Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: The Minister is reading from his brief, but he should have adapted it to acknowledge the fact that I specifically stated that we understood the link between clauses 321 and 329.

I do not wish that to be interpreted as a cheap point, as the Minister has worked hard on the Bill.

Mr. Ainsworth: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not being churlish.

Mr. Hawkins: No, I am not.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman has said a lot—as has the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. He said that he thought that clause 329 dealt only with property, when he knows jolly well that that is not the case. Clause 329(3) employs the word ''property'' as a drafting device to enable us to get where we want to go; it does not simply deal with property.

I also wish to point out that I am not reading from the brief.

Mr. Hawkins: I accept that.

Although my notes addressed the issue of property in clause 329(3), the first person to raise it was the hon. Member for Wellingborough; he observed that the mens rea was attached to the property, not the person. The Minister should acknowledge that.

Mr. Ainsworth: Let us try to keep to issues of substance. The hon. Gentleman knows that clause 329(3) states that property should be classified as criminal property if,

    ''(a) it constitutes a person's benefit from criminal conduct or it represents such a benefit (in whole or part and whether directly or indirectly), and

    (b) the alleged offender knows or suspects that it constitutes or represents such a benefit.''

Therefore, the element of knowledge or suspicion already applies. That also applies to clause 323.

The Bill refers to an element of knowledge or suspicion—rather than knowledge alone. The hon. Gentleman's comments have made it clear that the Opposition wish to remove that. We do not accept that the offences that are set out in clauses 321 and 323 should be deemed to have been committed only on the basis of knowledge, as it is extremely different to secure a conviction on the basis of knowledge alone.

I appreciate that the test for the acquisition offence in current legislation is actual knowledge, but in the case of concealment—with regard to which Opposition Members are also suggesting alterations—the current test provides for reasonable grounds for suspicion. That is a lower test than suspicion itself.

Although the acquisition, possession and use offence is currently based on knowledge only, we cannot see any reason why we should not tidy up the provisions, and in so doing use a general approach to the mental element for all the offences based on actual knowledge or suspicion.

Mr. Hawkins: If the Minister were to table an amendment introducing the words ''reasonable

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grounds to believe or suspect,'' my hon. Friend and I, as well as, more importantly, the Law Society of England and Wales and the Law Society of Scotland would be happy. I hope that he will add that suggestion to what is already a lengthy list of issues that we have asked him to consider. He is entirely reasonable but, in light of what he has said, does he understand that, although he describes them as a lower test, those words would deal with the issue?

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Mr. Ainsworth: No, I do not want to do that, for good reasons. We are highly dissatisfied with the way in which matters operate currently. We want a sea change in how we deal with money laundering in this country. If that is the issue of principle on which we shall clash throughout this part of the Bill, let the arguments be up front so that we understand the situation.

Mr. Grieve: The Minister talks of a sea change. I want to stop crime, and the prevention of money laundering is important. It is worth while his bearing in mind that, if the system that is imposed becomes unworkable, it will create a parallel criminal legal system such as exists in some countries, Italy being one. In that country, people go to the crooked lawyer within the system to enable such transactions to be carried out. It may turn out under the clause that, far from limiting money laundering, it is facilitated. One of my worries is that the impact of such legislation would make it unworkable by those who are honest and legitimate.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman deftly flits around to justify his position. I am now no longer a tyrant and his only worry is that what I propose will be unworkable. That is not what the amendment is about. He is worried about what he said he was worried about—tyrannical legislation.

Mr. Grieve: Tyrants often turn out to be inefficient and ineffective. This is not the first time that that has happened. The imposition of burdens on individuals that go far beyond what is fair amounts to tyrannical legislation. Even having done that, I am not sure that the clause will meet the laudable objective that the Minister has in mind. Many tyrants are benevolent. I do not know in which category to put him, because I do not really think that he is a tyrant. I am sure that it was not his idea to come up with this clause to deal with money laundering.

Mr. Ainsworth: The poor old draftsman.

Mr. Hawkins: The Home Secretary.

Mr. Ainsworth: Aha.

Money laundering accurately describes the problem with which part 7 is concerned. It is the processes through which illegal money is passed, or washed, so that its origins are disguised and it assumes the appearance of legitimate funds. In 1999, the leading authority on money laundering, the Financial Action Task Force—which is based in Paris under the umbrella of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development—reported on the estimate provided by the International Monetary Fund and said that money laundering accounts for

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between 2 per cent. and 5 per cent. of the world's gross domestic product. That is the scale of the problem.

The good reputation of the United Kingdom as an international financial centre means that, when funds are accepted into our financial institutions, they are generally perceived to be clean. It is therefore an attractive target for launderers, which is why it is important to take strong measures to discourage criminals from using this country's financial services sector, and thereby protect our reputation for clean dealing and reduce the risk of money distortion and instability in the United Kingdom's financial markets.

Ian Lucas: Is it not relevant to consider that subsection (1) does not create the offence of a person simply holding money that he knows to be criminal? It states:

    ''A person commits an offence if he . . . conceals . . . disguises . . . converts . . . transfers . . . removes''.

The person must do something with money that he knows or suspects to be obtained dishonestly. That important point has not been addressed.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are addressing concealment. As I said, the clause must be read in conjunction with clause 329. The Opposition accept that. A person commits an offence if he takes action, such as concealing, disguising or converting the money, and he knows or suspects that the money is criminal property.

Mr. Grieve: This is another feature. The clause is worded redolently and is polemic. The clause refers to ''conceals'', ''disguises'', ''converts'', ''transfers'' and ''removes'', which are all words that sound nasty and unpleasant and are actions that should not be done—I agree with that. However, when we analyse the clause, the transfer of criminal property is the mere process, for example, in a house purchase in the United Kingdom, of handling or dealing with money in any way. The money need not have any criminal taint. I agree that the only person who is exempt is the person who holds the money, who should be ringing the National Criminal Intelligence Service to alert it that he holds the money, at which point he cannot go ahead with the transaction. We shall return to that later.

The fact that the words used have pejorative meanings does not mean that legitimate activities do not fall under the subsection. Disguising criminal property is, presumably, mixing criminal property with legitimate property, because that would effect its disguise. I am sure that the words were carefully chosen to sound like nasty activities, but they may apply to innocent and proper transactions involving legitimate money.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman seems to be obsessed with the idea that the tyrannical Home Secretary, draftsman or I drew up the words. If a tyrant exists, he exists in an international form because the words are taken from our international obligations under treaties to combat money laundering. He should modify his suspicions.

Mr. Hawkins: I understand entirely what the Minister said about the Financial Action Task Force. We support the body and its work, and I

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have studied it carefully. Does he understand that when international concepts are translated to United Kingdom law, one must remember the lengthy tradition of people being considered as innocent unless they have guilty knowledge, which was established by 100 years or more of English criminal law? Concepts of Napoleonic law cannot be imported wholesale into English law.

Mr. Ainsworth: We have stumbled on the problem, which arose because I said that the tyrant might be a foreigner, and might even be European. How dreadful. Let us get back to the facts.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham said, a person must take action on criminal property, and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said that that might be only a transfer. The definition of criminal property applies if a person

    ''knows or suspects that it constitutes or represents such a benefit.''

The offence is committed if the person knows or suspects that fact first and subsequently takes action. The hon. Gentleman wants to remove half that offence.

Mr. Stinchcombe: Can the Minister help me to uncover the precise scale of the policy decision that he took for the reasons that he set out? An analogous or similar provision is contained in the Theft Act 1978, as my hon. Friend will know. The provision criminalises handling stolen goods. Two mental elements are incorporated under that provision. First, a person must know or believe the goods to be stolen. Secondly, they must receive them dishonestly. The Bill goes further in both regards for the policy reasons that the Minister has given. It does so first by removing the word ''believes'' and incorporating the word ''suspects'', and secondly by removing the requirement for dishonest intention.

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