Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Ainsworth: It is indeed possible that serious criminals could be protected by a seizure of cash that prevented an on-going investigation.

Mr. Davidson: I am glad that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland raised that point, because that is a valid reason why cash could not be seized. If the Minister accepts that that is the only reason, I am happy. However, the assumption must be that unless there are exceptionally good reasons for not seizing the cash, it should be seized. I hope that the Minister accepts that.

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not disagree. I accept that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland gave a good reason not to seize cash in some circumstances. We do not intend that powers should be introduced to seize automatically any cash found in the possession of

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suspicious characters throughout the land. We intend to give powers to constables and Customs officers to use appropriately when they encounter suspicious cash while performing other duties. We do not share the attitude that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok displayed.

A further point was covered by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), and I shall continue to cause annoyance by agreeing with the Opposition. There are people who are strange indeed, and their strangeness is not a reason for the forfeiture of their property to the forces of law and order. That is not a line that the Government propose in this Bill or plan to propose elsewhere.

Mr. Grieve: Perhaps for the benefit of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok, I should tell the Committee that I noted in yesterday's Glasgow edition of The Herald that the Minister was quoted as describing me as the shadow Home Secretary's sidekick. I assumed that he had thereby vented his spleen regarding the Committee's proceedings, and I am delighted that he agrees with the Opposition today.

Mr. Ainsworth: On this matter.

Mr. Davidson: That is quite scary.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 444, in page 170, line 15, after 'cash' insert

    'if it or, as the case may be, the part to which his suspicion relates, is'.—[Mr. Bob Ainsworth.]

Clause 293, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 294

Detention of seized cash

Mr. Grieve: I beg to move amendment No. 456, in page 170, line 24, leave out 'three months' and insert 'one month'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 457, in page 170, line 27, leave out 'two years' and insert 'six months'.

Mr. Grieve: Clause 294 provides that once the initial period of detention of the seized cash has been accomplished, there is a period during which one may apply to the court to retain the cash for a further period. The Bill provides for two periods. The first period lasts for three months, and a further order under the clause could provide for up to two years. That is a long time. One would have thought that if there were such a seizure of cash, especially if it was led by intelligence, it would be possible, within the period in question, for steps to be taken to recover that cash, and to establish the basis on which it was seized. Therefore, I am troubled by the duration of the periods specified.

I will listen carefully to the Minister's explanation of why these periods have been selected, and why they are so long. I am prepared to be persuaded by him, which is why the amendments that I have tabled are probing amendments—although I am not saying that I will not press the matter to a Division. My amendments provide for shorter periods of one

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month and six months—which is a particularly appropriate period because, for instance, in summary proceedings in court, a summons must be served within six months of an offence.

The Minister might provide cogent reasons why the periods proposed are necessary, but two years is a long time for cash to be detained without the issues surrounding it having been resolved. It suggests that money can be seized in the manner of a fishing expedition—one seizes it, and then one ferrets around to find a justification for the seizure.

Mr. Ainsworth: This is where I stop trying to defend the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends from the onslaught of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok and revert to the accusation that the hon. Gentleman is the sidekick of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), and has gone soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime. [Interruption.] I am trying to buy back the position that I lost a few minutes ago, as I wish to regain some support from my Back Benches.

Existing legislation relating to drugs and terrorism—as contained in the Terrorism Act 2000—allows for the same detention periods for cash as are set out in clause 294. These are maximum time limits, and it is for the court to decide whether to authorise the detention of cash for such periods. We are not aware that there has been any suggestion that the existing time limits are unreasonable.

It is, of course, for the courts to decide whether the conditions for continued detention are met. No detention can be authorised—whether for the maximum period allowed, or any other period—if a magistrates court, or a sheriff, is not satisfied that one of the detention conditions set out in clause 294 is met.

In addition to those protections, an application for the release of detained cash can be made by the person from whom the cash was seized—or a victim—at any time while cash is detained under clause 294. If the court is satisfied that the detention conditions are no longer met, or that the cash belongs to a victim as provided for in new clause 9, the court will have discretion to release the cash.

Mr. Grieve: The Minister is right: the explanations are provided in clause 294. However, they reinforce my concern about fishing expeditions.

The Minister has been talking about such cash seizures being based on substantial intelligence, and being well targeted, but it is envisaged that the cash may be retained for up to two years

    ''while its derivation is further investigated or consideration is given to bringing . . . proceedings against any person for an offence in respect of the unlawful conduct with which it is connected''.

I can just about see the point of the lengthy detention period for the cash with regard to bringing proceedings against

    ''any person for an offence in respect of the unlawful conduct with which it is connected'',

but I find it harder to understand why such a lengthy period is legitimate simply to make further investigations of its derivation. That is a fishing expedition.

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9.30 am

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is being a little exclusive in his choice of bits to read out. He attempts to suggest an ability to hold cash for two years. That is the case only after repeated extensions allowed by the magistrate or sheriff and justified on each occasion, as he knows.

Customs officers who have operated the cash recovery scheme under the Drug Trafficking Act 1994 tell us that in practice, cases are unlikely to result in successful forfeiture. It is unusual for them to be dealt with so quickly, and money returned. It is extremely rare that cases taken on by customs officers can substantively be dealt with in six months. That is the advice from the people currently operating the scheme, who say that it is more usual for cases to take 12 to 18 months, with some going the full distance allowed within the current law. The reasons for that include the time taken for financial investigation and to make foreign inquiries. In many cases, the party from whom the cash was seized will seek to delay the forfeiture. Experience therefore suggests that the existing time limits are appropriate to operational requirements.

Any requirement for more regular detention hearings will also have serious resource implications. Even without the extension of the workload that the Bill will impose, the customs unit at Heathrow currently has 80 to 90 cases on hand. Inland, however, cases are not as concentrated as those at the border, which fall disproportionately on particular courts. Officers are attending court on an almost daily basis for extended detention hearings—even with a three-month maximum. If the time span were reduced to one month, there would clearly be serious problems in maintaining that schedule. There would also be an impact on the courts that would be required to hold additional hearings.

We fully accept the need for independent scrutiny and on-going authorisation of any continued detention. However, judicial involvement and the detention of cash must be tailored to the circumstances. Courts can decide not to allow continued detention for the whole three-month period. If courts feel it appropriate, they can decide to say, ''You must come back before the end of the three-month period.'' However, there is a maximum period of three months, after which people must return to court and seek a renewed period of detention.

Cutting the overall maximum down to six months would not be operationally viable, and going to court every month for detentions would be over-burdensome and costly. I ask the hon. Gentleman to take that into consideration and withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Grieve: As I said, having vented his spleen yesterday, the Minister has become even more reasonable. His most compelling argument was that it is proving difficult for the proceedings to be concluded within a shorter time than the periods set down in the legislation. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Mr. Hawkins: I beg to move amendment No. 411, in page 170, line 33, leave out 'a procurator fiscal' and insert 'the Scottish Ministers'.

My hon. Friends and I tabled this amendment, and some amendments in subsequent groups, because when our proceedings in Committee were already well under way, I received a detailed e-mail from Anne Keenan, the deputy director of the Law Society of Scotland, who suggested various constructive improvements to the Bill. She sought not to water it down, but to make it more effective. I spoke to Mrs. Keenan a few minutes ago, and I shall receive further information that applies to later parts of the Bill to which we have also tabled amendments. Because of the Law Society of Scotland's involvement with anti-terrorism provisions, it has compiled a briefing note in the past few days, and I shall soon be receiving a copy of it—I thought it would be helpful to inform the Under-Secretary of that.

When we consider later groups of amendments to the clause, it may be helpful if we, the Minister and the Law Society of Scotland are working on the same lines. For example, the Government have tabled amendment No. 327, which, in part, would have the same effect as our amendment No. 415. I hope that that confirms things for sceptical Labour Members, although the most sceptical of all—the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok—is not in Committee at present. I may have to repeat what I said when he returns to the Room, so that he does not suspect me of being involved in a dark plot to water down our proceedings. I hope that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland—being a Scottish lawyer—can shed more light on the precise significance of the later amendments. However, as for the amendment under discussion, the Law Society of Scotland suggested that it would be more helpful if Scottish Ministers made the decisions rather than the procurators fiscal.

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