Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): Hear, hear.

Mr. Hawkins: I know that my hon. Friend has extensive experience of such matters.

Mr. Field: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Many members of the Committee will have received briefs from a variety of professional and public bodies. Nothing would be more of a crying shame than either lacunae or too much overlap. Such briefs provide opportunities, and with your leave, Mr. O'Brien, I hope that we could return to issues should we receive representations.

As my hon. Friend said, I have received briefings from organisations in the City which, although they—like the Conservative party—were positive about the overriding aspects of the Bill, nevertheless examined it clause by clause. Therefore, I endorse my hon. Friend's comments.

3 pm

Mr. Hawkins: The only chance that we will have to revisit the matter in this House will be on Report. That is why I want the Minister to comment on the whole clause, especially subsection (3). I am sure that he will have had briefing from his officials about its importance.

Mr. Ainsworth: The clause is technical. It sets out the basic relationship between confiscation orders and other orders that may be made following conviction. It makes it clear that confiscation orders are not to be drawn into the global sentencing process. It also reproduces the effect of existing legislation. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster asked a reasonable question, but we are not aware of any lacunae—to use his word. He will see that subsection (5) deliberately draws out compensation orders and proposes to deal with those differently.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. He simply says that the clause is technical, but will he give us further information about the way in which it will operate? I do not wish to delay the Committee, as I am sure the Minister appreciates, but it would be helpful if he could give us further details about the technical aspects of the clause, which I am sure he has been given.

Mr. Ainsworth: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the clause is an attempt to set out the order in which we proceed, the point at which confiscation orders come in, and what must be taken account of before an order is made and what must not. I do not know what further information the hon. Gentleman wants. What are his worries, apart from the fact that we may not have covered everything? We believe that everything is covered, and we have reproduced provisions from existing legislation.

Mr. Hawkins: I understand that the Minister has gone as far as he feels he can, and I am happy to leave it there.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 15


Mr. Field: I beg to move amendment No. 103, in page 8, line 3, leave out subsection (3).

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 27, in page 8, line 4, leave out `two years' and insert `six months'.

No. 104, in page 8, line 4, leave out `two years' and insert `three months'.

Mr. Field: I have spoken to the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), and with your leave, Mr. O'Brien, he will speak to amendment No. 27 in a moment. I shall speak to amendment No. 103.

I know that all members of the Committee are in confessional mode about our legal background, or otherwise, and I stand here with trepidation, as I am sure that I am about to incur the wrath of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson).

I admit that my legal career was somewhat less glorious than those of a few other hon. Members who are present—I am looking, with great admiration, at the hon. Member for Redcar, who may even be a Queen's Counsel, and who has, no doubt, spent many years practising at the Bar. I spent four years practising law—two years as a trainee solicitor, followed by two years working as a corporate lawyer with Freshfields, one of the big City of London practices, before I determined that the world would not be a much worse place if there were one lawyer less, and escaped to go and run my own business. [Hon. Members: ``Hear, hear.''] That is, I am sure, the highest compliment that I could possibly receive from Labour Members.

As for the clause, I know how difficult it is to draft from first principles. There are more barristers than solicitors present in the Committee, and they probably have a low regard for solicitors' drafting skills. In my experience, current legal education does not accord such skills a high enough priority. This is a large Bill, and I do not wish to be unkind to the Treasury's solicitors, who have no doubt gone to great trouble at short notice to draft it, but, to take up a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne made, clause 15 is confusing.

With regard to subsection (3) and the amendment under discussion, what might be the ``exceptional circumstances''? I am unsure. Indeed, the entire issue of postponement is confusing, if one ponders each of the other subsections. It is evident that clause 6 and the whole issue of confiscation orders are referred to. Mention is made of the trigger point, which is the conviction, and a period of up to two years, which is the permitted period, and there is confusion about the postponement going beyond that, which does not seem entirely logical. However, subsection (3) says that there are exceptional circumstances that could rule that out. Will the Minister explain what those exceptional circumstances might be? I hope to reserve the right to discuss what might flow from that explanation.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has illustrated how useful it is for members of Committees such as this to have a variety of experience, regardless of the party that they might represent.

As my hon. Friend has explained, his opinions on the matter are informed by two aspects of his experience. He worked in a leading City solicitor's firm. Labour Members are often happy to criticise lawyers, but—as a lawyer who sits on the Government Benches but is not a member of the Committee recently said to me—they tend to forget the huge contribution made to the United Kingdom's invisible earnings by firms such as Freshfields, Slaughter and May, and Linklaters. The best commercial legal firms in the world are in the City of London, and they make a vast contribution to the nation's wealth. When people are considering where they want their commercial disputes to be settled, and on whom they wish to rely, if they are representing a company in South America trading with a country in Africa, or a company in the former Soviet Union or the former Warsaw pact countries trading with a company in Canada, they do not tend to choose their own legal systems. They tend to want everything to be decided by English law, and to be resolved by firms in the City of London. That is the commercial reality.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Is this a commercial break?

Mr. Hawkins rose—

The Chairman: Order. I was about to tell the hon. Member for Surrey Heath that he was straying from the subject.

Mr. Hawkins: If that was the case, I apologise, Mr. O'Brien. I was responding to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster about his own experience, which had led him to feel that insufficient concentration was put on training people to perform tasks such as drafting. Nevertheless, I hope that Labour Members, who tend to be anti-lawyer, will bear that in mind, given its contribution to UK plc.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster was right to say that we must ensure that the drafting is precise. I look forward to the Minister's response to my hon. Friend's valid points and I hope that he will respond sensibly to the amendments. They are intended to be constructive. They would not weaken the Bill.

Norman Baker (Lewes): I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I say that his contribution was almost as obscure as the provision to which he was referring. However, I am sure that he has made a well argued point.

I confess that amendment No. 27 is merely a way to get the Minister to justify the period of two years. It seems a long time, and could lead to a hiatus, which is not good for the prosecution authorities or for the defendant. Ideally, it would be better if the period were shorter.

Mr. Ainsworth: The overall effect of the amendments would be to reduce the period for which confiscation proceedings may be postponed. The first and third amendments must be read together. Amendment No. 103 would prevent any postponement for longer than the specific maximum period even if there were exceptional circumstances. Amendment No. 104 would reduce the maximum postponement period to three months. Amendment No. 27 would reduce the normal maximum postponement period from two years to six months.

The current legislation permits an extension of up to six months in normal circumstances and allows for an unlimited extension in exceptional circumstances. The definition of whether the circumstances are exceptional is to be decided by the courts. I remind members of the Committee who want to give courts the discretion to decide such issues that it will be for the courts to decide, on application, whether the circumstances are exceptional and whether an extension is justified. Any reason could be considered, such as there being property overseas and difficulty in obtaining information. If the prosecutor could not convince the court that he had just and valid reasons, and exceptional circumstances applied, the court would not allow the extension. We are giving courts the freedom to listen to an argument when exceptional circumstances apply and to allow an extended period when it accepts that that is so.

Norman Baker: The Liberal Democrats are not seeking to deprive the courts of such flexibility, for the reasons that the Minister has explained. However, given that the court has flexibility—and rightly so—why has the initial period been extended to two years?

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