Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Grieve: In those circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 304 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 305 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 306

General exceptions

Mr. Grieve: I beg to move amendment No. 471, in page 175, line 19, at end insert

    'or property obtained through unlawful conduct'.

This is the amendment to which I alluded earlier. It addresses the question of what happens to property that passes into the hands of a bona fide purchaser for value without notice. In a helpful intervention, the Minister made the point that when that happens,

    ''property obtained through unlawful conduct''

is still recoverable, because, as he put it, the roots go round the tree trunk. The recoverable property would then be the value paid by the bona fide purchaser to the person who was not a bona fide holder of the chattel or property concerned. That could still be recovered, so long as the limitation period had not been reached.

I find it difficult to understand why the amendment should not be accepted. It says that once property has passed to the bona fide purchaser for value without notice, it ceases to be property obtained through unlawful conduct. I accept that the amendment has no practical significance for recoverability. As the Minister knows from my interventions in previous sittings, which I do not want to go over ad nauseam, I feel anxiety about the opprobrium that attaches to those who are said to hold

    ''property obtained through unlawful conduct''.

That term is created by statute and by us. It is not a general term used in the world at large; it is our term, which we in Parliament have decided to put together. If the Bill works, that term may well be used in the press and people may comment on it.

I can easily foresee a situation in which someone gets the wrong end of the stick, perhaps deliberately, and is able to say that although the court made the decision that a person's property was not recoverable, he was still in possession of property obtained through unlawful conduct. If my amendment were accepted, that problem could no longer arise, because when the bona fide purchaser for value without notice obtained property in good faith, it would cease to be property obtained through unlawful conduct—and cease to be recoverable; that is the common ground between the Minister and me.

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As the Minister rightly says, it is not as if the money or benefit has completely disappeared. As long as the limitation period has not expired, the roots around the item can be traced to those who have not been bona fide purchasers for value without notice. Property may still be recovered from them, and in certain circumstances, proper criticism may attach to them for the manner in which they have dealt with or handled that property.

I hope that the Minister will consider accepting the amendment. It seems innocuous, and in no way to detract from his desire to send a powerful signal about the demands of society—''society'' seems popular at the moment, although we might say the Government or the Administration instead—to be able to recover and trace property obtained through unlawful conduct. It would send a clear signal that that does not apply to the bona fide purchaser for value without notice, who is in every sense an innocent party. If he were not, no doubt in the course of studying the Bill we would have found circumstances in which recovery against him could be made. We have not, and the Minister has made the position crystal clear. Therefore, his property cannot and should not be defined as property obtained through unlawful conduct.

Mr. Ainsworth: Society does seem to be in fashion again—through no action of the Government, but because the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, whose sidekick I have accused the hon. Gentleman of being, is going around the television studios saying that it does exist after all, in spite of the comments made by an earlier leader of the Conservative party. It is good to see the rediscovery of the existence of society on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition, and a retraction from that appalling position.

Mr. Grieve: I hesitate to say that I believe that a previous politician's words may have been misinterpreted. However, regardless of whether they were, I assure the Minister that I have always believed in the existence of society.

Mr. Ainsworth: I believe that the hon. Gentleman always has—but that does not necessarily apply to all Conservative Members, either now or in the past. I wonder how deep the transformation in the Conservative party is, and how much support the hon. Member for Surrey Heath has for his change of tack.

The amendment would establish not only that property in the hands of a bona fide purchaser would not be recoverable, but that it could not be regarded as having been obtained through unlawful conduct. As we said previously, civil recovery is a proprietary remedy that relates to the characterisation of property, rather than the person holding it. If property is or represents property obtained through unlawful conduct, it is recoverable.

The Bill provides a limited number of defences and exceptions to that rule, to ensure that the enforcement authority cannot recover property when it would not be right to do so. They include, in clause 306(1), the

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defence that one is a bona fide purchaser for value. Subsection (1) protects the bona fide purchaser for value by stating that when a person has obtained recoverable property in good faith, for full value and without notice, it cannot be followed into that person's hands, and therefore ceases to be recoverable. That cannot, however, change the fact that the property was at some stage obtained through unlawful conduct. No provision in the Bill can change the facts. Property retains its tainted history even if it is now indisputably the lawful property of the person who holds it.

Although under the Bill property in the hands of a bona fide purchaser for value remains property gained through unlawful conduct because of its history, there is no implication that the bona fide purchaser is blameworthy or acquired the property in dubious circumstances. That is the point of the bona fide purchaser provision.

As I said, we cannot wipe out the property's history through provisions in the Bill. At some point in its history it was gained unlawfully. That applies to all sorts of property, including parts of the Crown jewels. Nothing in the Bill will prevent people from exposing the history of particular items of property. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield is reaching for something that is unattainable. I accept that he is trying to do something in good faith, but I do not believe that it is possible. We must ensure that we provide full protection for the individual, while allowing the pursuit of recoverable property through its various transformations—and, we hope, recovering it at the end of the day. I cannot accept the amendment, and I ask the hon. Member for Beaconsfield to withdraw it.

Mr. Wilshire: I am disappointed by that reply. I support my hon. Friend wholeheartedly because there is a valid point to be made about a person who acquires something in all innocence that he wishes to keep. There is no reason why a stigma should be attached to that. The Minister said that if property is tainted, it is tainted. Will he reflect that there are circumstances in which the property that is obtained is not necessarily of itself tainted?

4.15 pm

There is a clear distinction in my mind—although the lawyers may tell me that it is not present in law—between property that is obtained by theft and property that is obtained by purchase. If any person—I do not know why we should consider only drug dealers and their cash—was convicted of a crime concerning which the measures are to be used, and had been involved in the theft of much valuable property, it might be necessary to go down this route. The Minister may tell me that that would not be appropriate. However, if it was appropriate, and items obtained by theft were subsequently sold, it is reasonable to argue that although the property was acquired in good faith, it was originally stolen.

Mr. Ainsworth: That is a fact.

Mr. Wilshire: The Minister is correct. I can accept that such property would be tainted, and I accept his definition.

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However, I may buy something from a drug dealer without knowing that he is a drug dealer. All the provisions would apply and, as the Minister said, I would be totally innocent—and therefore entitled to keep what I purchased with my hard-earned money. A drug dealer may buy an antique because he believes that to be the best way to get rid of the cash that he has slopping around. I do not accept that if I subsequently bought that antique from him, it would be tainted. The property would be perfectly innocent, because it was not acquired in the process of any crime. A crime would have been committed from which money was acquired and used to acquire through the proper channels a totally innocent and genuine antique, which was subsequently sold to me. I hope that the Minister will reflect and come to the conclusion that that item is not tainted.

Mr. Hawkins: Would it bolster my hon. Friend's argument to use a specific example? In yesterday's Evening Standard, I noticed an example of a person who could sell property in the precise circumstances that my hon. Friend mentioned. The media celebrity and television personality Johnny Vaughan disclosed in an interview that at the age of 23, he served a substantial custodial sentence for supplying cocaine. He also mentioned the huge amounts that he has earned for working on ''The Big Breakfast'' and television comedy shows. That gentleman would be selling lucrative items. Why should a bona fide purchaser for value without notice of those items who was not aware of the now celebrated person's conviction for supplying drugs be tainted?

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