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9.39 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): It has been a good debate, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said. Some contributions were well informed. They showed great knowledge of the law, financial institutions and the consequences of criminality and drug trafficking. The maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) was one such speech, and several hon. Members congratulated him on his performance. The quality of those contributions was not surprising. However, the almost complete and astonishing role reversal by the Conservatives was surprising. I have rarely seen their Front-Bench spokesmen so agitated. I was especially surprised that they were so agitated about human rights and civil liberties.

Labour and Liberal Democrat Back Benchers usually raise and get concerned about such matters. To hear the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman so worried about them was surprising. Either there has been a Pauline conversion, or something else is going on. Their concerns ran through the opening speech of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and the closing remarks of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. They reached a crescendo with the speech on inner cities by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field).

It is the tone that is interesting, not what is said. Conservative Members are trying to tell us that they support the measures, yet they describe them as draconian and an affront to civil liberties. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster got to the point of calling them evil and illiberal. With that support, we are entitled to ask exactly where Her Majesty's Opposition stand on this. Some of my hon. Friends on the Back Benches are right to ask about their motives.

Mr. Letwin: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: In a moment.

The measures include establishing an agency. There is legislation to recover the proceeds of crime, but it is piecemeal. This is the first time that an agency will be dedicated to such work. By comparison with the relative size of our economies, we recover a quarter of the proceeds of crime that the authorities in the United States recover and a 10th of that recovered in Ireland. The Bill consolidates legislation and creates the agency that is needed if we are to have an impact.

Some of my hon. Friends said that there is cynicism about the effectiveness of such measures. Unless legislation is coupled with a strategy that all agencies sign up to, in which they agree to work together, and with investment in the necessary expertise, we will not be able

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to deliver on many people's expectations that we are as effective as other countries at recovering the proceeds of crime.

Confiscation is underused. Where it is used, it is underenforced. Existing legislation is disjointed and inaccessible. Confiscation is not new. I am surprised by Conservative concerns about it. Assumption is not a new concept. There is no reversal of the burden of proof. Confiscations will apply to people who have been convicted. In those circumstances, the defence against confiscation will be to prove that there are no proceeds of crime to confiscate, but only after conviction. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield is upset about the way serious default is used in the Bill, but we are talking about confiscation after criminal conviction, so I really do not understand why he is so exercised about that issue.

Mr. Grieve: I suggest that the Minister recalls the words of his hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford), who asked for clarification of the definition of "criminal lifestyle". That is where novelty arises. The issue is not being convicted of a crime, but being found to have a criminal lifestyle based on a series of what are potentially extremely minor offences that are statutorily determined via statutory instrument by the Secretary of State.

Mr. Ainsworth: I will not try to suggest that there are no important issues to be addressed. We will have to discuss them in Committee. I hope that, despite the rhetoric and the overall tone of today's debate, the hon. Gentleman will respond reasonably during the Committee's examination of the Bill. All we are trying to do in part 2 is streamline and consolidate the legislation. For reasons that have been adequately explored by my hon. Friends during the debate, we are insisting that, in appropriate circumstances, confiscation is considered and that assumptions are used so that we can end the underuse of the provisions.

On civil recovery, where there are substantial assets that are being used and enjoyed and where criminal conviction is not possible—the individual who committed a particular crime may be abroad, untraceable, or even dead—why should we not, on behalf of the citizens of this country, have the power and ability to sue for the forfeiture of that property? Why is that principle so wrong?

The hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said that the agency would have the ability both to prosecute and to investigate, but that is not so. The agency will not be a prosecuting authority. These are civil matters; the agency will sue people in the courts. Yes, of course it needs the ability to investigate: in normal civil procedures, people have a case that they take to the court, and the agency will need to be able to discover the property and proceeds of crime involved if it is to be able to make its case; however, it will not be a prosecuting agency.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield suggests that the agency will ride roughshod over people's civil liberties and that it will be able to take all sorts of action simply because it thinks that the action is appropriate. In fact, the agency will have to go to court and show a good, arguable case in the first instance. It will have to prove—yes, to the civil standard—that the property involved is the proceeds of crime. The individuals involved will not be

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subject to the necessity of proving that their property is not the proceeds of crime—it will be the other way around. If the agency gets it wrong, it will be liable for costs and compensation. I do not know why he is getting so upset. I repeat, of course there are issues that need to be properly explored. We will do that in Committee.

The people who elect us expect our powers to investigate and tackle money laundering to be equal to the tasks in hand. As everyone knows, this country has some very large financial institutions, but in 1999 there were only 140 prosecutions in the UK for money laundering, whereas in Italy there were 538 and in the United States of America there were 2,034. Surely that shows that there is a need to increase our ability to take action against money laundering.

My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) expressed concerns about the level of proof that would be needed for the reporting of money laundering. Guidance will be issued in consultation with the industry, and that will apply only to the regulated sector. If that guidance is adhered to, that will be a defence. That may be some reassurance to her.

Some Members are worried about what they see as inadequacies in the strategy and in previous legislation. Legislation alone will not measure the need to take action. We need an entire strategy, and we have one. We need all the agencies to sign up to it, and they have. We need also investment in the expertise that is necessary to put the strategy into place. Some measures have already been implemented. Money has been allocated. There have been announcements of the initial bids against that money. We shall be able to announce the strategy in detail at the end of the month.

Scottish Members and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield referred to the differences between Scottish and English legislation. Many of my hon. Friends said that they might desire the measures that are available in England and Wales to be available also in Scotland. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Scotland Office has talked to his colleagues on the Scottish Executive and others about the matter, and he will continue to do so. There is a different tradition in Scotland, and the Bill reflects that.

Mr. Carmichael: I wish to stiffen the Minister's resolve on that point. Does he agree that it is nonsensical to say that the proposed legislation is necessary to reinforce the credibility of the criminal justice system, and then to say, like the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz), that the courts are not to be trusted to execute the proposals?

Mr. Ainsworth: As I have said, the current measures have been under-used. It is appropriate to take action to ensure that they are not under-used in England and Wales. There is a different tradition in Scotland. There are different and devolved issues. The Scottish Executive have been fully involved in the development of policy, and their views are reflected in the Bill. If people want to make representations, we must provide the mechanism for them to do so. We are not opposed to that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) talked about the Abacha case. We are introducing the capacity of restraint to the

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start of the investigation. There was a potential problem. We are also introducing regulations that will affect bureaux de change, which will come into effect next month.

My hon. Friend complained about the performance of the Home Office in responding to foreign jurisdictions. New resources have been made available, which has led to a considerable improvement.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) raised many of the issues that were taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe), which included questions that go to the heart of concerns that people should have. There will be, as a necessity, a hierarchy of use for the measures and the way in which they are used in conjunction with criminal prosecution. We intend to set that out in guidance which will be available for the courts. Confiscation will be the normal route when a criminal prosecution is pursued, so civil recovery and cash forfeiture will not be an issue. When a case is pursued through the criminal courts, the confiscation route will be the first option for the forfeiture of the proceeds of crime. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Member for Lewes and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green. Only when prosecution is ruled out will other routes be pursued; the reasons for ruling it out will be part of the normal decisions taken by the prosecution agencies.

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