Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Grieve: Let me make two points to the Minister. First, will he consider the position if the amendment were accepted? Sometimes, I get the impression that he thinks that that would mean that no prosecution could ever succeed. I think the contrary. Every day of the week, juries must decide whether a person knew or suspected something. It is unreal to suggest that securing a conviction would be an insurmountable obstacle, especially given the guidance rules that the Minister intends to introduce. I think that people would be convicted.

Secondly, the Minister mentioned that 18,000 disclosures a year occur at present. However, only 100 prosecutions a year arise from those disclosures. There is not a paucity of disclosure in respect of enforcement proceedings that are taken at present. It has also been suggested to me that the current rate of disclosure is higher than 18,000 a year. Can he confirm the current rate before the end of the sitting?

Mr. Ainsworth: If the hon. Gentleman has information that counters mine, he had better tell us where it comes from. My information is that the disclosure rate was running at 18,000 a year up to 2000, which is when the last viable figures were published. Those figures run back to 1993.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister challenges us to say where our information comes from. He will realise that experts at the sharp end are following carefully our proceedings from beyond the Bar. I do not wish to be disrespectful to him, but it has been put to us that the position that he has set out in his initial remarks is ''absolute nonsense''. He suggested that the incidence of reports had remained static for decades. In fact, the graph shows a dramatic rise since 1993; roughly 30,000 last year; a huge rise since 11 September; and probably 40,000 next year, even if the law does not change. The real problem is the disparity between the number of

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reports and the number of prosecutions—of which there have, perhaps, been under 100. That clearly demonstrates that the current situation does not justify the Minister's position.

Mr. Ainsworth: When someone wants to say something really derogatory, they always begin by remarking, ''I do not want to insult the Minister in any way.''

The hon. Gentleman is saying that there has been a big increase in reports of money laundering since 11 September, and that that punches a hole in my argument. Well, my, my. If his case rests on that, it will not stand up to scrutiny, and there is no need to address it in detail.

People have been made ultra-alert about money laundering by the massive press coverage of the links between terrorism and organised crime since the events of 11 September. The general public, as well as people who work in the financial sector, have learned about it, and that has led to a substantial increase in reports of money laundering. If that had not been the case I would have been very surprised, and so would the hon. Gentleman.

However, if the hon. Gentleman is saying that there has been a steady increase in reports throughout the 1990s, that does not tally with the information that I have received, which indicates that the numbers were steady until 2000 but that, as one would expect, there has been a substantial rise in the past year.

Mr. Hawkins: I made it clear that I was quoting the Law Society of England and Wales, because it represents the experts who operate at the sharp end. It states that since 1993 there has been not merely a steady rise, but a dramatic rise in reports of money laundering. It describes the Minister's suggestion that the figure had remained static for decades as absolute nonsense, because it is not borne out by the facts. To point that out is to criticise the content of the Minister's speech, rather than to criticise him personally.

The people at the sharp end tell us of a dramatic rise since 1993, and an even more dramatic rise—for the reasons given by the Minister—since 11 September 2001. I suggest that the Minister should get his officials to check his facts, because he is plainly wrong.

Mr. Ainsworth: I will do that—but if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not bother to check whether there has been a dramatic increase since 11 September, because it is clear that there has.

Mr. Hawkins: I am not disputing that.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am being told that there was a steady rise from 1994 to 2000. However, it is questionable whether the figures in such reports are all that should be examined. Those reports come from relatively few organisations, which perform that responsibility with diligence, but there are many other institutions that report very little—if at all—under the current regulations, and there is reasonable suspicion to believe that money is laundered through some of them.

In effect, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield is asking us to accept that if we agree to the amendment

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and raise the test, it will still be possible to secure prosecutions. He is right about that. However, he cannot argue that his amendment would have no effect. He openly and honestly admitted that it would remove the suspicion test from people working within the regulated sector. Therefore, the prosecution would be obliged to show that someone had suspicion.

Mr. Grieve: I know what the Minister is saying, but he has not got it right. The test would still be ''knows or suspects''; it would not just be a question of knowledge. I am prepared to make the concession, about which I had anxieties earlier, of leaving the word ''suspects'' in the Bill.

Mr. Foulkes: You lost that one.

Mr. Grieve: I do not know whether I lost it. I lost it in terms of putting the matter to the vote, but whether I lost the argument is another matter. I am prepared to concede that the word ''suspects'' should be in the Bill, precisely because I appreciate the Minister's point that it will still be incumbent on the court to show that the person did suspect, not that he ought to have suspected, which is how the Minister wishes the legislation to be drawn. The purpose of the amendment is to prevent injustice—to prevent somebody from being sent to prison for an omission when he did not have a guilty mind.

Mr. Ainsworth: I think that the matter is clear. I may be using different language from that used by the hon. Gentleman, but it is clear that he wants to raise the threshold in relation to the test of ''knows or suspects'', whereas we are saying that if the person knows or suspects, or had reasonable grounds to suspect, he should be liable. There is not a lot of point in my continuing—

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): Lost the will to live.

Mr. Ainsworth: Indeed. Our reasons are that we believe that there ought to be an obligation for the institutions and for people who work within the financial sector to operate at a higher level than many of them work at the moment. By introducing such a threshold, we will require them to do so. I am sad that the Opposition do not share our objective.

Mr. Carmichael: I hesitate to become embroiled in an argument among Labour lawyers, but I commend to the Minister the argument of the hon. Member for Wellingborough about the effect of the third condition on an offence of negligence. As he said, that third condition can never, by definition, be satisfied. He was making a drafting point, rather than one of substance about the offence of negligence. It seems to me that it is a good point, and should be given further consideration.

As the hon. Members for Wellingborough, for Wirral, West and for Redcar tried to intervene on the Minister, I was reminded of the old adage that when one is up to one's elbows in alligators, it is difficult to remember that one came to drain the swamp. I fear that we are in danger of losing sight of the purpose of the provision. This part of the Bill will be pivotal to its effectiveness. Although I am attracted by the general thrust of the arguments advanced by the hon. Member

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for Beaconsfield, I am not persuaded by them. That is for one special reason—we are dealing not with the general public or the man on the Clapham omnibus, but the regulated sector.

Mr. Grieve: We may be dealing with the regulated sector, but the Bill would also cover the cleaning lady who hears something in the lift. She would be working in the regulated sector because of the nature of her employment.

Mr. Carmichael: I would be very surprised if that were the case. My understanding is that to be considered as working in the regulated sector, one would have to be carrying on a job, occupation or profession directly related to it, which would require some kind of professional accreditation. With respect, but not with all due respect—he is not yet in that much trouble—I have to say that the hon. Gentleman does his arguments a disservice by introducing ideas of that sort.

12.45 pm

Mr. Grieve: I may be wrong, but the clause mentions

    ''a business in the regulated sector.''

If I were to work in such a business in an ancillary capacity, although I might be cleaning or catering, I would still be working in that business. If I am wrong about that, the hon. Gentleman or the Minister could put me right. My impressions from reading the clause were that it applies to businesses and not to people, and that the provisions cover anyone working in a business in the regulated sector.

The Chairman: Order. We seem to be straying from the point. The issues to which the hon. Gentleman refers seem more relevant to amendment No. 97 than to amendment No. 487. We have gone round this circuit many times.

Mr. Carmichael: I am obliged to you for saying that, Mr. O'Brien. The Minister can address those points later.

Under the clause, Parliament grants the regulated sector many special rights. Every right, as all students of jurisprudence will remember, has a correlative obligation. If the regulated sector is given special rights, it must have special obligations. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield referred to the vast size of the sector and said, quite reasonably, that people will miss things. Both those points are right, and as we need effective legislation to control the regulated sector, both can be used as arguments in favour of including an offence of negligence, as can amendments Nos. 487 and 524.

I am no more persuaded about amendment No. 524, which would leave out the word ''suspecting'' and insert the words ''reasonably believing'', than I am about amendment No. 487. The wording of amendment No. 524 is exceptionally inelegant, and I do not understand its effect or what practical difference it would make. Amendments should at the very least be meaningful. If we were to delete the words that amendment No. 487 suggests that we

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should, we would create immense difficulties concerning proof. That would be a retrograde step away from the meaningful enforcement of the Bill.

We are dealing with a sector that will be pivotal to the Bill, and with a part of the Bill that could really make a difference. This is one occasion on which I am prepared to put aside my liberal instincts for the moment. In this case—and in this case only—the Minister may have got it right.

 
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