Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Wilshire: I have heard one or two things that cause me concern. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) argued that once it became impossible for the state to prove something, the state would make the assumption that the defendant was guilty. I should be very worried by such a precedent.

I was also concerned when the Minister said that he thought that we were arguing for an amnesty, as though anyone who argues for an amnesty is wrong. Some of us made that point about convicted criminals in Northern Ireland. Sometimes amnesties seem a good thing to the Minister, and sometimes they seem bad. We should put aside his argument, as it seems to be a subjective judgment and not a matter of fact.

Perhaps the Minister, like my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, is so locked into consideration of the Bill that events elsewhere in this Palace have escaped his notice, but this is a week for striking a balance, and that is relevant to the amendment. We have heard the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions say that we must strike a balance between the interests of the aviation industry and local people in connection with terminal 5-I see the look on your face, Mr. Gale, so I shall not pursue the subject any further, except to say that it gives us an example of striking a balance from earlier this week.

I listened yesterday to the Home Secretary arguing at some length that a balance had to be struck between protecting British people against terrorism and protecting those who might be guilty of terrorism although the state could not prove it. We have to strike a balance-that look is coming over your face again, Mr. Gale, so I shall not speak further about the anti-terrorism legislation. I shall speak instead about the need to strike a balance in the Bill.

Even someone who has been convicted of criminal activity-they may or may not be a lesser form of life; I do not want to enter that debate-is a human being who is entitled to the same fundamental rights as the rest of us, irrespective of what he has done. If we follow the doctrine that if one offends against society, one loses one's rights, we will build a society in which I would not wish to live, and in which I would not wish to condemn other people to live. We must find a balance. I accept and support the Government's objective of finding a mechanism for capturing the huge amounts of money being made from dealing in drugs, but that must not be pursued to the point at which we trample on individual's rights.

There comes a point at which one can no longer reasonably say, ``You are guilty until you prove yourself innocent. We will assume that you made this money illegally, unless you can show us otherwise.'' Various people have tried to explain that. I, too, have run small businesses over the years, and if the Government wanted to sweep up all the profit that I had ever made, it would not dent the national debt by more than a fraction of a millipenny. Nevertheless, the amount of paperwork generated over those years had to be got rid of. There is no point in anyone saying to me, ``What profit did you make 15 years ago? Where did you acquire the goods from? Who did you sell them to?'' I will no longer have the slightest notion, and the law has never required me to.

I shall suggest some examples that show why there must come such a point-six years seems sensible. My examples are small beer, but they can be scaled up. My father, who died 34 years ago, left me some shares. I probably can no longer tell you exactly what they were-I could have a stab at it, but I cannot say how many there were. Over subsequent years, some of them have made a profit and been sold, and the money has been reinvested. However, I cannot not say how much profit was made. During those years, there have been occasions when I have earned enough in a year to buy shares of my own. I can no longer say exactly which shares those were, either. Some of them have made a profit, and I have taken that profit and reinvested it. I have no doubt-although I cannot prove it, and nobody else can prove it-that there will have been occasions during those 34 years when I have taken some profit from shares that I was given, and some from shares that I have bought, and used the joint money to buy something else.

Mr. McCabe: A better tie, for example.

Mr. Wilshire: Yes, I shall sell some shares before next week and try to humour the hon. Gentleman if I can. Even with the Government's confiscatory regime, I may have some assets left, but not for long.

To return to my point, I will now have in my possession, or will have had and sold, some assets that came from my father, and some that I acquired myself. There is no way on this earth that I will be able to say which are which. If one scales that up to the example of drug money, some of which came from here and some from there a long time ago-some of which was innocent and some guilty, some legitimate and some not-I defy somebody to be able to demonstrate, 34 years later, which came from where, and what was acquired how. If that cannot be done, and the Government therefore say, ``We'll take the lot,'' we will have committed an injustice to somebody who has a right to justice.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that if, in the extremely unlikely event of his conviction, he gave a judge the description of the purchase and sale of shares that he has just given, the judge would agree that it was more likely than not-

Mr. Ainsworth: On the balance of probabilities.

Ian Lucas: -that those shares and that money had been lawfully obtained.

Mr. Wilshire: If we take my example of one element of criminality-one asset from an innocent source and one from a guilty source-one of those two would have been obtained through criminal activity and the other would not. Therefore, the judge could not say that the whole lot had been obtained through criminal activity, because there would be an admission that part of it was criminal and part of it was innocent. If I understand the Bill correctly, in the absence of a restriction on that blanket power, the court will say, ``Sorry, it is up to you to prove which bit has come from an innocent source, and you cannot do that, so we will assume that the whole lot is from a guilty source''. The court will take everything; that is what worries me. If that is not what the Bill proposes, the amendment-or a similar one-would make sense.

The Chairman: Order. The Parliamentary Private Secretary is not allowed to wander around the Committee room.

9.45 am

Mr. Wilshire: Thank you, Mr. Gale.

My mother died a few weeks ago. My father died about 30 years ago, and there is much that I do not know about the intervening period. I am now dealing with my mother's assets, and the property that she acquired. I know where some things came from; I can remember, even though I might not have seen them for 30 years. However, I am also discovering that I have no idea about where other items-such as, interestingly, a couple of pictures-came from. It would be ridiculous to suggest that I could find out where she bought one of those pictures. How many art dealers are there in London, or in the rest of the United Kingdom, or in the world? If I cannot find the paperwork, how do I know where to go? How do I know where any of those things came from? I cannot ask my mother, and her papers are in such a disorganised state that it is not possible to go through them to discover the sources.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): The hon. Gentleman is outlining a complex set of possibilities that might lead to the provisions of the Bill being applied to him. However, he has ignored an overriding criterion: they would apply to him only if he were a convicted criminal. Is he a criminal?

Mr. Wilshire: I am using a personal family situation as an example. I am not a lawyer, so I need to start with something I understand, such as my complex family arrangements. I will explain shortly how my example highlights some of my concerns about the Bill.

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): The provision is not targeted at the hon. Gentleman's family. It is intended to deal with criminals, and people choose to be criminals. I could reverse the example. In my experience, drug barons know very well where their assets come from. They keep copious records of their drugs and their money. The only problem is that they refuse to tell the prosecution authorities about them. If criminals want their legitimate and their criminal assets to be separated, they can bring their records to court.

Mr. Wilshire: Some drug barons who are arrested and taken to court might have copious notes about where their assets came from, but I can also imagine that some drug dealers might not. It appears that the doctrine now is not only ``You must prove where you got it from or you are guilty'', but ``We will assume that you do have paperwork, even though you cannot find it and will not produce it. If you did produce it you could provide an answer, but because you do not have it and you will not produce it, we will assume that you are guilty''. If that is the case, a further step is being taken down the track of abusing human rights.

Norman Baker: The provision is not only targeted at drug barons. Laws already exist that are targeted at them. The provision is much broader; it will catch a huge swathe of people. Although a criminal obtains the proceeds of his crimes, that does not mean that all his property has been criminally obtained-but the legislation will deal with him as if it were.

Mr. Wilshire: I agree.

Before I was diverted, I was talking about people other than drug barons: I was talking about my mother, and I wish to return to that subject. I am sure that if she were listening, she would understand that some grannies are criminals. [Interruption.] I mean nothing personal.

 
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