Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Norman Baker: That is helpful. The Minister has stated the aim that I believe to be appropriate: to pursue those who have secured a substantial sum over a long period. I have no wish to prevent that from happening, which is why I approached the amendment tentatively. He concedes that the provision to pursue people for pennies, although it would be unwise and unlikely to happen, will still be in the Bill. I therefore hope that he will consider the de minimis point, which I also raised.

11.30 am

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is right in theory. A prosecutor has the ability to pursue somebody for relatively small amounts gained by acquisitive crime if that crime has been committed over a six-month period. I do not regard that as a serious threat, for the reasons that I have just given, but it is possible in theory.

Our problem—I think that we have discussed this previously, and I am more than happy to listen to the hon. Gentleman's point of view—is how to build in a threshold that ensures that that does not happen, and satisfies Committee members that that will not happen, without providing a loophole through which the people whom we wish to capture can climb. If we genuinely want the legislation to be effective, we must make absolutely certain that the activities and capacity of the prosecuting agencies are not dissipated by chasing inappropriate people and inappropriate amounts. On that basis, we could consider how to build in some kind of threshold. However, I would need to be satisfied that we had not provided an easily exploitable loophole. Rest assured—the hon. Gentleman knows this—that there are lots of clever people in this world, who have clever representatives, who would climb through it without any hesitation whatever.

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Mr. Hawkins: May I offer the Minister a way of doing that in a manner that is consistent with lots of other legislation? The kind of safeguard sought by the hon. Member for Lewes—with whom I agree on this matter—would be a provision whereby if the offence were purely summary only it would not fall within subsection (2)(e). That is a frequent feature of legislation, which does not provide a loophole—we are not seeking to water down the Bill—but does introduce a de minimis provision. I offer that to the Minister as the Hawkins amendment.

Mr. Ainsworth: That presupposes that huge profits cannot be made by summary only offences, which we have also discussed previously. The severity of the offence is not necessarily an indication of the size of the profit that can be made. Whenever one starts to think of thresholds, those problems arise. I fully accept that Opposition Members' suggestions in relation to thresholds and de minimis amounts are for good and proper reasons, but they must bear it in mind that relatively minor offences can generate huge profits.

Mr. Grieve: This discussion has been illuminating. Although the Minister is almost moving away from this now, it seemed that, in introducing confiscation provisions, the Government accepted that being a criminal did not, on its own, mean that one should be subject to confiscation, because that is draconian and reverses the burden of proof. The Government therefore introduced triggers through the criminal lifestyle clause. However, the logic of his arguments is that the Government would have liked a formula whereby any criminal offence makes one liable to confiscation. The civil procedure would have had to be retained for people who have not committed any offences at all. One is therefore left with an unpleasant feeling that the Government have felt constrained not to widen the scope, but are now trying to ratchet it back through the statutory instrument framework that they are introducing.

Mr. Ainsworth: I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not the intention. I do not know whether he listened to my explanation, but he has got it wrong. It is right that any acquisitive criminal activity triggers confiscation, but it does not trigger assumptions. We do not desire or intend to extend the list to include every criminal activity. I have tried to reassure the Committee by telling hon. Members what kind of offences we have so far identified that should automatically, on a single offence, trigger the assumptions. The Government do not intend to include crimes that differ dramatically from that kind of offence. A single offence of drug trafficking, people trafficking, arms trafficking or money laundering should be enough to trigger the assumptions, because of the nature of those offences.

Mr. Hawkins: I do not think that the Minister fully understands my hon. Friend's point. We have no difficulty with large-scale offences such as money laundering and drug trafficking. We have not sought to take out paragraphs (a) or (b). We have suggested

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adding extra categories of more serious offences to those that he mentions. We are certainly not trying to water down the provisions.

The Minister cannot have it both ways. He may say that the draconian provisions are not intended to apply to anything other than serious crime. Summary offences, as has been decided in other legislation, are not serious crimes. I understand that large profits can be acquired through some summary offences, but it would be unusual for a summary offence to enable anyone to earn large profits. I hope that he understands our point. If he believes that the draconian provisions should automatically apply to only very serious crime, he should be prepared to insert a de minimis provision to restrict its application to summary offences.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is making an argument that we have already heard.

Mr. Ainsworth: We have, Mr. McWilliam.

I can only try to reassure the hon. Gentleman by saying that we do not intend to extend the list, by order, to summary offences. Summary offences can be brought into proceedings, and can thereby trigger the assumptions, if it is shown that they are part of a repeat pattern of offending. It is not our intention that a person's first conviction for a summary offence should automatically trigger the assumptions.

The hon. Gentleman asks us to say that we should have a definitive list, and asks that the Bill contain no provision to extend that list. I resist that, because it may become apparent to everybody that a certain category of crime should have been included, and we would then have to introduce primary legislation in order to include it.

Norman Baker: I understand why the Minister has made that point. I do not want to preclude him from suddenly identifying a serious offence that must be included—he would be absolutely right to include such an offence—but the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, which was debated in the House only the week before last, took a different approach. For example, it listed in a schedule all the chemicals that it would be an offence to hoard, but it also gave the Government the power to amend that schedule by secondary legislation. That is a slightly different approach. As a halfway house, could the Minister include a schedule to the Bill that reserved the power to amend the provision?

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman clearly has not read clause 441.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am not surprised that he has not. I am staggeringly impressed that he is able to delve into anti-terrorism legislation while delving into this Bill and doing God knows how many other things. I have not noticed anything in the Bill that is out of kilter with the anti-terrorism legislation. I do not have the hon. Gentleman's capacities.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): The Minister assures us that the Government do not intend to bring summary offences within the scope of the Bill, but how can he

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reassure us that that will not be the intention of future Home Secretaries, who might be less benign than the present incumbent? When the Bill is on the statute book, will it be possible to fetter the Home Secretary in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield described?

Mr. Ainsworth: When the hon. Member for Lewes attempted to frighten me with the bogeyman of a future Tory Home Secretary I could, at least, see where he was coming from. When the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) tries to frighten me with such a prospect, all kinds of considerations are thrown up.

The matter is not out of kilter with the way in which current legislation is structured. Subsection (2)(c) gives a future Home Secretary the power to add to the list, but he will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. If a future Home Secretary of any political complexion tried to include an offence that was totally out of line with those that are included, that would become a public issue and he would have to justify his actions to Parliament and to the court of public opinion.

I give some reassurance to the hon. Member for Henley. As the Bill is drafted, the negative procedure would be used. Any addition to the list would have to be prayed against by Opposition parties. If there is a lot of worry about the matter, I will consider whether the affirmative procedure should be used. That may alleviate hon. Members' fears.

Mr. Wilshire: I, too, am worried, and I offer the Minister an alternative way in which to help my hon. Friend the Member for Henley. I accept that the Government do not intend to use the powers in the way that we are worried about. Will he consider introducing a provision to make paragraph (c) lapse when the next general election is held? That would be a real way to demonstrate his commitment to prevent misuse of the power by any future Government.

Mr. Ainsworth: I have never known a sunset clause to lapse not after one or five years, but at the next election. Perhaps we should wait and see who wins the next election, so that we can ensure that the provision lapses if we wind up with a potentially non-benign Home Secretary. The only matter on which I agree with the hon. Gentleman is that we should all help the hon. Member for Henley.

 
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