Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Davidson: I rise to speak with almost an apology for the fact that I am not a lawyer; I feel a bit guilty for intruding on some sort of private argument—but perhaps it would be valuable for a real person who is not a lawyer to contribute to the debate.

I must make it clear that the proposal is not a money-raising measure. It is designed to penalise offenders and act as a deterrent. I listened with interest—well, with partial interest—to the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield about the word ``may''. The corollary of ``may'' is ``may not''. Who is it that the hon. Gentleman does not want to be pursued by judges or the courts? I have some Library statistics that show what percentage of offenders were ordered to pay confiscation orders for drug trafficking offences in various years in England and Wales. In the last year for which there are figures, confiscation orders were made for only 15 per cent. of those sentenced. That means that 85 per cent. of people convicted of drug trafficking offences were not pursued for their resources.

Perhaps I am a simple soul, but I am in favour of pursuing drug dealers. That 15 per cent. seems a sadly low figure, but the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland would presumably argue that as it is due to judicial discretion, then it is okay.

10.30 am

Mr. Grieve: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davidson: Before lawyers attack me, I shall finish my point. In the previous year, 18 per cent. of offenders were ordered to pay confiscation orders. The year before that, the figure was 21 per cent. Before that, it was 25 per cent., and in 1994 it was 26 per cent. A mathematician—or at least, someone with more fingers than I have, could say whether such a rate of decline, if things were left to the discretion of the courts, would in two decades result in no confiscation orders at all. That is not in line with the general mood of the country.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Davidson: I give way to the first offender.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the declining number of confiscation orders is a matter for concern, but it has occurred because the system has been brought into disrepute, as it was not possible to match the figure written on the court order with the value of the assets recovered. Although the Bill will make the process mandatory, there is no evidence that assets recovery will match expectations any better now than it did then. That is the major reason why the system failed and was not invoked.

Mr. Davidson: That is a fascinating point, but unfortunately it has little to do with the points that I made. The hon. Gentleman argues that the system did not work and that there was a discrepancy between the assets that the court wanted to recover and those recovered. That is not the point that the statistics demonstrate; they show that no confiscation orders were made in 85 per cent. of cases. How could there be a discrepancy between the amount ordered and the amount received if those 85 per cent. never received confiscation orders? That escapes me.

Mr. Grieve rose—

Mr. Davidson: I shall finish my point, and then I shall let the hon. Gentleman respond. Some 682 confiscation orders were made for sums of less than £1,000. That is a relatively modest sum. In 85 per cent. of cases, the courts did not even try to recover a sum less than £1,000. That seems to be a misuse of the system.

Mr. Carmichael: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will not attack him, as it is my duty as a lawyer to help people. In that spirit, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman made a good point, but it is not affected by the question of judicial discretion. The fact is that the prosecuting authority—the Crown Office unit— would have to take the initiative to bring the matter before the court. When I was there, the fraud and special services unit had two full-time solicitors, a senior solicitor and a trainee solicitor. How much should we expect to be done by three fully qualified people and one trainee? It is a matter of resources. The question of judicial discretion does not impact on the statistics that the hon. Gentleman helpfully brings before the Committee.

Mr. Davidson: That was a constructive point. I have already raised the matter of resourcing—although I must confess that when I heard the hon. Gentleman say that a lawyer's job was to help people, I looked out of the window and saw three flying pigs—[Interruption.] I know that there is a difference between pigs and molluscs, but I shall not digress. The question is whether we are being unfair to molluscs.

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman may not have heard the extremely helpful suggestion made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, so I shall repeat it for him: he asked whether the flying pigs were committing tachograph offences.

The Chairman: Order. Shall we stick to the debate?

Mr. Davidson: Some useful points were made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield about why the original provision for Scotland was different, and why the adaptations that we now suggest are unnecessary. In my view, the Scottish legal advice that was given to Ministers—and the way in which it was worded—was insufficiently tuned to the public mood. I always thought that the Scottish legal establishment, particularly those parts of it now working for the Scottish Executive, was out of touch with the mood of the people. Opinion in Scotland is better reflected by Labour Back Benchers. I am glad that the Minister has recognised that fact and that, in due course, the Moloch amendment—I would prefer to call the Davidson amendment—will allow Scotland to say ``must'' rather than ``may''.

Some speakers, particularly Opposition Members, ought to reflect on the fact that in Scotland—and to a great extent in England, although my experience here is not so great—have the strong feeling that judges are out of touch with life on the streets, and that they do not fully understand the impact of crime, particularly drug-related crime and its ramifications, and its effect on the lives of real people. Judges are also thought to be too indulgent towards white-collar offenders. As the Committee might have expected, it has long been my view that the legal establishment is not necessarily on the side of the people, and that the justice system in Scotland is more of a game, with rules that do not correspond with reality. The system needs changing, and if we have to do that with mandatory provisions, so be it.

Norman Baker: I agree with some of the reservations expressed by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok about judges. Their schooling and their background is narrow, and many of them know nothing about popular culture. However, that is not a reason for excluding them from the process; it is a reason for reforming them.

Mr. Davidson: Yes, but life is short. I personally take the view that Scotland will not be modernised until we have abolished public schools, segregated schools, the monarch and a number of other things, but I do not expect that to happen before the Committee rises—unless the hon. Member for Beaconsfield speaks for much longer than he has today. Modernisation in a number of areas would be welcomed, but that is not an argument for not making this particular improvement.

Mr. Hawkins: I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has strongly held views, and we have discussed this on many occasions outside the Committee as well as in relation to legislation. Many people who sit as recorders, dealing with day-to-day drugs cases, have been the victim of serious crime in their private lives. There have been celebrated cases recently: one thinks of the judge who was beaten up by a group of yobs who attacked travellers at railways stations to fund their drug habit. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that one strength of our judicial system is that it contains many people who are aware of real life? If he is not aware of that, will it not be useful for him to meet those who practise as barristers and sit as recorders? If he met them, he would change his views on how aware they are of real life.

Mr. Davidson: I am prepared to accept that there are some in the legal profession who, through particular incidents, have experienced the bad effects of drugs. If he is arguing that all judges should be beaten up regularly, as a valuable learning experience, that is a proposal that I will reflect on. I might move an amendment on it later.

The hon. Gentleman is missing the point about the effect of crime in communities such as my own. It is not about individual incidents, but about the cumulative, corrosive effect day in, day out. It is about people being confined to their homes after 5 o'clock. It is about mothers telling me that they must go out to the shops before 1 o'clock because a horde of yobs get out of their beds at lunchtime and start rampaging through the streets. If people do not get their shopping done by then, they might not get home with any change—or, sometimes, with any of their shopping. It is a cumulative effect, and I do not believe that any judge or person high up in the legal system lives in such circumstances. If the hon. Gentleman can come up with one, I shall be happy to meet him or her.

Mr. Foulkes: I agree that Labour Back Benchers are more in touch with what is happening on the ground than some of the judiciary are. However, our change of policy is not meant in any way to be a criticism of the Scottish judiciary, which has consistently pursued confiscation orders. We took that into account at the start. We thought it more important to have a consistent policy throughout the United Kingdom that would send a clear message to people who might be tempted to get involved in drug trafficking or other offences. There should not be any criticism of our legal draftspersons, who only carried out Minister's instructions. Not be just one amendment but many amendments—I am happy for them to be called the Davidson amendments—will be drafted by those diligent people who have to change the Bill at our request, responding to different representations.

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Prepared 15 November 2001