Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Grieve: I am not unsympathetic to what the Minister is trying to achieve with subsection (1), but I am a little worried and shall press him further. The Minister says that he is in discussion with the Lord Chancellor's Department. Those discussions should have taken place some time ago, and the Minister should be in a position to tell the Committee what will be done to provide the Crown court with the extra resources needed to handle such work.

The Minister says that only 252 orders were made in 1997, and 247 in 1998. Does he have any statistical evidence about how much court time is taken up with such cases in a 12-month period? As the Minister says that we shall multiply the number of cases that are brought to court—indeed, we want that to happen—that information would be useful. It would give an idea of what resources are needed to handle the transfer.

Mr. Ainsworth: No, I do not have that information at my fingertips. The hon. Gentleman should not try to misrepresent what I said. Discussions have been under way for some time. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, representations have been made against the Bill. I have had discussions with interested parties who expressed concern about the move. We have considered the matter and do not believe that it is possible to handle the anticipated increased volume of cases unless we change the venue, and unless we have the support of the Lord Chancellor's Department in believing that the transfer is feasible if appropriate training is provided.

The discussions to identify what is needed will continue. We hope to make absolutely sure that the necessary expertise is provided.

Mr. Carmichael: I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield about resource increases, which will be crucial for the successful operation of the provisions. Will extra resources be required that cannot be given as easily to the High Court as to the Crown court?

The Minister drew attention to work done in the Crown court on confiscation orders. I have glanced at clause 42 and I have not found the answer to one question, although it may be staring me in the face. What standard of proof will be required to make a restraint order? Earlier, I mentioned a parallel with injunction in England and Wales, and interdict in Scotland. In Scotland, the standard for obtaining an interdict, at least ad interim, is on the balance of convenience. That is much lower and raises a significant potential for injustice in terms of interference with an individual's property rights. The distinction between confiscation and restraint—

9.15 am

The Chairman: Order. Restraint may be in order, because that was a very long intervention. The Minister must now continue his speech.

Mr. Ainsworth: Costs are not our concern. In theory, additional resources could be thrown at the High Court rather than the Crown court, but that is not the way to achieve the required accessibility.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield made valid points about providing an analysis of the costs of current cases to give us that information during the passage of the Bill. I shall do that if I can. However, our main concern is not costs but accessibility, and the ability to use the powers more widely.

The hon. Gentleman asked what standard of proof will be required. The court must ask whether there is reasonable cause to believe that an offender has benefited from the proceeds of crime. Such a case must be made when obtaining the original restraining order. In view of my assurance to try to find out the cost—in terms of time—of current cases so that hon. Members can examine it, I ask for the amendment to be withdrawn.

Mr. Carmichael: Will the Minister consider an amendment that I might have drafted if I had been clever enough to think of it at the time? If he is not minded to accept the present amendment, will he consider tabling an amendment at a later stage to allow the power to be used by either the Crown court or the High Court? There will be several immensely complicated cases that it could be appropriate for the director or prosecutor to take to the High Court in the first instance.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am not minded to do that. We discussed the matter for some time, and discussed the different representations that were made to us. There would be huge advantages in concentrating the expertise in the Crown court. We would not do that if we split responsibilities and took complicated cases to the High Court. I am not dreadfully sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. I have heard the argument that more routine cases should be dealt with in the Crown court and more complex cases in the High Court. The Crown court is more than capable of dealing with the all cases provided that it receives appropriate resources and training, the requirement for which we must discuss.

Mr. Grieve: I appreciate what the Minister has said, but I continue to have worries about the matter. The answers that he has given the Committee worry me; indeed, I am a bit more worried now than I was when I first spoke.

The Bill will pass on to the other place in February, and I assume that the Government intend to have it on the statute book by the summer. I am unsure of the start date—the Minister might already know it—but I assume that we want to set the system up as quickly as possible. However, it is not possible to magic up new Crown court judges in 24 hours—or, indeed, in six months—or to identify swiftly where to find the expertise to deal with this kind of application.

The best point that the Minister made was that the current resources of the Crown Office appear to be insufficient to deal with the likely rise in workload. However, I believe that the resources of the Crown courts, too, are inadequate. Perhaps I am a suspicious man, but, at some point in the near future we shall consider the Auld report, and I hope that when that happens, we will not be told that Crown court judges are so busy dealing with restraint orders under confiscation proceedings that that is a justification for reducing the incidence of jury trial by relegating such trials to a new, lower court. In my view, all those matters are, potentially, intimately linked together, and I am not satisfied with the Government's apparent approach to them.

I appreciate that it would have been difficult, as it takes time to sort such things out, but I would have been reassured if the Minister had offered us an outline that said, ``We've discussed the matter with the Lord Chancellor and his Department, and he has already agreed that there is likely to be a need for, say, 20 more Crown court judges, and in view of the change in the Crown court judges' workload, the Lord Chancellor is going to try to recruit practitioners who have experience of this type of work. All that is well on the way to being organised.'' However, the Minister has not offered us such an outline. Instead, one gets the distinct impression that there have been some preliminary discussions, and anxieties have been flagged up, but the Government have gone ahead, and they are convinced that the matter will sort itself out.

A major change is being proposed—cases will be transferred from the High Court to the Crown court. Perhaps that is justified, but I am a conservative with a small ``c'': if someone wishes to win my support for changing an existing system, they must persuade me that the new system will work, and I have not been persuaded that that will be the case.

I am therefore minded to press the amendment to a Division. That will register the fact that Opposition Members hold to the view—I believe it has cross-party support—that until we are persuaded that something is going to work better, and the detail has been provided to persuade us of that, we should stick to the original system. A Division will also serve as a marker when the matter is considered in the other place; at that time, the Government might have further developed their ideas, in which case they will be able to explain in greater detail how the system will operate in practice—and many of their lordships have considerable experience of how the High Court and the Crown court work.

I acknowledge that it is difficult to predict how many applications there will be, but this is a major change, and the Minister has not reassured me that the Government have got to grips with its implications. I am also worried about the possible knock-on consequences, in view of the Government's other projects that will affect what the Crown court will be doing in two, three or five years.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 13.

Division No. 8]

Carmichael, Mr. Alistair Field, Mr. Mark Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Johnson, Mr. Boris Tredinnick, Mr. David Wilshire, Mr. David

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

Question accordingly negatived.

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

Mr. Wilshire rose—

Hon. Members: Oh.

Mr. Wilshire: I am sorry to disappoint Labour Members, but I wanted to make sure that I had not lost my voice. My contribution will be brief. I am always worried when I notice words like ``undue''. Subsections (7) and (8) refer to ``undue delay'', and I wonder whether there is a legal definition of what ``undue'' means. I can see a danger of somebody being involved in this sort of procedure, and the thing dragging on and on. With the greatest of respect to those who simply want to browbeat the accused, it is necessary to ensure that justice applies to them. The stress and strain of dragging it out in what many people would think was an unreasonable way—[Laughter.] The Minister of State is taking the wrong point. I hasten to add that I refer to things being dragged out in court. If there is a definition of ``undue'', it would be helpful to know what it is. Will the Minister also explain how the accused, or the person involved in the process, could avail himself of the provision? Does someone have to go to the court and argue that the delay is undue, or would a court automatically say that the delay was unreasonable and act on its own accord?

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