Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Clause 319

Declarations

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

Mr. Grieve: May I deal with this clause and schedule 5 at the same time? That will avoid any need for a substantive debate on schedule 5.

Clearly, the oaths provided in schedule 5 are designed to ensure that the same degree of confidentiality will apply as the Minister explained applies to the Inland Revenue generally. What problems will be caused by the taxation functions of the Assets Recovery Agency being discharged by staff who might perform the other functions of the agency, too?

The Inland Revenue's status and reputation for confidentiality is substantially based on the fact that it is a discrete organisation. I know that we talk about Chinese walls in solicitors' firms when there may be conflicts of interest. However, I wonder how the process has been thought through in practice. If staff are interchanged to perform the different functions of the Assets Recovery Agency, it could cause problems. I wonder if the Minister and his advisers have given any thought to ensuring that such problems do not arise.

5.30 pm

Mr. Ainsworth: Clause 319 requires the director and his staff to make a declaration of non-disclosure of taxpayer information. The text of the declarations that they must make is set out in schedule 5. The declarations are similar in wording to those that the law requires the commissioners of Inland Revenue, and Inland Revenue staff, to make. They will place the agency on an equivalent footing to the Inland Revenue in relation to the confidentiality of taxpayer information. The Inland Revenue has always given great importance to the confidentiality of such information, and it follows that that information should not be vulnerable to inappropriate disclosures just because it is held by the Assets Recovery Agency.

The declaration states that the person who signs it will not make any disclosures of information that they receive through their functions under this part of the Bill. The exceptions to the rule are disclosures made for the purpose of carrying out the functions, for the purposes of a prosecution for any offence relating to inland revenue, or in any other such cases required or permitted by law.

I do not know what more we can do. The hon. Gentleman mentions a difficulty that can be dealt with only if we get the right culture into the new agency. I am sure that the Revenue has struggled with the issue.

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It has, over a long period, built a reputation. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is aided by having a discrete function. I do not believe that the agency will always have specialist staff who deal only with taxation, although that may be the case to some extent. It will certainly help the staff to stick to the declarations that they are required to make.

I do not believe that we can make any more provision within the Bill to ensure that the same standards apply to the staff of the agency as to those of the Revenue. That will require effective management and the establishment of the kind of culture that we want, which will lead not only to the expertise necessary to ensure that some of the Bill's powers are used well, but also to the maintenance of the confidentiality that we want people to expect.

Clause 319 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 5 agreed to.

Clause 320

Interpretation

Mr. Hawkins: I beg to move amendment No. 484, in page 185, line 13, at end insert—

    '(1A) Nothing in this section may be construed to permit investigation of matters which do not constitute offences within the United Kingdom.'.

My hon. Friends and I tabled the amendment because of a debate—indeed, more than one debate—that we had not long before Christmas. The Minister will recall it well. The Opposition expressed grave concerns about the Government's proposals for the so-called European Union arrest warrant. In the light of the concern expressed not only by Opposition Members but by the media—extensively, in some quarters—it is important that we do not allow matters that are not offences under UK law to form the basis for instant arrests on the order of a foreign court.

I would be out of order if I tried to repeat our extensive debates on the EU arrest warrant. Nevertheless, we want it made clear in the Bill that we are not including things that are not offences in British law. We are suspicious that the Government constantly follow a European agenda to extend the purview of the law. I am only sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) is not in Committee at present, because he certainly waxed lyrical in the debates on the European Union arrest warrant in European Standing Committee B, as the Minister will recall.

It is thus left to me to make the case that in the light of subsection (1)(a) and (b), it would be helpful to add:

    ''Nothing in this section may be construed to permit investigation of matters which do not constitute offences within the United Kingdom.''

I shall listen with interest to what the Minister has to say. I hope that he will put on the record the fact that he does not want the Bill to be a further extension of the arguments that he advanced during our debates on the EU arrest warrant.

Mr. Ainsworth: I can reveal to the hon. Gentleman that the reason why my speaking note is so long is that there are about three different versions of it, depending

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on what on earth he is trying to get at. Obviously, my officials do not have the same mindset that some of us are only too well aware of, with the fear of foreigners and foreign jurisprudence, particularly when it comes to Europe. Such matters invade all the aspects of some of the issues that certain hon. Members feel obliged to raise in all corners of this place.

Mr. Hawkins: The only thing that surprises me is that the Minister, having gone through all the problems that the Government had when they did not produce the right documents, should have seen immediately when the amendment was tabled precisely what we were getting at. Never mind his officials, he should have worked that out.

Mr. Ainsworth: Nobody else in Committee knows what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. I certainly do not feel obliged to explain it.

Amendment No. 484 would insert a new provision in the Bill that would make it clear that nothing under clause 320 could be taken to authorise the investigation of matters not constituting offences within the United Kingdom. The clause is about the interpretation of part 6. Subsection (1) defines criminal conduct for the purposes of clause 311 and for the purposes of the definition of criminal property under clause 320.

Under clause 311, criminal conduct is relevant to the gateway criterion to be satisfied in order for the director to exercise his income tax, capital gains tax and corporation tax functions. He must have reasonable grounds to suspect that there is a tax obligation arising from the criminal conduct. The definition of criminal property under clause 320 is relevant to the gateway criterion. I am talking about criminal activity and the British tax system. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath will be hugely pleased to hear that if criminality has occurred in another European country, that does not preclude us from using the powers under the Bill. I am sure that he would want that to be the case.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the Minister for part of what he said. We would not want to avoid the United Kingdom authorities having the right to deal with matters that are properly regarded as criminal under our courts. I do not want to bore Committee members, but he will remember our extensive debate when we discussed the EU arrest warrant about generic terms being used in the European directive that is the background to the warrant proposals. That encompasses phrases that are not known under United Kingdom law. I am not wildly suspicious of foreigners as the Minister accused me of being, but I want to have the same certainty under our law as we have always had traditionally, and not vague terms. If I recall correctly, one of them was something like ''xenophobia'', while another was ''swindling'', or some such generic term. Swindling might incorporate specific offences, but in this country we have always fought against the inclusion of generic, sweeping terms and concentrated on specific offences. We and our courts are comfortable with that, and I feel strongly that we should retain it.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) has concerns on behalf of businesses in his constituency in that regard, and I know that the City of London was worried about the use of such generic terms in relation to the EU arrest warrant proposals. That led, in part, to some of the great media interest in the matter, to which we shall return on future occasions on the Floor of the House, as the Home Secretary has given an undertaking that primary legislation will be introduced in that regard. At this stage, however, I am happy with the Minister's reassurance that we are dealing with UK tax law only. Anyone who has concerns in the future will no doubt be able to rely on the record of what he has said in Hansard.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): Committee members who have read about my background in this week's edition of The House Magazine in which I was the featured Member of Parliament—in the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Henley, I can say that that publication is almost as exciting as The Spectator—will know that my mother is German. Not all Conservatives are wild anti-Europeans. Equally, and rightly, we are concerned about the potential effect of the EU arrest warrant. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath made points aptly in that regard. We may not need a fully fledged amendment, but the words of the Minister would suffice.

Mr. Ainsworth: What on earth does the amendment have to do with the European arrest warrant?

 
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