|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Grieve: I shall reiterate the position. The official Opposition have indicated that we support the intentions behind the legislation. Consequently, we shall not vote against it today. We have also highlighted issues about which we have very substantial concerns that we want to be addressed in Committee. We shall do that in a spirit of complete co-operation. Indeed, I very much hope that the Committee will serve as a model for how such Committees should operate in that regard.
Mr. Harris: I accept the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but earlier in the debate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) said that Labour Members might eventually regret the speeches that we made in this debate. Although I accept that not one Conservative Member would consider himself to be soft on crime, any drug lord who read this debate would find no small comfort from the tone and content of some of the speeches made today by Conservative Members.
In the Committee's debate on the statutory instrument, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik)who is not in the Chambermentioned George Orwell and "Nineteen Eighty-Four". I often find that comparisons with Orwell's dystopia are at best inappropriate and at worst over the top. Any Government who are determined to crack down on crime are accused of introducing a police state. When closed circuit television is extended, some people believe that we are in a police state. When people talk about identity cards, which I support, other people say that we are heading towards a police state.
Undoubtedly there are those who will read the Bill and see not a new means of combating crime but a threat to civil liberties. I do not believe that, 50 years ago, when "Nineteen Eighty-Four" was written, Orwell could have foreseen the state of society today or the type of champions league criminals who are comprehensively crippling our society. It is a sad day when such severe action is necessary, but necessary it is, and I think that that is justification enough for it.
The Bill will apply to Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. As a Scottish Member I welcome the opportunity to speak in a debate on such legislation, and I pay tribute to the Scottish Parliament for moving a motion last week to allow us to do so. I am glad that the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) is in the Chamber because I understand that, although they supported the civil motion, Scottish National party Members of the Scottish Parliament were unhappy that such a motion had been moved as it denied the Scottish Parliament itself an opportunity to legislate. I do not want to make a party political point about this, but it is more important to enact the Bill than to worry about where it is debated. I do not believe that an Act of Parliament needs a tartan cover to be effective.
My constituents and people throughout the country want nothing less than the total dismantling of organised crime networks. They want those responsible for money laundering, protection racketeering and drug trafficking behind bars and deprived of the trappings of wealth.
Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): I, too, welcome the proposals in the Bill. They will be welcomed by the public, who want tough action to prevent drug dealers and others who prey on human weakness and misery from profiting from their nefarious activities. The measures also hit at the right target: those who make vast profits from drug dealing, rather than the user. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), I warmly welcome the Home Secretary's announcement last week on the reclassification of cannabis. That announcement and today's proceedings represent a sensible focusing of drugs policy on what should be our real targets.
Mr. Grieve: I accept that there may be arguments on both sides, but one of the consequences of reclassification is that the maximum sentence that can be imposed on the Mr. Bigs who engage in substantial dealing in and
Some concerns have been raised about the impact of the Bill on human rights. Such concerns should not be set aside lightly. I believe that most of them can be resolved satisfactorily in Committee. They must be resolved, not least to ensure that the legislation is watertight, as the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) so rightly said.
There are admittedly some significant new powers in the Bill: in particular, the powers of civil recovery of proceeds arising from unlawful conduct set out in part 5, but it is debatable whether even those represent such a fundamental innovation as some of the Bill's detractors suggest. There are, after all, some circumstances at present in which there can be forfeiture of criminal assets outside criminal proceedings. As the hon. Members who raised the point are no doubt aware, it has always been the case that property that someone has acquired from another by unlawful conduct can be recovered in the civil courts by its rightful owner satisfying the civil standard of proof.
The hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) rightly said that there is a difference between a dispute between two individuals and an isolated individual facing the full rigour of the state in the shape of a powerful Assets Recovery Agency or, in Scotland, the even more frightening shape of that awesome body of men and women, the Scottish Ministers. Of course the situation is not the same, but the picture of the weak individual against the strong state that some Opposition Members have tried to portray is not an accurate reflection of the real world.
The real issue is the neighbourhood drug dealer, the international criminal, the trafficker in illegal immigrants and the international terrorist network that can reach more than 60 countries, as we now know to our cost. Under existing legislation, it is our state, defending our public interest, that all too often faces an unequal fight against those organisations. I want our law enforcement agencies to have the ability to fight them on equal terms, which is what the Bill is about.
Of course, the possible effect of any measures on an individual's rights has to be considered against the benefit to society as a whole. In the real world, it is difficult to imagine a case in which a person with a genuine, lawful right to property would not be able to establish that right if challenged under the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) pointed out, legislation of this nature has existed for some time in the United States. It has also existed in countries such as Ireland and Italy. I would have thought that Opposition Members could highlight some actual examples of where such legislation has caused real difficulties.
Two hypothetical examples were given. The hon. Member for West Dorset referred to the example of a discount store. I am not sure whether he had in mind that the entire weight of the Assets Recovery Agency would seek to recover an electric kettle that someone had bought from a Sunday market. That is an example of a point that has no sensible validity in terms of opposing the Bill. I understand that the Bill's provisions to recover property
The second such example came from the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who referred to a secret admirer leaving a legacy to a lucky individual. Such admirers may regularly benefit members of the Conservative party, but that one theoretical and rare example should not be set against a measure that will make the business of drug dealers, money launderers and the rest much more difficult.
What concerns me most is that the provisions of the Bill should be used. As the performance and innovation unit report that predated the Bill pointed out, even the existing powers have not been used to their full extent. That is why I welcome the proposals on the Assets Recovery Agency, which will operate in England and Wales. I also welcome the extra resources that are proposed to enable similar powers to be enforceable in Scotland. It is important that there is the closest possible co-operation between the Scottish unit and the Assets Recovery Agency to make sure that the big-time operators that the Bill wants to hit do not slip between the two jurisdictions. The Scottish unit may have some 10 staff. That seems to be a small resource for the work that it will have to undertake. I would welcome clarification from Ministers of how that co-operation can be made effective.
A second area of concern is the way in which, under current proposals, a court in Scotland will have only the discretionary power to make a confiscation order under part 3, whereas in England and Wales, under part 2, the court will, if the necessary conditions are met, be required to make the necessary order to seize assets.
The Law Society of Scotland welcomes that distinction. For my part, I do not see the justification for a regime in Scotland different from that in England and Wales. If there is evidence of gains from criminal conduct, I do not see why the courts should do other than deprive the person concerned of their ill-gotten gains. I urge the Government to consider making such action by the court mandatory, if the right circumstances are met, for Scotland as well as for England and Wales.