Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Grieve: No, I wish to move on to the main point.

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Ultimately, the Committee can make words mean whatever we want. We could introduce a ''high treason'' clause, and then, under the interpretation clause, say that high treason related only to offences under the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988. The clause would become law, but it would be nonsense. I accept the difficulty of defining terms precisely, but the choice of words matters.

I shall now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) before moving on.

Mr. Tredinnick: On another important issue concerning prosecutions in planning matters, Mr. Longwill, in my constituency—[Interruption.] I seek to remain in order, and I will be brief. Mr. Longwill was prosecuted for consistent breaches of enforcement orders and went to prison. In support of the point made by my hon. Friend, I emphasise the fact that breaches of planning law are cases upon which the criminal law bears, and we should recognise that.

Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend is right. In my discussion with the hon. Member for Wellingborough, we approached the problem from two different directions. I took his initial comments to suggest that breaches of planning laws did not give rise to criminal sanctions. [Hon. Members: ''That is right''.] If no enforcement notice has been served, that may be correct. Nevertheless, an enforcement notice can follow upon such a breach and lead to prosecution, unless it is remedied. I accept that that is a two-stage rather than a one-stage process, but my point was that the criminal law could impinge upon such breaches.

It is axiomatic in part 6 that there need be no proof of a criminal offence against an individual before the director can take over the board's powers to tax; he need have only ''reasonable grounds to suspect'' criminal conduct. I understand the aim, but an unusual feature of the Bill is that we are starting to call things what they are not, as was discussed in earlier debates on the standard of proof. In fairness, the Minister mentioned that there was a civil standard in part 2. However, the offences that give rise to the confiscation provisions in part 2 must still be proved to a criminal standard. We are confronted with a situation in which the trigger that allows the director to start using fairly draconian powers—which the Committee will examine when it discusses the following group of amendments—is no more than a suspicion of criminal conduct. That is what the Law Society of Scotland is concerned about.

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At no point in the proceedings under discussion is it necessary for criminal conduct to be proved against an individual. That is why the Law Society of Scotland took the view that it was odd that the trigger should be ''criminal conduct'', because, to an outsider at least, ''criminal conduct'' sounds as if it means conduct that gives rise to a conviction on the standard of proof—that is, a conviction about which one is satisfied and sure. No such standard of proof applies in part 6. Inserting the expression ''unlawful conduct''—while limiting the definition to mean such unlawful conduct as would constitute a criminal offence if it were

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proved—would meet the Law Society of Scotland's anxiety that there is a creeping inconsistency of language within the different parts of the Bill.

The Law Society of Scotland's comments on the matter convinced me that the amendment should be tabled. If I were responsible for drafting the legislation, I would welcome its recommendation, because it would make the legislation more consistent with reality. The Committee should strive to ensure that the wording of the legislation accords with general principles of law, and with what a layman—or any person reading the legislation for the first time—would construe as a relationship with reality. In part 6, criminal conduct does not have to be proved, and the Law Society of Scotland's recommendation is designed to address that fact. It has raised a point that is philosophically and linguistically valid.

The Minister has rightly stated that the amendment would not make any difference to the thrust of the legislation. Therefore I commend it to him: it is merely a linguistic—or textual—change, and as it improves the legislation, it should be adopted.

Mr. Stinchcombe: I would like the Minister to reconsider his view on this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok said that our debate was akin to discussing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, but we need to get the wording of the legislation right to prevent lawyers from being able to have such discussions, at great expense. It is bad practice to use different words to define the same conduct. I am a lawyer, and if I see two different words in a Bill, I automatically assume that they are intended to mean two different things. If it were appropriate, I would dedicate much time and argument to persuading a judge that that was the case.

The general point that I am raising is especially valid with regard to the provision under discussion, because everyone intuitively knows that ''unlawful'' does not mean ''criminal''; it is a broader term.

I raised the point about planning with the hon. Member for Beaconsfield because the two-stage process is relevant to our discussion. The first stage is to breach planning control—to develop without planning permission—which is unlawful. A person who does that can raise millions of pounds. I know of someone who authorised the use of his farmland, which was near Heathrow, for car parking. As farmland it was worth £2,000 an acre, but by authorising its use as a car park, he made more than £1 million in pure profit before an enforcement notice could be served, and subsequently enforced. At that stage his conduct was unlawful; thereafter, it was criminal.

In the light of that factual scenario, why are we not making definitions mean precisely what we want them to mean? If the intention is to define identical conduct, identical terminology should be used, and if the intention is to define different conduct, different terminology should be used. If we do not do that, lawyers, whether they are Members of Parliament like me, or simply practising at the Bar„ will strive to argue—perhaps successfully, to the detriment of the

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intentions of the Bill—that different words must have different meanings, or Parliament would not have enacted them.

Mr. Tredinnick: The Minister may be trying to forge an unholy alliance. For the first time in my life, I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Wellingborough, whose constituency is not too far from my own in Leicestershire. If we go down the route that the Minister proposes, the tills will be ringing in the chambers of the Inns of Court. I foresee endless complications and arguments about what is and is not lawful, criminal, and so on. I know that he has eloquently explained why, in his opinion, the definitions in different parts of the Bill must be different—although I was somewhat surprised that while he was making that assertion, I did not see his officials in the Box writing furiously.

It seems to me that we have reached a critical point in the Bill. We run the risk of allowing it to return to the Floor of the House with this matter unresolved. As the hon. Member for Wellingborough said, the word ''unlawful'' does not mean criminal. It has a different meaning.

I shall illustrate the point with a significant planning case from my constituency involving not someone seeking to sell land at Heathrow for development, but a farmer called Alec Longwill, who had an enormous scrap heap of old vehicles, farming implements and equipment, which grew, like Topsy, at a farm near Market Bosworth. Hinckley and Bosworth borough council sought to restrict that unlawful activity. After much pressing and the making of enforcement orders, Mr. Longwill still refused to do anything about his extensive vehicle park, as he was trading in vehicles for farmers, and providing a useful service to part of the community. In the end, the council had to take criminal proceedings against him in connection with another matter—vehicle movements—and he was sent to prison, which is most unusual in a planning case. Not only was his activity unlawful, because it contravened the council's planning procedures and structure plan, but by virtue of his prosecution, conviction and imprisonment, he became a criminal. That is why we need to look at definitions.

What is an appropriate definition? To a layman, rather than a lawyer, an appropriate definition is a simple one. We have under discussion two appropriate definitions, which, apparently, are appropriate only in different parts of the Bill. One definition, although it is synonymous with the other, is said to be appropriate in one situation, whereas the other, which is synonymous with the first, is said to be appropriate in the second situation. Heaven knows how many clauses are in the Bill—it is a complex measure—and sometimes those of us who are not lawyers feel as if we are moving through treacle. We have had complex arguments about when civil law and criminal law apply, the niceties of the definitions, the penalties that apply in civil and criminal proceedings—to which the hon. Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) referred—and the reasons why one rather than the other applies.

Currently, the Bill contains exchangeable, interchangeable definitions, which can mean the same in one place but not in another. It may make

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sense to the Minister, and I can understand the idea that it may be convenient to have two definitions, but in the world we live in, criminals can hire expensive lawyers—such as my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, who may well be jangling the change in his pocket now. He may still be indispensable, as I am sure that he was at one time. [Interruption.] Perhaps he will intervene and correct me if I am paying him compliments that I should not pay him.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Redcar, too, would qualify as an expensive barrister, if hired in private practice. [Interruption.] She said something that I did not hear then; I hope that it was not too uncomplimentary. I am just trying to illustrate my point. It would be generous of the Minister to say to the Committee, ''All right, we have had a lengthy debate. There are clearly some concerns and I shall reconsider the matter.''

 
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