Proceeds of Crime Bill

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The Chairman: Order. I am bound by Standing Order, and unfortunately, I cannot follow the hon. Gentleman down the seductive road along down which he is trying to lead me. I reiterate the fact that the amendment would not result in the measures for which he is arguing.

Mr. Hawkins: I am trying to explain our concern that there should be an explanation about the basis of the performance targets. The amendment would bring that about. However, I shall stick to your guidance, Mr. McWilliam. I am sure that the Minister will reassure us, but we are worried about such matters and we shall stress our concern whenever the wording in the Bill is too wide. We shall be interested in whether the hon. Gentleman can give us some comfort for the future and say that he is willing for the Bill to be more specific. If the Government cannot accept our amendment today, we hope that further consideration will lead to their reflecting on the matter and agreeing that we are right. The amendment may be accepted in another place or on Third Reading. We shall return to the issue.

Norman Baker (Lewes): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. McWilliam, on behalf of my Liberal Democrat colleagues. I wish to propose a radical way forward. Given that the Bill is so exhaustive and detailed, I want members of the Committee to spend the limited time that we have on matters of substance rather than on amendments that would not take us very far forward. We should not feel obliged to table amendments to clauses or schedules if none are required. We should restrain ourselves, and use our time as best we can by concentrating on issues of real substance that relate to the Bill. I hope that we shall adopt such an approach this morning, and in subsequent sittings.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I accept what the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) said about the number of targets and potential difficulties. However, he should reflect on the fact that the Government whom he supported presided over a doubling of criminal activities. Perhaps things might have been different if they had had a few targets.

The amendment would require the director to include the basis for any performance targets in his annual plan, which may or may not be for the financial year covered by the annual plan as well as the targets themselves. The value to organisations of an annual plan is increasingly recognised. It is common practice, when new bodies such as the Assets Recovery Agency are established, for legislation to include provisions for drawing up annual plans. It is accepted that organisations should have performance targets as part of the plan, some of which are likely to be related to the key objectives of the organisation. Other targets may be related to the performance of ancillary tasks, such as dealing with correspondence.

The performance targets in the Assets Recovery Agency's annual plan will be set by the director, but must be approved by the Secretary of State. The targets will have to take into account the wider work of the assets recovery committee, including successive assets recovery strategies. We may expect the inclusion of a target that relates to the number of criminal confiscation hearings that are conducted and the number of civil recovery actions that are brought. Initially, we anticipate that in any full year the agency might have a caseload of 15 to 20 civil recovery cases, 250 criminal confiscation cases, for which the agency is responsible, and 25 to 30 tax cases. However, the number and spread of cases may vary from those figures.

Performance targets set in annual plans are usually challenging but achievable. The Secretary of State will bear that in mind when approving the director's annual plan. However, the director should not be required to set out the basis for the performance targets in his plan. The director may include it if he wishes, but there is no reason why he should be required to. The Secretary of State must approve the plan. If he is not satisfied with the targets or requires further information about their basis, he can request further information from the director.

Mr. Grieve: Is there not a potential problem? We want such an organisation to be proactive, and, as far as is possible, to seek to recover assets. However, if targets are fixed on the basis of sums of money recovered, there is a risk that that will be the first step on the path to injustice. A burden would be placed on the director to seize assets when that might not be justifiable.

Mr. Ainsworth: I understand the hon. Gentleman's worries. On Second Reading he mentioned the Child Support Agency's problems . I ask him to accept that the agency will be a different animal, and will operate in a different field. It will not have nearly as wide a remit as the CSA. To be frank, there are no easy targets. Legislation that supposedly allows us to confiscate the proceeds of crime has existed for some time, and it was passed by Governments that the hon. Gentleman supported. That legislation has not been effective, and it is widely recognised that there is a need to settle the matter.

The agency will not deal with thousands upon thousands of cases submitted by the general public. Overwhelmingly, it will deal with the cases that the law enforcement agencies refer to it. Such cases will be few and none will be easy. The guidance to the director is designed to ensure both that everybody is satisfied with the relevant hierarchy of powers for law enforcement agencies and powers for this agency, and that recovering the proceeds of crime does not have a higher priority than the prosecution of criminal cases. The annual plan should give us the opportunity to make the agency accountable not only to the Secretary of State but to Parliament, because the plan will be lodged in Parliament for everyone to see.

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Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): We should set aside the interests of those who, at this early stage, are laying the ground for a political assault on the agency. I am concerned because paragraph 8(3)(b) states that performance targets need not be consistent with the objectives set by the director in the annual plan. That raises a query: what kind of circumstances could produce considerable variance between the director's objectives in the annual plan, and the performance targets? If such a variance occurred regularly, would not it require some explanation?

Mr. Ainsworth: I hope that there will be no variance between performance targets and the director's objectives, but some performance targets will have a wider scope and will be relevant to more than just the agency. The agency will form only a small part of the assets recovery strategy. It will not pursue the overwhelming majority of compensation cases that occur; most cases will be taken up by prosecuting authorities, and the agency will become involved with such cases only when those authorities want its involvement.

The annual plan will provide a mechanism that annually oversees the agency's actions, and that plan will provide for input from the Secretary of State. It will be placed before Parliament so that we can see the targets that the Secretary of State sets for the agency. With regard to concerns that the agency may set easy targets, I do not believe that the agency could get the courts' approval unless it convinced them that the threshold set by the targets was high enough to allow it to investigate and confiscate the proceeds of crime.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister will have received advice from his officials, no doubt, so is he prepared to tell us the number of performance targets that a director might be given in an annual plan? Will he give a formal assurance now, so that it is recorded in Hansard, that the director will be set no more than 10 performance targets? The Home Secretary could then set that figure before Parliament. That would allay many of our concerns.

Mr. Ainsworth: No, I do not want to give a set number of performance targets. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I will state how we shall set the targets—both those that will be the agency's direct responsibility, and those that will have a far wider reach—before we discuss the relevant passages of the Bill. I laid that out in the note that I provided for the Committee. It gives our current thinking on the subject, but we do not want to pre-empt the agency before it is set up or has appointed its director.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the Minister for allowing us to discuss this subject. Opposition Members have not got the slightest idea—

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. George Foulkes): Hear, hear.

Mr. Grieve: We have not the slightest idea what sums the Minister thinks the agency can recover. It is all very well to set up such a structure, but there are similarities with the Child Support Agency. Some of those similarities are shared with the subject of drug recovery. I used to practise law on the subject of drug trafficking offences, and the amounts ordered to be seized were consistently larger than the amounts eventually seized. That is an important issue.

The Minister must enlighten the Committee as to how the agency will work in practice. How many millions of pounds per annum should the director try to seize? The Minister has the intelligence to answer—[Interruption.] At least, I think he does. I do not have the intelligence to do so—

Mr. Foulkes: In every sense of the word.

Mr. Grieve: Not in every sense of the word. We need guidance from the Minister.

The Chairman: Order. Sedentary interventions are unwelcome—however much the Minister of State, Scotland Office and I may have indulged in them in our previous incarnations.

Mr. Ainsworth: There has been no attempt to hide the information on the basis of which the policy has been developed. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield has had an opportunity to read the performance and innovation unit's report: it shows international comparisons with regard to potential capability, and the failure of past performance is apparent.

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I will disagree about the reasons why confiscation orders were not enforced as often as they should have been, and the extent to which the agency will be able to fill the gap by ensuring that confiscation takes place more frequently. I have not attempted to hide the basis on which the Government have taken their decisions and chosen which road to go down, and I will try to ensure that the Committee is informed about our thinking on such matters as it reaches the relevant stages of the Bill.

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Prepared 13 November 2001