Execution of Orders Freezing Assets or Evidence

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Mr. Hawkins: I am simply saying that all the gradual processes of accretion of more and more powers give great cause for concern. As for Scrutiny Committees and other Select Committees, one always hopes that people will act with independence of mind, but when I say that the Committee is Government-dominated I mean, as the hon. Gentleman knows, that, because the Committees have to reflect the balance of forces in the House as a whole, the majority of their members take the Government Whip. It is therefore even more significant when a Committee—dominated, as they all are, by Government Members—expresses such serious concerns. Not one concern but three have been expressed; the others were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset.

The European Scrutiny Committee also said:

    ''we are concerned that there is still no clear provision requiring the issue and execution of freezing orders to be in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The language now proposed is vague and ambiguous''.

Those are serious criticisms for a Scrutiny Committee of this House to make. The report goes on to say that the language contains

    ''no express reference to the ECHR and referring only to discrimination, freedom of expression and freedom of association, thus giving rise to an arguable implication that recognition of a freezing order may not be refused on the grounds that it infringes any other rights guaranteed by the ECHR. If human rights are to be preserved by this proposal, we do not understand why it should not be stated in clear and simple terms that the making, recognition and enforcement of a freezing order are to be subject to the ECHR.''

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We are talking about quite draconian powers. People may turn out to be innocent, even of a serious crime. We are all aware that some people have been subject to miscarriages of justice. They have been accused of the most appalling crimes, but have turned out to be completely innocent. If such people are to have all their assets frozen, without any opportunity to challenge the process, that is a serious matter.

The Scrutiny Committee also repeats the concern that my hon. Friend raised with the Minister—that it is left to member states to determine what constitutes a judicial authority. I do not suppose that any Government Member would be terribly happy if that happened to them, or if a member of their family, or a constituent, were suddenly to ring them up in great distress one morning and say that as a result of some order issued by some Greek court that they had never heard of—in a place called Kalamata, for example—police officers had turned up, within the UK, to freeze all their assets. They would have no right to challenge what was happening, could not go to an English court to challenge it. Government members should make no mistake about the fact that that is what we are talking about. This is an opportunity for a foreign judicial authority—as my hon. Friend has rightly said, and as the Scrutiny Committee also mentioned, in a country such as Finland or Denmark, that may be a police or prosecuting authority—may issue an order, and nobody will have the power to challenge it.

That is why we think that this is a fundamental issue. The same problems arise as arose with the European arrest warrant. The list of crimes contains items that are very vague. In what was once called Republika Srpska, under the rule of the dictator and tyrant Milosevic, someone such as our present Prime Minister might have been accused of xenophobia. Anyone who has been following Milosevic's attempts to defend himself will know that he believes that he is right and everybody else is wrong. If he were in possession of the powers that we are discussing, he would be happy to the grounds of xenophobia to issue orders freezing the assets of people in this country whom he did not like.

Of course, Republika Srpska is not on the list of countries that will have the opportunity to operate the system—[Interruption.] But who knows? Can any Labour Member give an absolute guarantee that in future, another country that is a party to the system will not fall into the hands of somebody very unpleasant? After all, within the past few weeks we have all been surprised by the fact that an extremist politician, whose views all Members of this House no doubt disagree with and despise, got into the final round of a presidential election in a democratic country. That was a great surprise to most of the people of that country, and to the world's media, but it happened.

How confident can Labour Members be about the fact that in this Committee this afternoon, they are blithely intending to give powers to foreign courts in many jurisdictions, some of which have been under the control of dictators in the very recent past and may have returned to democracy relatively recently. We are

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giving powers to the leaders of those countries to say, ''We are accusing somebody of xenophobia. We instruct our judicial and police authorities to issue freezing orders,'' and our police will have no alternative but to implement them, without the option of a challenge in the courts of England and Wales.

I am sure that Labour Members will follow the lead of their Minister and vote for the measure this afternoon, but I hope that they will pause and think, in the long watches of the night, about whether their consciences will trouble them if they vote those powers through without a bleat or a query, despite the fact that so many of their colleagues on the European Scrutiny Committee expressed such serious concern. I hope that they will be able to sleep with a clear conscience—but if I were them, I would not be able to.

3.3 pm

Mr. Walter: I shall not delay the Committee too long, because my hon. Friend has already made many of the points that I wanted to make. I served on the European Scrutiny Committee for some time, and I do not think that it is particularly effective, but it does have a very good research team that works with it and looks deeply into many of the European Union proposals that the Government want us to pass on the nod.

I therefore take the conclusions in the Committee's report seriously. There are three strong conclusions related to the matter before us. First there is the one that I raised in my question—the relationship with the European convention on human rights. The report says:

    ''we do not understand why it should not be stated in clear and simple terms that the making, recognition and enforcement of a freezing order are to be subject to the ECHR.''

The Committee's second point, about the concept of judicial authority, is that

    ''Without the minimum safeguard of judicial involvement in and judicial oversight of the making of orders in the issuing State, we do not consider there is any proper basis for their recognition and enforcement in this country.''

That is a pretty strong view from that Committee, which has considered the orders in some depth.

The Committee's third point, about seizure powers, was:

    ''we do not consider that the relationship of this proposal with the seizure powers under Article 23a of the European Arrest Warrant is adequately explained.''

It concludes:

    ''we consider that the conclusion that now arises should be resolved by the present proposal before it is formally adopted.''

The House set up a Committee to scrutinise in depth proposals that have been agreed to by Ministers in Brussels, and gave it the staff to consider them in detail, so we should take its advice seriously. That Committee's advice is that we should not adopt this measure, so this Committee should not, in the words of the motion, ''take note'' of it. We should reject it. I hope that the Committee will see fit to send the measure back to the Government today, so that they

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can think again and renegotiate it in Brussels before bringing it before the House again.

3.7 pm

Mr. Ainsworth: Let us put what we are talking about into context. I know that one can read across from some of these issues to the arguments that we have had about the European arrest warrant, but that is another debate, for another day. We are talking about the initial freezing of assets, not the transfer of assets out of the jurisdiction, or their return to other parts of the European Union or any other foreign jurisdiction. We are talking about the ability to respond to a request for the initial freezing of assets, and that is all. The decisions on their return would be taken when a request for legal assistance came through and was dealt with.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath ridicules the idea that although there will be appeal rights, they will not have substantive effect. What on earth is he asking for? When someone lodges an appeal against a decision, does he want that to have a suspensive effect immediately? If that happened, what would be the point of freezing the assets in the first place?. We had some similar debates during the passage of the Proceeds of Crime Bill, about our own ability to confiscate the proceeds of crime within our domestic jurisdiction. With the free movement of people and assets across the European Union that I thought all the main parties were in favour of, it is as easy to keep one's legitimate assets—and criminal assets, too—abroad as it is to keep them here. To give appeal rights an immediate suspensive effect would render the proposal utterly useless.

People need to be aware of the real difficulties in dealing with cross-border crime. Under the present legal mutual assistance scheme, the number of restraints applied for is pretty abysmal, but since 1997 there has not been a single confiscation as a result of requests from abroad. In 1997 one confiscation was made, and in 1996 there was none, while there were three in 1995 and 1994. The number of outgoing requests is almost as unimpressive. It is widely recognised that in most circumstances there is little point in seeking confiscation of criminal assets placed abroad. That applies to incoming and outgoing requests.

If we are satisfied with that and believe that it is acceptable, we should not take these measures. If we do not accept it, however, we should do something about it. In the Standing Committee on the Proceeds of Crime Bill, we had extensive debate about the ability to seize criminal assets in our own country. What is the point of taking the drug dealer's Surrey mansion from him if we allow him to swap it with a villa in Spain owned by a Spanish criminal? We would be able to take neither of them; we could not seize the villa owned by the Spanish villain in Surrey, nor the asset of the British national in Spain.

The Opposition need to address the issue, because we cannot have a modern society with free movement without a legal framework that can deal with it.

 
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