Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. McCabe: Assuming that the hon. Gentleman is sincere in his intentions, which I have no reason to doubt, is he anxious that by pursuing this he may provide a get-out or escape clause to every lower-order terrorist and criminal in Northern Ireland who seeks to use it as a defence?

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman has touched on the reason why my hon. Friends and I did not table a specific amendment. We did not want to provide a get-out, and we were not sure that there was an easy way of doing this. As he is aware, we do not have the drafting resources that are available to Ministers. However, we wanted to alert the Government to our concerns, which is why I am doing that on clause stand part. Whenever I try to think about how one might amend the clause to protect the middle-ranking person who might properly be before the court, who might be a criminal, but who might be subject to threats from people higher up the terrorist-controlled racketeering organisation, it occurs to me that, whatever amendment one tables, one might open a loophole.

The hon. Gentleman has therefore identified my concern precisely. We could not frame a suitable amendment, but we wanted to alert the Government to the risk, and ask whether, with their much greater drafting resources, they had thought about the matter. If they had not, we wanted to ask whether they would do so, and if they had, we wanted to ask what their response would be.

Mr. Wilshire: The clause raises some serious issues on which the Government should reflect. I realise that there is a need to keep the legislation in line with the rest of the country. However, there are circumstances in Northern Ireland that leave me nervous about the way in which the clause is worded. I cannot understand how the principle of keeping the legislation the same throughout the United Kingdom is undermined by reflecting on the wording used in particular parts of the country. In Northern Ireland, an invitation for the court to draw such inferences as it sees fit is rather worrying. I do not say that in a sense of wanting to provide loopholes or to be soft on anybody. We must understand the nature of Northern Ireland's society and the pressures that are on people there, which are not necessarily on people who are charged with such crimes in other parts of the country. It is much more likely that a person who refuses to answer a question under those circumstances will be absolutely terrified of the implications of answering it. The history of violence in the terrorist and criminal fraternity in Northern Ireland is of a different order from that which applies in the rest of the country.

I worry that the court would be invited to assume that a person was guilty if they refused to answer questions. A person might not be guilty but, for various reasons, be afraid of implicating someone else. Terror would be struck into a person by the thought that if he answers the question and says: ''It wasn't me, guv, it was so-and-so,'' he would know that he, his family and his children would be equally at risk. Such pressure is different in Northern Ireland.

We must be very careful in inviting a court to draw whatever inferences it deems fit because answers could be given for reasons other than telling the truth. People may be persuaded to admit to something because they are covered by an amnesty. That is a danger of giving people early release. People may admit to past crimes that are covered by their release from prison. Such admissions may not necessarily be the truth but would provide the courts with information that the person may wish to give for reasons other than establishing the truth.

A feature of terrorist organisations is not that one side tries to stitch up the other, but that the various sub-groups within any paramilitary organisation will try to stitch up one another. A court that asks for information when enforcing the Bill will open up an opportunity for intra-organisation stitching up of people whom others wish to put away for a long time. Will the Minister reflect on my worry about whether the wording is as tight as it could be for the special circumstances that obtain in Northern Ireland?

Circumstances in Northern Ireland mean that we should consider whether the court is entitled to accept allegations on face value. If a person makes allegations, the court may proceed along those lines. That is worrying, because it is an invitation to encourage people to say whatever they like. There will be an inclination to believe it, because someone has said it. For reasons that I outlined about drawing inferences, it is dangerous for a court to accept allegations when the motivation for those has nothing to do with establishing rights and wrongs or obtaining justice, and everything to do with a carve-up among paramilitary organisations. That is a dangerous road to go down.

I hope that the Minister will reflect on my points and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath. We want not to open a loophole but to ensure that the situation in the courts reflects the complexities and variations of the way in which the criminal and terrorist fraternities work in the Province—or anywhere else.

Mr. Foulkes: There may be a misunderstanding about the purpose of the clause. As the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said, it replicates what clause 19 does for England and Wales. The power that the clause gives to the court is important and flexible. It may be used, for example, to require the defendant to provide further information about a point in the prosecutor's statement. Alternatively, the court may prefer to take a broader approach and order the defendant to make full disclosure of all his financial affairs before the prosecutor's statement has been tendered. The court has full discretion in that matter.

I will address the arguments made by the two Conservative Members, although they are not relevant to the clause. The suggestion that things are different in Northern Ireland is rather strange. I do not know the names of the main towns in Surrey Heath and Spelthorne, but if they are anything like Glasgow or Paisley, the intimidation by drug dealers in those towns is just as great as the intimidation in Northern Ireland by terrorists. The level of intimidation and pressure that can be imposed on people is astonishing. The arguments made by the hon. Gentlemen did not demonstrate that the type of pressure that is applied to people in Northern Ireland is different from that which is applied to people on the mainland.

Mr. Mark Field: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Foulkes: I will not give way now. I want to explain that the information required by the defendant is concerned with his financial assets or property. That is linked to identifying his benefits, from either general or particular criminal conduct. That is what we are talking about. The inferences drawn are in respect of whether the defendant's property was legitimately obtained. There is an application of the assumption in relation to whether his statements in the trial were connected with intimidation. That is an entirely different matter. It is not covered by the clause and is not relevant to it. There is some misunderstanding as to the purpose of the clause.

Mr. Field: I want to make a minor point. The Minister said that the regime of the drug-taking and drug-dealing fraternities in parts of Glasgow and Paisley—and perhaps among those in Camberley and Staines—may be somewhat tougher than many people realised. The point made earlier by both my hon. Friends was that inferences in Northern Ireland might have a different effect to the inferences being used by the court on mainland Great Britain. That was their concern.

I took on board the Minister's comments about the nature of the pressure that can often be applied to defendants. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath gave a good example when he said that the defendant may be the middle-ranking man rather than someone more senior. Defendants may be put under pressure in all parts of the United Kingdom. However, the issue was raised about inferences that were drawn specifically about Northern Ireland. That was what we had in mind when we raised our concerns.

Mr. Foulkes: I dealt with the points raised by the hon. Gentlemen.

Incidentally, not only defendants are put under pressure. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, North (Mrs. Adams) and her family were intimidated by drug dealers because she was willing to challenge them. There is that type of strong pressure. I answered those points because they were raised, not because they are relevant to the clause.

Mr. McCabe: The hon. Member for Spelthorne said that an offender may not disclose information about benefits from crime, because he fears that it will indirectly identify a larger element in the terrorist structure. Would that situation be covered by subsection (4) where it refers to ''reasonable excuse''? If a defendant could demonstrate that he was in fear of his life, would that constitute a ''reasonable excuse'' for withholding information?

Mr. Foulkes: That is an interesting question. It would not be a reasonable excuse for withholding the information that we are dealing with. That information concerns the financial assets, or the property, of the defendant; in other words, it is linked to the identification of the criminal's benefit from either his general or his particular criminal conduct.

12.45 pm

Mr. Hawkins: I am glad that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) asked that question. The answer is that, with regard to the scenario that I and my hon. Friends the Member for Cities of London and Westminster and for Spelthorne have described, it is unlikely that anyone would say to a court: ''I am not prepared to give this information, because I am in fear of my life,'' because they would not want to implicate people who are higher up in the racketeering organisation. Does the Minister agree?

 
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Prepared 11 December 2001