Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman no longer considers that the amendment is relevant.

My understanding is that the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised is not covered in the Bill. Following the conviction that he described, it would not be possible to revisit consideration of whether the proceeds of crime were to be pursued under the assumption procedures. It may be that we ought to examine whether that should be the case since I am not aware of provisions that would allow us to reconsider the assumption provision.

Mr. Hawkins: I am reluctant to intervene, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield has already spoken. However, have the Minister and his officials had an opportunity to consider the phrase ``criminal lifestyle''. Might there be a better phrase? Can the Minister reveal the conclusions that have been drawn about that matter, or is it too soon for him to reply?

Mr. Ainsworth: I was waiting for bright ideas from the hon. Gentleman, and other members of the Committee. I thought that they might sit back and reflect on that point during the Christmas break. I am in no rush to settle on a final form of words. I have received several suggested improvements on the phrase ``criminal lifestyle''. The biggest difficulty is how to define the single lifestyle offences and the repeat offences referred to in the Bill, and all of the suggestions made so far fail adequately to address those matters.

With regard to the point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, the record of the individual concerned would have been investigated. It is unlikely that the situation that he described would arise, but he suggested that he was aware of instances when it had arisen, so perhaps we ought to address the matter.

[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]

Mr. Grieve: I am aware of two such instances. In at least one case, someone was sentenced to a long period of imprisonment. Throughout that period, it was impossible to establish his identity. From the time of his arrest, through his imprisonment and until to his release, the Prison Service and the police did not know who he was. I have also been involved in cases in which I was the defence counsel and in which I discovered, subsequent to conviction and sentencing, that the client had a string of convictions about which both the prosecutor and I were unaware. That was greatly to the client's benefit when sentencing took place. As defence counsel, that was not my responsibility. The egg was on the prosecutor's face—or on the faces of those who supplied him with the information.

Mr. Hawkins: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Grieve: I cannot give way. I have given way to the Minister.

The Chairman: Order. The Minister gave way to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Member for Beaconsfield has proved that there is nowt as strange as life. Let us examine his point.

Mr. Hawkins: As the Minister is going to consider that point, I shall offer him the example of a case that might, to a lay person, seem as strange as those that were described by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield. It was a serious case. The defendant's record and connections were serious—so serious that special branch officers were all around the court. The defendant was domiciled in the Republic of Ireland but had faced proceedings for what seemed to be relatively minor offences in United Kingdom courts. That made it difficult for the prosecution to build up a full picture of the defendant's criminal activity, as most of his offences had been committed in the Republic of Ireland and full details could not be obtained from the Gardai. That is another variant of the circumstances described by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Ainsworth: Consideration of the amendment that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield has, on reflection, said that he does not want to move is becoming as fascinating as some of the conversations that take place in the Smoking Room late at night. However, we are confined to drinking sparkling water rather than a glass of wine while we consider the matter.

Mr. Carmichael: On a point of order, Mr. McWilliam. Is it in order for the Chair to make clear exactly what we are debating? Is it amendment No. 88, or have we moved on to clause stand part?

The Chairman: We are debating amendment No. 88, and only that.

Mr. Grieve: The two are not unrelated, however. The purpose of tabling our probing amendment was to examine what was intended by subsection (2)(b) and whether the intention was that ``criminal lifestyle'' could be revisited. Since it was tabled, it has become apparent to me from reading subsection (5)(a) that it is not intended that that should be so. That—empowering the Minister—raises the question whether we should consider whether it could be revisited in the limited circumstance that I have outlined.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am beginning to think that we may be under instruction from the Opposition Whip to keep the debate going. The point has been made, and we should examine it. The issue should be picked up.

Mr. Carmichael: I am by no means convinced that I should raise this issue at this stage, but everyone else seems to have done so, so why not? Exactly what procedure is intended for bringing evidence of previous convictions before the court? The hon. Member for Beaconsfield makes an important point. I do not know about south of the border, but practice north of the border in marking cases for prosecution was to serve a schedule of previous convictions at that stage, and, generally, to disregard any convictions that were more than 10 years old. That, therefore, made it possible—indeed, it would frequently be the case—that some convictions were not placed before the court in a schedule. That may be appropriate given that a prosecutor might not know when he started proceedings that criminal confiscation proceedings might follow.

Mr. Ainsworth: There is no need to reopen the discussion about the definitions applied to the assumption of a criminal lifestyle. The point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield was this: the prosecutor may not be aware of a conviction that would trigger that assumption, and, for that reason, it might not be triggered; if the prosecutor had been aware of the conviction, the assumption would have been triggered. The point was, therefore, that we might be missing an opportunity to take into account a general criminal lifestyle. I accept that such circumstances are pretty unusual, but unusual things happen and we should consider the matter. The definition of criminal lifestyle and the triggering of the assumptions have already been discussed.

Mr. Grieve: As I said at the outset, this probing amendment was intended to ask whether the provision covers reopening criminal lifestyle. I have satisfied myself by reading the entire clause that it would not. That raises the issue of whether exceptional circumstances might arise, but they would have to be pretty exceptional, because, as the Minister will be aware, I am not a great enthusiast for reopening issues unless that cannot be avoided or real injustice would take place.

Subject to that, and for the reasons that I have given, it was never my intention to press the amendment to a Division, unless the Minister had said something quite extraordinary in reply to my points. I am grateful to him for being willing to consider the issue, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

12.30 pm

Mr. Hawkins: The discussion between my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and the Minister provoked another thought that did not occur when I first read the Bill in the search for possible amendments. It is an appropriate matter to raise in a clause stand part debate. Those of us who have practised in the courts, as well as many lay people, are aware of the operation of the rehabilitation of offenders legislation. The main Act was, I believe, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974—if I am mistaken on that, no doubt I will be corrected. Many its provisions have been repeated in other legislation. When my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and the Minister discussed amendment No. 88, I looked briefly at the schedules and other provisions in the Bill for a reference to that Act.

I appreciate that the Minister is unlikely to be able answer the following point on the hoof. However, in considering re-opening matters and previous activities that might be part of a criminal lifestyle, we must question how that reconsideration might interact with the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. Under that Act, when a conviction becomes spent, it is not taken into account by any subsequent court. We do not oppose the extension of previously existing powers, and, contrary to repeated suggestions from the Government Back Benchers, we do not want to water them down. However, if that means seeking to consider a person's criminal lifestyle—we do not like that phrase—there may be conflict between that reconsideration and the 1974 Act.

I do not expect a comprehensive answer now, but will the Minister and his officials consider the Bill's extension of existing powers and its interaction with the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, and write to me and other members of the Committee?

Mr. Davidson: Will my hon. Friend the Minister clarify some points that he made in the clause 20 stand part debate? To some extent, the same issue arises where clause 21 refers to the end of the six-year period. Is it the Minister's understanding that, under clauses 20 and 21, any assets that came to light five years after conviction would then be seized under part 5 if they came to light seven years after the conviction? In those circumstances, will there be no difference in the net result? If that is the case, I am happy with what the Minister has said. If it is not, will make the difference clear?

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