Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Stephen Hesford: Does the hon. Gentleman not appreciate the fallacy in his argument? One is equally unlikely to be able to prove that one won money on a bet, whether it was three or 15 years ago. The time element does not apply in relation to the betting example.

Norman Baker: I do not accept that. I accept that it may be difficult to prove, even when the bet was three years ago, but I am prepared to live with that. A process must be in place that does not let the criminal off the hook too easily.

Stephen Hesford: So it is not an issue of principle.

Norman Baker: It is an issue of trying to get the balance right. It is about trying to make sure that criminals do not escape the net, which is what the Bill is designed to do, while, on the other hand, making sure that injustices do not occur. It is a question of where to draw the line. The Minister is drawing the line in the wrong place if people are allowed to go back into the mists of time and say, ``If you can't prove how and where you got this asset 25 years ago, we're having it.'' That is not right. I am a muesli-eating, organic food-eating, Guardian-reading-

Mr. Field: Sandal-wearing.

Norman Baker: I do not wear sandals.

Mr. Wilshire: Will the hon. Gentleman take some care? After I spoke so firmly in favour of his amendment, he should consider not trying to switch me off.

Norman Baker: I was trying to switch Labour Members on, who may also be Guardian readers. The Home Secretary singularly failed to accept my challenge as to whether he reads The Guardian. I think that he prefers The Times these days.

Mr. Foulkes: What about The Scotsman?

Norman Baker: I am also a Scotsman, so I appeal to the Minister. The line has not been drawn in the right place. There is a risk of injustice. It is all very well to say that subsection (6)(a) and (b) deal with the matter. For the reasons that I have outlined, I do not believe that they do.

What is the alternative and how can we deal with proceeds of crime that were obtained prior to the six-year period? I do not know. I am not a lawyer. I am not a draftsman. It is my job to point out injustices and problems with legislation. It is up to the Government to introduce appropriate measures. A system could be put in place, for example, that would put the onus back on the prosecuting authorities for a period prior to six years. There may be other ways in which to legislate, such as making 10 years the appropriate cut-off point.

Mr. Stinchcombe: The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is interesting. At the outset, he accepts that the burden of proof should be on the convict, who is in the best position to prove where his assets came from, but when that becomes even harder to prove, the hon. Gentleman switches the burden back to the prosecutor.

Norman Baker: That is right. If it becomes harder for the criminal to demonstrate that his property may have been obtained legitimately, it is an unfair test. That is why I want the onus put back on the prosecutor.

Mr. Hawkins: I strongly agree with the way in which the hon. Gentleman is putting his case. Is not part of the answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) that we want to limit any possible injustice and that even criminals should not be subject to unjust draconian laws?

Norman Baker: That is exactly right. In another context, the Government are considering that it would be legitimate for juries to have access to information about previous convictions. In this country, we have tended not to make people aware of previous convictions so that the jury is not prejudiced. However, the courts may be prejudiced against such people, first because they are convicted criminals and secondly because they will have the proceeds of crime.

Mr. Grieve: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for raising an issue that has not been raised before in Committee. At present, the only burden on the prosecutor is to identify the assets held by the defendant at any time after the conviction. However, under the amendment, extrapolating which assets were transferred and which were not could be a difficult task for the defendant as well as for the prosecutor. Does the hon. Gentleman see any way in which to get round that problem, or should it be thrown back to the Government?

Norman Baker: The onus is always on the Government and their civil servants to draft a Bill that works. It is the role of Opposition parties and Labour Back Benchers to point out to Ministers problems in legislation, so that it works effectively, does not have loopholes and everyone is happy with it. That is how the process should work. Working with the sparse resources of the Liberal Democrats-we are not sure what the Conservatives have-we concluded that a time limit different from six years could be set. There may be a reversal of the requirement for the burden of proof from the criminal to the prosecuting authorities before six years.

There could be other ways in which to deal with the problem-I am open to suggestions-but the current provision is not fair. I do not believe that there are sufficient safeguards to prevent injustice from occurring. That is genuinely how I feel. Nothing that the Minister has said today has convinced me otherwise. For the first time in this Committee, I shall press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:-

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 12.

Division No. 4]

AYES
Baker, Norman Carmichael, Mr. Alistair Field, Mr. Mark Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Hawkins, Mr. Nick Tredinnick, Mr. David Wilshire, Mr. David

NOES
Ainsworth, Mr. Bob Baird, Vera Clark, Mrs. Helen David, Mr. Wayne Foulkes, Mr. George Harris, Mr. Tom
Hesford, Stephen Lazarowicz, Mr. Mark McCabe, Mr. Stephen McGuire, Mrs. Anne Robertson, John Stinchcombe, Mr. Paul

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 34, in page 6, line 13, leave out paragraph (a) and insert-

    `(a) the defendant adduces evidence which is sufficient to raise an issue with respect to the matter and the prosecution fails to prove its case on the matter.'.-[Mr. Hawkins.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:-

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 14.

Division No. 5]

AYES
Field, Mr. Mark Grieve, Mr. Dominic Hawkins, Mr. Nick
Tredinnick, Mr. David Wilshire, Mr. David

NOES
Ainsworth, Mr. Bob Baird, Vera Baker, Norman Carmichael, Mr. Alistair Clark, Mrs. Helen David, Mr. Wayne Foulkes, Mr. George
Harris, Mr. Tom Hesford, Stephen Lazarowicz, Mr. Mark McCabe, Mr. Stephen McGuire, Mrs. Anne Robertson, John Stinchcombe, Mr. Paul

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: No. 76, in page 6, line 14, at end insert-

    `(c) there is no rational connection between the facts proved in proceedings leading to the trigger convictions and the facts adduced for consideration of the assumptions.'.-[Mr. Grieve.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:-

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 14.

Division No. 6]

AYES
Field, Mr. Mark Grieve, Mr. Dominic Hawkins, Mr. Nick
Tredinnick, Mr. David Wilshire, Mr. David

NOES
Ainsworth, Mr. Bob Baird, Vera Baker, Norman Carmichael, Mr. Alistair Clark, Mrs. Helen David, Mr. Wayne Foulkes, Mr. George
Harris, Mr. Tom Hesford, Stephen Lazarowicz, Mr. Mark McCabe, Mr. Stephen McGuire, Mrs. Anne Robertson, John Stinchcombe, Mr. Paul

Question accordingly negatived.

10.30 am

Mr. Hawkins: On a point of order, Mr. Gale. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and I might have misunderstood something. Is it the case that, if amendments Nos. 51 to 59 were all linked to amendment No. 24, they fell if the hon. Member for Lewes did not move them? My hon. Friend and I were hoping to have a separate vote on amendments Nos. 51 to 59-although a debate on amendment No. 51 would have been sufficient, as the others are consequential.

The Chairman: The hon. Member for Lewes had an opportunity to endeavour to put amendment No. 51 to a vote, and chose not to do so.

The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 12

Time for payment

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I beg to move amendment No. 101, in page 6, line 28, leave out `on' and insert `within seven days of'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 102, in Clause 13, page 7, line 3, leave out

    `when it is required to be paid'

and insert

    `within seven days of the making of the order'

.

Mr. Field: This is my first opportunity to move an amendment. I trust that Labour Members will be easy on me. [Laughter.] That is wishful thinking, I suppose.

Vera Baird (Redcar): And a hostage to fortune.

Mr. Field: Indeed.

I am disappointed that my adversary from Second Reading, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson), is not present, because it seems to me that he holds to the view that if one has nothing to hide, there is no reason why one should object to the Assets Recovery Agency, or any police authority, bugging one's phone-or, rather, my phone-or searching my house at will, or inspecting my bank account without my consent. Concerns about such matters have been expressed. The Committee has had a great debate on clause 11, which is one of the key clauses. Clause 12 follows on from it by addressing the matter of the time of payment.

One of my fundamental concerns is about the balance between the individual and the state. As I have said, concern is felt in many of our inner cities about the large number of criminals who are able to get away with murder-so to speak-by having extensive assets that seem to be beyond the grasp of the state.

As the Minister pointed out, it was a Conservative Government of the 1980s that first introduced more draconian powers through the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986, which was repealed by the Drug Trafficking Act 1994. However, there is an issue about the balance between the power of the state and the power of the individual. My overriding concern is that so many new powers are being introduced that soon the balance will be shifted in favour of the state-and that will be the case not only for criminals but for every individual. That is why we have gone into what might be described as tortuous detail to try to tease out from the Government how they feel such matters will pan out.

I appreciate the frustrations that are felt concerning this matter. I am sure that the Minister looks at what is going on and is greatly concerned that large sums of drug money are not being confiscated, and that many Mr. Bigs are able to hire expensive lawyers and to invest much of their money overseas. There is a desire to try to get hold of that cash, particularly since the outrage of 11 September. He will recall that, when I spoke about that matter on Second Reading, I mentioned that the terrorists often have legitimate money. Certainly, much of Osama bin Laden's money had a legitimate origin and would not fall within the scope of much that we are discussing.

I want to touch on the practicalities involved in the issue of time for payment. We are all aware that the defendant in such a case will have already been subject to a full financial investigation. I propose these small changes for practical purposes. Obviously a fundamental assessment will be made of a person's financial affairs when they are under investigation and at some point close to conviction. The amendment struck me as a practical proposition. I wanted to leave that flexibility, which will make sense for the practical application of the time frame, not so much to give seven days' grace-that is not the idea-but merely to allow the authorities to ensure that the matter proceeds as smoothly as possible.

 
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Prepared 22 November 2001