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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Proceeds of Crime Bill

Proceeds of Crime Bill

Standing Committee B

Thursday 15 November 2001

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Proceeds of Crime Bill

Clause 6

Making of order

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 8, in page 3, line 16, leave out `must' and insert `may'.—[Mr. Grieve.]

2.30 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 14, in page 3, line 38, leave out `must'.

No. 15, in page 3, line 39, after `(a)', insert `must'.

No. 9, in page 3, line 40, after `(b)', insert `may'.

No. 10, in page 3, line 40, after `pay', insert `a sum not exceeding'.

I understand that I tempted fate by daring to suggest that the Committee had made rapid progress during its first sitting on Tuesday. As a result, our proceedings have slowed down a little. However, I am sure that we can remedy that this afternoon.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Gale. You will be unaware that with you has come a slight increase in the temperature of the Room, which has made it more comfortable. I do not know whether that is a coincidence or whether it is the warm glow that you bring to our proceedings.

At the end of our sitting this morning, I was responding to a wide-ranging debate on the first set of amendments to clause 6. I was stopping up the holes down which Opposition Members were diving in order to move away from the consequences of the amendments. I shall continue stopping up the first hole, which was that such a draconian and unfair proposal was invented by the Labour Government without any precedent having been set for it. That is incorrect. A precedent was set by the Conservative Administration that Opposition Members supported.

Under the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986, the Crown court had to hold a confiscation hearing in each case in which a convicted drug trafficker appeared before it for sentence. However, assumptions were discretionary. That regime gave rise to many confiscation orders for small amounts. In the interests of the better targeting of resources, the Criminal Justice Act 1993 changed the scheme to make a confiscation hearing for drug trafficking mandatory on the application of the prosecutor, and made the assumptions mandatory, too. The changes were brought into force under the Drug Trafficking Act 1994, which remains in force.

For non-drug crime, confiscation hearings under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 have always been held on the application of the prosecutor. The 1988 Act originally gave the court the discretion to confiscate benefits from the offences of which the person was convicted in the current proceedings, and to take them into consideration for sentencing purposes. There were no assumptions. The Proceeds of Crime Act 1995 amended the 1988 Act to require the court to confiscate the proceeds of offences on the charge sheet, and it gave the court discretionary assumptions.

The principle underlying mandatory confiscation hearings is simple. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) must explain his justification for wanting to give the court the discretion to allow criminals to keep the proceeds of their crimes. In practical terms, a discretionary regime would without doubt significantly reduce the amounts that would be confiscated.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): The Minister answered his own question—or at least part of it—as he read out the history of how such a power has developed. As he spoke about earlier legislation, it became clear that confiscation followed upon conviction. There was no need to make assumptions. I refer to a person who had just been convicted of a drug trafficking offence, when the assets that had been identified during the hearing as relating to that offence were seized. Does not the Minister realise the difference between that and what is being set up under the Bill—a system for the generalised seizure of assets, including those that may be unrelated to the criminal offence that has been committed? That is why—I repeat myself—judicial discretion might be valuable in such a case. We see the wider scope of the provisions that we will establish. I would not have a dispute with the Minister if the powers focussed on a specific offence. I concede that there is a reference to circumstances in the Bill—

The Chairman: Order. I have been extremely tolerant, even towards a Front-Bench spokesman. However, that was supposed to be an intervention on the Minister.

Mr. Ainsworth: We have gone over the fact that the hon. Gentleman's amendments apply to more than assumptions. They apply to the whole confiscation regime and would make that regime discretionary, whereas it was systematically mandatory under the previous Conservative Government. If that is not evidence that a person is attempting to be soft on crime and soft on the proceeds of crime—to paraphrase others—I do not know what is.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): May I suggest that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield has a vested interest in the matter? I mentioned the nefarious past of the hon. Gentleman and his relatives. He is worried about the retention of the proceeds of crime. I quote a further extract from his maiden speech. He said:

    ``by the middle of the 18th century, my family had graduated from being cattle and sheep thieves to being prosperous farmers''.—[Official Report, 21 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 789.]

That was easy, as they had a unique acquisitions policy, which could best be described as robust. Of course the hon. Gentleman is interested in allowing people to keep the proceeds of crime; otherwise he might be in a cardboard box.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend has done some research, which I shall not follow up because you, Mr. Gale, might be less kind to me than to him.

A further inference from the hon. Gentleman's comments about our proposals compared with those of previous Governments is that the earlier provisions were narrower and dealt with specific areas of crime, such as drugs and drug traffickers. However, we are casting the net wider and, consequently, he says that a different set of criteria should apply. I cannot prove that, but I return to what the then Home Secretary said on Second Reading of the Drug Trafficking Offences Bill in 1986. He discussed the massive problems of drugs and drug trafficking, and associated matters facing the country, and said:

    ``Those matters are urgent and imperative—and they stand at the top of our list of legislative priorities. Accordingly, the Bill deals only with drug trafficking offences and not with other profitable types of crime. There is, of course, a case for making corresponding provisions for other sorts of crime. Several hon. Members have already suggested to me that this Bill should do so. The 1984 report of the Howard League committee, chaired by Mr. Justice Hodgson, to which we are indebted for many of the ideas in the Bill, made recommendations''—[Official Report, 21 January 1986; Vol. 90, c. 242.]

that it believed should be generally applied. The then Home Secretary added that we should return to such matters after dealing with the urgent problem of drugs.

That happened a long time ago, although the problem of drugs is still with us, and is, if anything, larger than it was in 1986. I cannot prove that if the then Home Secretary had done what he said he would and considered broader crime, he would not have said that everything should be discretionary because the power went far wider. There is clear evidence that the previous Administration not only considered the matter and set up a committee to examine it but intended to use such a power—or said that they intended to use such a power—far more widely than for the sort of crimes for which they did use it, and, because of problems subsequently encountered, went on to make confiscation mandatory. The allegations of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that we plucked the measure off the shelf, and that it is appallingly draconian and has no precedent, simply do not hold water.

Mr. Grieve: We return to the point that, as I recollect—1986 is a long time ago—under the regime of the Drug Trafficking Act 1994, the seizure of assets arising from a conviction for a drug trafficking offence involved seizing assets that were said to relate to or arise out of drug trafficking. Of course that could be extended to other offences, but surely the Minister understands that that is not our objective in this case.

By virtue of a trigger of a criminal conviction that can be very slight, assets of every description will be seized within a six-year preceding period and assumed to result from generalised, rather than specific, crime, unless the defendant in such circumstances can rebut. The matter is much wider not only in the sense of the nature of the offence but given the fact that the offence and the confiscation are not directly related.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman ignores the fact that in that debate the then Home Secretary said that we should consider the idea with regard to other sorts of profitable crime, and the then Conservative Government set up the committee. The committee's recommendations, which the then Home Secretary praised during his speech, do not relate to drugs alone. The committee set up and run under the auspices of the Howard League proposed wide-ranging confiscation procedures for profitable crime, as an alternative to prison. The hon. Gentleman suggests that at the time it was considering nothing but drugs, which is not true.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I do not want a misunderstanding to arise, and the Minister and other Labour Members to gain the impression that my hon. Friend and I, and other Opposition Members, in particular the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, who supports us on the matter, are trying to slash the heart out of the Bill. If the Minister retains his current office when the Bill is enacted, and if it is enacted in its current form, what will he say when a Labour Member, whether someone who served on this Committee or anyone else, tells him that a constituent has just had his entire assets and everything that he has transacted over the past six years taken away, which he believes to be an injustice, because his constituent is a law-abiding person? What will the Minister say when he encounters the first consequence of the powers being incorrectly used because they are too draconian?

 
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Prepared 15 November 2001