Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: If the main purpose of the amendments were accepted by the Government, they could table further amendments. For instance, an exception could be introduced, to enable someone who wished to expose the director to the full glare of the public gaze to make an special application for a public hearing.

Mr. Grieve: That is right. When the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked how I might have redrafted the provision, the amendment that sprang to mind was

    ''unless the person involved requested a public hearing''.

The danger of the discretion allowed by the word ''may'' is that it could lead to lengthy disputes about whether a case should be held in chambers. I need to be persuaded of the merits of public hearings. No doubt we shall hear from the Minister about that, but that is my starting point.

11.15 am

If my understanding of the Government's policy is correct, it is probable that civil recovery will be used against individuals with substantial assets and substantial business interests. I would imagine that such a person would fit neatly into the category, especially as the Mr. Bigs—those who have escaped prosecution—are often wealthy individuals who may have a range of legitimate and illegitimate business interests. One hears about such people anecdotally. Every now and again one has the pleasure of hearing that one or two of them may be in the process of being brought to book, and it is reassuring when that happens.

It is likely, given the nature of human affairs, that the proceedings may turn out to have been wrongly aimed, however good and fair the director may be. I worry that such proceedings could have catastrophic consequences for an individual's reputation or business—and, in some circumstances, on his physical safety. I had experience as a lawyer of a case that involved allegations of a fraudulent nature. One of the interesting aspects was that one of the key witnesses, who, having tried to avoid coming to court, finally had to be brought to court, was a business man with business interests both in this country and in another country whose democratic credentials were not well established. It became clear in the course of my cross-examination that his financial transactions, although they involved Lichtensteiner Anstalt and other devices, might be said to have related not so much to criminality in this country as to avoiding the arbitrary and capricious laws of the country from which he originated, and in which he continued to have business interests.

The Minister will appreciate that in some circumstances the full revelation of such facts in proceedings involving someone who is justifiably trying to defend an action against him might not only damage his business reputation in this country but place him at risk elsewhere. How might we tackle that? It is a difficult issue but, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, at least allowing for the possibility of hearings in chambers would be appropriate.

Even under my amendment, according to which proceedings would have to take place in chambers, I would be perfectly content if it were suggested that in the event of success, a full judgment should subsequently be made available to the public. I have no anxiety about that. However, I worry that the cases involved are likely to have a high profile. The Inland Revenue commissioners maintain confidentiality, but in this case that will not apply. As the Minister accepts, the people involved may have no criminal convictions. The Committee must deal with that. I should be interested to hear Committee members' views on how the matter should properly be tackled.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield has already thoroughly set out the reasons why he and I, and perhaps other members of the Committee, think that we need to have the proceedings in chambers, and he gave us examples from his own practice. I can helpfully alert the Committee with examples from my professional practice over the years before I came to the House.

Like my hon. Friend, I was involved in various cases, both prosecuting and defending, in which there were allegations of such crimes as fraud. I am sure that Government Members have similar experiences. One encounters cases in which people operate on the fringes of legality. Even if they have legitimate businesses, they may deal with criminals. Such people are often in fear of their lives because although they may not act criminally, they have unwisely got into an area of business—especially international finance—in which they deal with very unpleasant people.

One of my jobs in my previous practice involved me with legitimate financial institutions that had to decide whether to give authority to the—later infamous—Bank of Credit and Commerce International to issue credit instruments under internationally recognised logos and arrangements. I am glad to tell the Committee that I recommended that no authority should be given to BCCI to legitimise their operations. Even though the investigations occurred some years before BCCI became notorious, they made us aware that there were question marks—to say no more—over some of its operations.

That reminded me that those who operate on the fringes of the law often find that they are intimidated by criminals who are involved in organised racketeering, and pressure can be brought to bear on people who hold legitimate jobs in legitimate financial institutions. There was worry about BCCI at an early stage because suggestions were floating around the financial sector in the City of London that such intimidation may have occurred in the middle east and the subcontinent.

If one prosecutes in the criminal courts and talks to special branch officers who say that there are times when organised criminals will actively try to threaten people involved in legitimate business life or legitimate public life, one is bound to worry about the consequences for a person who is innocent and who would not themselves be properly proceeded against by the director. In order to protect people who may be innocent, such matters should be dealt with in chambers.

I was reminded of this in my parliamentary work last year. In my then role as shadow spokesman on the Lord Chancellor's Department, I visited my regional headquarters of the Crown Prosecution Service. I know that the Minister's predecessors in the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department were keen for all hon. Members to have closer links with their local Crown Prosecution Service. I talked to a senior official in my regional headquarters, and I was taken aback to learn that the reason why he moved there was because during his previous job in government service, he and his family were targeted by organised crime. It would not be right or sensible to go into greater detail, but if senior people in government service have been put under such pressure in the past 12 months, Government Back Benchers and others can understand the importance of reinforcing the need for proceedings to be held in chambers.

The Chairman: In the light of observations made at the start of the sitting on a point of order, hon. Members may wish to know that during this morning's sitting, I have received a most courteous letter from the Deputy Editor of the Official Report apologising for the fact that the proceedings of Tuesday afternoon's sitting were not available at the start of this morning's sitting. That was due to an error at the Stationery Office, and the Deputy Editor assures me that the Official Report will be available as soon as possible.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Gale, Mr. Roger (Chairman)
Ainsworth, Mr. Bob
Baird, Vera
Baker, Norman
Carmichael, Mr.
Clark, Mrs. Helen
David, Mr.
Field, Mr. Mark
Foulkes, Mr.
Grieve, Mr.
Harris, Mr. Tom
Hawkins, Mr.
Lazarowicz, Mr.
Lucas, Ian
McCabe, Mr.
McGuire, Mrs.
Robertson, John
Stinchcombe, Mr.
Stoate, Dr.
Tredinnick, Mr.
Wilshire, Mr.

 
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Prepared 13 December 2001