Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Ainsworth: We cannot accept that the money has been paid into and accepted by the account until it has been cleared by the financial institution involved. The intention is not to allow the forces of law and order to delay the return of non-tainted money to its rightful owner. Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that procedures must be followed to ensure that real money, rather than a dud cheque, has been seized.

Mr. Wilshire: The matter is becoming further confused. The Minister now refers to the money being paid in and accepted. However, the provision does not state ''and accepted''. If the Minister wants it to state ''paid in and cleared'', he should introduce another amendment so that it says what he believes that it should.

Mr. Ainsworth: I think that it is obvious that the money must be cleared before it can be returned. It is not possible to return money that has not been seized. I shall check whether there is a problem with the wording of the Bill and ensure that that problem does not arise. The substantive issue is that the hon. Gentleman does not want the customs officer or constable to be able to keep money unnecessarily, and cause a delay in its return. That is not the intention.

Mr. Grieve: I have now had a chance to look at what we incorporated into the Bill on Tuesday, and the instruments include bearer bonds and bearer shares. I am no great expert on those, but it strikes me that they may have a fluctuating value. They have no fixed monetary value. If those were involved, what would happen in terms of identifying the person's share that is not the recoverable property? As the bearer share had been realised, there might be a subsequent loss. If it had been retained, it might have increased in value. Should we consider that?

Mr. Ainsworth: Such property has been identified in this part of the Bill because it is exchangeable. The Bill provides that the money be taken into an interest-bearing account. In most normal circumstances, provision for compensation that might arise—either for a person whose property is subsequently found not

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to be forfeit or for someone who is recognised to be a part-owner of the property that has been seized, but who was never under suspicion—relates to interest, because the products are exchangeable. Only in exceptional circumstances should compensation be paid above the level of interest. I suppose that someone could, through their legal representative, say that they had incurred exceptional losses because of the way in which the money was placed—and the Bill allows such cases to be heard. However, the change is not necessary, because in exceptional circumstances, compensation can be paid above the level of interest.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am not an expert on bearer bonds, but I am told that they are exchangeable, and it is therefore appropriate to deal with them as cash. It would be best to pay them into an interest-bearing account, so that if they are forfeited to the state, there is no loss of accrual of value, and if they are returned to the person, there is no unnecessary loss of value.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Thank you for calling me, Mr. O'Brien. It is a pleasure to see you again. I hope that you enjoyed the break for Christmas and the new year. I hope that the Minister had an agreeable break, too; he seems extremely agreeable—perhaps unduly so—towards the Opposition today.

The first line of amendment No. 325 states:

    ''A customs officer or constable may''.

Why does it not say ''must''? If the officer has ''reasonable grounds for suspecting'', surely he would be negligent if he did not seize the assets. I do not understand why the amendment uses the word ''may'', rather than the word ''must''. That also applies to subsection (1), although perhaps that is a matter for the stand part debate. I raise the matter now, however, because it arises in the amendment, too.

I would like clarification of the Minister's view, and the view that he believes should be taken by the legal authorities, of the habit of carrying huge amounts of money. Perhaps I am from a particularly sheltered environment, but I am not aware that my constituents are in the habit of wandering around carrying huge amounts of money. That is what banks are for—and goodness knows, they rip people off enough for using them. There are credit cards and all sorts of means of transferring money.

I believe that it is suspicious to carry huge amounts of money. The assumption should be that anyone found carrying huge amounts of money is to be looked on with scepticism. [Interruption.] I missed that remark by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who has just joined us here on the mainland.

I should like clarification on the subject of ''unmixing'' money. If someone carrying an enormous amount of money, far more than any of us might envisage carrying on any occasion, says that it is his wife's or his children's money, what steps will be taken to clarify the fact that the money is not a tainted gift, and was honestly earned by the wife or the family? I am concerned, and I hope that the Minister will row back from the ''agreeability''—if such a word

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exists—that he has shown towards the Opposition on the question of penalties.

The Opposition's attitude to penalties for inappropriate seizure is presumably designed to deter those who can seize from doing so. It is deliberately designed to make seizures less likely. That is yet another manifestation of the Opposition's enthusiasm for protecting criminals, would-be criminals and former criminals. Gosh, I feel fired up, even this early in the morning, for the first time in many sittings. I hope that the Minister can satisfy me on all the points that I have made, otherwise I may have to table an amendment for Report stage.

Mr. Wilshire: I cannot possibly let that remark go unchallenged—

Mr. Davidson: Yes, you can.

Mr. Wilshire: I am sorry if I introduce a note of less than good humour. It is being suggested that someone minding their own business is suspect just because they choose to carry money. That strikes at the heart of the presumption of innocence, at natural justice and at the idea that people can do as they choose. It might be eccentric and stupid, but if someone wants to do that, thereby running the risk of being mugged, all hon. Members should defend their right to do so.

9.15 am

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): Is the hon. Gentleman saying that someone who carries £25,000—a sum that was mentioned in a previous sitting—is not suspicious? Would it not be necessary to ask that person why he was carrying £25,000? Is the hon. Gentleman saying that such a person is just an eccentric?

Mr. Wilshire: I am saying exactly that. If somebody has that kind of money—sometimes I wish that I did—because they have just come out of a betting shop, won the lottery, or acquired it in some other way, I am amazed that some Committee members are not prepared to defend that person's right to carry it if they are stupid enough to do so, given that they could be mugged. What sort of a society are we trying to build if anybody who carries money in his pocket is assumed to be a shady character?

The suggestion that anybody who speaks up for the principle that someone is innocent until proved guilty is somehow trying to defend the criminal is extraordinary. I consider that monstrously stupid, unfair and unreasonable. Until such people are convicted, and while there is no reason to have suspicions about the money, why should there not be penalties for taking money away from people when they are entitled to have it? It is not a question of being soft on them. At some stage in the future, they may be found innocent of all charges.

Mr. Ainsworth: At 2.30 this afternoon I shall remind my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) how fired up he was at 9.10 this morning.

Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling): Five o'clock this afternoon.

Mr. Ainsworth: Five o'clock, then. Clearly my hon. Friend has led a sheltered life in the drawing rooms of

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Pollok. There are people whose practices he does not understand.

Changing ''may'' to ''must'' would not make any difference. Effectively, we are empowering the constable or customs officer to seize cash, part of which he has reasonable grounds for suspecting is connected with crime. Using the word ''may'' gives him that power. Using the word ''must'' would not add to those powers.

Mr. Davidson: I am astonished by the Minister's response. He is making exactly the argument that we rejected when we debated the use of the word ''must'' rather than the word ''may'' before. We were not happy with the idea that those who ran the system should have discretionary power, and we wanted to send a clear instruction that exercising the power was a must. Surely the pendulum should swing much more towards the idea of ''must seize cash'', to give a clear indication that we do not approve of people carrying around huge amounts of cash without excuse. That is suspicious in itself, especially in an area such as Glasgow, Pollok, where few people have enough money to put down at the bookies to win £25,000, never mind acquiring it from another source.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davidson: It is difficult for me to give way, as I am intervening myself, but if Mr. O'Brien is prepared to allow it, I am happy to give way.

The Chairman: I call the Minister.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend must accept that just because the word ''must'' might be appropriate in one sentence, it is not necessarily appropriate in every sentence. He is now extending his total lack of confidence in the courts, the judiciary and lawyers to constables and customs officers, too.

Mr. Carmichael: I wonder whether the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok is being slightly disingenuous. He must be aware that there would be occasional operational reasons why an obligation to seize cash could jeopardise a more significant police operation. If he wishes to draw attention away from the bigger issues via the back door, he is soft on criminals.

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