Proceeds of Crime Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Wilshire: I ask the Minister to clarify two things. He said that countries would have to be part of a convention. Will he give us examples of such conventions that he has in mind?

When I made my comments about designation, I suggested that I fully supported my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, but I also mentioned designated crimes. Although we may not want to designate Greece an alien country whose jurisdiction should not be trusted, we might want to exclude, for example, the Elgin marbles and the things that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley mentioned.

11.45 am

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not know what designations of crimes the hon. Gentleman has in mind, but the Bill clearly states that such activities would have to be criminal in the context of the UK. Perhaps he wants to draw a lesser line and state that in the case of some UK crimes we should not co-operate with foreign jurisdictions but in the case of others it is okay for us to do so. We should stick with the definition that the activity must be criminal in the UK in order to trigger such co-operation.

The hon. Gentleman asks for an idea of the conventions involved. The Council of Europe convention on laundering, search, seizure and confiscation of the proceeds of crime, and the United Nations convention of 1998 against illicit drugs and psychotropic substances are among the international obligations to which other countries have signed up and on which they are prepared to co-operate with us. We have been at the forefront, as I hope we would continue to be, regardless of which party was in government, of seeking further international co-operation in such matters.

Mr. Johnson: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Redcar for her elucidation of the point that the activity would have to constitute a criminal offence in the UK. The Iraqi Government would assert that theft of an effigy of Hammurabi would be criminal in any context, and that it was tantamount to taking Nelson from his column. I therefore do not believe that the Minister answered the point. The Iraqis would assert that such conduct was criminal in any context.

Mr. Ainsworth: I hope that the hon. Gentleman did not misconstrue what I said. I was trying to say that designation of countries would not necessarily save us from that. As I said, Iraq would almost certainly not be designated, but the Greek Government, which the hon. Member for Spelthorne mentioned, almost certainly would. The amendment would not save us from such dilemmas.

Column Number: 1362

The powers that we intend to operate in the UK under the Bill extend our ability to co-operate with others. The only way of guarding against that is case-by-case consideration of whether co-operation is appropriate. The Secretary of State will have to consider that, taking into account issues such as the public interest, national security and—the issue to which we return time and again in considering the Bill—ECHR compliance.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) wants spelled out in each clause the way in which it is ECHR compliant, but we may derive some benefits from having incorporated the ECHR into UK law. We can state that the Bill, like other measures, and ministerial considerations will have to be ECHR compliant.

An arrangement will have to be reached, whether through a multilateral convention or a bilateral agreement, and there will be case-by-case consideration of whether the particular co-operation being asked for fits in with the Bill and our domestic considerations and is appropriate in the circumstances.

Mr. Grieve: If I understand correctly the process that the Government will go through, they will not allow enforcement unless there is a bilateral agreement or a signatory to the convention is involved, and the standards are satisfied. Surely when that general satisfaction was arrived at, creating a designated list would not place a great burden on the Government or the enforcement system. It would simply ensure that the public were aware of which countries are so designated and which are not. That would allow the opportunity for public debate. I am ignorant about all the countries with which we have bilateral agreements, as I suspect are most members of the Committee. Designation provides an openness that otherwise we shall not have.

Mr. Ainsworth: I accept in principle the hon. Gentleman's point, but I do not want a cumbersome procedure whereby we are dilatory in carrying out our international obligations, and rather than being a driving force for change and improvement, we could be seen as a drag anchor because of the bureaucracy that we have imposed on ourselves.

The hon. Gentleman is right in so far that if we have such arrangements, be they bilateral or involving parties to conventions, there is no reason in principle why there should not be openness with those countries. I accept what he is saying and I shall reflect on whether that issue is currently covered. Treaties are laid before Parliament and parties to conventions are also made public by the Council of Europe and the United Nations. I do not know whether that is sufficient or if there is a way of drawing that process together to improve scrutiny of such arrangements without causing the bureaucratic procedures to which I referred. I am happy to give the matter some further thought.

Mr. Wilshire: The Minister tried to reassure me that designation was not necessary by reference to conventions, which is why I asked him for examples. Unfortunately for him, one of his examples was a Council of Europe initiative. It is also unfortunate for

Column Number: 1363

him that, until the previous election, I was a member of the delegation to the Assembly of the Council of Europe so I know a little about such matters. He may wish that I had stayed part of that delegation, which would have spared him some tedium. To say that a Council of Europe convention is an adequate argument for not wanting a designated country list does not stand up. I am well aware of some of the countries that sign up to Council of Europe conventions and I would be disturbed if being a signatory to a convention was an adequate justification for saying that the powers under the Bill could be used in favour of a foreign jurisdiction.

Let us take an example. Azerbaijan and Armenia are members of the Council of Europe and are signatories to all sorts of things. They are deeply involved in the disputes to which I have referred. It would be dangerous to say that, just because they had signed a convention, we could trade with them in such a way. Having been to Azerbaijan, I am not at all sure that I would wish to be involved in its court process. I have no confidence in it. I sincerely hope that we would not be using the powers of the British courts and those under the Bill to assist in disputes in that country.

Another example is territorial disputes and the confiscation, seizure and stealing of land. Cyprus may be among the list of countries that may be able to use the Council of Europe convention as an argument for allowing it to use our courts to further what are, in my judgment, political disagreements. The legislation is intended to stamp down on crime. We must guard against its being dragged into political or territorial disputes.

Mr. Ainsworth: I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's concerns about Azerbaijan. However, if someone similar to Abacha—who ripped off the state and laundered the money through British banks—were to rise to power in that country, surely the hon. Gentleman would want us to co-operate to deal with that? That would suggest the need not for designation but for examination case by case. Moreover, Azerbaijan would almost definitely be designated, so designation would not get around the problem that he raises, as I have tried to point out.

Mr. Wilshire: There is a difference between our trying to get hold of money in another country, and another country trying to get hold of property in this country. The Minister also cited the United Nations convention. It is often thought that every nation state on the planet is a member of the UN, which is not the case, and that every country signs up to such conventions, which is also not the case. At the last count, the Vatican City was not a signatory to the UN charter—although I am unsure whether that is still the case. Do we wish to exclude the Vatican City, while including some of the signatories from parts of the world where dictators reign supreme?

For a long while, Switzerland chose not to join the UN, on grounds of neutrality. I have not checked whether that is still the case, but if it is, a weird situation would arise with regard to money laundering, as we would have dealings with some of the countries that belong to the UN, but not with some of the

Column Number: 1364

countries that do not, even if many of the largest banks in the world are based there.

Mr. Grieve: The discussion has been interesting. I take on board the Minister's remarks on the procedure that exists with regard to bilateral agreements and conventions, but I still have anxieties.

I am not greatly concerned about whether something is a crime in a foreign country, because the criminal conduct provision in clause 432 should ensure that that problem does not arise. I am more concerned about the standard of the legal system in foreign countries.

The Committee has debated at great length whether the legislation could be used in an oppressive way in the United Kingdom. I have considerable faith in our legislative system, but we know from some Court of Appeal decisions that things can go wrong. We all hope that, at the end of the day, justice is done, but all systems of justice are human, and therefore fallible. Mistakes can be made. A system that allows assets to be confiscated from individuals who have not necessarily been found to have previously committed a criminal offence, but who have, on a lesser standard, been considered to have been acting in a criminal manner, or to have a criminal lifestyle, could be open to monumental abuse.

Every country will adopt a slightly different regime. There is no reason why other regimes should be identical to ours, but I can easily understand that the system that is applied in some jurisdictions might give cause for serious concern in this country. As we are dealing with external requests for orders, we will have to be willing to enforce them. We may be asked—although I hope not—to enforce orders of which we are critical.

12 noon

Of course, some of those criticisms may not be justified. I believe that criticisms of foreign legal systems are sometimes misplaced and show parochialism on our part. However, sometimes they are spot on. Those issues must be considered and debated openly if injustice is to be avoided; otherwise, we run the risk of being the executive arm of a foreign Government that has taken against a person. One can well imagine how easily that could happen.

To take a recent example with ramifications close to home, two British citizens of Indian origin—they may have had dual nationality—fell foul of the Indian Government. The consequences included the disappearance of a UK Secretary of State, because of certain telephone calls and other matters. The two alleged that, in India, they were the objects of a victimisation campaign, and they claimed that they had not received bribes in armaments deals. I give that example to show how the subject could become extremely contentious. Were an attempt made in India to confiscate their assets held here, huge issues would doubtless be raised. There would be applications under the Human Rights Act 1998, which I accept provides some safeguards for standards. My example illustrates how awkward the issues can be.

Column Number: 1365

 
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 5 February 2002