Proceeds of Crime Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Ainsworth: When we consider other clauses and amendments and discuss assumptions and—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. I will not tolerate private conversations in any quarter of the Room. If hon. Members want to have private conversations, they should do so outside. I thought that I had made that plain on Tuesday.

Mr. Ainsworth: Thank you, Mr. Gale.

I am sure that when we discuss those other issues we shall explore in some detail whether what the hon. Gentleman suggests will happen.

The amendments would remove mandatory confiscation in its entirety. The genuine issue that has been raised is that confiscation should not take place when it would be ``pointless or unfair''—to use the hon. Gentleman's words—or give rise to injustice. The confiscation procedures will be used in two instances. They involve an assumption being made about a criminal lifestyle and a particular crime, and I cannot envisage circumstances in which it is pointless to confiscate the proceeds of a particular crime for which someone has just been convicted. Our conversation about shoplifters made my opinion on the matter clear. As for whether the use of the assumptions criteria might give rise to injustice or be pointless or unfair, we have made the provision that the assumptions criteria should not be used where it is pointless to use them, and where there are no proceeds of crime to be recovered; nor should they be used when that would give rise to injustice or be unfair.

Before Opposition Members respond on the subject of the amendment, I must say that I wonder about their motives. They raised the issue of the tachograph, although it was the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) who raised the issue of the shoplifter. I wonder how long it took Opposition Members to alight on an instance that allowed them to wrap a blue collar around someone's neck. Are they worried about white-collar crime? Do they worry that effective action will be taken against white-collar criminals, and the profits of their criminal activities will be taken away? I hope that I am wrong, but I have suspicions about how long it took Opposition Members to find that example.

2.45 pm

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister is kind to give way to me again. Once my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and I looked at the provisions, it took five seconds for us to come up with the same offence—which the Minister characterises as a blue-collar one—as an example. This is an honest response; it was the first example that occurred to us when we looked at the provisions. Inevitably, because of our experiences of over-draconian powers, we look for ways in which the Government may have got it wrong, despite their understandable intentions.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am pleased about that, and will remain less cynical about the hon. Gentleman's motives than some of my hon. Friends on the Back Benches are.

As for Scotland, I must explain why we first made the proposals as they were originally, and now propose to pull Scotland into line with England and Wales. We made that decision in consultation with the Scottish Executive. There is no history of mandatory confiscation north of the border—although the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is more of an expert than I am on the subject—but there is a long history of mandatory confiscation in England and Wales.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scotland Office, made the point in an intervention that Scotland does not perceive that it has a problem as great as that perceived in England. Confiscation has been used more satisfactorily and more widely in Scotland than in England. The other reason for our original stance was that the Scots were less concerned than we were about inconsistencies in the way in which the courts dealt with those issues, because Scottish courts have a smaller jurisdiction and so have not had anything like the number of problems that we have had. For those reasons, the Scottish Executive said in consultations that there was no need for mandatory confiscation in Scotland.

The Scottish Executive are still less concerned than we are about inconsistencies, but they are taking on board some of the issues raised on Second Reading. We have tried to respond not only to my hon. Friends on the Back Benches, but to the method that the Opposition majored on. We did not want to create problems by having one system north of the border and another system south of the border. When my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scotland Office responded to the Scottish Executive, they accepted that although they do not have a problem as great as ours, a discrepancy between what happens north and south of the border could cause difficulty. Since the Executive have no massive point of principle about mandatory confiscation, they are happy to close that loophole. That is the reason for the proposed change. There is no double-dyed methodology, and no one was put in a headlock, as was suggested by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield—I am far too new in the job to be able to do that. I ask the hon. Member for Beaconsfield to accept what I have said.

Mr. Grieve: I was not suggesting that the Minister put a headlock on the Scottish Executive—although some of his colleagues might have done that.

I was struck by the Minister's remark that Scotland's discretionary regime has not caused problems with regard to the administration of justice. As I believe in civil liberties, that seems to me a good reason for importing the Scottish system to England, which has a mandatory system.

Mr. Ainsworth: I would agree with the hon. Gentleman if I thought that the Scottish system was more effective because it was discretionary—or if Scottish Members told me that that was the case. However, I do not think that confiscation has been used more extensively in Scotland because its system is discretionary rather than mandatory—and neither, I suspect, does the hon. Gentleman, so his argument is merely a good debating point.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): There is no need to get excited about the matter under discussion, as the Scottish Executive is allowed to change its mind—and someone has already said that it is also allowed to change its leader.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield has made a good point. The Minister should reflect on the Hansard account of what he has said, because he was right to tell the Committee that the system works well north of the border. Why, therefore, can it not be kept? So far as I am aware, discretion has never been exercised to refuse the making of a confiscation order. The Minister of State can correct me if I am wrong.

Mr. Ainsworth: If the Lord Advocate, or the officers of the Scottish Executive whom the Government consulted, thought that the hon. Gentleman was right, we would have received a different answer from them. They said that they did not object to the system being made mandatory. They would not have responded in that way if they felt that the discretionary nature of the Scottish system was what made it work, because they would not be willing to replace a system that worked with one that did not. That system works because of the history of the Scottish judiciary and legal system, and because of the small size of the judiciary and the way in which it operates.

Mr. Carmichael: I do not have the ability to read the mind of the Scottish Executive, but I believe that a significant reason why it was persuaded of the case for change was the need for uniformity of provision. I remind the Committee that it is discussing a review that has not yet reached a conclusion. It should first discuss the principle of whether there should be discretion, as the question of its wider application will flow out of that.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman has correctly stated one of the reasons why the Scottish Executive was persuaded of the case for change. However, he should reflect on the fact that it also went down that road because it shared the Government's desire to send a clear signal to the criminal fraternity that it was unacceptable for people to keep the proceeds of their crimes.

Mr. Davidson: The Minister is in danger of praising the Scottish legal system too highly simply because it is less ineffective than the English system. That does not mean that it is incapable of improvement. A substantial body of opinion in Scotland recognises that it has done better than England in terms of the seizure of assets, but has not done well enough. The guidance to judges has been inadequate, because the pattern of decisions by judges in Scotland has varied considerably. Many of the political leaders in Scotland have shown too much deference to professional legal opinion, because in a small society such as Scotland many of the relationships are too cosy, and challenging the legal profession in Scotland is not done lightly.

It would be a foul slander to suggest that the Minister of State had placed the Scottish Executive in a headlock. None of us would use such a technique—although I understand that a supply of trouser locks is being moved north for use in the future.

Mr. Ainsworth: I have no idea what my hon. Friend means by that.

Scottish Members would know far better than I whether the judiciary north of the border is closer to the communities that it represents than the judiciary south of the border. If so, perhaps that is why it has been successful. I do not know whether that is so, and I would not make such an allegation about the judiciary in England and Wales.

Every one of the amendments, including amendment No. 8, would weaken the current ability to confiscate the proceeds of many categories of crime. I am astonished that hon. Gentlemen have tabled such amendments in anything other than a probing manner. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield trailed his coat towards probing halfway through his explanation of the amendments, and I certainly hope that they are probing. Having explored the amendments, I ask him to withdraw them. If he does not do so, I ask my hon. Friends to reject them.

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