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Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I can confirm that we intend to allow civil legal aid for people to defend themselves, rather than allowing them to use the proceeds of crime.

Miss Kirkbride: I am glad to hear it. I assume that if such people are found not guilty of using the proceeds of crime to support their lifestyles, compensation will be provided. If that is the case, I am glad to learn that innocent people brought into the system—for reasons that I endorse, in terms of what the Minister seeks to do—will not be caught up in litigation that could literally bankrupt them.

Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Does she agree that if the system is such that those who are not eligible for legal aid, and who succeed in resisting civil proceedings, are left with a substantial bill—many litigants are in such circumstances, even when their costs are paid by the other side—that constitutes a rather strange and arbitrary punishment, given that the proceedings will have been initiated by the state?

Miss Kirkbride: That, too, is an important point, which may be pursued in Committee.

I think we are encouraged by what the Minister has said, but I know from my postbag that the Inland Revenue—which, as we know, has fairly draconian powers—has on occasion become involved in circumstances in which no case is proved at the end of the day, but the person concerned has spent a great deal on ensuring that he or she is found innocent. Although those costs may be paid, an opportunity cost will be involved in the fighting of an action that may turn out to have been conducted in an entirely unfair way.

Mr. Ainsworth: We are perhaps in danger of a genuine misunderstanding. In cases of civil recovery under part 5 where property is being pursued, compensation will be available if the case proves to be ill founded and falls. That is not exactly the same as the confiscation provisions in part 2, so those issues will be dealt with. That will act as a deterrent to the agency pursuing ill-founded cases.

Miss Kirkbride: I confess to being a little unsure now exactly what the Minister has in mind. I think I remember his saying in his previous intervention that there will be civil legal aid, so that all litigation will be paid for, but in addition I think he is saying that if the litigation is

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vexatious, there will be compensation for the time and effort involved in the case, so there will be no material cost for people who are innocent of the charges.

Mr. Ainsworth: Under part 5 on civil recovery, where people are eligible for legal aid, civil legal aid will be made available. Where they are not, litigation will not have to be shown to be vexatious. If they are incorrectly pursued by the agency in civil litigation, they will be entitled to compensation for that pursuance.

Miss Kirkbride: I am grateful to the Minister for seeking to clarify the matter. I think that the implication is that, if those people are very wealthy, they will have to pay for their own litigation because they will not be eligible for legal aid, but they will be compensated afterwards if the action is deemed to have been inappropriate. Clearly, these are important matters and will be pursued further in Committee. Nevertheless, the Minister's clarification is welcome. This is a very technical Bill and it is important that we all fully understand the nature of what is being considered.

I recognise that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I do not wish to continue my remarks any further. The only thing that it would be fair to say is that I have been somewhat offended by some of the remarks from Labour Members, who have suggested that, in seeking to raise questions about what the Government propose to do, we are trying to help or to protect people who are criminals, or to protect rich friends. Those remarks were wholly inappropriate.

It is our duty to raise questions about the Government's actions. I should have thought that the Government, in the particular circumstances in which they now find themselves, would be self-confident enough to respond to our concerns—as the Minister has—in the spirit in which they have been raised, and not, as some Labour Back Benchers have done, wrongly impugning our motives.

8.53 pm

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): I remind the House exactly what the debate is about. It is not about civil liberties. It is not about legal manoeuvring or nit-picking. It is about saving our communities—it is that important.

The scale of the problem cannot be overestimated. There cannot be a single hon. Member whose constituency has not been affected by the drugs menace. In Castlemilk and other parts of my constituency, drug dealers, drug users, money launderers and protection racketeers have tried to make life a misery for the vast majority of my constituents. Let us remember that when crime hits, it hits the poorest areas worst. The wealthier people are, the easier it is to insulate themselves against the effects of crime.

The tentacles of organised crime reach into every part of every community. The Mr. Bigs, as we tend to call them, are the worst kind of leeches imaginable. I hesitate to call them Mr. Bigs—that label is far too positive. They feed on the weakest and most vulnerable in society and are directly responsible for the misery of ordinary, good, hard-working people.

Those creatures can be identified in two ways. One is through their criminal lifestyle, to which the Bill refers. I take as an example the town in which I grew up in

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Ayrshire. It has been turned upside down by the activities of drug dealers over the past 20 years. I have to confess that some of the culprits are contemporaries of mine. They park their flashy, sophisticated and expensive cars outside the Department of Social Security while they sign on. I say that not out of envy, but to make a serious point. The culture of envy can take hold, particularly among younger men who see such people as some sort of role model or something to which to aspire. The Bill aims to fight that.

The other way of identifying these people is simply to ask someone. There are many people in Castlemilk who, off the top of their heads, could name two or three drug dealers who live locally. They could identify the firms that have been set up to act as cover for such activities and to launder the money. It is worrying that those people have the confidence and arrogance to know that they are largely immune from the powers of the enforcing authorities. They make no effort to cover their activities.

One reason why they are so secure in the belief that they will hold on to their fortunes can be seen on the Home Office internet site, which has been set up specifically to announce this Bill. It says:

Quite right too. Two lines later it says:

That statistic alone would justify the setting up of the Assets Recovery Agency, but it raises concerns in my mind. If existing laws are not used to their limit, can we be confident that the new law will be used to its full extent? I hope that the Minister will refer to that in his winding-up speech.

I understand that, as the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) said earlier, the agency's remit does not extend to Scotland. There will be a dedicated unit in the Scottish Executive, and it is not for the House to speculate on how that will be funded or organised. As an elected Member from Scotland, I would expect it to be just as determined to provide an effective service to the people of Scotland as its counterpart in England and Wales.

It is fair to say that the public are at best unconvinced and at worst cynical when Governments of any colour say that a Bill will change the face of society or stop criminals benefiting from crime. It has been a long time since the first such measures were introduced, and their results have not met expectations. That is why I strongly welcome the Bill. For the first time it provides a level playing field, which has previously been tilted in favour of the criminal fraternity.

I said that there can be a problem with people looking for role models, particularly in deprived areas, where second and sometimes third generation unemployment has meant that the traditional male role model of the hard-working father has been replaced by wide boys and villains. The Bill recognises that.

If we are to combat the seductive image of the successful criminal, successful action against them must be accompanied by publicity. That sounds like a trite point, but I hope that when the Bill is enacted there will be high-profile confiscations. In that way, whenever some

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jumped-up young thug gets his Ferrari, his yacht or even his home confiscated, it will be obvious to the local community that has paid for those benefits that he has got his come-uppance. Even if he is not sent to jail, people will see that he will not be able to live in the style that he has been used to.

The most contentious part of the Bill is that dealing with civil recovery. The Government have certainly established, and I agree, that the civil recovery provision does not seem to conflict with the European convention on human rights. I hope that that view will be borne out if the provision is challenged in court. The civil recovery clause is the one clause in the Bill that I wholeheartedly welcome. My plea to Ministers is to ensure that when the Bill is enacted we use the civil recovery clause frequently and enthusiastically. If we do not do so, those who are expecting great things from the Bill will be very disappointed in both the legislation and the Government.

Every hon. Member understands the difficulties that the authorities face in prosecuting those who are so powerful and wealthy that they do not even have to dirty their hands by doing their own dirty work. The drugs barons are sometimes three or four times removed from the dealer on the street, pulling the dealer's strings; so rarely do we see those evil people behind bars.

I accept that we have to be careful with civil liberties. The priority of the House and of the Government, however, should be to protect not the civil liberties of drugs barons but the civil right of young people to live free from the threat of drugs, of older people to be able to walk along the street without threat and of us all to feel secure in our home. Currently, we are all being denied those rights.

I have previously raised the issue of money laundering in Northern Ireland, and, earlier this year, the Government introduced the Financial Investigations (Northern Ireland) Order 2001. In our debate on that order, the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), expressed neither support for nor opposition to the order. I had hoped to hear today that Conservative Members had come off the fence and now support the order. I do not want to make party political capital out of the issue but, bearing in mind what we have heard in this debate, I am disappointed that the Bill will not have cross-party support, as it would have benefited the legislation.

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