Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Ainsworth: Under the current law, the powers apply only to seizing cash at ports, so I do not deny that there is a considerable extension. We are not only expanding the law from specific offences such as drug trafficking to cover all crime, but expanding inland from the borders the area in which the powers can be used. The powers are a lot wider than those in current law. However, they are based on current law. At present, provisions allow for the seizure of proceeds of crime and cash intended for crime. They have been successful, and we have had no feedback to suggest that they have created a problem in that more limited situation.

The Committee is right: we are extending the powers. Many months ago, I wanted to satisfy myself that there would be adequate safeguards to ensure that we did not create problems such as those that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield flagged up. We do not want indiscriminate powers to be used by constables on people whom they bump into on the streets.

If the constable is required to have prior judicial approval—he may have just reason not to have to obtain it—and can show that he cannot obtain it, he must seek the approval of a senior officer. Only if he can show that he can obtain neither and yet still has to find post-approval can he use the powers. The code of guidance clearly spells out that he has to have reasonable grounds to suspect not only that moneys concerned are the proceeds of crime or intended for use in crime, but that they are above a significant threshold figure.

We have hemmed in the provision in so many ways that it can be used only as part of operations that are intelligence-led or proceed on the basis of information. We are not providing powers that can be used in an indiscriminate fashion. I share the desire to ensure that it can be used only in such circumstances, and not in the wider way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. The safeguards that we have put in will ensure that the powers will not be so used. I therefore ask him to withdraw the amendment.

5.15 pm

Mr. Grieve: I find myself in two minds on the issue. I have no difficulty accepting what is intended by the Minister—I accept that there is a problem concerning large amounts of cash. I have been involved in cases in which £250,000 was found in a safe deposit box and £25,000 in a cardboard box at the back of the wardrobe of a man in Southend. His explanation was that he was looking after it for Mr. X, who was going to use it to pay his next quarter's VAT bill. I have seen them all. I am fully alive to the interesting explanations that have been advanced. On the whole, I also accept that in this age of banking facilities, it is unusual for most of us to contemplate keeping £25,000 in cash in a box at the back of a wardrobe. That is not something that I would habitually recommend anyone to do, and

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I would think it surprising if I had such a sum in cash. However, there is—and it is important in a democratic and free society—a presumption of innocence. If somebody cares to keep £3 million in cash in his wardrobe, he is entitled to do so—one does hear of large sums of cash being found in knickers in the wardrobes of elderly people who have died. I have come across that in inheritance cases, where the sums have totalled in excess of £10,000.

I have a difficulty when it comes to expanding existing powers to give police officers the right on paper—albeit hedged in with the safeguards that the Minister has outlined and the rules that have been issued—to stop somebody who has not committed or is not suspected of having committed any offence, in a public place anywhere in the country and to insist on the right to search him and to confiscate his cash. I am not concerned about ports where Customs officers exercise their existing powers. I think that most people understand that slightly different rules apply there because people are entering and leaving the jurisdiction of the country.

Moreover—and I shall not stray too far, as we shall come to this later—what is remarkable about the powers conferred under this part of the Bill is how long the cash can be held on to while somebody goes away and considers whether a tainted provenance can be found for it. It will not be detained for five minutes; it could potentially be kept for a very long time.

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not want to stray down the road that the hon. Gentleman says he will follow later. However, he keeps saying that the money can be seized from somebody when there are no grounds for suspecting that that person has been involved in criminality. In narrow terms, he is right. We are concerned with the cash, not the person. There must be grounds to suspect that the cash is the proceeds of crime, or is intended for use in crime. He tries to make out that this is a power that a constable might use where no grounds exist. It is not. I ask him to accept that that is not so.

Mr. Grieve: Of course I accept what the Minister says, but one problem of having ''reasonable grounds for suspecting'' is that it is a wide term. At a later stage of the Bill, we find that constables are immune from any form of civil or criminal proceedings as a result of these seizures—the Bill provides them with protection. Traditionally, ''reasonable grounds for suspecting'' has been seen as giving a wide discretion to police officers for the specific purpose of preventing crime. The term exists frequently in criminal law.

Mr. Hawkins: I do not know whether what I am going to say will assist my hon. Friend's argument, but I hope that it might assist the Minister. My hon. Friend and I have had experience of a constable being regarded by the court as having reasonable grounds for suspicion, although it turns out that the suspicion was wrong, despite those reasonable grounds. The person against whom there were reasonable grounds to suspect may nevertheless turn out to be innocent.

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I remember a case from many years ago that involved large amounts of cash and, allegedly, dishonestly acquired videos. The case involved interpleader proceedings, and the police tried in the end to decide to whom, of three entirely innocent people, a large sum of cash belonged.

Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend has given a good illustration. An officer may have reasonable grounds for suspicion, but it may turn out that the person is innocent. As a society, we have always accepted that possibility, for the purpose of apprehending criminals in criminal acts.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman said that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath had given a good illustration, but the amendment says that the individual involved must be suspected of criminality.

Let us imagine that someone unknowingly carries large amounts of cash on behalf of someone else and that the operation has been tracked for ages. The person who carries the suitcase full of money, which is intended for a cocaine deal, is not part of the operation. The hon. Gentleman suggests that because the individual carrying the cash is not part of it, the cash should not be forfeit, although it can be proved that the cash is an element in a criminal conspiracy. He must see that we are discussing a question of property, not the person, and that there is a requirement to be able to show that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the cash is either an element in a criminal act that is about to happen or the proceeds of a criminal act.

Mr. Grieve: We come to the nub of the area of philosophical disagreement between the Minister and myself. I would expect the police officer in those circumstances to approach the person involved and say, ''I'm terribly sorry to trouble you, but I think you may have in your possession £2 million that you are intending to take to an individual who intends to use it as part of a cocaine transaction. Would you assist us?'' It is well that society should proceed on the assumption that those who are innocent of wrongdoing should be willing to assist the authorities in preventing it.

The Minister has given the state wide powers, in the person of police constables—and of Customs officers, but we shall leave them out of the argument as they already have the powers—to stop innocent people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing, because there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that they have large quantities of cash that may be recoverable property or intended for use in unlawful conduct. I understand the Minister's thinking, but that is a wide extension of existing powers.

Mr. Ainsworth: I know that the hon. Gentleman has only bumped into his secretary, that we have just come back from the Christmas break and that he has not had time to consider the guidance. However, what he suggests is laid out in the guidance—that police officers should inform individuals when they have reasonable grounds for suspecting that they have cash on their person worth more than £10,000 that is recoverable

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property or intended for use in unlawful conduct. Only after police officers have satisfied themselves that the person is not prepared to co-operate do constables have the power of search.

Mr. Grieve: I, too, have read the guidelines—I may have seen them only this morning, but I read them before I came into the Committee. Of course, I understand the Minister's point, but the question remains whether we should give the power of search against the person who is not suspected of committing an offence. There will always come a point when one has to decide what are the limits of the state's powers against individuals. Against people who are committing criminal offences, we have consistently widened those powers over the past 50 years, but the crime rate has gone up. It does not seem to have had the desired effect, yet we are now being asked to extend those powers against people who have not committed criminal offences rather than, as I suggest, going for the alternative, but doubtless more ponderous and bureaucratic method.

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