Proceeds of Crime Bill

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The Chairman: I am of the opinion that matters arising from the clause have been discussed exhaustively.

Mr. Grieve: On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I am sorry to suggest anxiety about the clause, but it raises at least one matter that is unrelated to the amendments: the fact that the Crown court has been selected as the forum in which to resolve and determine confiscation cases. I seek clarification on that matter from the Government.

11.15 am

The Chairman: I shall allow the hon. Gentleman to make his argument but he will have to convince me that the subject has not already been discussed.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Grieve: In short, the Government have decided that the proceedings should be dealt with in the Crown court. I have no strong view on the subject, but anxieties were expressed about whether the Crown court has the expertise to deal with such applications. I foresee that it could acquire that expertise, but such proceedings usually take place in the High Court, and that is particularly important when the interests of third parties must be balanced. Will the Minister clarify why the Crown court was chosen as the forum for such cases?

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: We have heard representations that such matters should be dealt with in the High Court. We take the same view as the hon. Gentleman: if the Crown court is not capable of hearing such cases, we can provide it with the wherewithal—including training—and the capacity to do so. We want confiscation proceedings to be widely available, and we do not think that that will be possible if they can be heard only in the High Court. [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. The Minister is a mildly spoken man, and I wish to hear what he has to say, even if no one else does. Private conversations must cease.

Mr. Ainsworth: You have ruined the reputation with which others have tried to brand me by accusing me of being a mildly spoken man, Mr. Gale. I am flattered, and I shall go away and blush.

Confiscation has always been dealt with by the Crown court, but restraint and receivership proceedings, which are often complicated, are often heard in the High Court. The Government received representations on the subject, and carefully considered whether the Crown court, which would make confiscation proceedings more widely available, could provide the necessary expertise.

Mr. Grieve: I assume that the Lord Chancellor thinks that the Crown court can deal with such cases properly and that the necessary judicial training can be provided.

Mr. Ainsworth: We are consulting the Lord Chancellor on that issue, and on the rest of the Bill.

Vera Baird (Redcar): I have a friendly suggestion. Is it wise or necessary for subsection (4)(c) to give a judge the burden of deciding whether yes, the defendant has a criminal lifestyle or no, he does not? It would be better and more consistent with the purpose of the Bill if subsection (4)(c) were amended to read,

    ``if it does not decide that he has a criminal lifestyle''.

It is not the Bill's purpose to place a burden on the judge to decide that the defendant does not have a criminal lifestyle. The Bill's purpose is simply to allow the judge to decide whether the defendant has such a lifestyle, and if so, whether the provisions are triggered. If the judge is not sure whether the defendant has a criminal lifestyle, the provisions will not be triggered and the defendant will be saved. However, the judge should say that he has not decided that the defendant has a criminal lifestyle. The problem that may follow if he is forced to make a contrary decision is that a precedent will have been set. Although at that level the precedent would not be binding, and new evidence would unsettle it, the next judge who came to consider the next defendant would have to deal with a contrary finding if he wanted—on the strength of only one offence, as it was likely to be the intervening offence—to decide that the defendant had a criminal lifestyle. It might be a shade easier to appeal against the second judge's decision when it is set against a decision to the contrary by the first. I see no reason for creating that difficulty or causing that problem.

I hope that I have put the case succinctly. It is better if no decision is made by the first judge that the defendant does not have a criminal lifestyle against which the second judge's decision that he does can be assessed.

Mr. Hawkins rose—

The Chairman: Order. I listened carefully to the hon. Lady, who makes a narrow point arising from the clause. I do not want us to repeat a debate that we have already had at considerable length about whether the phrase ``criminal lifestyle'' is appropriate.

Mr. Hawkins: In light of your ruling, Mr. Gale, perhaps I should not pursue my intervention.

Vera Baird: If I inadvertently invited the reopening of that debate, I am glad that you were smart enough to block it off, Mr. Gale.

I have made my point, and I hope that it is helpful. It does not necessarily require a response now, but I invite the Minister to consider it.

I hope that a further point will not require too much indulgence. The requirement that precedes subsection (4)(c) is in subsection (4)(b). Under subsection (4)(b), if the court decides that the defendant has a criminal lifestyle, it must decide whether he has benefited. If it does not decide that he has a criminal lifestyle, it must decide whether he has benefited from his particular criminal conduct. What will happen if the court decides under subsection (4)(b) that he has a criminal lifestyle but has not benefited from his criminal conduct? Ostensibly, that would not trigger subsection (4)(c), which is triggered only if the decision is that he does not have a criminal lifestyle. Again, I do not require or demand an answer now, but I invite the Minister to consider those points and whether the provisions might be sharpened up.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Lady's first point was extremely narrow, but her second was much broader and would reopen a debate that the Committee has already had. If the matter is to be debated further, it must be debated on the Floor of the House at the appropriate time, on Report.

Mr. Mark Field: I am mindful of your comments about reopening the matter, Mr. Gale. Do Members have the opportunity to say a few brief general words about clause 6 without reopening previous debates?

The Chairman: This is a clause stand part debate. I have made it abundantly plain to the Committee that this Chairman will permit wide discussion of a clause at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of its consideration, but not at all three points. If the hon. Gentleman has new points to make that have not been referred to at all during the debate, I shall be interested to hear what he has to say, but I have studied the clause extremely carefully and am satisfied as Chairman that the matters arising from the clause, with the exception of the point that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield made, have been exhaustively discussed.

Mr. Field: On the basis that we have a further 433 or more clauses to go, I suspect that I may find an opportunity to make my point when we discuss one of those.

The Chairman: A most wise decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Time for making order

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Foulkes: We now come to three relatively straightforward clauses, which is probably why I have been allowed to explain them. Clause 7 makes it clear that a confiscation order must be made before the defendant is sentenced in a case when there is no postponement under clauses 15 and 16. An advantage of that approach is that it enables the confiscation order to be taken into account before the court decides whether the defendant should be fined.

The Chairman: Order. The Minister referred to three consecutive clauses. If it makes sense to the Committee, I am happy for them to be taken together. [Hon. Members: ``No''.] In that case, I ask the Minister to confine his remarks to clause 7.

Mr. Foulkes: I was intending to do that, although I would have accepted your suggestion, Mr. Gale. It would have been a wise approach to take.

Mr. Hawkins: On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I seek clarification. Although different amendments to the three clauses are printed on the amendment paper, I understand that you have been advised by the Clerk not to select them for debate for technical reasons. However, the issues raised by the amendments could be discussed separately in the three clause stand part debates. That is why the Opposition Front Bench want the three clause stand part debates to be taken separately.

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman will understand that there are sound reasons why those amendments were not selected for debate, but he is absolutely within his rights to raise their underlying matters if he so wishes.

Mr. Foulkes: And we have another 440-odd clauses to go, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) said, as well as the winter before us.

In more complicated cases, the director of the prosecutor will apply for a confiscation hearing to be postponed under clause 15. In those circumstances, the defendant will usually be sentenced before the confiscation order is made. Clause 7 does not set a hard-and-fast rule for what happens in every case. It allows for appropriate flexibility.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I am grateful to the Minister for explaining matters, because as a layman I was somewhat confused. Amendment No. 70, which has not been chosen for debate, made an important point. It—

The Chairman: Order. Before we proceed down that road, it might be helpful if I explain why amendment No. 70 was not selected for debate, although there is no particular requirement for me to do so. The amendment refers to the wrong part of the Bill. The provisions of clause 7 are already qualified by provisions under clauses 15 and 16, and at the appropriate time it will be possible to table amendments to those clauses.

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