Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I agree with the Minister in that I am not getting carried away about the tainted gifts. I do not have the sort of lifestyle in which £1 million worth of shares is handed down in the family, without any idea of where the money came from. However, I was being convinced by the argument of the hon. Member for

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Beaconsfield about someone innocently buying property. I do not mean pieces of art, but something like a car could be passed on within six months, and that would genuinely have lost value. As we know, cars lose value the day that they hit the road. An innocent person may become involved with such goods. I am reassured that the Minister will reconsider that matter, and I just wanted to put my car example into the pot.

Mr. Ainsworth: We are thinking about tainted gifts—property that is transferred for sums significantly below its value. Criminals will look for seemingly innocent people to transfer their property to and put it beyond confiscation, and we must be mindful of that. I do not know whether we can draw our debate to a conclusion. It is mainly up to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. I shall reconsider his first two amendments, but we cannot afford to open up the sort of loophole that has been suggested.

Mr. Field: I shall be brief, because we have already gone round and round on this subject. As can be seen from the guidance notes, clauses 77 and 78 have been linked together. I appreciate that the Minister will reconsider two of the amendments outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield. A decision must be made about what we are trying to achieve under clauses 77 and 78. The Government's view is that they want to get back the moneys in toto in respect of tainted gifts, and gifts that may not be tainted, too, when recipients or defendants have larger pools of money.

I know that my minority view will outrage the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok, but I am even worried about what will happen when it is clear when the proceeds of crime have diminished. In effect, we could say to a defendant, ''Here is a pot of legitimate assets, which we can now take from to make up the money that has been lost because the proceeds have diminished.''

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): Would the hon. Gentleman take the same view if the proceeds were diminished by someone who had gambled them on the horses, as opposed to someone who had made a bad investment, or would he take the view that that person had enjoyed the benefit of the proceeds, even if they had not derived financial gain?

Mr. Field: That is a good point. There is a distinction between the hon. Gentleman's illustration and a more general example of a sheer diminution of assets.

I accept the Government's point of view on the subject. I felt an instinctive unease at the idea of saying to a defendant, ''You have two pots of money, a legitimate one and an illegitimate one. When the illegitimate one begins to diminish we can transfer to the legitimate pot.'' When one considers defendants who are benefiting from the proceeds of crime—I am sure that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok will rise to his feet at this point—it is difficult to say that there are really two distinct pots of money. None the less, I hope that I have made my point.

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There are points of principle that are particularly worrying for innocent third parties. I am greatly concerned that the Government may use the provisions in clauses 77 and 78 purely to maximise the amount of money confiscated from the proceeds of crime, and I am concerned that they may turn to innocent third parties to top up that sum when it has been diminished. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.

Mr. Ainsworth: I listened to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield's point about the depreciation of shares—but what would happen if a criminal had made a substantial amount of money, and in trying to render it beyond confiscation, transferred it in Marconi shares to his daughter at the start of the year, when they were worth £12 each? The shares are now of no value. It would be unfair to say that his daughter should be liable for anything other than the new value of the shares, and we could not return to the defendant, who would effectively have hidden all the proceeds of his crime, or at least a large part of them.

Mr. Field: That is entirely fair, from the Minister's point of view. It is difficult to suggest that a family would necessarily be an innocent third party, but an entirely innocent third party may happen to have large assets, and the Government could look upon those assets as a legitimate pool from which they could grab money.

I notice that the heading of clause 78 is ''Gifts and their recipients'', not ''Tainted gifts and their recipients''. It is clear that the clause is not confined to tainted gifts, which are dealt with in clause 77.

Mr. Davidson: Will the hon. Gentleman will clarify a question about gifts? Surely an innocent party who receives a gift will wonder, ''Why am I being given this gift? Why is this person giving me £1 million out of the blue?'' If there is some obligation—a relationship, perhaps—the third party may be innocent. However, it seems unlikely that any innocents would be involved.

Does the hon. Gentleman really suggest that if a person passes £1 million on to someone who puts the money into shares that fall in value, no one is responsible for repaying the original amount? If the £1 million in the form of Marconi shares given to the defendant's daughter becomes worth £100,000, and that amount is retrieved from the daughter, does no one have an obligation to make it back up to £1 million? If that is what the hon. Gentleman is saying, I should be grateful if those on the Conservative Front Bench would clarify whether they are as united on this question as they say they are on everything else.

Mr. Field rose—

The Chairman: Order. We are now discussing the ramifications of the issue with which we started. It is time that we brought the debate to a conclusion.

Mr. Field: May I reply briefly, Mr. O'Brien? The presumption that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok makes is that if the daughter had £900,000 of her own assets, independently, those assets should be fair game for the director to grab. I would be deeply

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concerned if we were talking about an entirely innocent third party, because, under the clause, if there is a difference between the value of an asset when it is obtained by the defendant and its value when it is transferred at a later stage, there is an assumption that a gift has been made. The ramifications of clause 77 therefore come into play.

I am sorry to have gone into such great detail about that, Mr. O'Brien, but I was merely trying to gain an understanding of precisely where the Government are coming from. Do they regard those clauses simply as a means of getting back as much money as possible when there has been a diminution in value? Alternatively, will they try to clarify the position of a class of innocent third parties, whose assets should be free from the threat of being taken away under those provisions?

Mr. Grieve: I shall draw the debate to a conclusion and withdraw the amendment, especially in the light of the Minister's comments. I am grateful that he will consider the matter again. I also want to apologise to the Committee, because one of the reasons why we went round the houses was that at first I limited my comments to the question of transfers—the sale of property. I almost persuaded myself that my anxieties, which I had tried to flag up in connection with my amendments to clause 81, were unjustified.

Ironically, as the discussion progressed I started to come to the conclusion that my anxieties, which had prompted the amendments on how to value tainted gifts—whether made by sale or by handover—were justified, and at least merited some thought. However, I appreciate that the Minister disagrees with me about that. I am also conscious that because I chose examples involving paintings, Sotheby's and so on, the Committee may regard the problem as one confined to wealthy people. For the benefit of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok, I shall now give an example of a problem that might be brought to his constituency surgery.

Let us suppose that an elderly housebound grandmother in council accommodation in his constituency has a grandson who, unknown to her, is a drug dealer on the streets. However, he is still quite nice to granny, and he turns up to give her gifts such as a digital television set for her drawing room—[Laughter.] In my book, it is called her drawing room. There will come a time when the grandson is pursued and convicted of offences, and the director comes looking for his profits.

The grandson is precisely the category of offender who, as the Minister has explained, will be one of the targets—not just the Mr. Bigs but the people driving their expensive cars round the housing estates in the constituency of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok. The grandmother will be informed that she has been given a tainted gift. As she is a law-abiding woman, she will be horrified, and say, ''Take the thing away.'' However, the director, through his prosecutor, will say, ''I'm terribly sorry but I can't just take the digital television away, because it isn't worth half what it was when it was given to you. I'm afraid you will have to compensate the fund for the difference between the realisable value of this television set today and its value

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at the time you got it.'' That may well spell her ruin and the disappearance of all her savings. The hon. Gentleman will find that that is a problem that could come over the doorstep of his constituency surgery, unless the director exercises great discretion, which he may. This is not only about wealthy people.

6 pm

Mr. Wilshire: I apologise for being absent from the Committee, but constituency problems tend to crop up when one does not want them. I hope that the point that I am about to make has not already been made.

A further example on which I would appreciate comment is charities. A criminal may just have a conscience, and when the authorities are close to catching him, he may decide to give substantial amounts of shares to charities. Many charities will keep shares as a source of income. If many Marconi shares were given to the Salvation Army, would it have to sell some of its other assets to meet the call on the funds that it received in all good faith? We must reflect on what will happen to charities if they become liable.

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