Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Vera Baird: The hon. Member for Beaconsfield is right about the derivation of the test in section 93B(1), but I am not sure why that history is important, bearing in mind what has been done now. Last week the Minister made clear what has happened: the two tests have been put together. The test that I concentrated on was wider, and the other, which the hon. Gentleman forgot to concentrate on last time, was narrower. Now, they are consistent with each other. Is there anything wrong with that?

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Lady makes a good point. However, I do not want the discussion to go by default. It seems that there was a purpose behind the test, and I hazard a guess that that was an anxiety about interfering and producing a different test from that for handling stolen goods. The crime of handling stolen goods may be committed in two ways. I fully accept that there seems to be an incompatibility with the second way, which is much closer to the section 93B test, because it is closer to money laundering. I find it extraordinary that a straightforward knowledge test was included when the 1993 Act was enacted. That test is much closer to the straightforward handling of stolen goods. I cannot help but think that that is because there was no wish to create an obvious conflict with a similar offence under which the same activity could be charged, using a different test from that commonly used for the handling of stolen goods. The draftsman may have seen fit to draw a distinction between that and the separate offence of assisting in a dishonest realisation of goods.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): Is not the key distinction between the present offence and the offence of handling stolen goods that one can avoid the present offence by simply making a disclosure? That is where the hon. Gentleman's analogy falls down.

Mr. Grieve: I accept that it is possible to avoid the offence by making a disclosure. If someone were to acquire property that they suspected was criminal property, and immediately reported their suspicions to the police, it would be surprising if they were charged with handling stolen goods—although strictly speaking, they might have committed that offence.

Although I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, I do not entirely accept it. I am the first to accept that the legislation was intended to deal with a problem different from that of handling stolen goods—as were the amendments to the Criminal Justice Act 1988. If we went out in the street and asked people to define money laundering, they would mention people who take funny money—in cash, or in a different form—and recycle it so that it becomes legitimate. If we asked

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them to explain what is meant by the phrase ''handling stolen goods'', they would refer to people in pubs who trade in illegal videos—or jewels, silver, or whatever. I accept that the thrust of the legislation goes in two different directions.

11.15 am

The hon. Member for Redcar correctly pointed out that there are also analogous provisions in the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986. However, drug trafficking offences seldom involve stolen property. They involve the proceeds of illicit transactions in drugs, and that moves them into a completely separate category.

When the draftsmen put the test of ''knowing'' into section 93B of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, they knew what they were doing. However, the Committee is going to get rid of that, because we are insisting on a test of ''knowing or suspecting''.

I want the Government to describe how they foresee the relationship between clause 323 and the offence of handling stolen goods. The Bill does not propose to repeal the relevant section of the Theft Act 1968; that will remain on the statute book. If the Minister were contemplating repealing it, we could have a discussion about that relationship.

With regard to the bringing of prosecutions, people quickly cotton on to the available legislative framework, so it is highly likely that the offence of handling stolen goods will wither on the vine. I have already made that point, but it bears repeating. In relevant circumstances, a prosecutor will tell the Crown Prosecution Service that it no longer needs to use that offence, because someone who handles stolen goods can be charged with acquisition, use or possession under the money-laundering provisions of the Proceeds of Crime Bill, which for a conviction to be secured, require a test to be satisfied that is lower than that for the legislation on handling stolen goods.

It is not unusual for offences to be susceptible to different charges. If someone gets killed on a building site, the person responsible for that site might be charged with manslaughter, or with breach of section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, if the deceased was their employee—or with breach of section 3, if they were not an employee. Alternatively, that person could be charged with a breach of the regulations—although a problem might arise in the Crown Court with regard to the relationship between the regulations and the substantive offence under the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Those offences have different penalties, but with regard to the subject under discussion, it appears to me that there will not be a difference in outcome. That is a key point. We should not muddle the criminal law by adding extra tiers without providing clarification. We have heard endlessly from criminal law review commissions about how Parliament is constantly multiplying the criminal law of this country, and the urgent need for simplification. Indeed, there have been demands for codification of the entire criminal law in a

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new compendium, which I would welcome, even though it would take a Committee of the House rather a long time—and I have a horrible sense that I may have just volunteered to serve on it were that to happen.

Such simplification is urgently needed—and now we are creating a duplicate offence with a dissimilar test. I shall listen carefully to the Minister's comments. I have not made up my mind whether I want to resist the incorporation of clause 323 as an issue of principle. I am open to persuasion to leave it in, as it has a great deal of merit and can produce all sorts of good things. However, I hope that the Minister will accept that I am genuinely unhappy. He may have been be commended by the hon. Member for Redcar for introducing consistency between the different clauses in the Bill, compared with the different pre-existing provisions, but that consistency has been produced at the expense of inconsistency with pre-existing legislation. The pre-existing legislation of the Criminal Justice Act 1993 appears so muddled precisely because of the draftsman's anxiety not to stray too far out of line with the offence of handling under the Theft Act 1968—I can think of no other logical reason.

I wait with interest to hear from the Minister. I am sure that he will be a ''verray, gentil parfit knyght'' in this matter, but I say to the hon. Member for Redcar that it is possible to be a verray, gentil parfit knyght and serve a bad master. I suspect that the knight described by Chaucer served King Richard II, who, as is well known, embarked on a period of tyranny during his reign.

Vera Baird: I think that it is a ''verray, parfit gentil knyght''. The hon. Gentleman must get his quotations the right way round.

I have forgotten what I was going to say—

Mr. Hawkins: On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. The hon. Lady was so keen to insult my hon. Friend's lack of knowledge of Chaucer that she forgot what she was going to say.

Mr. Grieve: Far from it. The hon. Lady was, properly, so carried away by my literary infelicity that she wished to correct that, and probably nothing else.

Vera Baird: I have remembered what I meant to say.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield is mixing this up with the issue of handling stolen goods, but he knows that there are differences, and he has pointed some of them out. There will be some overlap—for instance, in relation to the proceeds of a robbery, if money were involved. I suspect that the application will be only to money in relation to an offence. Will not the interpretation be governed, or at least influenced, by the heading of part 7: ''Money Laundering''? What the hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing—this is where I cannot follow his logic—is that knowing, which is the test in the old law, should be the test in the new law. However, he subsequently agreed that his amendment was inadequate when I was being slightly critical of the intervention by the hon. Member for Henley

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(Mr. Johnson), who was supporting the amendment without mentioning anything else.

Both the Conservative spokesmen seem to agree with me that ''knowing'' was an inadequate test. I would have thought that, as a seasoned pair of lawyers, they would recognise the impossibility of being able to apply the word ''knowingly'' in many situations to which the provision ought to apply. I am puzzled as to why the hon. Gentleman suggests that ''knowing'' is the test for handling stolen goods, when the test is much wider—it is knowing or believing, or dishonesty.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who makes a good point. Under the Criminal Justice Act 1993, the word used is ''knowingly'', which is the expression that we are trying to reintroduce. That is precisely the test. It is not knowing or believing; it is knowing. I have not heard a detailed critique from the Minister about any difficulty that the prosecution authorities have had in applying it, but he may be able to tell me whether that has happened.

The hon. Lady is right to say that the test is not identical to the one in respect of handling, but it is sufficiently proximate to have removed the anxiety that may have existed at the time. If the phrase ''knowing or suspecting'' was based on different tests, two offences would have been created. In his reply, the Minister may be able to persuade me that I am wrong, and that either the draftsman in 1993 did not know what he was doing, or there is a different explanation of why the different tests were introduced. That subject merits care. There is much to be said for trying to introduce conformity throughout the Bill, but we must be mindful of the knock-on effects of our decisions. I wait to hear the Minister's reply.

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