Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: The Minister speaks with passion, and rightly so. I agree that we must get to the heart of the problem, and he should not think that we wish to undermine the aim of the Bill. However, he will be the first to concede that, unless we are here simply to rubber-stamp, the purpose of Parliament is to get legislation right. The Minister knows that the reason that we have line-by-line and word-by-word scrutiny is so that serious issues such as these are thought through properly. As the Minister rightly said when he discussed triggering provisions, we must get it right. We will not give in until the Government get it right.

A responsible and loyal Opposition, concerned for the interests of people on precisely the hard estates that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok described earlier—I and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield know those estates well, despite the hon. Gentleman's suspicions—would want to get the legislation right and ensure that it is effective. However, it must not be overly draconian; if it is, the law will be brought into disrepute.

11.15 am

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman says that, and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said it on Second Reading. I am trying to hang on to the thought that the Opposition are working to make the legislation more effective. I hope that my good faith is justified and that that is what they are doing. My hon. Friends have cast aspersions about their motives, and I find it difficult to see how the central amendments on the confiscation proceedings would improve the legislation; they appear to be an attempt to retreat. The proposals would send a message that we were moving backwards from a mandatory to a discretionary provision with respect to confiscation of the proceeds of crime.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: I give way to the hon. Gentleman who speaks from the Liberal Democrats' Front Bench, the hon. Member for Lewes, and then to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland.

Norman Baker: We are not as formal as that in our little corner.

Mr. Carmichael: I am the Scottish Front Bench.

Norman Baker: Yes, we have a Scottish Front Bench and an English Front Bench.

We share the objective of making the Bill effective—for example, we want drug dealers brought to justice and their assets seized—and my honest perception is that the Conservatives genuinely want that as well. Thus, it is not fair for the Minister to portray the debate as a battle between those who want the Bill to work and those who do not. That is overstating the case.

The amendments are about the extent to which safeguards in the Bill ensure that those who are innocent are protected. To what extent is it appropriate to bring in judicial discretion? Perhaps it would be helpful to concentrate on that issue, rather than assuming that we or the Conservative Members have poor motives.

Mr. Ainsworth: I did not throw that allegation at the hon. Gentleman; he has not signed the amendments that we are discussing. Other amendments might be better targeted at some of the issues that he raises. I can only address the amendments before us, which change the mandatory confiscation regime to a discretionary one. That is the effect, and it takes us backwards rather than forwards in dealing with a problem in relation to which we all, supposedly, accept that we have been ineffective. I do not see the justification for that.

Mr. Carmichael: The Minister understandably concentrates his attention on amendments Nos. 14, 15, 9 and 10, which are Conservative amendments. I see why he would be tempted to do that, as he might be on stronger ground there. However, I draw his attention to amendment No. 8, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes and I have appended our names, and I invite him to consider the example that I offered to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok, which he continues to deflect. Is not a provision essential that would allow the courts to serve as a backstop—a catch, perhaps—if executive agencies of the state abuse the discretion given to them? Can he address that point without considering the remaining four amendments?

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made a pertinent point about the group of amendments, which may be helpful to the Minister. I hope that I made it clear when I opened the debate that some of the amendments overlap massively; for instance, if amendment No. 8 were accepted, the others could be ignored. If it were not accepted and the Minister had an alternative approach, some of the other amendments might be significant. There is always a danger in the blunderbuss approach, and there is no way of avoiding it when considering a series of amendments such as those before us. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland was right to focus on amendment No. 8 as the backstop to prevent injustice.

Mr. Ainsworth: A backstop to achieve what?

Mr. Grieve: Justice.

Mr. Ainsworth: Let us examine what the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is trying to achieve with his backstop. There is a backstop built into the assumptions, because proceeds that are not the proceeds of crime should not be recovered, and the court can refuse to use the assumptions when that would lead to injustice. There is already a backstop, and the hon. Gentleman wants to introduce another to cover the whole of the confiscation procedure. He wants a backstop in cases in which someone has been taken to court and found guilty of an offence, so that some or all of the proceeds of crime cannot be confiscated.

Mr. Carmichael: Yes, because occasionally it might be oppressive to pursue the proceeds of crime. If executive agencies of the state choose to act oppressively, we must have protection from the courts. Why is the Minister not prepared to give us that?

Mr. Ainsworth: In what circumstances would confiscation of the proceeds of crime be oppressive? I genuinely want to know. Conservative Members raised the issue of the tachograph--[Interruption.] Indeed; shoplifters, too, have been mentioned. It has been said that the person concerned might have a chaotic lifestyle, and that it might be inappropriate to confiscate the proceeds of crime. I accept that someone in such circumstances might have a chaotic lifestyle, but it is being suggested that we might deal with that chaotic lifestyle by allowing the ill-gotten gains to be retained. What is being suggested, if not that? If someone has a chaotic lifestyle, society should try to help that person to come off that chaotic lifestyle. I hope that the thrust of legislation supported by the hon. Gentleman's party and mine would include measures to help someone to come off that chaotic lifestyle. How can provisions to allow people to retain their ill-gotten gains help them to come off their chaotic lifestyle?

Mr. Carmichael: When someone has a chaotic lifestyle, identification of the proceeds of crime can be next to impossible, but the assumptions mean that that will have to be done.

Mr. Ainsworth: No. The hon. Gentleman is diving off again, to use my non-lawyer phrase. He is asking for a backstop because he thinks that one is necessary. I have said that there is a backstop in the use of the assumptions. The amendment would introduce a backstop that goes wider than the assumptions, and the hon. Gentleman uses the issue of assumptions to justify his desire for a backstop.

I am not a lawyer and perhaps I do not use the precise language of lawyers, but we are introducing a backstop that applies not to assumptions, but to confiscation.

Mr. Stinchcombe: Is it not the case that amendment No. 8 would not provide a backstop? It would provide a filter or block to stop specific sorts of cases going down the route of the backstop provisions. The only cases that it would block would be those in which the prosecutor or director asked the court to proceed. Does not that suggest that the Opposition simply do not believe that the prosecutor or director would ask for that in reasonable circumstances?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is right. I do not see the necessity to introduce yet another backstop into the Bill--

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, THE CHAIRMAN adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
O'Brien, Mr. Bill (Chairman)
Ainsworth, Mr. Bob
Baird, Vera
Baker, Norman
Brooke, Mrs.
Carmichael, Mr.
Clark, Mrs. Helen
David, Mr.
Davidson, Mr.
Field, Mr. Mark
Foulkes, Mr.
Grieve, Mr.
Harris, Mr. Tom
Hawkins, Mr.
Hesford, Stephen
Johnson, Mr. Boris
Lazarowicz, Mr.
Lucas, Ian
McCabe, Mr.
McGuire, Mrs.
Robertson, John
Stinchcombe, Mr.
Stoate, Dr.
Tredinnick, Mr.
Watson, Mr.
Wilshire, Mr.

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