Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Tom Harris: The hon. Gentleman said that the amendment would give guidance to the director of the Assets Recovery Agency. However, the amendment refers not to guidance but to a mandatory legally enforceable limit under which the agency would not be able to act. He suggested that if the Bill remains unamended the Assets Recovery Agency will descend into chaos. Does that suggest a lack of faith in a future director of the agency? Will he explain that lack of faith?

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Mr. Field: It is not that I lack faith in the director. I do not think that the agency will fall into chaos, but there is a real risk that, if a de minimis provision, whether formal or informal, is not put in place, there will be an enormous number of claims and the agency will not see the wood for the trees. I am interested to hear what the Under-Secretary has to say.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I am suffering from something similar to you, Mr. McWilliam. I am looking for suspects rather than blame. I hope that you do not cast your eye in my direction.

The Chairman: Had the Under-Secretary had been listening to earlier exchanges, he would understand that the Minister of State, Scotland Office had put a curse on my grandson, who passed it on to me.

Mr. Ainsworth: You now understand, Mr. McWilliam, why I have tried hard not to offend my hon. Friend in any way.

I thank the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) for his general welcome for the measures under part 5. He rightly said that we are now about to move on to new provisions and a new branch of the law. I accept his argument, and I genuinely look forward to his proposals. I look forward to what he can bring to the Bill and we shall listen carefully to his points, especially if they are made in the spirit of his opening comments.

The amendment would mean that civil recovery proceedings could be taken only in respect of recoverable property if it were valued at £10,000 or more. The Government agree that civil recovery proceedings should be applied only when substantial amounts are involved. Many of the points made by the hon. Gentleman are absolutely right and we agree in principle that there should be a financial threshold. Some of the main issues have been covered in the interventions by my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) rightly said that, under subsection (1)(a), we will have to rely on the discretion of the director of the agency about where he points the resources and how he uses those that are available to be effective in the recovery of the proceeds of crime. If we were to find that the agency was using the powers of civil recovery to chase drug addicts with a chaotic lifestyle, we would be most disappointed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith said that perhaps the matter should be handled in another way and guidance should be given. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham said that he did not necessarily want the issue enshrined in the Bill.

Those are the main points that I want to make, other than to bring to the attention of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield the provisions contained in clause 286. From the substance of his remarks, I hope that those provisions will satisfy him. When I saw the amendment, I thought that we would have the classic argument about what should be contained in primary legislation and what should be contained in secondary

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legislation. It seems that his intention was to point the agency in the direction in which it should be travelling, which was to use the power when substantial amounts of funds justify civil recovery. I point him to the provisions in clause 286(1) and (2), and to subsections (3) and (4), for the manner in which those provisions should be applied.

Clause 286 provides for the setting of a financial threshold in secondary legislation. It would not be helpful to set that threshold in primary legislation. The Secretary of State has the power to set a financial threshold below which proceedings for a recovery order cannot be initiated. When such an order has effect, the enforcement authority will not be able to start proceedings for a recovery order unless it reasonably believes that the aggregate value of the recoverable property is not less than the amount specified.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the Minister. He has correctly highlighted the provision of that power. Even if it had not been specifically spelt out, it would have been implicit in the Bill. Can he tell us how the Home Office views this, and what sort of minimum figure is floating around in its mind?

Mr. Ainsworth: I intend to deal with that. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman and I will differ in our thoughts on the matter, or on the amount. I assure the Committee that we intend to make the order provided for under clause 286. It will be made by the Secretary of State after consultation with Scottish Ministers. It will be better to establish the financial threshold in that way, because if the threshold needed to be adjusted—if, for example, potential targets for civil recovery were dividing their property so that it fell short of the threshold—that could be done more easily than if it was specified in primary legislation.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I wanted to follow up the discussion between the Under-Secretary and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield. Although the Under-Secretary may say that the figure that he has in mind might need to be adjusted later, and therefore he wants to specify the threshold in secondary legislation, would it not be better for the primary legislation at least to indicate the sort of figure under consideration? Surely a de minimis provision is not likely to change a great deal. The Law Society of England and Wales has argued that a de minimis provision should be clearly set out, for all the reasons given by my hon. Friend. If the Government have already made up their mind on what sort of figure they will specify, now is the time to specify it, not later. It is bad drafting practice for the Government to say that they know what they want to do, but they will not do it until later.

Mr. Ainsworth: What a shame it is that the hon. Gentleman should ruin the serious conversation that we were having. He is playing the usual parliamentary game of what should be in secondary legislation and what should be in primary legislation. He has trodden that route in many Committees. A serious point was being made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, and

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I shall continue to address it. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we include parameters in the primary legislation, but that would not be appropriate. If we tell the Committee our broad intentions, and we subsequently take the powers to specify by order, having consulted the appropriate people, we will have the flexibility to adjust the figure should that need arise, subject to parliamentary scrutiny. We hope that civil recovery will reduce crime by attacking the profit motive and disrupting organised crime rings.

As my hon. Friends have pointed out, we expect the director and Scottish Ministers to use the powers in their jurisdiction to consult on the cases that involve the largest sums. Research has revealed that there should be no shortage of such cases. Given the cost of civil recovery proceedings, in practice we should concentrate on high-value proceeds, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield rightly pointed out. We have not made a final decision on the level of the threshold.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I was just reading in Hansard comments made by the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs, who mentioned £10,000 and ''a substantial sum'', and I should like the Minister's assurance that what he says about secondary legislation is compatible with what I have read.

Mr. Ainsworth: It is complicated to deal with lots of different matters. I cannot remember what the hon. Lady is referring to when she mentions £10,000.

We have not made any final decisions. We need to keep our minds open and consult properly on the matter. The current thinking is that it is very unlikely that we shall set a threshold figure below £10,000.

Mrs. Brooke: In one passage, the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs says:

    ''Like the existing cash forfeiture scheme, that power will only be available where a substantial sum of cash is discovered, perhaps similar to the existing minimum threshold of £10,000.''—[Official Report, 30 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 765.]

Mr. Ainsworth: That is what I thought the hon. Lady was referring to. In this part, we shall consider the cash forfeiture scheme, in which the level is £10,000. We are not proposing to change that. We are discussing civil recovery, and I hope that it will satisfy her to know that we do not think that it is sensible to set a threshold for civil recovery of less than £10,000. I do not want to go any further than that. I have given the Committee a clear indication of our thinking, which is not out of line with the passage that she mentioned, which referred to another part of the Bill. Her comments are not out of line with the eminently sensible thinking of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, either.

Norman Baker (Lewes): For the record, on 30 October the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs mentioned the figure of £10,000 in respect of civil recovery proceedings in column 764. He mentioned forfeiture in the subsequent column.

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Mr. Ainsworth: I cannot remember every word that was spoken on Second Reading, or whether my right hon. Friend revealed that fact at that point. If he did, that is fair enough. If that is the thinking, we should insert a threshold and use secondary legislation to do so, in order to give us the flexibility that might be required in certain circumstances.

I think that our thinking is broadly in line with that of other members of the Committee. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Beaconsfield to accept that our intention is similar to the spirit in which he tabled the amendment. That is a more sensible and flexible way of proceeding, but it is not out of line with the views that he expressed.

 
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