Proceeds of Crime Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Ainsworth: It is possible that the hon. Gentleman has a point. We are discussing rare occurrences. As he is aware, there is a requirement under the Bill that the money be paid into an interest-bearing bank account. There will only be certain circumstances in which that will not happen. Therefore, interest will have accrued and the money will be repaid with that interest.

The word ''may'' is used if, for whatever reason, the money is not placed in an interest-bearing bank account. I cannot think of such circumstances. I have not discussed situations in which the money is not paid into an interest-bearing bank account, yet it is subsequently returned because it is not forfeit, and interest should not apply. However, such situations might arise, and perhaps we should address that possibility.

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): Would it not be possible for the court to come to the view that the applicant is at fault? The money might not have found its way into the interest-bearing account because the applicant did not respond or take part at the relevant

Column Number: 884

time. In such circumstances, the applicant would be partly culpable.

Mr. Ainsworth: Those kinds of thoughts are going around inside my head. The main reason why money might not be paid into such an account is because it is required for evidential purposes, but, subsequently, the person from whom the money was removed might not be found to be blameworthy. I wish to reflect upon the matter, so that I can ensure that I can satisfy the Committee that the word ''may'' is appropriate, and so that, if that word is inappropriate, I can examine whether it ought to be changed.

There might be circumstances in which the court should not pay the interest. The money might not have been paid into an interest-bearing bank account, and—as my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) has pointed out—that might not be entirely the fault of the constable or the customs officer. The applicant might be at fault—although, at the moment, I cannot think why that might be the case.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): Clause 295(1), which deals with interest, might be of assistance. That subsection includes the statement that interest ''is to be added'' on forfeiture or release. That might address the concerns that have been raised by Opposition Members.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am not sure that my hon. Friend is right about that. Clause 295(1) covers situations in which the money has been paid into the account and the interest has accrued. It provides that when the money is returned, the interest should be paid, along with the original capital amount. We are now discussing situations in which, for whatever reason, the money is not paid into the account within the required 48 hours, and I am not dead sure that that is covered by clause 295(1).

There might be situations in which the court might want to assert that it was not the fault of the customs officer or the constable that the money was not paid into the account. The court might wish to assert that the person from whom the money was seized was at fault, because they caused a delay in the payment of the money into the interest-bearing bank account, therefore they should not be compensated for the loss of that interest.

If such situations might arise, the word ''may'' is appropriate. If such situations will not arise, we ought to consider using the word ''must'', and I give an assurance so to do.

Mr. Davidson: I am in favour of discretion for the court in such circumstances. People are not always found to be either innocent or guilty. Under Scottish law, a verdict of not proven is possible, in which case the court might be uncertain about what position to take. Therefore, it would be better to leave the court with some discretion.

Mr. Ainsworth: As I have indicated, I wish to reflect upon the matter and to comment on it later.

Mr. Grieve: I agree with the Minister that it is important to examine whether circumstances might arise in which a court, properly exercising its discretion, would decide to deny payment of interest

Column Number: 885

because the person from whom the money was seized had committed some kind of misfeasance or misconduct. However, as the argument has developed, I am bound to tell the Minister that I find it difficult to see the exact circumstances in which that could happen. On the face of it, the money would have been taken and the purely administrative act of paying money into the account would not have been properly done. It is difficult to know how the blame could lie on the person concerned.

One could widen the argument and ask whether the person attracted the investigation on to themselves. However, that is dangerous ground when dealing with a situation in which there is an administrative requirement to carry out a simple action.

3.15 pm

Mr. Ainsworth: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The requirement of the money as evidence would be the main reason why it would not be paid into the account. I am thinking of circumstances in which a person was aware of a fact that was not disclosed that required the money to be held as evidence rather than paid into the account. If it became apparent subsequently that the matter could have been cleared up and the money paid into the account, the failure to do that would be the person's fault. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I cannot think of a situation other than that.

Mr. Grieve: I am much obliged to the Minister and I am grateful for his undertaking to examine the matter further.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 336, in page 173, line 41, leave out '297(5)' and insert '[Victims]'.—[Mr. Bob Ainsworth.]

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Davidson: I will not repeat the point that I made because I am sure that the Minister understood it and was preparing a response. I was perhaps unduly and gratuitously constructive earlier, so I will clarify my position that the Minister is too soft and the Whip too hard.

I was impressed by your perspicacity, Mr. McWilliam, at spotting the growth of my one of my colleagues' facial hair. I had considered making a similar point about the fact that the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) has had a haircut. This morning, he entered the Room freshly cut and combed. However, since then he has found a hedge to be dragged through backwards and his hair—such as it is—has regained its usual unruly state.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): There is a bit of jealousy on that side.

Mr. Davidson: Yes, indeed.

Over the Christmas and new year period—this is immediately relevant to our debate—I went to see ''The Lord of the Rings''. I do not know if you have seen the film, Mr. McWilliam, but if you see it, I suggest that you look closely at the hobbits and decide

Column Number: 886

whether they remind you of the hon. Member for Henley. I think that there is a very close similarity.

I ask the Minister about the imbalance between where the gains from seizures go and where the penalties for any mistakes come from. The structure runs the risk of inhibiting the police authority from encouraging officers to take action lest they discover that a number of cases go against them, causing considerable expense. In such circumstances, the police would not have the countervailing balance of sums fed elsewhere into the system on which to call automatically. I hope that money that entered the Scottish Consolidated Fund under the Bill would be redirected for such purposes, but there is no guarantee of that.

Will the Minister clarify that point? I have spoken about Scotland, but the same point applies to all police forces in England and Wales.

Mr. Hawkins: It is a genuine pleasure to be able to agree with one of the hon. Gentleman's points. He waxed lyrical about the facial appearance of two members of the Committee, but while he was away getting bronzed before Christmas—I think that he was fortunate enough to be visiting warmer climes in Africa on parliamentary business—Conservative Members made an almost identical point to the one that he made about police authorities. He may not have appreciated that. We did not bother to table the same amendment for the matching Scottish provision, because we felt that we had already discussed the subject.

The hon. Gentleman may well agree—I hope that the Minister will respond to the point—that, when compensation is awarded against police authorities, a problem arises that could as easily have an adverse affect on his authority in Scotland as it could on mine in Surrey. When compensation is paid from a police authority budget, whether north or south of the border, the sum is not necessarily made up from central funds. Many of us who are concerned about the inadequate funding of our police authorities are concerned that extra expenditure may be taken from them.

When we debated the matching provision for England and Wales, I made the point that it is unfortunate that in all other provisions in the Bill for cases of misfeasance by those in public office, compensation is taken from central funds. The only case in which it comes from a defined budget is when it comes out of police authority funds. That is a problem, and I hope that the Government will think carefully about it. I seem to remember that the matter was one of many that the Minister said he was prepared to think about again—although I am not sure, as he said that about many subjects. Even if he did not, I urge him to do so.

We in Surrey have had grave problems with unexpected costs that have fallen on police authorities. The biggest bone of contention was the exceptional costs that fell on Surrey police when Senator Pinochet was under house arrest. That caused a great deal of local media interest and led to many meetings between Surrey MPs and Ministers,

Column Number: 887

including the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who was then a Home Office Minister. The Home Secretary promised on television that Surrey police would not lose out and that Surrey council tax payers would not face any additional burden. Despite that public promise, which I heard myself, Surrey police have been left out of pocket. Only £700,000 was reimbursed, although the total cost, as the chief constable has repeatedly made clear, was £1.1 million.

That shortfall is germane to our concern about extra, uncompensated costs that fall on police authorities. That is particularly the case as lots of other things will come out of central funds under the Bill. I am glad that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok recognises that inconsistency. I hope that the Minister will take the matter further.

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 10 January 2002