Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is suggesting a solution that will not help the problem. He raises difficulties and concerns to do with a case in India. India may be party to many of the conventions to which we have signed up and may therefore have committed its judicial system to complying with minimum standards. I do not think that he is suggesting that we should not designate India, or in no circumstances co-operate with India on the return of criminal assets. I know that he does not believe that, and he is raising a genuine problem that will not be solved by the amendment. Such problems can be solved only by a case-by-case consideration of the issues.

Mr. Grieve: The Minister makes a good point, but it worries me that Parliament—and after all, it is we who will enact the Bill—is marginalised from the system. I understand his logic. He envisages that the Government will first consider whether countries are signatories to an international convention. However, anyone can sign up to an international convention—we all know that the Soviet Union signed up to all sorts of human rights conventions and heaven knows what else, but that does not mean that it ever observed one jot of them.

The nature of the bilateral agreement is clearly important, too. When drawing up such an agreement, it is likely that our Government and another would have much official discussion to highlight areas of concern, and help in deciding exactly what is needed to achieve conformity with our standards. The foreign Government are likely to know what will be required if they want to proceed with the process.

There is a problem with bilateral agreements: by their nature, they involve potential advantage to both countries. I do mean to be critical of our, or any, Government, but once an agreement is in operation there is inevitably a slight tendency for the Government to think, ''If we don't honour this application to seize assets, we won't get the benefit of all the work we did to get it going, and it will die; and when we apply for something similar, they will get stroppy with us,'' because bilateralism implies give and take. I venture to suggest that that sometimes puts pressure on the Government to say, ''Well, we're not 100 per cent. happy with this, but we're 95 per cent. happy, so we'll go along with it.''

None of that process involves parliamentary scrutiny. If there was a designated list, Parliament would be able to examine it, and perhaps change it. Although I acknowledge that that may be cumbersome, and that the Minister is right to say that it could involve a delay that reflects badly on this country, that is a problem of this Parliament spending too much time doing things on which it should spend less time.

Mr. Ainsworth: Listening to the hon. Member for Spelthorne, for example.

Mr. Grieve: I hope that we will have an opportunity to examine one or two of the general principles before the Committee ends this afternoon.

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Sometimes, our time is not used to best advantage, although I believe that that is curable. However, none of those opportunities for scrutiny will occur.

It would be possible for the Government to produce a designated list. Everybody would know about it and Parliament could stamp it and say, ''We're happy.'' The Government would not have to go along with every request because they could still exercise their discretion on odd requests by countries on the designated list. If one or two such requests were made, the Government could return to Parliament to remove the country from the list because they were dissatisfied. The Government have decided to do without that safeguard.

I appreciate what the Minister said about history and background. However, the matter is not about going off and gathering evidence at even the cost of getting a warrant and breaking into a person's house. Evidence is evidence: it is tangible material. We are discussing seizing people's assets and repatriating them back to a foreign Government at their behest.

We should have a designated list. I am grateful for the Minister's willingness to consider another option that does not involve parliamentary scrutiny but would ensure that there is a list to inform the public and to allow discussion in Parliament, if people were unhappy with the list. That goes someway towards allaying my concern, but it does not go far enough.

I shall press the amendment to a vote to put down a marker. We should have a designated list, because it would allow discussion and scrutiny to occur here. After all, parliamentarians have a duty to do that, rather than leaving it to the Executive.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 12.

Division No. 52]

AYES
Grieve, Mr. Dominic Hawkins, Mr. Nick
Johnson, Mr. Boris Wilshire, Mr. David

NOES
Ainsworth, Mr. Bob Brooke, Annette Carmichael, Mr. Alistair Clark, Mrs. Helen David, Mr. Wayne Foulkes, Mr. George
Harris, Mr. Tom Hesford, Stephen Lazarowicz, Mr. Mark Lucas, Ian McGuire, Mrs. Anne Stinchcombe, Mr. Paul

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Wilshire: Several other matters should be considered. Subsection (1)(b) states that an order may

    make provision for the realisation of property for the purpose of giving effect to an external order.

Given the reservations that we discussed—the Minister kindly said that he would consider some of the points made in the previous debate—there are clearly grounds for concern about the validity or fairness of external orders. We cannot return to that and debate it, but we can point out that anxiety has been expressed, and the possibilities of miscarriages of justice in foreign jurisdictions might be a great deal

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higher than the chances of that happening in this country.

Subsection (1)(b) provides the power to make an order for the disposal, or ''realisation'', which I assume in layman's language means selling, of property in this country in order to satisfy an external order. Opposition Members expressed anxiety about the power to sell in this country, let alone abroad. If property is disposed of in this country in order to satisfy an external order, the proceeds of the sale—the money realised—will presumably follow the order and go abroad.

When we debated what would happen in this country if on appeal or subsequently the order was overturned and the person charged was ultimately found not to be involved, we had long discussions about how to ensure that justice is done and that the proceeds of the sale are refunded to the person involved.

In the event of an external order and a request to realise £1 million from the sale of something, as I understand the clause, that is realised and handed over to the external jurisdiction to say, ''There you are—we have done what you asked.'' We therefore lose control of the matter.

As we described when we discussed the matter in relation to this country, the order might be overturned on appeal or the person charged might be held to be the wrong person. The property seized in this country may have other, tangential owners. What guarantee have we under the provision that money sent abroad as a result of the sale of the property can ever be got back? My guess is that some jurisdictions would not give it back. In such circumstances, where is the provision for a remedy in the British system for the person who has suffered an injustice because the money has gone abroad? Where is the remedy in our jurisdiction for someone to say, ''You sold something of mine worth £1 million and sent it to some basket case abroad that now won't give it back. I am £1 million short, and I shouldn't have been, but it was the British courts that did it.'' Where will that money come from?

Moreover, some things might be disposed of in satisfaction of such an order that have more than a cash value. They may have heirloom value to the family involved or be irreplaceable. The person who owned the thing worth £1 million may have owned it partly because it was the only one in the world, and the £1 million in itself would not make that good. Does the Minister feel that some safeguards should be provided in this part of the Bill?

Subsection (2) states:

    An Order under this section may include,

and goes on to list some provisions. It then states:

    except Chapter 3.

I am curious why, given all those provisions, it is held to be necessary specifically to exclude chapter 3. Curiosity leads me to ask why that should be excluded. Why not exclude other things? Why list only some? I am concerned by that exclusion.

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I am also concerned by subsection (3). Subsection (3)(e) appears to offer a safeguard for someone who is caught up in this process, in which things happen externally, by allowing them to make representations to a British court to find out what is going on, and to challenge the request for the order.

12.15 pm

It is interesting that that safeguard is offered in clause 429, but not in clause 428. Clause 429(3) deals with authentication functions and the like. Clause 428 also deals with such matters. Why does the Minister consider the provision in subsection (3)(e) to be necessary in clause 429, but not in clause 428. What is it about clause 429 that so worries the Minister that he wishes to include in it a specific safeguard of this sort?

I also wish to know why someone who is caught up in this process can test or object to it only via a British court? I guess that that is because if one is in the United Kingdom, one can only go to a British court. However, some of the issues that will arise will be matters for a foreign jurisdiction. Therefore, how is a person in this country, who is offered the opportunity to address only a British court before a decision is taken, to get any sort of justice if he first needs to go to a court in a foreign jurisdiction to get evidence? If he does not do that, he will have to rely on what the British court tells him that it has discovered about the foreign request. That is a second-hand safeguard, rather than a direct one.

Those are important points. They raise issues about the functions of the Secretary of State, which the Committee has debated before, and I expect that the response that was given then will be given again now.

 
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Prepared 5 February 2002