Proceeds of Crime Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a criminal lifestyle is correctly defined with regard not to tattoos, cars or taste in clothes, but to the inability to prove that the money spent on such luxuries was earned legally?

Mr. Grieve: I am troubled by that comment, because it is clear that the court's task is to decide whether people are habitual criminals for gain, rather than whether they have a criminal lifestyle. That is why it is important to be precise.

Mr. Hawkins: Another correct response to the previous intervention, as well as to a couple of earlier ones, is that while we all might want to improve legislation—I have been a parliamentary sponsor of the Plain English Campaign—we must remember that the courts will have to interpret the Bill's language in serious criminal cases. We must ensure that the laws that we give to judges and the director of the new agency are precise and fit the system in a workable way. That is the problem. We cannot use terminology that is familiar to the tabloid press unless it works in court.

Mr. Grieve: I simply repeat that ``criminal lifestyle'' is defined in clause 75, so a definition of the phrase already exists. The phrase is not left as an abstract one, although the definition is flexible and can be changed by the Secretary of State to include new offences. However, I understand that those new offences will always be those committed by what I have termed

    ``an habitual criminal for gain''.

If that is the case, we should spell that out, rather than use what ultimately boils down to a term of opprobrium.

First, it is lawyers, not juries, who will have to interpret the legislation: the judge will determine its meaning. Secondly, the man on the street would apply common sense, and could say that someone had a criminal lifestyle even if there was no evidence that he or she was a criminal. That is why the definition is worrying.

Mr. Tredinnick: I have listened to Labour Members' well-meaning but misguided remarks about whether the phrase is suitable for lawyers. The Committee must find a phrase that is watertight in law, otherwise the proverbial coach and horses will be driven through the Bill when it is enacted.

Mr. Foulkes: No.

Mr. Tredinnick: The Minister dissents, but we must be very careful on the issue if the Bill is to be effective. We must be precise. This is no time for woolly definitions or emotive phrases that might be found in the tabloids. It is right that the legal beavers of the Committee should get the phraseology correct. Even humbler sorts who are not lawyers, such as me—looking at the list of Committee members, I see that we are in the minority—

The Chairman: Order. Mr. Grieve.

Mr. Tredinnick: I draw my intervention to a close.

Mr. Grieve: I, too, shall bring my remarks to a close. I recall watching the late Ronnie Barker many years ago performing in a television show in which he put on bovver boots and dungarees—[Hon. Members: ``He is still alive.''] I am sorry. He arranged himself so that he appeared to have a shaved cranium, and he sang a song called ``I've got bad habits'' about his way of life. I do not think that any criminal offence was mentioned in the song—he was simply an unpleasant character. It was extremely funny.

Many people have bad habits. An outsider might think that such people have a criminal lifestyle, but that does not mean that they would fall under the category defined in clause 75. The Committee would do well to have a definition that meets what is intended, rather than a loose definition. That is why I commend the amendment to the Committee.

Mr. Davidson: Opposition Members have mentioned that they hoped that Labour Members would be independent-minded on the matter. I am not Lobby fodder, and my Whip has given me permission to say that.

Mr. Hawkins: She probably wrote if for you.

Mr. Davidson: No, my hon. Friend was not prepared to put that in writing, although she did nod, and is smiling as much as it is possible for her to do, or perhaps it is just a lollipop stick—but I digress.

In a contribution that managed to offend everyone in Essex and the producers of Range Rovers, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield mentioned a Vitara for the wife, which seems like a fair swap to me, but I suppose that it depends on the age of both. He offended Ronnie Barker. What I thought especially brutal, and took personally, was the reference to people with apparently shaved craniums. He did not make much of a point. The real question relates to the word that he has chosen, ``habitual''. To demonstrate habituality, if such a word exists, it is necessary to demonstrate a course of action, whereas the existing proposal seems to relate to a single offence, which triggers the whole business. I worry whether, with a host of verbiage, he is again trying to water down the Bill so as to make it clear that the person would have to be caught several times before he was done for the offence.

Mr. Hawkins: To reassure the hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and I debated at some length how to redraft the clause. I pointed out earlier that we do not suggest that our wording is perfect. One of the options that we considered was the form of words

    ``criminal for gain having committed a serious offence or offences''.

That is a much longer phrase, but it would include the hon. Gentleman's singular. I hope that that reassures him that we were not trying to water down the provision.

Mr. Davidson: It reassures me that your heart was pure and that you were merely incompetent.

The Chairman: Order. My heart is perfectly pure.

Mr. Davidson: Indeed, Mr. Gale.

If the hon. Member for—I have forgotten the right-winger's constituency—

Mr. Hawkins: Surrey Heath.

Mr. Davidson: The Minister laughs, but in Saturday's rugby the hon. Gentleman initially played on the right wing, and I played on the left—[Interruption.] No, in both halves I played on the same wing—the one nearer the sandwiches and the crowds. There was method in my madness.

The hon. Gentleman's comments about ``habitual'' are erroneous. How can a habitual course of action be involved if is intended to apply to a single incident only? Another word is necessary, and I am prepared to accept his withdrawal.

Mr. Hawkins: I want the hon. Gentleman to understand that it was difficult to find a phrase that did not last an entire paragraph in order to achieve our objective. One of the issues on which we had to decide in tabling our amendment—we obviously had to decide on one variant—was whether to incorporate wording that could encapsulate one offence or more than one offence. I understand his point entirely. If he can replace ``criminal lifestyle'' with something that achieves the same object in a short phrase that takes us away from that alien concept, we are certainly prepared to consider his redrafting.

Mr. Davidson: Okay. I am not a lawyer, and therefore I have no big words, but something along the lines of

    ``a bad man whom we have caught once''—

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): Or woman.

Mr. Davidson: As I understand it, ``men'' includes women. If the hon. Gentleman can suggest a form of words that encapsulates that, I should be happy to consider supporting it—if the Whip will allow me to be sufficiently independent.

The word ``habitual'' seems to include the assumption that a consistent, proven course of action is involved. The reality is that in the case of many of those whom we would wish to catch, we shall be lucky if we catch them at all. However, if we get them once, that is when a ton of bricks should fall on them.

Mr. Carmichael: I do not particularly like the expression ``habitual criminal for gain''. It is a particularly inelegant way of expressing it. However, I am persuaded on balance that it is probably preferable to ``criminal lifestyle'' and I would be the first to admit that I cannot come up with anything better.

4.15 pm

Mr. Boris Johnson: We must be sympathetic to the people who drafted the Bill. They were trying to get at those who are obviously living on the proceeds of crime and are criminals. It is a noxious and unpleasant thing to witness. What about saying that this person is living off the proceeds of crime? What could be simpler than that?

Mr. Carmichael: I do not know that I can fault the hon. Gentleman. There is a serious point to me made here among the jokes about Essex and the rest. That is certainly worthy of consideration. I hope that the Minister will take it on board.

If we vote on the amendment at the end of the debate, I am minded to support the Conservatives. There is something rather nebulous about saying ``criminal lifestyle''. When seen in the fuller context of the Bill it reminds me of the good Scots phrase, ``I kent his faither'', with the implication that to say ``We just know you are a criminal'' is sufficient. Looking at some of the other provisions that bring within the ambit of the Bill people who have not been convicted in a criminal court, a phrase like a ``criminal lifestyle'' serves simply to reinforce that impression.

The point that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield made about this being something that will have to be interpreted by lawyers is a good one. The ``habitual criminal for gain'' is someone who would be easily recognisable by lawyers. It is an expression that would fit in better with the whole jurisprudence of legal interpretation, unless the Ministers are prepared to accept the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), which still seems attractive the more I think about it.

Mr. Grieve: The use of the word ``habitual'' has been criticised. It appeared to me that there had to be a habitual nature to fall within clause 75, either because of the previous convictions or because the very nature of the offences themselves when single offences were more than a one-off event.

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