Proceeds of Crime Bill

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The Chairman: Order. I remind Committee members that the use of the word ''you'' refers to me. I reassure the Committee that not only do I not have a Rembrandt or anything that looks like one, but I do not even have a cellar. I also note that there is a murmur of conversation in the Committee Room, which is disturbing when I am trying to concentrate on what a Member is saying. Hon. Members who want to have a conversation should go outside to have it.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 310, in page 262, line 29, leave out '(3)(c)' and insert '(3A)(c)'.—[Mr. Bob Ainsworth.]

Mr. Hawkins: I beg to move amendment No. 361, in page 262, line 35, after 'Power', insert

    'with the prior authority of the court,'.

It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship again, Mr. McWilliam. I was going to welcome back the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson), because we missed him last week, but he has temporarily evaporated. No doubt he will return from the Corridor outside shortly, and we shall have the benefit of his trenchant views again.

Amendment No. 361 is not probing. We think that this is an extremely serious matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and I, and other Opposition Members, were surprised that a Labour Government should suggest something as stark as the unfettered power in paragraph 3 of schedule 3. This is the same Labour party that used to make such an enormous fuss about stop-and-search powers and related issues, year after year, when we were in government and the Labour party were in opposition. My hon. Friends and I constantly heard Labour Members who are now on the Government Benches say that it was improper for any organ of the state, any part of the police, or any part of the prosecuting authorities to have any kind of unfettered powers. However, in paragraph 3 of schedule 3, the Labour Government are proposing draconian powers to

    ''enter any premises in the United Kingdom, and . . . take any of the following steps . . . to carry out a search for or inspection of anything described in the order . . . to make or obtain a copy, photograph or other record of anything so described . . . to remove anything which he is required to take possession of in pursuance of the order or which may be required as evidence in the proceedings under Chapter 2 of Part 5.''

Finally, the provision is made even wider:

    ''The order may describe anything generally, whether by reference to a class or otherwise.''

Anyone can see that those are astonishingly wide powers. It would be sensible and constitutionally important to introduce a safeguard by stipulating that those incredibly wide powers, which, in certain circumstances, may be necessary when dealing with the Mr. Bigs of this world—I should make it clear that we are not trying to water down the Bill, before any Labour Member accuses us of that—be introduced only with the prior authority of the court. If the Minister is not prepared to accept the need for such a safeguard, we hope that he will reflect seriously, with his colleagues and advisers, on whether the Government will table our amendment or a similar one on Report or in another place. The reasons for the gravity of our concerns will be understood. It is not right for any organ of the state to have unfettered powers—

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): Will the hon. Gentleman help me on this point? What is the difference in principle between exercise under paragraph 1 on seizure and paragraph 2 on information, which Conservative Members have not sought to amend, and exercise under paragraph 3? In effect, paragraph 3 simply exercises that which is already set out in paragraph 1.

Mr. Hawkins: I find the hon. Gentleman's intervention somewhat surprising. He may not agree with other Conservative Members and me that the idea that an Englishman's home is his castle is fundamentally important—that phrase has been hallowed through the years. Paragraph 3 refers to the power to break into a person's private property. We are not saying that there should not be safeguards—indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield has sought to introduce safeguards, and has received reassurance from the Minister. Unlike the previous paragraphs in schedule 3, in relation to which the Minister was able to offer reassurance, thereby avoiding the need to press our amendments to a vote, the words of paragraph 3 are so stark and draconian that I defy any hon. Member in the Committee to describe them otherwise.

British citizens need protection. In any organisation, unfortunately, mistakes will be made. However careful the authorities are—and I am sure that they will try to ensure that they enter only properties that are appropriate—they will occasionally get it wrong. Sadly, and sometimes with the most appalling results, prosecuting and police authorities have got things wrong in the past. The case that springs most urgently to mind of such catastrophic error was of a person who was being kept under surveillance, and whom a police firearms unit supposed to be a serious criminal. In the end, however, it turned out that they had got the wrong man, but they found that out only after the wrong man had been shot and suffered potentially life-threatening wounds from police bullets.

Stephen Hesford indicated assent.

Mr. Hawkins: I see that the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) nods, so perhaps he remembers that case. Sadly, with the best will in the world, prosecuting authorities can get these things wrong.

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough): How does the hon. Gentleman's amendment fit with the provision in clause 260(1), which states:

    ''An interim administration order may authorise or require the interim administrator . . . to exercise any of the powers mentioned in Schedule 3''?

I do not necessarily ask the hon. Gentleman to deal with that point immediately, but there may be a dovetailing between the amendment and an existing provision in the Bill. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify how his amendment will bite on it, if at all?

Mr. Hawkins: There are two answers to the hon. Gentleman's point. First, we have not yet reached clause 260, and it would not be in order to have this debate again—you would rightly stop us, Mr. McWilliam. Therefore, this is the appropriate time to raise the issue. Secondly, the wording of clause 260(1)(a)—I accept that the hon. Gentleman asks a genuine question, and I have considered the matter—is

    ''to exercise any of the powers mentioned in Schedule 3''.

Therefore, we need to ensure that the schedule 3 powers are only those that are appropriate. We could, of course, introduce the same type of safeguard into clause 260(1). We could table an amendment stating that ''an interim administration order may only with the prior authority of the court authorise or require the interim administrator'', which would have the same effect. However, our business dictates that we discuss schedule 3 before clause 260, so it is important to introduce the safeguard at this point. I entirely accept that there may be other ways of skinning a cat, and better ways of drafting such an amendment. If a Minister either here or in another place said that although the Government accepted the principle of our amendment there was a better way in which to insert such a safeguard, my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and I might be happy with such a response. We are not saying that our drafting is necessarily perfect, but we would be uncomfortable if the Bill were enacted without the incorporation of a safeguard into such a draconian proposal.

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. George Foulkes): The hon. Gentleman has confused me. He referred to clause 260, which relates to Scotland.

Mr. Hawkins: I did so only because I was tempted down that road by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe).

Mr. Foulkes: Yes, but the hon. Gentleman went down it.

Mr. Grieve: There is a similar clause that relates to England.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend says that a similar clause relates to England.

Mr. Foulkes: You can see why the judge fell asleep.

Mr. Hawkins: I do not think that I have ever fallen asleep in court.

The Chairman: Order. I am not asleep. That principle has already been dealt with under clause 252.

Mr. Hawkins: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield.

Mr. Grieve: I was about to say to my hon. Friend that the hon. Member for Wellingborough referred to the principle under clause 260, which applies to Scotland. However, clause 252 is an identical provision and applies to England and Wales.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sorry that I was tempted down an inadvertent road by the hon. Member for Wellingborough. The principle remains the same. We need to insert a safeguard into schedule 3, because clause 252 refers also to that schedule.

Mr. Foulkes: Yes; we have dealt with that.

Mr. Hawkins: Yes, but we are dealing with the matter now because schedule 3 is the appropriate place to insert the safeguard. The terms of that schedule are draconian. If the Under-Secretary were to say that the Government would insert the safeguard not into the schedule, but into clause 252, that would be fine by us. The powers are incredibly draconian; no Labour Member would dare to claim that they are not. A safeguard is needed. I am sure that other Conservative Members will want to reinforce that argument.

Mr. Grieve: I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath about the extent of the powers. It is not that I think it wrong that the receiver should be able to search a property in the United Kingdom or that I believe that the powers under the schedule should be circumscribed in some way. It should be necessary, however, before a receiver takes such action, for him to tell the court that appointed him that he intends to enter premises, explain the reason why and gain the court's approval for the individual instances when he takes such action.

The Committee may remember the current powers. If my house is burgled and my property is taken eight doors down the road, and I see the burglar disappearing through the door, I have no right to kick down the door to gain entry to recover my property. I must call on the services of a police officer to attend the scene and to exercise his powers to recover such property. If there were a sufficiently long interval for the causal chain to be broken, even the police officer could not enter the premises to recover the property; he would almost certainly have to obtain a search warrant from a magistrate.

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Prepared 18 December 2001