Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Bob Ainsworth: An invitation was given to other people—including the hon. Gentleman—to devote their time to seeing whether they could make improvements.

Mr. Grieve: I assure the Minister that I will try to give that some attention. If I come up with a better draft, I will allow him—and his civil servants—to use it.

All the amendments concern whether the information should be given to the court alone, or to the defendant as well. I anticipate that the Minister will tell me that if the court is requiring the information, and there is a duty on the director or prosecutor to supply it, that information will be communicated by the court to the defendant. The Minister is nodding his head in agreement, but my experience suggests to me that that does not always happen. It might happen eventually, but it does not always happen as quickly as it should. That is why I tabled the amendments.

That might be interpreted as a criticism of the court system, and I can recall several occasions, during the course of my professional practice, when documents that the court was supposed to send out to individuals did not get sent. Given the adversarial nature of the proceedings, and the fact that the prosecutor or director is seeking the confiscation of another person's assets, I cannot think of a good reason why there should not be a statutory obligation on the prosecutor or director to supply copies, not only to the court but to the defendant.

Mr. Hawkins: As my hon. Friend was saying that, I looked outside at the weather and recalled an infamous occasion when the situation that he has described happened. I will never forget it. I had to travel, on a cold, wet Thursday in November, from my home in the south-west midlands to the furthest court in what was then the Midland and Oxford circuit, in Skegness. When I arrived, I discovered that the court had failed to notify the defendant that the proceedings were taking place. Everyone's time was wasted, and the most appalling thing of all is that when we returned to Skegness, on an equally wet, cold, depressing Thursday in February, the court issued an absolute discharge to my client. We also received an apology, and we were told that the magistrates in the town were always telling the police not to prosecute for the offence, but they never took any notice. I hope that that anecdote further illustrates my hon. Friend's point.

Mr. Grieve: It exemplifies the sort of problem that legal practitioners regularly encounter. I have been completely fair about that. The Minister will see that the last amendment in the group—No. 81, which relates to clause 19—would create a burden in the opposite direction, so that the defendant must supply information not only to the court but to ``the prosecutor or Director''. I appreciate that I am making a relatively small point, but as we are trying to get the legislation into good order, the amendment might profitably be included. It has no downside and would cause no problems that I can foresee. It would be likely to speed up the proceedings by a fraction.

3.45 pm

Under amendment No. 81, if there were a problem with non-communication, the court could not be blamed, because the prosecutor or director would have had the duty to supply the information directly to the defendant. That is a minor matter, but in adversarial proceedings, such information should be supplied. In many civil proceedings, there is a duty to supply documentation to the other party directly, and not just through the court system. I cannot think of a reason why that obligation should not exist in this case.

Mr. Ainsworth: Amendments Nos. 78, 79 and 80 would require the director and the prosecutor to give a copy of their statement to the defendant in all cases. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, amendment No. 81 would require the defendant to provide any information that is ordered by the court to the prosecutor and the director.

The statement procedure requires the defendant to respond to the statement provided by the prosecutor and the director. That will identify any matters of dispute on which evidence may be heard. That is why clause 18(1) makes it clear that the defendant can be required to respond to the director's or the prosecutor's statement only when he or she has been served with a copy of it.

The service of the prosecutor's statement is dealt with in the Crown court rules, and we intend that those rules should continue to supply such provisions when the Bill is enacted. We shall ensure that, under the rules, any information that the court orders the defendant to produce is provided to the prosecutor or the director, so there is no need to provide for that in clause 19.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield says that often the information is not provided. I am hugely pleased that he has picked up on the general sense of what I was urging him to do. We should try to make a real difference, but I worry that by saying that, I provoke him into thinking that we could use the Bill to sort out all the Crown court's problems. I do not know his opinion, but it would be strange if we were to make separate, special provisions for information in a case in which the Crown court is supposed to make such provisions.

We shall apply ourselves to ensure that the entire Crown court system works. The defendant will not be able to respond if he has not received the director's statement, so if he does not receive it, the whole object of the exercise will be defeated.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): I am heartened by what the Minister has said. I see sense in the substance of the amendments. It is important when dealing with cause to make as much as possible explicit in the Bill. I see no reason why the amendments could not be included. The Minister has said that that is the intention in the rules that are to be laid down subsequently, but it seems sensible to make the position clear now.

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall try to avoid a fissure on the Labour Benches if possible. Unity in the Labour ranks may be in danger.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that we do not believe that the amendment is the right approach—

Mr. Hawkins: He is not your hon. Friend any more, then.

Mr. Ainsworth: I was talking to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield—and to my hon. Friend.

We do not believe that the amendment is the right approach, but we shall make provision in the Crown court rules to ensure that that happens. Given that assurance, I ask that the amendment be withdrawn.

Mr. Hawkins: I do not suggest for a moment that there is a fissure. Clearly there is not, however much we put our tongue in our cheek. However, given that a Labour Member with the same sort of experience as a practising solicitor as my hon. Friend and I have says that it would be better to specify the matter in the Bill, will the Minister at least consider that relatively small point—which is, however, sufficiently important for the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), from his professional experience, to agree with us—and, perhaps, think about introducing a Government amendment later?

Mr. Ainsworth: Yes.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful for the Minister's comments. I accept that there are Crown court rules and that they should work, but I do not understand why that should prevent something that is glaringly obvious from being stated in a measure when plainly the interests of justice require that the defendant should be kept informed. As I said, the problem is not that the defendant will never see the documents, but a delay—and the fact that someone may subsequently say that that has not happened. The prosecutor may then say that he is under no obligation and can pass the buck to the court administration system, which is often overburdened anyway with many responsibilities.

I invite the Minister to consider this small amendment carefully. It may be the one Grieve amendment to the Bill's 444 clauses, unless I can persuade the Minister to accept some others as we proceed. It is innocuous and spells out what should happen.

Mr. Ainsworth: I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. It is in the interests of not only justice but confiscation that the information should be passed. If it is not passed and we cannot satisfy ourselves that it will be passed through the normal court system, there is some sense in considering the amendment. I give him that assurance but ask him to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Grieve: I thank the Minister.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend said that the amendment might be the only Grieve amendment. I hope that there will be many more. The former Member for Milton Keynes, North-East and I regarded as the Butler-Hawkins amendment to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 a one-word amendment that was extremely important because it allowed police officers the opportunity to search under Rastafarians' hats for drugs. That is one of the few occasions that I can remember of a one-word amendment being accepted by the Government. The amendment ``after `coat', insert `,hat''' made a substantial difference. Even a small amendment can be significant.

Mr. Grieve: I accept that. Putting in words such as ``not'' throughout the Bill would transform it radically. However, the Minister will not allow us to do that.

I am grateful to the Minister and will not take up any more of the Committee's time. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Norman Baker: I beg to move amendment No. 28, in page 9, line 36, leave out `serious'.

We return to the word ``serious'', which I raised earlier. This time, the provision contains a qualifying phrase, which I hope will make the difference and allow the Minister to consider the issue afresh.

The amendment relates to the statement of information that must be provided if the court is proceeding under clause 6. Clause 17(4) states:

    ``A statement under subsection (3) . . . must, if the prosecutor or Director believes there would be a serious risk of injustice if a required assumption were made, include information he believes is relevant in connection with deciding whether it should not be made.''

Therefore the decision goes beyond the director's decision. The decision whether to include information is not the deciding factor. Such flexibility should be left to the court.

If the court is left with that flexibility under clause 17, it ought to be made aware of information that the director may hold even if there is a risk of injustice. If the risk is minimal, surely the court can proceed in the way in which the director wishes. The danger with the wording is that only when there is a ``serious'' risk of injustice will the court be informed and take it into account. If, however, there is simply a risk of injustice, the court need not be informed, and that is a more serious issue. I am not asking for a change to be made that would alter the final decision about a case, but one that would allow further information to be forthcoming when a decision is taken, and that can only be a good action to take.

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