|Proceeds of Crime Bill
Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the Minister for some of the things that he has said. He has quite correctly tried to draw a distinctionas have webetween clauses 321 and 323. I remind him that when my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield was talking about the dangers of a tyrannical approach in legislation, he restricted his remarks to part of one of our amendments.
The Minister mentioned how surprised he was to hear liberal values from the Conservatives. He is falling into the same trap as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok, who often assumes that all Conservatives have one view. That is just as wrong as the Minister's general views on the boardroom and the shop floor. My experience in this country is that we are incredibly lucky that the standard of ethics and morals, both in the boardroom and on the shop floor, is highperhaps higher than that in most other developed societies.
Mr. Ainsworth: I do not argue with that. I always try to guard against the prejudices with which I may be afflicted. My belief, gained from meeting different people from different places as well as those whom I represent, is that the standards of people on the shop floor are high. Sometimes they pay a price for their honesty in a way that other people do not have to. That is my belief, and I hope that it is not prejudice.
The amendment does not stand up to the slightest consideration. It is disgraceful that it was even tabled. No one should be allowed to conceal property that
Column Number: 1028they suspect is laundered. The Conservatives are trying to loosen that provision and make it more difficultalmost impossibleto prove such a case, although the amendment to clause 323 might not be quite as bad. There is a subjective defence, and I believe that it is perfectly reasonable to take into account the circumstances in which people suspect. As my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar so ably pointed out, there are circumstances in which that could give rise to an offence.
Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West): May I seek clarification, if only for myself? Is the Minister saying that the clause is designed to replace not only the previous legislation but the previous test? I see the official nodding. The previous test was objective. Does the clause reflect a policy decision to weaken the legislation by moving away from what might loosely be termed the negligence approach, so that any court interpreting the measure will be obliged to do so in a subjective way? Is that what the Minister is saying?
Mr. Ainsworth: What I am saying, and what I said in my opening remarks, is that in the area covered by clause 323, the current test is based on knowledge. It must be shown that the person had knowledge. [
The Chairman: Order. I am feeling a bit lonely; I seem to be one of the only two people in the Room listening to the Minister.
Mr. Ainsworth: The current test is based on knowledge. The new test is based on knowledge or suspicion. We are tightening that provision and making it easier to mount a prosecution in that regard.
With regard to the issue of concealment dealt with in clause 321, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar quite rightly explained in her jog through previous legislation, the Bill is looser than the existing provisions. There are two separate tests at the moment. For concealment, there is a negligence test, which can be based on knowledge, suspicion or reasonable grounds for suspicion. Currently, it is not even necessary to have suspectedif somebody else thinks that a person ought to have suspected, he is liable to prosecution. We are removing the negligence test, but we are replacing it with one based on knowledge or suspicion. In clause 323 we are tightening the test up, moving from the idea of knowledge to the idea of knowledge or suspicion.
Stephen Hesford: That clarifies a great deal for me, but I ask the Minister for a further clarification. What is the policy thinking behind the two different tests for the two different clauses? Why is a stiffer test considered appropriate for concealment, but a less stiff one considered appropriate for arrangement, as described in clause 322?
Mr. Ainsworth: There are no different tests in the Bill. We are getting rid of the different tests contained in the existing legislation. We are proposing to apply the same test to both areas, based on knowledge or
Column Number: 1029suspicion of whether one possesses the proceeds of crime or whether one is dealing in or concealing criminal property. We propose that the tests should be the same, and that a person should be liable for prosecution if they know or suspect what they are doing. The fact that they suspected that the property might be the proceeds of crime would have to be shown in court.
The existing legislation applies two separate and different tests. In the language of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, it applies a draconian test, which is more draconian than anything that we are proposing in the Bill, as it extends beyond the regulated sector. The provisions on money laundering and concealment currently include a negligence test, which is based on knowledge, suspicion or reasonable grounds to suspect. We are removing that, and by so doing we are loosening it. That is cleaner and tidier, and the two levels of proof required are being brought into line. I have heard no justification for not doing that.
Mr. Hawkins: Little did I know when we were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at five to 9 this morning that we would debate two single-word amendments for more than three and three quarter hours. I can genuinely say that in almost 10 years in the House, this has been one of the most high quality debates in Committee that I have ever participated in. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson), who has clearly done a lot of research, made a partly humorous but partly serious speech. The Minister is realistic enough to recognise that there are differences of principle involved, and I thank him for the constructive tone in which he responded to the debate. However, fundamental differences exist between our points of view.
It would not be sensible or proper to respond to all the issues that have been raised. Almost every member of the Committee who attended today has spoken; it may be the first time in the long history of this Committee stage that that has happened. All the contributions have been sensible, helpful and worth listening to, although many differences of view have arisen. At one stage this morning there was a clear difference, in emphasis if not in view, between the hon. Members for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) and for Wrexham. There are clearly huge differences between the hon. Members for Glasgow, Anniesland and for Glasgow, Pollok on the one hand and the hon. Member for Redcar on the other, in their entire approach to this type of legislation. As Ministers in all Governments so often do, the Minister has driven a middle course between the extremes of his party.
Even though the two amendments, which are linked together, have different effectsand I do not wholly share the Minister's interpretation in that regardwe would like to vote on each of them separately. Different principles are involved, but we have covered the matter exhaustively. I could say many things in response, but several of them have been dealt with in interventions. We shall have to return to some of those issues, and others connected to them, such as de minimis provisions, when we come to later amendments and the clause 323 stand part debate.
Column Number: 1030At this stage, I simply want to support the arguments of my hon. Friends the Members for Beaconsfield, for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), for Henley and for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). It will be helpful if we vote, because these issues will be equally exhaustively debated, along with the rest of part 7, in another place and on Report.
Question put, That the amendment be made:
The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 12.
Division No. 26]
Clause 321 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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