Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The purpose is not to raise revenue. The agency is required to contribute to the reduction of crime, and, in operating efficiently and effectively, that must be its guiding star. A purely money-based decision on whether to pursue a case is not appropriate. If an amount of money could be confiscated by one of the powers under the Bill from a particular individual, that could prevent great misery from being caused by that money being reinvested in the acquisition of drugs, which would cause serious problems on the streets of our cities.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): I wonder whether we need both words. Is it possible to act efficiently without acting effectively, or to act effectively without acting efficiently? Perhaps we could save some ink by getting rid of one of those words.

Mr. Ainsworth: We now see the efficient and effective minimalist wing of the Conservative party disagreeing with the hon. Member for Spelthorne. The hon. Gentleman properly raises the question of how far to go with the language, and whether adding or taking away words contributes anything of substance.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): On the point raised by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), I must have not quite understood the thrust of the Bill. I had thought that the idea was to address the fact that, up to now, we have been unable to obtain as much money through confiscation as we hoped to obtain. We are hoping to achieve a higher level of revenue from the criminal fraternity overall. Would the Minister elucidate on that point?

Mr. Ainsworth: That issue is central to the debate. In setting up the agency, we do not regard the recovery of the proceeds of crime as the end in itself. We regard it as the tool by which we reduce crime. By taking the profit out of crime, we discourage people from becoming involved in the activity in the first place.

On Second Reading, I referred to the public service adverts from many years ago, which many hon. Members will remember, telling us that crime does not pay. I am afraid that crime does pay, which is why many people become involved in it. It is about time that we took adequate measures to try to ensure that it does not pay. Recovery of the proceeds of crime is not the aim of the Bill but the method by which we seek to reduce crime. What are those proceeds used for? Often, they are used and invested to compete unfairly with law-abiding businesses and enterprises, as people want to launder them and legalise them by putting them into the legal part of the economy. We do not want that to flourish in this country, because it undermines legitimate interests and businesses. Proceeds are also reinvested to provide the wherewithal by which yet more crime can be committed. Those are the motives for confiscation. It is not a question of merely gaining access to the money itself.

Mr. Wilshire: I have listened to the Minister's comments. However, even if the purpose of the Bill is not to make a profit for the taxpayer, that does not undermine my argument. If the purpose is to punish rather than make a profit, there must still be a point at which the cost of recovery could become so great that there is an economic argument for using public funds to deter crime in another way, instead of pouring it into an activity from which the amount of recovery is so small.

Mr. Ainsworth: The matter is not set in stone. Just because the agency has a requirement to deal with the reduction of crime, it should not be completely blind to the spending of its resources in the pursuance of the proceeds of crime. If it does that, it will waste the funds with which it has been provided and it will be less than effective in achieving the reduction of crime. I am happy to reflect on whether ``economically'' would add anything to the Bill. If it does, I will try to put it in, but I am not certain that it will.

Vera Baird (Redcar): Would not it be a misapplication of principle to incorporate the word ``economically'' into the clause, because it could restrict the director's freedom in cases in which there may be an uncertain balance whether the inquiry would produce more than it cost? The aim of crime reduction by targeting a middle-level profit maker would remain essential. Is not the suggestion that ``economically'' should be included in the clause misguided?

Mr. Ainsworth: That is why I said that perhaps we should think about whether the word ``adequately'' should also be added. It is a dilemma and the last thing that we want is to send the agency the wrong signals.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): Is not the primary purpose of the Bill to deter? For example, the general public must realise that, if they commit a drug-trafficking offence, enforcement action against them will follow. Saying that an economic assessment will be made of whether the Assets Recovery Agency should proceed will diminish the deterrent effect of the Bill, the primary purpose of which is to reduce crime and deter people from becoming involved in it in the first place.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When deciding what matters should be pursued, we need to bear in mind what the individuals who are in possession of the proceeds of crime are capable of doing with them. We must consider what a well-placed person in an organised crime gang can purchase with a relatively small amount of criminal proceeds if he has access to wholesale, upstream heroin or cocaine. What is his ability to use that money to make a substantial profit? Such considerations must be taken into account when issuing guidance to the agency.

Mr. Davidson: Given the way in which Conservative Members are supporting the proposal as a clawback measure and an income raiser, this is one of the few occasions on which they have endorsed a stealth tax. My hon. Friend should resist the proposal to include the word ``economically'' because there is a real danger that the targets will be distorted. If costs are weighed against probable revenue, projects will be rejected because they may reduce the averages and mess up the target scores. Risk assessments will raise the hurdle at which the decision to pursue a case will be made. The proposal is far more insidious than it at first seems.

Mr. Ainsworth: Being the simple soul that I am, and completely trusting of all other Members of Parliament—

Mr. Davidson: He used to be a Whip.

The Chairman: Order. Sedentary interventions are to be deplored. I used to be a Whip, too.

12.15 pm

Mr. Ainsworth: I took the suggestion of the hon. Member for Spelthorne at face value and assumed that he was trying to assist in making the agency more effective. I had not considered that he might have an ulterior motive: to attempt to undermine the agency's ability to do its job. I will have to reflect on that possibility when I consider his suggestions.

I turn to the points made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. On the accountability of the agency, only the taxation issues will apply to Scotland. However, he raised questions of accountability with regard to the Lord Advocate's Department. The Lord Advocate will have the responsibility to publish comparable targets for criminal confiscation in Scotland, and Scottish Ministers will be responsible for the publication of targets with regard to civil recovery. The Committee will discuss matters of accountability in more detail when it reaches the relevant parts of the Bill.

Mr. Carmichael: My point is that there is no compulsion on the Lord Advocate to publish those targets. The Crown Office voluntarily undertook to publish its annual report at the beginning of the 1990s, in response to the justice charter, but an element of compulsion should be placed on the Lord Advocate.

Mr. Ainsworth: It is appropriate for the hon. Gentleman to flag that issue. He is giving a warning that he will raise it again when the Committee reaches the relevant parts of the Bill, and the Government will respond to it in detail.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster expressed concern about the agency's powers, and the possibility that it might have to conduct repeat investigations. All the coercive powers that are provided for contain safeguards. That will become apparent when we get to part 8, which contains provision for proper oversight of the use of those powers.

The agency will be allowed to exercise non-coercive powers, such as the voluntary interviewing of witnesses, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that that should be the case. The Government seek to ensure that the agency will be able to exercise with a free hand powers that are not coercive or intrusive.

With regard to the use of the powers provided for in part 8, the Committee will want to be assured that the safeguards are adequate, so that they do not allow, for example, the on-going harassment of individuals. I think that that is provided for, but the hon. Gentleman might wish to explore the matter further.

I think that I have covered the points that have been raised—but the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is looking annoyed with me for having said that.

Mr. Hawkins: I was not annoyed with the Minister: I was seeking to jog his memory, as he has not addressed my questions concerning bodies such as NCIS.

Mr. Ainsworth: NCIS, the National Crime Squad and similar agencies were consulted as part of the preparation of the Bill. They were also involved in the discussion that took place before the draft Bill was produced. All those agencies are supportive of the Government's measures. We have taken their guidance into account, and they are happy with our proposals.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Accreditation and training

Mr. Hawkins: I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 23, leave out `must' and insert `may'.

Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 are not being taken together, but they have the same aim, and I wish to explain it. As drafted, the Bill says that the director must establish a system for the accreditation of financial investigators. That is entirely new. As we do not yet know the identity or background of this director, surely the Government should trust him to decide how he carries out his job. We felt that it would be far better if the legislation were permissive rather than compulsory. Once the Government have had their selection procedure and made their appointment, the director, presumably a person with some relevant expertise, might decide that setting up a system for accredited financial investigators was not the way to go.

A recent comparable case, which will be familiar to all members of the Committee, shows how the Government might find that someone whom they had appointed held rather different views from theirs. The Government's much vaunted drugs tsar, Mr. Keith Hellawell, was going to tackle the drugs problem, but now, as the Minister and I were debating only the other evening on the Floor of the House, Mr. Hellawell's policy has been completely torn up by the new Home Secretary. His position has been reduced. His public statements are completely at odds with the new Home Secretary's new policy. If the Government imposed the clause as currently drafted they might find that they had appointed a director who took a different view.

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