Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mrs. Helen Clark (Peterborough): And ladies.

Mr. Grieve: And ladies—I meant aspersions on hon. Members.

There are some transgressions in everyday life about which those of us who have not experienced them may say, ``There but for the grace of God go I,'' and count ourselves fortunate. We may not believe that, following such transgressions, a person is tainted with criminality as a result. However, because of the Bill, such people could fall foul of draconian provisions. In such circumstances, we would rely on the benevolence of prosecutors—and perhaps ultimately the state.

In connection with the Bill and other legislation, we are told that people who have done nothing wrong have nothing to fear. However, I cannot guarantee that the Minister will be in office for ever, that the present Lord Chancellor will personally hold his office for ever, or that the Labour party will be in political office for ever. We cannot see into the future, but naturally, I hope that when the Conservative party returns to office, we will have standards of fairness and probity equal to the Government's. I dare say that the Minister would almost acknowledge that that would be the case.

We cannot see into the future, and we are giving powers that could be exploited by those who wish to abuse them. That is the justification for the amendment. I do not wish to take more of the Committee's time on this matter, but it is fundamental. The Minister stated his case, and I can only state mine. I must press the amendment to the vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 12.

Division No. 10]

Baker, Norman
Field, Mr. Mark
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Johnson, Mr. Boris
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

Question accordingly negatived.

3.20 pm

Committee suspended for a Division in the House.

3.35 pm

On resuming—

Clauses 70 and 71 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 72

Serious default

Mr. Grieve: I beg to move amendment No. 138, in page 45, line 23, leave out `serious'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 139, in page 45, line 29, leave out `serious'.

Mr. Grieve: We now come to the important matter of serious default and compensation. The clause provides for circumstances in which compensation may be paid to the subject of a criminal investigation—when proceedings have not been completed, and there has therefore been no conviction—who has incurred a loss in respect of the confiscation and restraint procedure. It applies equally to confiscation and restraint, when either has taken place and subsequently been quashed. It covers both those contingencies.

In effect, the only redress available, in terms of compensation, is in a case of serious default by one of the named people under subsection (9). That covers the actions of a member of the police force, the Crown Prosecution Service or the Serious Fraud Office, Customs and Excise and of the commissioners of the Inland Revenue. I am not sure where the director comes in. The Minister may be able to tell me whether the director is intended to fall within one of those categories. In a number of the activities that might lead to compensation being claimed, the actions of the director or his financial investigators might be relevant. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's explanation of how the compensation clauses will work.

There is a sense that we are discussing only serious default by the prosecutors, not serious default by those who have brought about the restraining or confiscation orders. That is the point that I wish to explore during the debate. I am conscious, Mr McWilliam, that I may be straying from the precise amendments into a clause stand part debate, and I have no objection to trying to roll the two together. The issues are extremely wide.

The Chairman: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am willing to be relaxed about that. It is difficult to extricate the particular amendments from the clause.

Mr. Grieve: On the face of it, it is unlikely that I would vote against clause 72. However, if there were no meeting of minds at the end of our debate, we would—leaving aside for a moment my amendments, which might be voted on—want to return to the issue on Report because it is of considerable importance.

I am looking forward to the Minister's explanation of the provisions. Are we talking about compensation only in cases when the prosecution has been improperly investigated and conducted, or also when the confiscation and restraint procedures have not been properly conducted? I accept that the one is, in a sense, rolled into the other. If somebody is to be eligible for compensation, it must be found that their criminal lifestyle or criminal conduct should not have led to a confiscation, but that is not the same thing as their being acquitted of the offence, which is why I am unclear about who falls within the category of being capable of committing a serious default.

I am assuming, for the moment, that we are covering a wide category of individuals, and that confiscation procedures and restraint procedures would be covered. If that is the case, does the use of the term ``serious default'' create far too defensive a criterion from the point of view of the investigators and prosecutors? I accept that if somebody ends up without a confiscation order, his assets will be returned to him, but—as the Minister acknowledged in an earlier debate—that will not necessarily compensate him for the financial disaster that might have overtaken his businesses when they were out of his hands.

Another issue must therefore be addressed. What sort of compensation are we talking about? It is described, in wide terms, as such compensation as the court believes is just; I assume that that definition is broad enough to extend to economic loss. Will the Minister clarify whether he considers that to be the case?

Norman Baker (Lewes): Subsection (6) refers to ``realisable property''. I am concerned that that term might limit the definition of the circumstances under which compensation might be payable. For instance, is it not possible that someone could suffer a loss of status or stature—or economic loss, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said—and that that would not be covered by the definition?

The Chairman: It might be helpful if I clarify the ruling that I gave. If I took the amendments as they stand, the debate would be narrow; the Committee would discuss only what is ``serious default'' and what is not. It seems to me that the Committee wishes to debate the matter more widely and, therefore, the hon. Gentleman's intervention is in order—although if I had not made that ruling, it would not have been.

Mr. Grieve: I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). However, although the reference is to anyone who holds ``realisable property'', I would expect that term to be applied broadly. I also have to say, in fairness to the Government, that compensation for loss of status would take us into very difficult areas. A person who is prosecuted and acquitted is supposed to have had his status restored by the acquittal. Whether that always happens in reality is a moot point, but things become difficult if one starts to go further than that, by saying that, because somebody has had their name plastered all over the newspapers—for instance, a murder allegation might have been made against him—he should be compensated if he is acquitted.

Norman Baker: I raise the issue because, if someone is wrongfully arrested, they can sue. Perhaps the Bill contains a mechanism that I am unaware of, but I am unsure whether the same sort of options are available to people who are subject to confiscation procedures that are similarly erroneously pursued.

The Chairman: I am unsure whether the hon. Gentleman is asking the question of the correct member of the Committee, although, no doubt, that member will get a chance to respond.

Mr. Grieve: I take on board the argument of the hon. Member for Lewes. I do not wish to take up too much time, however, and I would like to hear from the Minister so that we can, perhaps, move to a wider discussion.

Mr. Mark Field: The question that I wish to ask my hon. Friend addresses some of the key aspects of the Bill. If people are to be innocent until proven guilty, their status may be diminished, but that is the price that you pay under the burden of proof. I wonder whether my hon. Friend has any comment to make about the reversal of the burden of proof, which may open the floodgates for compensation-related claims for serious or other defaults.

The Chairman: Order. I caution the hon. Gentleman that he is using the word ``you'' rather loosely.

3.45 pm

Mr. Grieve: I accept my hon. Friend's argument. Under the old criminal justice system, you were prosecuted and found either guilty or not guilty.

The Chairman: Order. I am not being prosecuted.

Mr. Grieve: On a point of order, Mr. McWilliam. I hope that you will excuse me, but my use of the word ``you'' was rhetorical. I did not think that it would offend the rules of the House. If it does, I shall have to substitute it with the word ``one'', which is rather archaic.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is right. The word ``one'' is archaic, but those are the rules of the House.

Mr. Grieve: So be it.

A parallel system operates within the system. It is possible for someone to be convicted of an offence but not be subject to the confiscation procedures. It is also possible for someone to have a number of convictions but not be deemed to have a criminal lifestyle. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster and the hon. Member for Lewes are right. The compensation procedures appear to be opaque, but it is not clear which system they will bite.

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Prepared 29 November 2001