|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Annabelle Ewing: I do not want to go over the same ground again, but the small builder in the hon. Gentleman's scenario would be at exactly the same risk as if he were to treat with a landowner whose assets were sequestrated. What is the difference?
The third point is that the fact that the Minister sought to draw inappropriate parallels in responding to my intervention. He referred to the Inland Revenue and tax liabilities. He also referred to the possibility of imposing fines. I understand why he makes those points, but, with respect to the Minister, they are not appropriate analogies to make.
First, the Inland Revenue involves a debt. We are not talking about debts, except in the purely legalistic and slight odd way in which the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) did so. What we are talking about is not the same as a tax debt. Indeed, I think that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) intervened earlier to make to the point that the Enterprise Bill will diminish Crown preference, so the Government are doing away with the idea that the state can automatically grab something.
Except in extremely rare circumstances, fines are not of a magnitude to confiscate people's assets entirely. Fines involve an element of people's assets. It is an odd fine that says, "Pay over everything you have." We do not
It has been argued that those in the enforcement authorities would be distracted because dealing with such issues is not the main part of their job. I accept that there may well be a time consequence and that it may well be significant, but that is no reason to allow a few innocent people to suffer as a consequence. I do not recognise that equation as being in any way just or appropriate in a democracy. If the Minister wants to ensure justice, he should ensure that provision is made for justice. That is a red herring, and it is wholly inappropriate for the Minister to raise that issue.
The Minister made a serious point. He and his hon. Friends are concerned that the Lords amendment will let criminals off the hook. Other bits and pieces around the edges have been mentioned so far, but that is the nub of his argument. If someone has their Rolls-Royce seized, it will still be seized. The argument about whether the state has the benefit of that Rolls-Royce or the builder who has undertaken the work has the benefit of it will take place afterwards. For the person whose assets have been seized, that Rolls-Royce still goes. There is no benefit to him from that arrangement. Those who benefit from the proceeds of crime will still lose those proceeds under the amendment.
It would also be possible, were the Under-Secretary concerned about the matter, to put in place a system that put an onus on the creditors to prove what was owed to them. Creditors would therefore have to bring forward to the courtwere the Under-Secretary more comfortable with such an arrangementproof that they are owed money. They would have to do that in any case, but some of the onus should be taken off the Assets Recovery Agency. They should at least have a chance, however, to say, "I have incurred work, I have put half my life over the last six months into this house", or whatever it happens to be. They should at least have a chance of saying in court or elsewhere, "I've just lost everything I had because of something that I knew nothing about. This guy has assets that you are not letting me get hold of."
If the Under-Secretary is not happy with the amendments in their current form because he feels that they will lead to criminals using their friends or their relatives, the onus should be changed. We could examine the hurdles, consider when the provision might kick in, and perhaps limit it to one-person businesses. Let us do something at least to ensure that those innocent victimsof which there will be some under this Billare not affected. It cannot be beyond the wit of the Under- Secretary and his officials to construct a scenario in which the criminal is not given gaping holes through which to walk, but in which, at the same time, the innocent are not persecuted and deprived of what is rightfully theirs.
Mr. Davidson: I want to raise the question of whether this proposal is genuinely being put forward by the criminal's friends. We should judge that on the basis of whether, if the proposal were passed, criminals would be more or less likely to enjoy their ill-gotten assets, and whether they would be more or less likely to be able to hold on to some of them.
It seems perfectly clear that the thrust of the proposal would benefit the criminals whom we seek to pursue. I have been impressed by the way in which the lawyers among the Opposition have been able to find loopholes through which people can hide money away. That seems to be the role of the lawyer in these circumstances. As was indicated earlier, money could be hidden in a variety of ingenious ways, which are almost deliberately designed to clog up the machinery.
I heard from the Opposition some tears of grief for innocent tradesmen, which I had not thought was generally typical of them. Will they clarify what is a small creditor? We have heard no such definition. What worries me is that it is not just the man who is owed money for a couple of bottles of milk. We have already heard reference to building contractors; indeed, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) commented on the possibility of massive building work being included. Clearly, the door that the Opposition are seeking to open for small creditors could easily be opened widely to encompass almost any creditor. The Opposition's case is greatly diminished by the lack of mention of a maximum figure. Nor have they mentioned or acknowledged the potential for abuse.
I accept that there is a difference between bogus and artificially created debts. It is entirely possible, however, for debts to be created that are not artificial and bogus but are the product of spending sprees undertaken by people who know that they are likely to be found guilty, and who know that they are likely to have all their assets seized. Those debts would be genuine, but, none the less, they are created in a way that is deliberately designed to thwart the means of this Bill.
As I said, it is a matter of going out on spending sprees, buying consumables and clothes and giving away presents. Some of those could be chased up at great personal expense, but none the less it gives a green light to abuses. Although some innocent people might be damaged by the measure, I cannot think of any other proposal that will not be abused by lawyers to clog up the machinery and to benefit the criminals. I hope that the House rejects the Lords amendment.
My right hon. and hon. Friends are on the side of the victim this time. Yesterday the Home Secretary told us that the criminal justice system should be attuned to take account of the interests of the victim. That is what the Lords amendment would do and it is what my hon. Friends, supported by the Liberal Democrats, want to achieve. The question is where the loss should fall in the event of a confiscation order being made. We are being asked to prefer the interests of the state to the interests of the innocent supplier of goods and services. In all conscience, I cannot understand why the interests of the
Clause 310 protects an innocent acquirer of property for value. The hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) asked why we should preserve the little person. The answer is that the innocent purchaser is preserved under clause 310. She also saidalthough I had difficulty understanding her argument, coming from an accomplished lawyer, as I am sure she isthat courts could not distinguish the bogus from the genuine. Yet the courts have to do that in a large number of cases. Indeed, they are expected to do that under clause 310 and its statutory predecessors.
Mr. Lazarowicz: Surely the point is the extent to which the state should protect the innocent or the bogus creditor when that individual would not obtain such assistance in any other respect from the state. If a confiscation order of, say, £10,000 is made against an accused and convicted person, the court might make compensation orders of perhaps £5,000 against that individual. If it transpires that the amount stipulated in the confiscation order cannot be collected, the state will end up paying out a greater sum in compensation than it recovers from confiscated assets. Does not that give those creditors an unfair advantage?
Mr. Hogg: That point was covered when my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) intervened on the hon. and learned Member for Redcar. What happens when a builder comes to the hon. Gentleman and says, "Look. I cannot recover the charges I want to make for repairing the plumbing because a compensation order has been made and there is no money available"? I do not suppose he will say, "Tough luck. I thought that decision was in the strategic interest of the country." Indeed, what he will say is, "I am extraordinarily sorry. I will write to the Minister and do what I can to help."
I can give another example that is little closer to the Labour party. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) referred to Maxwell's pensioners. He was right. Those pensioners could have claimed against Mr. Maxwell for fraud. A confiscation order could have been made against Mr. Maxwell which would have precluded him from paying the pensioners. I do not suppose that the Labour party would be saying to each and every one of the pensioners, "I am so sorry that you cannot be paid because all of the money has gone to the state." That would be the consequence of the amendment. We are saying that the little man should be protected against the state. Labour Members are saying that the state should be preferred to the little man. I know on which side I am.