposed the producer interest on that matter and I thought that the unions were wrong, although I understood their reasons. However, the current pressure on drivers to break the tachograph rules comes directly from employers rather than drivers. If an employer is decent, penalties will be imposed on any driver who wishes to increase his or her hours by driving additional miles.

The Chairman: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will revert to the subject of debate, and not stray from it.

Mr. Davidson: I am sorry. I had reached the end of the road about tachographs.

I mention the key matter of health and safety. If the Bill allows courts to act against building employers whose neglect of health and safety results in the death of employees, that is an unexpected bonus. As I said on Second Reading, ``Thank you, God'' for Conservative Members' speeches.

Mr. Carmichael: Let me offer an example that is more from the real world than that of the tachograph, which Conservative Members offered. I invite the hon. Gentleman to consider the position of an habitual shoplifter who has obtained goods of substantial accumulative value as a result of crime and is prosecuted in the summary courts. That person will be leading a wholly chaotic lifestyle and will almost certainly be shoplifting to finance an addictive habit.

As the legislation stands, the agency's director and the prosecuting authorities can bring proceedings against such a person. Is it not right that, if the agencies of the state abuse in the way that has been described the authority given to them by the House, it should be open to the courts to say, ``No, you're not on''?

Mr. Davidson: Again, that is a helpful and constructive contribution. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is really a Liberal or whether he would like to join those of us on the Labour Benches in future. I look forward to more constructive comments from him as the debate progresses.

Let me deal with the question of civil liberties. I cannot be the only Member who finds it ironic that the Conservatives are raising the flag of civil liberties.

 
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