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24 Jul 2002 : Column 1050

Proceeds of Crime Bill

Lords Amendments in lieu of certain Amendments to which the Commons have disagreed, considered.

Lords amendment: No. 4B, in lieu of Lords amendment No. 4, to which the Commons have disagreed, in clause 75, page 48, line 4, at end insert—

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The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this it will be convenient to take the following Lords amendments: No. 4C, in clause 341, page 200, line 3.

No. 4D, in clause 348, page 203, line 18.

No. 4F, in clause 353, page 206, line 41.

No. 4G, in clause 360, page 211, line 19.

No. 4H, in clause 366, page 213, line 44.

No. 4J, in clause 451, page 260, line 25.

No. 4K, in page 260, line 36.

No. 43, in clause 94, page 56, line 7.

No. 43B in clause 145, page 89, line 23.

No. 43C, in clause 375, page 218, line 6.

No. 43D, in clause 382, page 221, line 3.

No. 43E, in page 221, line 17.

No. 43F, in clause 386, page 223, line 35.

No. 43G, in clause 393, page 227, line 47.

No. 43H, in clause 399, page 230, line 21.

No. 43J, in clause 451, page 260, line 32.

No. 43K, in page 260, line 39.

No. 73, in clause 161, page 96, line 13.

No. 73B, in clause 229, page 140, line 4.

No. 73C, in clause 451, page 260, line 25.

No. 73D, in page 260, line 36.

Mr. Ainsworth: I think that we are all agreed that one of the requirements for the granting of the investigatory powers and warrants in part 8 should be that it is in the public interest for the court to grant the order or warrant.

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When the Bill was introduced, the Government took the view that it was not necessary to replicate in the Bill the provisions in the previous legislation. That was because the Human Rights Act 1998 requires a judge to comply with all the safeguards that are provided by the European convention on human rights, and the Government were satisfied that that would cover the consideration of whether the granting of an investigatory power was in the public interest.

We recognise, however, that there have been continuing concerns, and we therefore decided to introduce an amendment in the other place to make it explicit in the Bill that the public interest test must be an integral part of the court's consideration. Lords amendments Nos. 4C to 4H and 43C to 43H do precisely that.

On Lords amendments in lieu Nos. 4B to 4K, 43B to 43K and 73B to 73D, last Thursday we discussed mandatory as opposed to discretionary confiscation. We cannot agree with the Opposition on that matter. We are determined that the confiscation system remain mandatory, and that we do not go backwards in that regard. The criminal lifestyle tests set out in parts 2 to 4 in theory expose a defendant to the criminal lifestyle regime where that defendant is convicted only of a trivial offence or offences that are not inherently indicative of a criminal lifestyle.

It would be possible for the court to apply assumptions where an offender is convicted of one acquisitive summary offence of any description that lasts for more than six months, or four summary offences of any description, from which only a very small amount of benefit had been derived. The same would be true where an offender was convicted of one offence of any description, from which he had benefited, and had two past convictions of any acquisitive offence. The benefit might be trivial, but a criminal lifestyle confiscation order could still be made.

In practice, the director or the prosecutor would never mount a confiscation proceeding in such an inappropriate case. There is a presentational issue here, however. We have reached the conclusion that it would be better for the Bill to impose a formal threshold before the criminal lifestyle tests can be applied. That will make it clear in the Bill that the authorities will not be able to apply for confiscation orders in trivial cases against offenders who are not convicted of offences specified in the criminal lifestyle schedules.

That is why we tabled these further amendments in lieu in the Lords. They aim to address concerns about the breadth of some of the criminal lifestyle tests, yet they preserve the integrity of confiscation as a mandatory procedure. We are making absolutely no change to the criminal lifestyle regime as it will apply to anybody convicted of one of the scheduled offences. There will be no financial threshold in such cases. But in relation to the other criminal lifestyle definitions, we are content to see a financial threshold imposed.

What we are saying is that for the criminal lifestyle tests to be satisfied, the total benefit from the triggering offences and any other offences taken into account for sentencing purposes will have to be £5,000 or more. The amendments introduce a power for the Secretary of State to change the £5,000 threshold by order. This power will be used, both to take account of inflation, and to respond to different patterns and trends of offending. It will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.

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I invite the House to agree with their Lordships in their amendments in lieu.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): It is with some pleasure that I welcome the amendments that were tabled in the Lords in lieu of their previous amendments, and which the Government are willing to accept as Government amendments.

There is a long history to the matter. On a number of occasions in Committee we expressed concern about the threshold by which people went into the confiscatory regime and were deemed to have a criminal lifestyle. I must say to the Minister, and it would be wise for me to put it on the record, that there is a certain irony in the way in which the Government have finally seen fit to approach the matter. It lacks the flexibility of the judicial discretion route which, as the Minister knows, we preferred.

For instance, if the prosecutor and the Assets Recovery Agency took the view that an individual had committed a number of very minor offences but was nevertheless known to be a serious criminal, under the earlier amendments they might still have been able to initiate the confiscation regime—the Al Capone clause, as it has sometimes been called.

In this case, the Government have refused to go down that road, because they did not want judicial discretion. They have fettered the mandatory provisions in a minor way. In the circumstances that I have just described, the person would be able to escape the confiscatory regime. I accept that, as a matter of principle, it could be argued that that is the appropriate way to proceed, as in those circumstances he would not be deemed to have a criminal lifestyle.

Nevertheless, I entirely welcome what the Government have done in respect of the £5,000 threshold. They are absolutely right that that should not cover the schedule offences—that would go a long way to defeating the Bill. The Government have taken the appropriate course of action. In respect of the other offences, this measure finally lays to rest that much-debated subject of the person who has three convictions for not having a rear light on his vehicle in the previous three-year period. That could be construed to be an offence for gain—indeed, it would be because it would save them the cost of replacing the light bulb—and so would expose them to a parallel world in which they had to run the risk of having their assets confiscated, having been deemed to have a criminal lifestyle. To avoid confiscation, they would have the onerous burden placed on them of having to prove that they did not have a criminal lifestyle and having to show where their assets came from.

I welcome this measure. Of all the concessions that have been gently wrested from the Government during the passage of the Bill, this is the most significant. I am delighted that the Government have finally seen sense on this issue. As the Minister knows, we share with him the desire that this legislation should work. It will work only if it commands widespread public approval and is seen to be fair. This is a major step in that direction, and I am grateful to the Minister that, in the light of what happened in the Lords and the serious reservations that were expressed, he has seen fit to introduce this amendment.

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Before we move on to the other matter that falls to be considered—[Interruption.] I did not think that the Minister went into any great length on the amendment of Lord Lloyd of Berwick. If he intended to cover it in this group, I shall reply to it at the same time.

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