Proceeds of Crime Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Carmichael: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will answer my point.

Mr. Davidson: Not necessarily. The point was well made, but I have very little experience on the issue. As my hon. Friend the Minister says when he does not have an answer, I shall go away and reflect on the point that has been made. No doubt I shall raise another point in future—and you may or may not rule me out of order, Mr. O'Brien, depending on whether it is relevant.

Civil liberties are about balance. Some members of the civil liberties lobby do not fully recognise that the world has moved on from the time when I and many others were first active in the movement, with which I am still involved. In those days, the scale of poverty, crime and misery caused by drug addiction and all its consequential effects was not what it is now.

The existing system has been shown to be unable to cope with the pressures on it, so changes must be made. I shall make a point that has been made before: the civil liberties of people in my area who are effectively under house arrest after 5 o'clock or even noon must also be taken into account and a balance struck. The Bill is all about attacking the Mr. Bigs, many of whom I suspect live in areas such as Beaconsfield rather than mine.

I spoke earlier about the judiciary and the courts. This country has almost a tradition of leniency on white-collar crime. I am thinking back to people such as Ernest Saunders and the subsequent amazing cure of his Alzheimer's disease. People involved in such offences have not been pursued as vigorously as they should have been by the courts. That is part of the reason why I have no confidence in them and why we must have mandatory rather than discretionary provision.

Before I finish, I give Opposition Members the opportunity to raise any point that I have missed.

Mr. Carmichael: You did not answer the first one.

Mr. Davidson: I shall reflect on it.

11 am

Mr. Ainsworth: The Committee will be enormously grateful to you for allowing such a wide-ranging debate, Mr. O'Brien, because this is the trigger clause for the confiscation procedures. I am enormously grateful for the contributions of my hon. Friends, some of whom have direct experience of operating in the legal system, who bring an expertise and knowledge to the Committee that I do not have. I want to stick up for the non-lawyers, too, and I am grateful for the points raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Wrexham and for Glasgow, Pollok. My hon. Friends raised issues that go to the heart of the situation.

Mr. Hawkins: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, who will probably disparage me in his all-encompassing way, because I am a non-lawyer and therefore not worthy of respect, in common with relatively recent Members of Parliament. The hon. Gentleman has a wonderful disdain for everyone except himself.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister maligns me; as Hansard recorded only yesterday, I have huge respect for him.

Some of the Minister's hon. Friends have valuable legal experience that informs their contributions, but their arguments are at odds with the views of his hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok, who starts from the a priori position that every lawyer and every Tory is the incarnation of evil. The hon. Members who have experience in the matter take a different view of the proposal. Which of those two conflicting views does the Minister prefer?

Mr. Ainsworth: If my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok said that every lawyer and every Tory is inevitably evil, I would only go part of the way with him.

Mr. Davidson: May I take up the point raised by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath about an a priori position? We were too poor to have Latin, never mind a cardboard box, and I should prefer it if the hon. Gentleman spoke in English for the benefit of those of us who are not lawyers.

Mr. Ainsworth: We shall leave that matter and move on to the substantive point.

The contributions of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield and other Opposition Members ranged far and wide and I wonder why they did so. It was justified in large part as this is a triggering clause, but I suspect that they did so partly to confuse and to avoid the ramifications of their important amendments.

I shall discuss two main issues: first, our original position in relation to Scotland and our position now and, secondly, the allegations made by the Opposition about the draconian measures that the Labour Governments are about to introduce, which will rip up our traditions or worse.

The amendments would fundamentally alter the confiscation scheme proposed for England and Wales and, possibly, Scotland. By changing from a mandatory procedure to a discretionary procedure all five amendments would apply when the prosecutor had asked the court to go through confiscation procedures. Amendment No. 8 would leave it to the court's discretion to initiate a confiscation procedure. If the court decided to go through the confiscation procedures, amendments Nos. 9, 14 and 15 would give the court the discretion to make the confiscation order regardless of the circumstances of the case. The court could refuse an order even if it found that the defendant had benefited from his criminal conduct and had realisable assets.

Mr. Grieve: The first amendment was wholly compatible with the present Scottish regime, so the slight tone of horror in the Minister's voice was incompatible with the attitude taken to the Scottish part of the Bill.

Mr. Ainsworth: Tones of horror have also emanated from the hon. Gentleman. Two matters need to be explained to the Committee—why our original position in relation to Scotland has changed, and the substantive issues raised by the amendments. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield tried to draw attention to one of those matters to get away from the other. Let us be absolutely sure that all members of the Committee and those outside know what the Conservative party is proposing. The hon. Gentleman trailed his coat in different directions, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok noticed, the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument today has not been that the proposal is a probing amendment. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will clarify whether it is a probing amendment before we decide whether to vote on it. For the moment, let us stick to its consequences and not allow him to confuse us and dive off in different directions to escape from the argument.

If the court decided to make a confiscation order, amendment No. 10 would permit it to make an order for less than the defendant's benefit and realisable assets. Confiscation proceedings in England and Wales are currently mandatory in their entirety. In drug and non-drug convictions, the court must authorise confiscation proceedings at the prosecutor's request. It must make a confiscation order if the defendant benefited from the offence of which he has been convicted in the current proceedings and, in some cases, if he benefited from other criminal conduct. The court must set the value of the order at the value of the benefit or of the realisable assets, whichever is the smaller.

Such legislation was carried through not by a draconian Labour Government bulldozing their way through the traditions of our legal procedures, but by a Conservative Government supported by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, who has now tabled amendments to remove the word ``must'' from such proposals. He must explain why.

Mr. Grieve: I had hoped that our debate on Second Reading and the philosophy underlying the Bill made the position clear. The regime is not about confiscation in relation to specific offences, but about confiscation based on a finding that will have to be examined, and the amazing matter of a criminal lifestyle or particular criminal conduct. If the proposal were confined to particular criminal conduct, I would have fewer anxieties about the Bill. However, it is designed to get at people who have that wonderful thing called a criminal lifestyle, which makes the Bill so wide-ranging. We should provide protections before it starts to bite.

Mr. Ainsworth: No, no, no. Let us return to the amendments. Triggers and the threshold for assumptions are set out in the Bill and there are opportunities to amend them. The amendments would make discretionary the entire confiscation procedure. The hon. Gentleman knows that. He has, once again, dived into the issue of assumptions. He is proposing that we retreat from the mandatory use of confiscation procedures. That is the purpose of his amendments.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield has not dived into anything. The two matters are inextricably linked. As the Minister conceded, we are discussing trigger provisions. The Government are proposing a new regime, based on new concepts of what constitutes a criminal lifestyle—the Committee will debate them in due course—and that is why the proposals are so draconian.

The Minister referred to the previous legislation, which was introduced by a Conservative Government. Has he read the Hansard record of the debates about those provisions? It is revealing to discover what speakers from his party's Front and Back Benches said about them. They were briefed by organisations such as Justice and Liberty. What has led the Minister to reverse at least a 30-year tradition of Labour views on such matters?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter of responses to previous legislation.

The House holds to one tradition that ought to be broken with. It was encapsulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham, and it was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok. It is the tradition of going through the motions by proposing legislation to address a massive problem, but only pretending that it will make a massive difference. However, in this instance, the Government are trying hard tomake a real difference, and I hope that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will embrace that. We are trying to bring in legislation that will do what it is intended to do: we are not proposing yet another Proceeds of Crime Bill that will not achieve its purpose of allowing courts to remove the assets of convicted criminals.

When I consult Hansard, I read the contributions of past Home Office Ministers—the ones who were far more distinguished than I. Recently, I alighted on the comments of the Home Secretary in 1986, Mr. Douglas Hurd. He said:

    ``Our strategy is effectively overseen and co-ordinated by the interdepartmental ministerial group''.

He was explaining his strategy to deal with drugs. We, too, have an inter-departmental ministerial group. I have boasted in the Chamber about how we have tried to achieve effective inter-departmental, inter-agency working relationships to tackle drugs. Such an inter-departmental ministerial group existed in 1986.

Mr. Hurd also said that the Drug Trafficking Offences Bill

    ``fits firmly into our strategy. By attacking the profits made from drug trafficking, we intend to make it much less attractive to enter the trade. We intend to help guard against the possibility that the profits from one trafficking operation will be used to finance others, and, not least, to remove the sense of injury which ordinary people are bound to feel at the idea of traffickers, who may have ruined the lives of children, having the benefit of the profits that they have made from doing so.''—[Official Report, 21 January 1986; Vol. 90, c.241-42.]

I said something very similar on Second Reading.

Are hon. Members in the business of increasing the public's cynicism about our ability to tackle the important issues that make an impact on people's lives? Do we wish merely to go through the motions by introducing legislation that will make no discernable difference, or are we going to do something about the problem that we are discussing? For more than a generation, Ministers have stood up in the House and claimed that they would do something about it. I ask Opposition Members to consider that, because their amendments threaten to cut the heart out of the Bill.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 15 November 2001