Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Ainsworth: What does that mean?

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. George Foulkes): Like Baroness Thatcher.

Mr. Wilshire: We shall ignore that.

Let us take my personal example of what I cannot, after 30 years, understand or explain in the case of one of my relatives. If the person's relationship to me were a formal, legal business partnership, at the moment of that person's death I would stand in the direct line of the entire partnership as far as the law, debts and property were concerned. In such circumstances, I might or might not be a criminal, but six, 10 or 30 years later I would suddenly find myself in the direct firing line for a whole set of transactions and bits and pieces of property, money and other things that I could not explain. I would be at risk of being branded as a party to criminal activity, because a partnership acts jointly.

The Minister shakes his head, but the phrase ``partners in crime'' can have a legal as well as a jargon meaning. Surely a time must come when natural justice suggests that if the benefit of the doubt is involved, we should not continue giving the state the benefit of that doubt for ever. Each of us in the Room could, if we thought about it, understand the problem clearly. I clutch a date from the air. Let us take 17 June this year. There is no reason why that date slips into my mind, but I defy anyone in the Room to write down in detail what they did throughout 17 June, even this year. If anyone wants to accept that challenge, I shall be fascinated.

Ian Lucas: Labour Members were celebrating Labour's glorious election victory.

Mr. Wilshire: That illustrates my point, because the hon. Gentleman's recollection will have been so hazy, following the previous night's celebrations, that unless he is a teetotaller, his chance of remembering anything would be small. It had not even occurred to me that that was the relevance of 17 June; perhaps it is engraved on my mind.

Whatever the Government are trying to do, and however much I want to support them, a time must come when natural justice suggests that enough is enough. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield does not mind, but I readily accept that six years may not be the most accurate period to choose. The principle that we are driving at is that a point must come at which we can no longer make an assumption and say, ``We'll have the lot unless you can stop us.'' A point is reached at which the issue is not an amnesty but natural justice. On those grounds, I ask the Minister to reconsider and find out whether a better way of achieving what he wants might be found without trampling all over people.

Mr. Hawkins: I shall speak again at this stage, because issues that I did not deal with in my initial remarks were raised in interventions on my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, and it would have taken me too long to deal with them in a further intervention. I have something to say to the Minister, and other Labour Members, because it is important for the Minister to understand. Since 1997, Opposition Members have become familiar with a new authoritarian tendency in Labour Back Benchers and Ministers. It is especially prevalent in connection with provisions such as this.

The attitude seems to relate to any sort of wrongdoer-as my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) said, we are not talking about drug barons alone. The provision can catch lots of other criminals. We all want to hit the Mr. Bigs and ensure that criminals have their criminal assets seized. We are not trying to undermine that, but even those with a criminal record are entitled to a minimum standard of justice. I hope that if the Minister comments further on the matter before we reach the end of the debate he will finally understand that we are not-

Mr. Foulkes rose-

Mr. Hawkins: I shall give way to the Minister when I have finished my general point.

Those of us who were in the 1992-97 Parliament, which many members of the Committee were not, and in earlier Parliaments-my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne has longer experience than I, Mr. Gale, and so do you-got used to the fact that when we were in government, Labour Back Benchers, then in opposition, constantly attacked us, saying that the Tory party was far too authoritarian and wanted to lock up criminals and throw away the key. Suddenly, now that we have a Labour Government, that attitude seems to have been reversed. With this Home Office legislation, Labour Back Benchers are behaving as if we are in the realm of the trial of Joseph K, and once someone is a criminal anything could happen. The burden will be put on the defendant, even if he has no possible chance of demonstrating that some of his property is legitimate.

Mr. Foulkes rose-

Mr. Hawkins: Before I give way to the Minister, I shall cite one further example. A person may have turned to crime in later life. He may have spent 10 or 15 years in perfectly legitimate employment and acquired some assets. The employer may have gone bust and the wage slips may have long since gone into oblivion on both the employee's and the employer's side. Twenty or 30 years later, long after that legitimate employment, that person may fall within the remit of the Bill, and the evidential and the legal burden of proof will be on him to establish that the property is legitimate. He may say that he brought the property legitimately, but cannot produce the evidence.

If there were no documentary record of the transactions, how could he establish on the balance of probabilities that the property was legitimate? It is not good enough for Labour Members to say that Mr. Bigs keep records. They may keep records of their drug dealings, but they will not necessarily keep records of what they were doing legitimately 30 years ago, before they took to crime. I appreciate that some people have a lifetime of crime, but not everyone does. The Bill should ensure that the minimum civil rights even of those who have become criminals and fall within its purview are protected. It is extraordinary that so many Labour Members now seem to believe that the minute someone becomes a criminal, he has no rights and everything goes out of the window- [Interruption.] I shall give way to the Minister now.

Mr. Foulkes: I almost lost the will to live while the hon. Gentleman was speaking just then. His line seemed to be, ``Suddenly, there was a Labour Government''-but that is not what happened; I suffered under a Tory Government for 18 years. The hon. Members for Spelthorne and for Surrey Heath have both said that convicted criminals do not lose their rights. However, certain convicted criminals lose their right to vote. Some of them even lose their right to sit in the House of Commons-although sadly, criminals do not lose their right to sit in the House of Lords.

Mr. Hawkins: I realise that the Minister had to make his cheap political crack. I sometimes think better of the hon. Gentleman, and I know that he makes serious points, but that was one of his less serious.

Mr. Foulkes: Yes, it was.

Mr. Hawkins: Despite the levity that is a part of Committee proceedings which we enjoy, I hope that my serious point will cause at least some Labour Members to reconsider. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart is not in the Room at the moment, but earlier he made one of the few serious interventions, and acknowledged the basis of the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield. I hope that both Ministers, and particularly those who advise them, do that, too. We are not saying that the amendment is perfect. As my hon. Friend said, it may go too far the other way. I want Ministers to realise that their initial drafting goes too far against even the minimum civil rights. I hope that they will be willing to consider a third way.

Mr. Ainsworth: Perhaps we can return to Bill and the effect of the amendment, and get away from the hon. Member for Spelthorne and his mum, and people being required to prove, seemingly beyond all reasonable doubt, that a particular transaction took place 30 years ago. [Interruption.] I will take interventions, but first, in order to move away from the fantasy and fiction that the Opposition have portrayed for the past few minutes, I will tell the Committee what the situation and procedure will be.

10 am

First, we are dealing with criminals. They are not a lower form of life and nobody is branding them as such-unless Conservative Members are, because they tend to be more disparaging about other human beings than I do. Criminals would stand in court following conviction. The assumptions deal with a criminal who has committed the offences or pattern of offences mentioned in clause 75, which show a criminal lifestyle-other hon. Members may want to change that phrase. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) said, we are not dealing with the general population, but with convicted criminals or criminals with a background of cases that justify the assumptions. We will also have a statement from the prosecutor or the director that details assets held by the criminal, not by his mum.

That is the starting point. With an earlier amendment, hon. Members tried, for reasons best know to themselves, to change the burden of proof. The convicted criminal will have to show the court, on the balance of probabilities, that the assets are not the proceeds of crime, but he will not have to show proof of a particular transaction from 25 years ago. Hon. Members say that we are trying to remove the discretion of the court. We are not doing that, because that is the court's purpose. We are reversing the burden of proof because the man or woman will have been convicted. A further reason for reversing the burden is that the defendant is the only person who knows the origin of the property, even if he cannot prove it.

Mr. Grieve rose-

Mr. Ainsworth: Hold on. I shall give way in a moment.

If the criminal can show that, on the balance of probabilities, it would be a serious injustice if was assumed that his property was the proceeds of crime-or show that, again on the balance of probabilities, it is not the proceeds of crime, the property will not be removed. If the hon. Member for Spelthorne had serious legitimate income, he would state that. That would be taken into account against convictions that showed that he had a criminal lifestyle. That is the procedure that will be followed, and it should not be suggested that we are trying to remove the court's discretion or to introduce an unreasonable test.

The Opposition's proposal would put any property that was gained over six years ago beyond reach. That would be an amnesty. The hon. Member for Spelthorne may be hurt about my use of that word because of the line that he has taken on other matters, but that is what the effect of the amendment would be.

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Prepared 22 November 2001