Proceeds of Crime Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Grieve: This has been—and is—a fascinating debate because, as I am the first to accept, new ideas have come to mind as it has developed. I am prepared to be swayed by arguments that are put forward. There are different ways to examine the problem, and I was impressed by the speech by the hon. Member for Wrexham about how he operated under the previous regime.

I tend to agree that people would be in a good position to pick up suspicion in a well organised institution that is financially regulated. I can see that suspicions may be justified as grounds to communicate with the authorities for which the Bill provides. That said, we shall return to the absence of de minimis provisions and the lack of clarity in respect of gaining consent to continue with a transaction when the authorities have been notified. That will undoubtedly raise procedural issues of immense complexity. I tend to hold the same view as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster: that the over-burdening that the provision will cause is something to which we must pay some attention, if not through the amendment that we are discussing, then later in our proceedings.

We cannot run away from the fact that, as drafted, the Bill goes much further than the regulated financial sector. It covers everybody. [Hon. Members: ''Hear, hear.''] Fine, but the Committee must consider the circumstances in which the Bill could apply to individuals who are unlikely to have read part 7 of the Proceeds of Crime Act and will not know about authorised disclosure under section 328. If asked my opinion, I encourage people to open bank accounts, but many people in the country do not have bank accounts.

Mr. Foulkes: They are not millionaires.

Mr. Field: Let us imagine that someone says to a friend, ''I have just earned £250 in cash. Can you put it in your bank account for me and keep it there?'' Such a situation would be covered by the clause if the money was criminal property, and the test would be suspicion.

Mr. Hawkins: I want to point out, before his sedentary comment is lost and not recorded in Hansard, that the Minister of State, Scotland Office observed that those who do not have bank accounts

Column Number: 1003

do not have millions of pounds either. On the contrary, both my hon. Friend and I have met many people, particularly those who may belong to the traveller, gypsy or Romany community—many of whom live in the two constituencies that I have represented—who do not have bank accounts, but who have large sums of money. Some of those people are not unknown to the constabulary for financial offences.

Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend makes a good point, which brings me back to what I said earlier about branding individuals as people of whom we should be suspicious. It is a serious issue. The Government are inclusive and say that we should not discriminate against people, yet that is one of the things that the provisions invite us to do.

Mr. Stinchcombe: I wish to take the hon. Gentleman back to the point that he made before his hon. Friend intervened. If someone asked him to put money into his bank account that he suspected was stolen, would he not just say no?

Mr. Grieve: If I suspected that the money was stolen, of course I would not agree to such action. I am concerned about the justification for changing the test of criminality with regard to handling stolen property. I also have to face up to the fact that I am a barrister. I have had 20 years in practice and the grounds on which I would suspect someone who handed me money to put into my bank account and the grounds of an individual who has not had the same professional career may be different.

The law has been put together over many years, and it has often been designed to protect the weak, the inadequate and the foolish. As we are discussing the amendment to clause 323 as well as the amendment to clause 321, we are addressing whether to change the standard of proof in relation to the handling of stolen property.

If the Bill is enacted as it is, the offence of handling stolen goods might wither on the vine. A lawyer who wishes to convict someone for what we regard as the normal offence of handling stolen goods would, if asked, have to advise the Crown Prosecution Service that a conviction would be more likely if clause 323 were invoked, rather than the other definition of the offence, because two different tests of the same offence would now be on the statute book.

There was no mention of that in the preliminary discussions about the Bill. I do not remember the Minister saying that an accidental consequence of dealing with money laundering—which people consider to be an offence that principally relates to financial institutions—would be that the general criminal law would be impinged upon in this way. Yet that is what will happen.

I do not remember the Minister offering any substantive comment about the amendment to clause 323—although, in fairness to him, we did not address that in detail. However, amendments to clauses 321 and 323 have ramifications that go much further than the regulated financial sector. If we were dealing solely with that sector, I would have greater sympathy with the Minister's position.

Column Number: 1004

The Committee could approach the matter in several ways. The Minister could undertake to look again at the tests in clauses 321 and 323, and perhaps come back on Report and say that he wishes to retain the tests for clause 321, but not those for clause 323. Alternatively, he might come back and say that he is prepared to consider limiting the tests to the financial sector—although it is clear that a policy decision was taken to go far beyond that sector.

The Minister might also enlighten us about how, in the light of clause 323, the Government view the future of the offence of handling stolen goods. I have heard nothing about that. Will there be a discretionary choice, so that if the offence is thought to be money laundering, in the sense that the layman might understand that, the prosecution would take place under clause 323, but that the traditional test for handling stolen goods would apply to, for example, the illegal trading in videos in pubs? I do not know the answer to that, because the Minister has not enlightened us about the matter.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman sometimes makes life difficult for himself by changing his thought processes in mid-stream, and by leaping ahead in the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we are discussing two amendments to different clauses, but we are dealing with both of them. We will discuss further amendments to clause 323 and, if the Chairman allows it, there will also be a substantive stand part debate on that clause.

I can deal only with the amendments that the Opposition have tabled, and they remove the suspicion test—as does the entire thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument.

The substantive response that the hon. Gentleman offered to the questions that he was asked was that he would not do the wrong thing, but certain other people would. I am amazed that he thinks that there are people who ought to be able to pay money into their bank accounts even though they suspect that it is criminal property, and to say nothing about it. He does not want the test to apply to barristers, but he does want it to apply to lower forms of life. It is he, rather than us, who is being discriminatory.

Mr. Grieve: I find the Minister's final comment astonishing.

Mr. Ainsworth: I find what the hon. Gentleman said astonishing.

Mr. Grieve: I was always brought up to believe that one of the things that one had to consider carefully, with regard to the application of the criminal law, was the way that it would impact, not on oneself, but on people who might not enjoy similar advantages in terms of education, professional background or breadth of knowledge. It is such a central philosophical principle that I am appalled to hear the Minister denigrate it in such a cheap fashion.

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. However, will he give an example of the kind of person who puts money into his bank account, when he suspects that it is criminal property, and is not

Column Number: 1005

subject to the law for so doing? What kind of person should be able to do that?

Mr. Foulkes: Absolutely.

Mr. Grieve: We are replacing knowing and believing with knowing and suspecting.

Mr. Ainsworth: No answer.

11.15 am

Mr. Grieve: We are making a fundamental change to the criminal law without an adequate explanation of the difference between those two tests, although it is glaringly apparent that suspecting is a much lower test than believing. Moreover, the construction of the clause alters the mens rea of the offence.

I can think of circumstances in which a person might take money from another and hold it in his bank account on the other's behalf. The individual might say, ''I certainly did not know that it was criminal property.'' However, the Minister must remember that the suspecting test will be based not on the comments of the defendant, but on the conclusion that the court reaches on his actions. Why should the protection of belief, which has been in our law for a very long time, suddenly be removed from every citizen of this country by a Bill that concentrates on dealing with those in the City who have the knowledge and expertise to make the necessary disclosures, protect themselves and decide on their suspicions? I am not satisfied with that, and the Minister has not adequately dealt with the issue.

If the provision were restricted to the regulated financial sector, I would be prepared to be convinced that such a major change was desirable, although I would still have anxieties about it. However, given that the Bill extends the provision to every person in the country, I require much more persuasion.

Mr. Hawkins: As my hon. Friend knows, I agree 100 per cent. with what he has been saying.

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 17 January 2002