Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Davidson: I wish to speak on this matter, but I will refrain from making several points that I would have liked to make because I—unlike, I suspect, several other hon. Members—do not wish to avoid debating later clauses.

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Several other offences should be included in the published list, in particular fraud and a variety of other white-collar crimes. The Minister should also include reset and its English and Welsh equivalents—and he should take more seriously the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, to which I shall return.

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Mr. Hawkins: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with my party—rather than the Minister—that the provision would be more effective if there were a more comprehensive list? That is the implication of what he is saying. He is asking the Minister to add more offences; that is precisely what we are arguing for—and what the Minister is resisting.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a term in Scots law that I have heard of, and its English and Welsh equivalents. It would be helpful to my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and me—and perhaps to other Committee members, too—if the hon. Gentleman would expand, in layman's terms, on how that offence is described and used in the Scots court.

Mr. Davidson: I want the list to be expanded to include several offences that might otherwise be omitted. As for explaining terms in Scots law, I hold to the same view as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, when he quotes Latin phrases—that people should find out for themselves.

I return to the proposal by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster about insider dealing. I detect that there is a majority in the Committee in favour of the inclusion of that offence. We are certainly not suggesting that it is an offence committed by you, Mr. McWilliam, but given that it occurs most often in London and Westminster—although not necessarily committed by the constituents who live there—who better than the hon. Gentleman who represents that constituency to bring it to our attention?

The ''Field amendment'' should be included in the Bill. A helpful observation has been made by the hon. Member for somewhere or other, the Opposition Whip—[Interruption.] It was the hon. Member for Spelthorne. He said that Conservative Members were operating as a unified team. It is therefore reasonable for the Committee to assume that the proposal to include insider dealing as an offence has the support of the Conservative party not only in the Committee, but in the House as a whole. If that is not the case, it would be helpful if an Opposition spokesman stood up and said that they were in favour of being soft on insider dealing. I take the fact that no one has done so as confirmation that there is a clear majority in the Committee in favour of including that offence on the list.

Mr. Grieve: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davidson: It would be a pleasure.

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Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman has clearly not been listening to the debate. I said in my opening remarks that the Minister had helpfully produced a list, and that I did not challenge anything on it. That list includes insider dealing.

Mr. Davidson: It is helpful that that has been confirmed. Given that Conservative Members have raised the subject again, I hope that it will be promoted to the top of the list. I do not know whether it is in order to propose amendments to the order of the items on the list, but the Field amendment would lift insider dealing higher up the list.

Norman Baker: I am keen to support the hon. Gentleman's crackdown on insider dealing. Does he agree that, to ensure that the Minister does not forget about the matter, it would be wise if that crime, and others, were included in a schedule to the Bill?

Mr. Davidson: That is an interesting suggestion, but I am prepared to allow the Minister to consider further. I—and, I suspect, several other hon. Members—have been slightly deceived by the Minister's approach. The mere fact that he was previously a Whip led me to believe that he was nothing more than a thug—but that is undoubtedly not the case.

The Chairman: Order. There are a number of us in the Committee who have been, or still are, Whips.

Mr. Davidson: I rest my case, Mr. McWilliam.

We have been joined for the moment by the hon. Member for Henley, so I am tempted to suggest that appearing on light entertainment programmes and making an arse of yourself might be considered an offence—but that is a technical expression, Mr. McWilliam.

The Chairman: Order. That is a disorderly phrase. The hon. Gentleman must withdraw that statement.

Mr. Davidson: I am prepared to withdraw any suggestion that it was entertainment.

The Chairman: Order.

Mr. Davidson: All right, I withdraw the whole phrase.

Mr. Boris Johnson: That shows how grave a risk the Bill causes of misapprehension by the courts of people who are guilty of nothing except appearing on a programme and legitimately claiming £1,000. A future Secretary of State might well outlaw such an activity—or, indeed, anything else. That shows how grossly widely the Bill is drawn, and how inimical it is to the interests of innocent people.

I want to rebut a point that this chap from Glasgow, Pollok continually asserts—that is the will of the Opposition to frustrate the law and side with criminals. That is not our intention. We wish to see justice done. It is scandalous that so many Labour MPs, who came into politics to stick up for the underdog, should be rushing through such a Bill, which risks injustice for the little man.

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The Chairman: Order. That was far too long for an intervention.

Secondly, the correct way to address hon. Members is as the hon. or right hon. Member for whichever constituency they represent.

Mr. Davidson: Thank you, your majesty.

I have heard some sanctimonious bullshit in my time, but—

The Chairman: Order. That is disorderly as well—and it might be interesting if the hon. Gentleman would address the clause or the amendment occasionally .

Mr. Davidson: Thank you; that is generous of you. Mr. McWilliam.

When including offences on the list, will the Minister consider whether it is possible—not having a legal background, I am not clear about this—to include being a lawyer or an accountant deemed to have helped criminals to hide their ill-gotten gains? It must be clear that those who help criminals hide their gains and find their way round the system, and who are found to have committed any offence, make all their own assets vulnerable. Many criminals, certainly those in my neck of the woods, could not survive and could not hide their assets, were they not receiving professional support from lawyers and accountants.

Mr. Wilshire: That raises a very serious point. Let us suppose that a professionally qualified person, be he an accountant or a lawyer—acting in his professional capacity and meeting all the requirements of integrity and honesty placed upon him by his profession—helps and advises a criminal or an alleged criminal who is then convicted. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously arguing that that professional, who is only doing his job, should put his livelihood at risk as well? If that what he is saying, it is monstrous.

Mr. Davidson: No, I am not suggesting that a lawyer or an accountant who meets all the professional standards should be deemed to commit an offence. I am not suggesting that for a moment. However, it is widely believed that there are lawyers and accountants who help criminals. They are therefore not meeting all the professional standards required, and their own professional bodies are not adequately policing them. The ability of criminals to hide the gains from their activities would be greatly diminished if all lawyers and accountants obeyed the highest professional standards as laid down by their professional organisations—but anybody who believes that that is happening is living in a dream world. I do not believe that it is happening; and it is a major cause of difficulty that needs to be addressed.

We should reflect on why we are pursuing this matter, and on the scale of the problems faced in some constituencies. In the area covered by Strathclyde police, the number of deaths per year from drug overdoses is greater than the number of Conservative Members in the House of Commons. If we add to that other deaths related to criminal activities, at one

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remove, there are probably twice as many. If we remember that we are probably here for a five-year Parliament—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is now going far too wide of the debate. His points are more suitable for a Second Reading debate.

Mr. Davidson: I am prepared to accept that, Mr. McWilliam, but I thought that it was worth while to clarify why some hon. Members feel strongly about the matter.

To return to subsection (2)(c), we must take into account some of the offences that flow directly from drug dealing and associated activities. In many areas in my constituency, families cannot leave their homes unoccupied in case they are broken into, so they are unable to go on holiday. Burglars who break into those homes to seize assets to resell do so at the behest, effectively, of drug dealers. Consistent and aggravated burglary should therefore be included, along with reset—to clarify that term for the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, I should explain that it means the disposal of stolen property.

This is an essential part of the legislation, and I hope that the Minister, while resisting the temptation to specify every offence that would be caught, will none the less be prepared to expand the list to make it absolutely clear that the Government take a hard line on such matters, so as to protect the people whom we are elected to represent.

Mr. Grieve: This has been an interesting debate. I always listen carefully, especially to the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok, who raised some of the background issues relating to the introduction of this legislation—such as the desire to curb certain types of crime—and talked about the impact on his constituents. I am always mindful of that, especially when the Minister says that we must be careful not to introduce too many loopholes, as criminals will climb through them. That is a legitimate point. However, it might be helpful to remind hon. Members of some of the general principles, of which it is terribly easy to lose sight when we spend our time reading the detail of the Bill.

One of the comments made earlier was about whether the hitman—or hitboy—who reached the age of 18 without having committed any offences, decided to become a hitman and committed one offence, might fall within the definition of having a criminal lifestyle. Under the Bill as drafted, unless the offence were included in regulations, the answer was no. I had the impression that one or two hon. Members were rather horrified by that. However, it is worth remembering that the Bill includes the power to confiscate in relation to ''particular criminal conduct''. The money that the hitman received for the hit would be confiscated under the clauses that relate to particular criminal conduct. It is not as though confiscation would not take place.

The Bill draws a distinction between particular criminal conduct and general criminal conduct. Under a consideration of general criminal conduct, the scope of the confiscation provision is massively widened. The court is then asked not to consider a defendant's

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benefit from a crime, but to carry out a wide-ranging investigation of all his assets. Moreover, it must do so under a system in which assumptions can be made that reverse the burden of proof and impose on the defendant the fairly onerous task of proving that his assets are legitimate, and not wholly tainted with criminality.

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The defendant may be able to show that some of his assets are his legitimate inheritance, but the burden to do so is placed on him. As the Bill covers such an extended period, he will not necessarily have records. In fairness to the Government, I must add that they plainly felt anxiety about the provision. Although there is a history for subsection (2)(a) and (b) on money laundering and drug trafficking, the provision is so wide-ranging that it raises issues about human rights and rights to property—matters that the Committee must consider carefully.

The Government's approach is founded on the procedure that was already available for two offences: drug trafficking and money laundering. That is why those offences feature in subsection (2)(a) and (b): they are simply repeated from earlier legislation, and we do not suggest that they should be removed from the Bill.

Two further categories of activity are listed in subsection (2)—I do not take issue with them, either. They include any offence that

    ''(d) ... constitutes conduct forming part of a course of criminal activity''

    ''(e) ... is an offence committed over a period of at least six months.''

That seems to cover what I would call the active criminal, rather than the one-off criminal. Those provisions enable us to catch many more criminals. In addition, subsection (3) defines

    ''a course of criminal activity''.

We have expressed anxiety about threshold offences, because one could cross the threshold by committing a minor offence. Perhaps we shall vote on that; I do not know whether the hon. Member for Lewes will press amendment No. 280.

That is already a wide net, but the Minister tells us that because of problems of definition, we must make it even wider by giving the Secretary of State power to introduce further categories of one-off offences—although possibly that will be by the affirmative rather than the negative procedure; I am grateful to the Minister for that concession.

I worry about the powers under subsection (2)(c). When we set out to scrutinise the Bill, there was a clear distinction between particular and general criminal conduct, which is in danger of becoming ever more blurred. I would far rather make an attempt at defining the offences than give the Secretary of State power to add further offences by statutory regulation. We must not allow progressive ratcheting, because that would allow any offence to lead to a general investigation using the assumptions about criminal lifestyle.

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That was plainly not the Government's intention when they introduced the legislation, and Parliament should not take such a step. I have significant anxieties, especially because there is a civil recovery procedure later in the Bill, which is available against any person, be they criminal or non-criminal. I suspect that we will discuss that, but we do not have a philosophical objection because the burden of proof will remain on the prosecutor or director who brings the proceedings. I worry about reversing the burden of proof unless there are compelling reasons for doing so, such as because the evidence of criminality is so manifest. The danger of the procedure of adopting offences by statutory instrument is that crimes may be included in which the manifestation of general criminality ceases to be obvious to the public, or to us. Although I have listened carefully to the Minister—I am grateful to him, and I hope that he will indeed consider using the affirmative procedure—we are discussing an issue of principle that we intend to put to a vote.

 
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