Vera Baird: That takes me neatly to my next point. I repeat that there is no justification for putting victims of bankruptcy caused by this Bill into a separate category from those who are victims of other types of bankruptcy.
No Conservative Member has offered a convincing argument for that. However, if such an argument had been made, there would need to be a value judgment about whether it was more important to protect unsecured creditors or to seize criminals' assets for the state's use. At least part of what is seized will be given to the local police force, for use on local policing needs such as the detection of crime and the prevention of future crime. The proceeds would be used to save people in my constituency and others like it from the disorder that wrecks their lives every day. My value judgment would place confiscation above the protection of unsecured creditors
Mr. Grieve: May I offer a couple of other examples? If a house is seized whose value has been improved by a local builder to the tune of £25,000, the state acquires the benefit but the builder does not get compensated for the money that he has put in. Again, what happens if a car that has not been fully paid for is seized? The state takes the car, but the person who sold the car is left with nothing because he is not secured. Surely that is the justification for the amendment that the hon. and learned Lady seeks?
Mr. Lazarowicz: Does not my hon. and learned Friend agree that a creditor in this situation would enjoy a benefit that is not available to others? He would benefit from what is in effect a state guarantee service, which would pay the debt. No other type of creditor has access to such a service.
Vera Baird: Creditors in the situation that has been described would either get the cast-iron benefit of the state-backed guarantee company, or there would be intolerably long arguments in court about who owed what to whom, and about what was or was not a justifiable debt. I do not accept what the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said about courts arriving at quick and simple decisions.
Do Opposition Members really think that the courts should spend time deciding whether claims are bogus, when the only people with real information about that will be the parties to the claimthat is, the gangster and his best friend, or the gangster and some remote acquaintance arranged through that best friend? How will a court be able to get to the bottom of that puzzle simply and easily?
Moreover, a debt might be genuine but there could be a problem with the goodshow would the court deal with that? Let us say that the police find a computer supposedly worth £10,000 in a criminal's house, but discover that it is not fit for its purpose and does not work: is there then to be a long civil trial to determine whether the goods were defective and whether the debt is really owed? The proposal is guaranteed to gum up the works.
Mr. Hogg: The hon. and learned Lady will be familiar with clause 310, where she knows full well the Bill provides that a property does not come within the class of recoverable property if it was disposed of in good faith and without notice. Those are precisely the issues that we are discussing. Is the hon. and learned Lady saying that the court cannot discharge the function under clause 310?
Vera Baird: No, I am not saying that. I am saying that what is suggested is a recipe for gumming up the works. It offers to the criminal an opportunity to do everything that he can, as soon as he feels the scent getting closer, to generate as much debt as possible.
It is likely, is it not, that such debts which are unsecured will be small ones? It will not necessarily be the normal case that seizing a criminal's assets under the Bill will make him go bankrupt or insolvent. We are speaking of a small number of small debts which the amendment would assist. The balance of opinion in all parts of the House is clearly against the amendment, which would open the floodgates to abuse.
Norman Baker: We heard from the Home Secretary this week how important it was that the victim should come first under the new criminal justice regime that the Government want to create. Great stress was put on that. We were told that for too long, the victims of crime had been neglected and the criminals had got away with it. Yet this afternoon, I hear many siren voices from the Government Benches clamouring to get hold of the guilty, and not very many who are keen to speak up for the innocent, and there are innocent people
As the Minister was generous enough to accept when I intervened on him, some innocent people will be caught up and will suffer as a consequence of the Bill. For reasons that I entirely understand, the Minister fears that if the amendment were passed, it would open the floodgates to people gumming up the worksthat is the phrase that has been usedand that the effect of the Bill would be diminished.
I understand that point, and we in the Opposition must address it. Equally, the Minister must address the point that innocent people will be caught up. It is not satisfactory to brush that aside and say, "If a few bystanders are caught up in the process, that's tough." In the House, if nowhere else, we must ensure that the innocent are protected. That is a basic point of justice, which we operate in our democracy. It is no good acting as though the innocent do not count; they do count.
How does the proposal differ from the existing situation? Let me deal with some of the points that Labour Members have made. The first difference is one of scale. The Minister said, in response to a comment from one of his colleagues, that confiscation will apply to a wide range of offenders. Indeed, the Bill is designed to be far reaching and to ensure that the proceeds of crime will be picked up wherever they can be found. Of course my colleagues and I support that principle, as do the Conservatives. So the scale of possible injustice will be greater because the scale of confiscation will be greater. That is the first point.
The second point is about predictability. The Minister said that small builders and others who enter into arrangements with other people ought to have their eyes open and be prepared for eventualities that are unhelpful
Norman Baker: Oh, high life. The people who undertake tasks or perform services for those people probably know that they may well have question marks over their heads, that they are identified in the community and therefore that there is a risk. However, the Bill is designed to deal with the people whom the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) wants dealt with. They are the sort of people who are City business types, who are respectable types, who have a nice house in Esher and who appear to be the pinnacle of respectability. They are the kind of people who the hon. Gentleman wants to get at. They are the kind of people who may well have a criminal lifestyle, and they will be caught for the first time. It is very good that we catch those people, but how can a small builder have a suspicion when he undertakes a massive job for a landowner with a big house in Esher that suddenly, before his very eyes, all the money will be seized because, for the first time, we have a legislative framework that will allow that to happen? He will have no way of knowing that.