Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Carmichael: Yes, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. When the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok raised his objection it occurred to me that the solution to his point could be put into clause 75. There are severe problems with the term ``criminal lifestyle''. I invite the Minister to think again and in the meantime I am prepared to support the Conservative amendment.

Mr. Wilshire: I can assure the hon. Member for Glasgow, Mollusc that I have never lived in Essex, owned a Range Rover or met Ronnie Barker, but I suppose I must plead guilty to having a criminal lifestyle because I am a Conservative Member of Parliament. I do not want to excite him. I just let him know that. I am not a lawyer, either, as will become blindingly obvious to the Committee as the days turn into weeks and the weeks into months. Occasionally when lawyers gather together what is needed is a spot of lay common sense from the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus—I do not live in Clapham either, so the hon. Member for Glasgow, Mollusc does not need to ask me that. However, the views of the man on the Clapham omnibus occasionally add something to this sort of debate.

It was said earlier that it would be useful if Opposition Members could learn as things went along, just as some Labour Back Benchers were doing when a note came from the Whip to change their minds. Although I am a co-signatory to the amendment, I am prepared to begin to change my mind because, as a non-lawyer, I see a distinction between the principle that we are trying to establish and the use of the words that we are trying to use to do so.

I listened to the debate with an open mind, and I am convinced that the wording in the Bill is wrong. I am prepared for the Government to say that they accept that the wording in the Bill as drafted is not good, but that they do not like our amendment and will come back with something different, for the following reasons. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok suggested that an alternative could be ``a bad man'', but that phrase encapsulates what bothers me about the Bill as drafted: it reminds me of the good Samaritan. If a person does not cross the road but goes by on the other side, he is presumably, by definition, a bad Samaritan, but he has not committed a criminal act by refusing to help his fellow man. For that reason, the phrase ``a bad man'' does not encapsulate the principle of the Bill.

Another example that is relevant to the concept of a criminal lifestyle is of someone I know who has adopted a homeless lifestyle. He has no need to be homeless, but he lives with the people in cardboard boxes in London, to try to get alongside them, although he is not homeless. Using a phrase that includes the word ``lifestyle'' is therefore to miss our point.

I have no difficulty with what the Government are saying; they are rightly trying to get at people who live off the proceeds of crime. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley nearly ruined my point by saying what I was going to say, but far better than I could have done. I believe—I will be corrected if I am wrong—that the Government mean someone who is living a lifestyle that is provided by the use of funds gained from criminal activity. The important distinction is between lifestyle and action; lifestyles can be mocked or taken seriously but they should not be subject to the criticism of the rest of us or to action in the courts.

I hope it will not sound as if I am digressing when I say that many years ago I spent a long time researching religious cults. I grappled with what was good and bad, right and wrong, and with what should be condemned or allowed. Having spent two or three years on the project, it occurred to me that to try to attack, criticise or codify someone's lifestyle would never work, because it would infringe their civil liberties and take away their right to believe and to do things which do not harm anyone else.

Mr. Tredinnick: I well remember my hon. Friend's sterling efforts about 10 years ago when the House was worried about children being brainwashed by various religious groups. My hon. Friend is coming to the important issue of negative stereotyping; my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield effectively portrayed the stereotype of a person whom he described as having gold rings on his fingers. In such a debate, it is difficult not to appear patronising, divisive or socially stuck in one box. However, there are people—my hon. Friend should expand on this—who, when they achieve a certain level of substance, like to demonstrate that, and good luck to them. If people have made it in life, why should they not show that and drive round in a Ford Scorpio? I have a little Honda Civic, but I am not jealous.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to know the difference between a speech and an intervention.

Mr. Wilshire: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's kind words. I shall elaborate on the point but remain within the confines of the debate. Suffice it to say that spending two or three years trying to sort out the difference between the harm done by people and what they actually believed brought home to me the clear distinction between someone's lifestyle and their actions.

If the Government persist with the word ``lifestyle'' in the Bill, they will open up a hornets' nest of debate. I do not know whether lawyers will see the distinction, but the public will, and there will be concern about sloppy legislation or legislation that threatens people. The word ``lifestyle'' involves a person's beliefs, because their beliefs create their lifestyle. People may also argue about a person's values system, because that determines their lifestyle. Worse still, a debate may be opened up, and misunderstanding created, about a person's ethics. The good versus the bad is not the same as the criminal versus the non-criminal.

Legislation that invokes beliefs, values and ethics is either bad or downright dangerous. I keep stressing that I do not disagree with the Government's aim, but the legislation needs to focus on an individual's actions, not the way in which they live.

Let me give another example. Some years ago, before I came to this place, I lived just outside Bath. At that time, quite a lot of people were convinced that someone living on top of Lansdowne hill outside Bath was a rogue. There was a great deal of comment about the company that he kept, the cars that he drove—that was not a humorous point—and where he came from in the London area. People felt even more strongly that the man was no good and that action should be taken against him when the police raided his property and found that he had a gold smelter in his shed. Some of the gold was traced back to the Brink's-Mat theft at Heathrow. Because of the man's affluent lifestyle, house, car, background, the company that he kept and the fact that he was smelting gold, virtually everyone, including the local police, considered him a criminal. The only snag was that a jury did not think so.

Mr. Stinchcombe: I hate to return to a previous point, but clause 75 defines a criminal lifestyle. None of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman falls anywhere within what we are debating. He is making a wholly irrelevant point.

The Chairman: Order. The Chair will decide what is, and is not, in order.

Mr. Wilshire: Thank you, Mr. Gale. That is an invitation for me to repeat my speech when we reach clause 75.

The Chairman: Order. No, it is not.

Mr. Wilshire: I hear what you say, Mr. Gale, and what the hon. Gentleman says, but I disagree with him. Clause 6 contains the word ``lifestyle''. Irrespective of what any other clause says, it is downright dangerous to leave the word ``lifestyle'' in that clause in any circumstances and with any qualification, when all we need to do—

Mr. Tredinnick: I may have missed it, but I do not think that my hon. Friend explained what happened to the person with the gold smelter. He said that the jury found him not guilty, so will he explain the situation?

Mr. Wilshire: I had hoped that my hon. Friend would not ask me that—

The Chairman: Order. The Committee has taken the point, so we should move on.

4.30 pm

Mr. Wilshire: I am grateful to you, Mr. Gale, and it might become clear after the sitting why I am grateful, so I will not pursue the matter.

If the Government offered us an alternative that removed the word ``lifestyle'' from the clause, we would wrap up the whole debate. We are looking for the distinction between someone's lifestyle and actions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Henley had a neat way of doing that, as I would expect from someone who is a wordsmith. I am neither a lawyer nor a wordsmith, but I urge the Government to accept an alternative that reads something like the following suggestion. I have kept the word ``lifestyle'' in this, because I was trying to help the Government. My suggestion is: ``a lifestyle''—or whatever—``that is provided by the use of funds acquired by criminal acts''. Whatever the Government are trying to achieve, they can make the point that they object to acquiring funds from criminal activity. Surely to goodness, they can achieve what they want without inviting the Committee to debate beliefs, values and ethics.

Mr. Foulkes: Opposition Members, particularly those on the Front Bench, have made heavy weather of what is a relatively simple issue. We are talking about semantics, not interpretation. We are not trying to define a lifestyle or be rude about people from Essex because they have a particular lifestyle. That is irrelevant. We are not talking about a subjective test—the definition is in clause 75 and the courts will have no difficulty in applying it. Lawyers do not have to interpret the words ``criminal lifestyle''; they have to look at the interpretation in clause 75. All we are talking about is a description. We could call it a Tredinnick, a Wilshire or a Grieve, but each is equally ridiculous—[Laughter.] I meant that each description is equally ridiculous. I agree with one underlying premise of the argument, which is that we should try to find as accurate a description as possible. I accept that and have no quarrel there. However, there is a quarrel with the idea, put forward particularly by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, that lawyers and courts will have to interpret the title. They will not; the interpretation is there for them in clause 75.

The amendment would take one expression and substitute it for another. The expression ``an habitual criminal for gain'' is unacceptable for two reasons. First, it is clumsy. Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok was right: whatever Opposition Members say, the word ``habitual'' would demonstrate a tendency to require habituality, which might undermine some of the provisions that are defined in clause 75.

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