Proceeds of Crime Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Hawkins: I accept that the Minister's explanation is helpful. He said that the measure would be used only in the most complex cases. Even though Ministers give certain assurances and say that that is how matters will normally proceed and that guidance will be available to ensure that that is so, we must be careful that the wording in the Bill that could apply more widely is absolutely right and goes only so far as is proportionate. That is my argument, and that of the hon. Member for Lewes. It is easy to say that the provision will be used only in such cases, but there would be no restriction under the Bill unless the amendment were accepted.

Mr. Ainsworth: The restriction under the Bill is the fact that the disclosure orders must be first approved by the judicial authority. As the hon. Gentleman probably knows better than me, the argument about the European convention on human rights concerns proportionality. The justification for the issuing of the order meets his point. That is not missing from the Bill.

The amendment as drafted would apply to both civil recovery and confiscation investigations. It would mean that a disclosure order could not be made in a confiscation investigation, since the concept of ''recoverable property'' applies only to part 5. We believe that the provisions ensure that the disclosure order will be made only when appropriate and proportionate. The amendment would reduce the effectiveness of the order and the director's ability to obtain the information that he needs. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

5.15 pm

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I shall be brief, as we have discussed the clause in some detail. There is no doubt that disclosure orders are intrusive, and Opposition Members have reiterated their strong concerns on the subject. I instinctively feel great concern about the idea of the large-scale use of disclosure orders on innocent people. People may subsequently prove to be guilty of all sorts of crimes, but it is only with strong safeguards that the court should be able to impose on the accused the duty to disclose their financial affairs and details of their property.

The three subsections of clause 347 offer the scope, at least, for a fishing expedition. I appreciate that, as the Minister says, in general there is little doubt that a British court would take an appropriate and proportionate approach, but that is why the hon. Member for Lewes wanted to insert a new subsection. It is easy to trust the courts, and in the great majority of cases there would be no issue at stake. However, if we are simply to rely on the wording, that is all the more reason to firm it up as proposed.

I would feel more comfortable if the court had to

    be satisfied that the information is directly connected to determining whether someone is in possession of recoverable property and to any offence through which that property was obtained.

Column Number: 1243

That would provide a sort of safeguard, but would not water the provisions down or make the process more difficult. Above all, the safeguard would mean that there would be no room for lawyers to make a big argument based on the European convention on human rights if there were some sort of dispute.

As the Minister has rightly said, it is important that a disclosure order is made only when it is relevant and of substantive value, but the important question is, to which investigation should it be made? My grave concern is that the provision could be used as a fishing expedition not only for the investigation in hand, but for future investigations involving people who may be subject to other charges in future. For that reason, Opposition Members would feel more comfortable with the idea proposed in the amendment. I am a little sorry that the Minister does not see some merit in the arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) and the hon. Member for Lewes, who moved the amendment.

Mr. Davidson: I speak as a critical friend of the Minister. I would like to respond to points made earlier by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, whom I hope to see at 9 pm at the annual general meeting and at 9.30 for training in the bar.

Mr. Hawkins: May I say—without infringing on your patience, I hope, Mr. Gale—that I have already made it known that I propose to be in Room 19 at 9 o'clock to propose the hon. Gentleman's re-election as captain of the Lords and Commons rugby club? He has my word on that.

Mr. Davidson: I am grateful for that. I understand that the hon. Gentleman might bring the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) with him, and I look forward to hearing about his Ugandan adventures.

The Chairman: Order. I am not sure what disclosures are likely to take place in Room 19—indeed, I shudder to think what they may be—but I am certain that they have nothing to do with the subject under discussion.

Mr. Davidson: The way to find out about the disclosures is to be there at 9 o'clock.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath confused style and substance. The Liberals' proposal was made in a cuddly, innocuous, soft-centred and liberalish way, but that does not mean that its effect would not be malignant. Again, I notice that only two of the three Liberals on the Committee are here. That makes me sorry that they did not give one of their places to the Scottish National party, which is regrettably absent from these discussions.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) regrets the fact that disclosure orders are intrusive—but they are designed to be so. That is the point of the orders. Frankly, I favour fishing expeditions. If there were more of them, more of the guilty would be caught, and more of my constituents whose lives are poisoned by drugs and drug dealers would stay alive.

Mr. Wilshire: The hon. Gentleman is going back over old territory, so perhaps he should be asked to go back over the riposte that is bound to follow. Does he

Column Number: 1244

not agree that fishing expeditions would also infringe the rights of the innocent?

Mr. Davidson: In some circumstances they might, but that takes us back to the question of a balance. I am prepared for a large number of people to be inconvenienced if that is necessary to save a small number of lives. We have to take those issues on board.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster mentioned trusting the courts, but I do not trust the courts. They are too full of people who would have agreed with the hon. Member for Henley when he said the other day that he saw all this as ''sneaking''. That is the public-school mentality, whereby an Englishman's home is his castle. Those who hold that view feel that it is inappropriate to intrude in any way, and that the information should not be provided to the state. I have some sympathy with that view in the normal order of things, but we are not dealing with normal issues. These are matters of life and death, and I very much regret the fact that the Liberals are trying to place another hurdle in the way of obtaining information.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): Having been provoked several times, I feel that the hon. Gentleman is inciting me to ask him to explain his objection to this extremely sensible Liberal Democrat amendment, which is designed only to link the information to whether someone has recoverable property, and to any offence through which that property was obtained. In a few crisp sentences readily intelligible in Glasgow, Pollok and everywhere else, can he say precisely how the amendment would weaken clause 347? I should be delighted to hear that.

Mr. Davidson: My hon. Friend the Minister explained that very well, and it would be inappropriate for me to waste the Committee's time by repeating the arguments. On this issue, I want to be a friend of the Minister and to say that he presented his brief well. My reservation relates to the words ''substantial value'', which appear both in the amendment and the clause. I wonder why that is the hurdle. I would have thought that information discovered often turns out to be of substantial value, but is not always recognised as such when it is being sought. As a result of information discovered, the investigation may take a different route.

Including the word ''substantial'' creates a higher hurdle than is desirable in public policy terms, given the scale of the issues with which we are dealing. I would be grateful if the Minister would clarify why ''substantial'' is the test and not simply whether something is ''of value''.

Mr. Ainsworth: I accept that the powers are intrusive. They will be available only to the director, and the necessary safeguards are adequate. The director should be required to show the judge who issues the order that it is necessary and of substantial value to his investigation, and he should not be allowed to have one if it is not. I am sorry if my hon. Friend feels that that makes me inappropriately soft, but we should have safeguards to prevent such orders from being used too widely and inappropriately. The

Column Number: 1245

amendment would limit the court's ability to use that discretion, and would place a restriction on the director by making him link the property with the criminal conduct. As I repeatedly said in discussing part 5, he will not always be able to do that.

Norman Baker: This has been an interesting debate, like many in this Committee. I am delighted to have been called moderate, reasonable and cuddly, among other epithets, all of which are absolutely accurate.

Mr. Davidson: Innocuous.

Norman Baker: I am sure that the Hansard record will not show that.

The Chairman: Order. Hansard does not record comments made from a sedentary position.

Mr. Davidson: On a point of order, Mr. Gale. Is it in order for you to make such a comment? My understanding is that Hansard will record sedentary interventions if they are responded to, so as the hon. Member for Lewes was sufficiently innocent to respond to the intervention, it will be recorded. If it was not recorded before, the fact that he is innocuous certainly will be on the record now.

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 29 January 2002