Proceeds of Crime Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Ainsworth: I have been distracted into trying to fathom how, other than by his unruly hair, the hon. Member for Henley resembles a hobbit. It is certainly not in size.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): I hesitate to intervene on the Minister. I am at a loss to understand what either hobbits or my hairstyle have to do with the important amendments under discussion. If someone could explain that to me, I should be most grateful.

The Chairman: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman: that troubled me, too. While we are on the subject, I have not seen the ''The Lord of the Rings''. My only contact with it was when I worked on an electronic telephone switch called a ''Gandalf'' years ago—although my grandson has plans for me this weekend.

Mr. Ainsworth: Nothing at all, is the answer to the hon. Gentleman's admonishment. It was just too tempting an opportunity to get him to speak, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok tried and failed to do. I am pleased that my plan worked and that we heard that little outburst.

I freely accept that my memory is not all that I could wish it, but my recollection of our previous conversation on the subject is not the same as that of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath: it is quite the reverse, although I stand to be corrected. The Opposition have backed away from the position that they held in our earlier debate. When my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok puts it like that, it appears that there is an imbalance, but I hope that he and Opposition Members will reflect on the matter. If we want accountability for the way in which laws are enacted, compensation for cases in which they are not properly applied must be connected to some accountability. It is dangerous to remove that accountability entirely.

We should not remove from local police forces the burden of compensation for their actions. I am surprised if that is Opposition policy. Provisions are in place for compensation in exceptional circumstances—that is exceptional expenditure incurred by a police authority. It would be detrimental for central funds to accept the

Column Number: 888

consequences of compensation claims made against police forces. Equally, I am not sure that hon. Members have thought through the idea of telling Customs and Excise or police authorities, ''What you get, you keep.'' Our courts would not be properly used if we went down that route.

The Bill provides that money is paid into the Consolidated Fund, but that up to half is subsequently transferred into the asset recovery fund. That money is paid to develop further the policies and structures that we have discussed and to compensate the communities that suffer most from the activities of organised crime, drug trafficking and so forth. That is an appropriate way to achieve accountability for any misuse of powers, and to ensure that the powers that we give to the police are not misused through any direct gain from the pursuit of the proceeds of crime by a particular force.

Mr. Wilshire: I am grateful to be able to join in a discussion on the differences of opinion among Labour Members, but I am prompted to tell the Minister of my sympathy for his view on accountability. It makes sense to keep pressure on an individual police authority to conduct its business in such a way as to avoid compensation. However, if he is to pursue that argument, he should apply the same test to Customs and Excise. It is not simply that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollock is wrong and that the responsibility should stay with the police. The Minister should go on to say, ''Perhaps we should review the situation when a Customs and Excise officer is involved.'' From my limited knowledge of Customs and Excise arrangements, I readily accept that officers regard themselves as separate from the Inland Revenue and the general Exchequer—if that is the right phrase. Under most circumstances, if one said that their money is all part of the global tax take, they would answer that they are officers of the Crown and that they are collecting separate money. They may wish to sustain the argument that by penalising the Customs and Excise funds centrally, pressure is exerted on them because they are accountable for the money that they collect and pay out.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am not aware that Customs and Excise gets to keep all the moneys that it seizes under its powers. Subsection (4) states:

    ''If the cash was seized by a customs officer, the compensation is to be paid by the Commissioners of Customs and Excise.''

We are already doing what the hon. Gentleman asks.

Mr. Wilshire: I accept the Minister's answer up to a point, but there is a distinction involved in the case of a global fund held by Customs and Excise, which is a national matter and a huge sum. With that huge sum and a vast array of Customs officers, it is difficult to pinpoint accountability. In contrast, with the exception of the two big police services—the Metropolitan police and, probably, Strathclyde police, although I am not familiar with that force—there is a clear line of accountability to the funds of a smallish police authority and individual officers and members of the authority.

If the Minister wants to sustain his argument about genuine accountability in individual police forces, he

Column Number: 889

should examine the process of accounting in Customs and Excise. The commissioners of Customs and Excise will always regard themselves as collectors of customs duties, not merely collectors of tax money for the Treasury. At the end of the process, the commissioners hand over to the Treasury what they, in my experience of Customs officers, argue is their money. However, I do not believe that that would necessarily meet the Minister's requirement for genuine accountability.

3.30 pm

Perhaps the Minister should speak to the commissioners of Customs and Excise and examine how they budget and divide up their accounting arrangements and whether it might be possible to table an amendment to provide that an individual collector in Customs and Excise is the person responsible for the area in which the incident happens and that all individual collectors of Customs and Excise must have individual budgets. Perhaps the way to ensure accountability is to provide that the money should come from the budget of the collector responsible. When that collector's performance and budget are reviewed at the end of the year, he will have much more pressure on him to explain what went wrong and, therefore, not to do it again.

Perhaps the Minister could accept the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok to take the pressure off the police service. That might be one way of dealing with the matter. Another might be to find some means of putting additional pressure on Customs and Excise. My conclusion is that the one unacceptable proposal is to leave the status quo.

Mr. Davidson: I want to respond to some of the Minister's points. I was present to hear the argument that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, among others, advanced previously, and I believe that this matter is substantially different.

I accept the Minister's point about accountability, but he seems to be in danger of introducing one-sided accountability. The police service is to be held accountable and will have to pay for any mistakes but will receive no reward, benefit or recognition of any gains or achievements. The accountability is purely negative.

When a police force—they are generally under financial pressure—considers its overall strategy, the mechanism that the Minister proposes is likely to drive it into an ultra-cautious stance that presents virtually no possibility of penalty. I have always taken the view that the police should be much more active than they would be in taking such a safe, secure, cautious position.

I accept, and I believe that it is in the spirit of what the Government intend we should accept, that mistakes will be honestly made. I do not want people to proceed only on the basis of being absolutely certain in every case. I want them to proceed on the basis of having reasonable grounds for believing that they can achieve a result, although not willy-nilly. However, such a position involves an acceptance that mistakes will be made that might involve compensation.

Column Number: 890

The danger is that authorities will, in determining their strategy, have to take into account the fact that the more active they are, the more expense is likely to be involved. In Scotland, for example, lots of drugs come up the motorway from England. When they cross the border, they enter the area of Dumfries and Galloway police. Subsequently, they enter the area of Strathclyde police. It is entirely possible that Dumfries and Galloway, an extremely small force with a very small budget, will be inhibited from trying to arrest couriers in their area lest they become liable for any penalties. They may pass information on to Strathclyde for them to catch people a bit further up the road, so that Strathclyde police will risk the penalty, on the basis that they have a bigger budget, and if the operation goes wrong they can afford to pay the price.

This is a serious point. I want the Bill to work, and I do not want the police to be given carte blanche, but if we are to have accountability, it must be balanced. If there is going to be blame and pain, there has to be some prospect of gain and balance, too. If the Minister cannot give me the assurances that I want today, I hope that he will undertake to consider how our shared objectives can be achieved.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is being a little unfair by saying that there will be no gain and it will all be potential pain. He has exaggerated the circumstances by suggesting that the police authority has no interest in ensuring the recovery of assets, 50 per cent. of which will wind up in the asset recovery fund. Police authorities throughout the country will have input into how that money will be used. It will benefit the communities about which they are most worried.

The police will benefit because, for the purposes of tackling crime, the proceeds of crime will be confiscated. The asset recovery fund may contain a credible amount. The police can make suggestions about how it is spent to make their jobs easier and the lives of those whom they protect better. It is not true that there will be no gain. There will be no direct gain. We are not saying to an individual police authority or to Customs and Excise, ''What you get, you keep,'' or that they can have 50 per cent. of what they get. If we did that, we would be providing a fairly extravagant and potentially perverse incentive in respect of how the Bill can be used, and that would worry me greatly.

We must consider the deterrent effect. We are discussing compensating someone—in the majority of cases—at the rate of interest because the constable or Customs officer has failed to pay the money that he confiscated into an interest-bearing bank account within 48 hours. That would apply too in the most exceptional circumstances in which we have taken money from someone believing it to be the proceeds of crime or intended for use in crime, but that turns out to be the property of a legitimate business man on the way to make a deal from which he would profit. We would, in effect, compensate him for the loss of that profit.

Exceptional circumstances will apply on rare occasions. In most cases, there will be only relatively small amounts when the interest has not been paid.

Column Number: 891

There will not be many circumstances in which it is not possible for the authorities to pay in the money within 48 hours. We are discussing cash and claimable items, and in the majority of circumstances the authorities should be able to pay the money into the interest-bearing bank account and there will be no compensation to be paid. My hon. Friend has exaggerated the downside—the deterrent effect—of the provision. We are giving powers to both Customs and police officers that they will welcome. They will be willing to use them and such powers will subsequently benefit the communities that those officers protect.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 300, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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