Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Johnson: I did not intend to speak, but I will because I have been so moved by the hon. Gentleman's remarks. His fascinating speech lasted about 40 minutes. It would have been listened to with great attention in Nigeria and elsewhere that he told us a lot about. He accused Conservative Members of being flippant and unbalanced in their presentation of views. He was being flippant in another direction and another sense. I want to take issue with his view of the world, which seems to be unremittingly pessimistic about human nature and the possibility of human goodness.

We heard an awful lot of stuff about how every banker and accountant in the City of London was corrupt. That was the gist of what the hon. Gentleman was saying. He does not seem to want to disown his general presentation, but throughout the past 29 sittings we have heard an unremittingly savage and depressing portrait of life in Pollok. There seems to be an endless Darwinian struggle there. He plays to the English stereotype of inner-city Glasgow, endlessly supplying us with accounts of people who must be presumed to be criminals, without there being any evidence to that conclusion. We have the impression of there being endless squabbles between smackheads snorting deep-fried Mars bars. I am sure that he does not mean to give that impression about his entire constituency.

John Robertson: I would hazard the guess that the hon. Gentleman has just made the case for my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok. Many people in Glasgow live in deprived areas that are plagued by drug dealers. I know that it is quite funny to say that, but some of us have to live with the repercussions, and that is not funny, believe me.

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3.15 pm

Mr. Johnson: I take that point very humbly and sincerely; indeed, that is the point that I was making. It is a tragedy that drug dealing goes on in such cities. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok errs in having us believe that everyone is as guilty as some of his constituents are. He would have us believe that every tanning studio or parlour is a drug-ridden place and that everyone who is found with large amounts of money on their person must be culpable.

Ian Lucas: Is it too much to expect someone who suspects that money has been criminally obtained to disclose that fact?

Mr. Johnson: That is the very point to which I was coming. Of course it is not too much to expect someone who genuinely has the fully formed idea that money is tainted or criminally obtained to disclose it. The amendment would ensure that we do not capture those who are innocent under the Bill. All that I wish to suggest is that there are reputable accountants, solicitors and lawyers in Pollok, just as there are reputable people across the country who might be caught out by badly drafted legislation.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): The hon. Gentleman may remember that a couple of weeks ago—it feels like a year and a half ago—the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said that, despite the fact that many pieces of legislation issued under different Governments over many years have tried to clamp down on the problems that the Bill aims to solve, the fight was being lost. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the Committee whether he believes that the amendment will strengthen or weaken the Bill, and whether it will make us more or less likely to win that fight?

Mr. Johnson: It has been the central contention of Opposition Members throughout the day that the amendment would strengthen the Bill, as it would make it more effective and more likely to catch the truly pernicious influences in constituencies such as Glasgow, Pollok—and, indeed, in my constituency, which in many ways is not that different from Pollok.

Ian Lucas: Will the hon. Gentleman please explain how the amendment would strengthen the Bill?

Mr. Johnson: It would make it less easy for highly paid lawyers to get clients off the hook, and it would make the Bill more transparent, as it would be evident beyond peradventure that you cannot be done for money laundering unless you know that the money that you are concealing, disguising, converting or transferring is criminal property. The amendment would serve that purpose well.

The Chairman: Order. When the hon. Gentleman refers to ''you'' he is referring to me. That is a new series of crimes for my book. In past Committees, I have been accused of everything from money laundering through Rachmanism to murder, so the hon. Gentleman is not alone.

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Mr. Harris: The hon. Member for Henley has shown great patience in giving way, for which I am grateful. Does he believe that existing legislation has failed because it was too tough, or because it was too lenient? Does he believe that the tide can be changed in the direction that the Committee wants by creating loopholes to get professionals off the hook in court?

Mr. Johnson: I do not believe that anybody on the Committee would want to approve legislation that caught innocent people and sent the wrong people to prison. I sincerely accept that previous legislation may not have been as successful as it might have been. However, that does not justify our pushing through legislation that is badly drafted, and it would be a great irresponsibility to do so. It is therefore right to make an amendment to protect not the many, many guilty people in Pollok and elsewhere, but those who might be innocent. As I understand it, that is the purpose of the amendment. It is civilised and judicious, and we should agree to it.

Vera Baird (Redcar): I cannot seriously believe that any of the lawyers on the Opposition Benches believe that the amendment is sufficient. I am sure that I have heard it said several times that ''knowingly'' would be inappropriate. It is very difficult to prove that someone knows something. I suspect that the hon. Member for Spectator, South is talking out of the back of his neck when he recommends the amendment. I do not believe that it is consistent with the comments of Opposition spokesmen, who have been discussing the difference between suspicion and belief. It has been made clear that if ''suspicion'' were changed to ''belief'', they would be happy. I do not agree, and I do not support the amendment.

I want to put right something that has been said that is wrong—that my amiable Friend the Minister is a tyrant, because he is widening the state of mind necessary in order to be guilty of a criminal offence involving drug-trafficking money or money laundering. He has done that by making it easier to secure a conviction.

This morning, when I was musing about the comparison with handling stolen goods, which is inappropriate, because that is a completely different sort of offence, I wondered what the current law on money laundering and drug trafficking requires as a state of mind. I therefore read it over lunch, because I am a sad character.

Section 49 of the Drug Trafficking Act 1994 currently covers the offence that the clause will cover—concealing, disguising, converting or transferring property, or moving it out of the jurisdiction. That is the same offence. We lawyers should have a self-denying ordinance about speaking in Latin. We should stop talking about mens rea and inter vivos gifts and all the other terribly exclusive ways of talking designed to exclude from the discussion people who are not members of the club. That is why I shall talk about state of mind, rather than mens rea.

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The state of mind necessary for the current offence of concealing, disguising, converting or transferring property is that a person is guilty of that offence if knowing or having reasonable grounds to suspect that the property is part of drugs trafficking.

Mr. Grieve: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Vera Baird: I shall finish my point. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman rises because he understands my point. Mens rea now is wider than the provision that we are introducing. People need not suspect that the stuff is dodgy money. They may be quite oblivious to whether it is dodgy, or indeed believe that it is not. If another person would believe that it was, because there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that, the person would be guilty, even if they never suspected it. That is a very draconian provision. Only about five minutes ago, I wrote down, accurately, what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said, which was that he supported entirely the existing law on money laundering and drug trafficking. He therefore seems to be in favour of the existing, draconian provision, not the better one that the tyrant is trying to introduce.

Mr. Grieve: There were a few moments this morning when the hon. Lady was not present in the Committee. I cannot remember whether she was present when we discussed clause 323, but I was more concerned about that. I said that although I could see the force of the argument in respect of clause 321, it was the combination of that with clause 323 that caused me particular concern. Unless I have misunderstood, clause 323, as it is currently drafted with regard to the state of mind, introduces an offence that is almost identical, if not rather wider in scope, than handling stolen goods, while at the same time introducing a different and lesser test.

Vera Baird: I want to address clause 323. I appreciate that we are discussing an amendment that has been conveniently taken now, and that deals with the issues about the use of the word ''knowingly'' in that clause. However, there is another discussion to be had about the clause, and in that I will find myself in the unusual position of trying to beef up the legislation, rather than water it down.

Mr. Grieve: In the old legislation, the provision operates within a restricted framework, because it is principally targeted at people who are subject to the regulatory framework, so it does not apply to every citizen of this country. However, clause 321 applies to every citizen.

 
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Prepared 17 January 2002