Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Grieve: The longer the debate has continued, and the more I have listened to the Minister, the more concerned I have become. The amendments partly reflected the Opposition's anxieties about the civil liberties angle. However, they are certainly not articles of faith. What I find most troubling is the way in which the Minister seems to have latched on to the mandatory nature of the clause as an article of faith, and insisted that we should all sign up in blood or be consigned to perpetual damnation. Apart from anything else, I have never viewed it as an ``either/or'' matter. I simply pointed out to the Minister that the Scottish system, which worked as a discretionary system in the past, shows no sign whatever of having been less effective in relation to the specific offences at which it was targeted than the mandatory English system.

I claim no great knowledge of Scottish law, but I am aware that before devolution, there was much complaint in this House that the nature of legislation passing through this House meant that Scottish legislation and law reform was often put on the back burner, and did not get the attention that it deserved. Therefore, many areas of Scots law were not legislated on as was needed. That has now been remedied. However, the irony is that, especially in respect of the criminal justice system, Scotland has probably been spared some of the more draconian, authoritarian knee-jerk reactions—I confess that both parties, when in government, have been responsible for them—that have arisen in response to the continuous rise in the crime rate in this country over a long period. Over the years, that has not, unfortunately, resulted in reducing the crime rate a great deal, but only in eroding the kinds of civil liberties that would have been taken for granted by our forefathers, who would be turning in their graves if they could contemplate such a piece of legislation.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman should not ask my party to share the blame for meddling in that regard. All the subsequent changes that made it mandatory were made by the hon. Gentleman's party.

3 pm

Mr. Grieve: I am not sure that I agree with that. In the past three years, the Government have enacted plenty of criminal justice legislation that has made me raise my eyebrows. I do not know about past Conservative Governments, but it seems that the Government have not learned much of a lesson, to judge by how they are tackling the issue. It may be a sign of a gradually ageing Government: there is the sense of a wall being built, and the inability to engage in sensible dialogue.

Amendment No. 8 is designed to mirror and, as far as possible, put in place a system similar to that in Scotland. As we are widening the scope of confiscation orders, and in view of what the Minister acknowledged about how past Scottish regimes have worked, the amendment would be a useful safeguard with hardly any downside. It should therefore be considered.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): Is not the downside that the deterrent effect of the measure would be wholly undermined by the amendment?

Mr. Grieve: I do not agree. What is so interesting about the debate is that the Bill has been elevated into an article of faith. It is not a matter of how effectively it is implemented. Apparently, what is of primary importance is the signal that the Government are sending out to miscreants. It is like having a public execution rather than a private one. The Minister wants the proposal to be a testament, a statement to which people must adhere, and that is where I part company with him. My view is that the measure will work if it works, regardless of the wording. We shall come in a moment to wording that I find absurd. It is part of the slightly populist element that has crept into what should be a carefully reasoned measure.

Mr. Davidson: Only slightly populist? Fully populist, I hope.

Mr. Grieve: I hear the arch-populist on the Back Bench who is probably proud of it. One reason why I was elected to the House was to stand up for the rights of the individual. The amendment would do that in a way that does not detract from the thrust of the Bill which, as I said earlier, we are happy to support.

In view of what transpired in the debate I shall divide the Committee, as our views should be sought on the key amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 13.

Division No. 1]

Baker, Norman
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair
Field, Mr. Mark
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Hawkins, Mr. Nick
Johnson, Mr. Boris
Wilshire, Mr. David

Ainsworth, Mr. Bob
Clark, Mrs. Helen
David, Mr. Wayne
Davidson, Mr. Ian
Foulkes, Mr. George
Hesford, Stephen
Lazarowicz, Mr. Mark
Lucas, Ian
McGuire, Mrs. Anne
Robertson, John
Stinchcombe, Mr. Paul
Stoate, Dr. Howard
Watson, Mr. Tom

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Carmichael: I beg to move amendment No. 23, in page 3, leave out lines 22 to 26.

Flushed with the success of that moral victory—

Mr. Davidson: He must be a Scottish football supporter.

Mr. Carmichael: Funnily enough, yes. As a Scottish football supporter and a Liberal Democrat, what else would I be expected to say?

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): Who do you support?

Mr. Carmichael: That question is not only irrelevant but could prejudice my future political prospects, so I shall not answer it.

At the risk of finding myself hauled before the professional standards committee of the Law Society of Scotland, I shall be fairly brief in moving this amendment. When I was elected to the House I thought that my days of sitting listening to counsel going on and on and on were over, but I had a feeling of de''ja vu at times this morning.

The amendment would greatly limit the scope of the clause. I do not know the basis on which the Conservative spokesmen have signed up to it, but certainly in view of our extensive discussions on the previous amendments, particularly amendment No. 8, I offer it in a fairly robust probing manner. It is incumbent on the Minister to explain to the Committee exactly why such a wide range of criminal offences needs to be brought under the ambit of the confiscation provisions. Some of them have been referred to already: my example of an habitual shoplifter and, dare I say it, the tachograph in health and safety offences. Those are all legitimate public concerns.

If such a prescriptive approach is to be taken towards the court's discretion, or lack of it, the amendment is worthy of careful consideration as a means of strengthening the Bill. I say that advisedly, because if we proceed to stop up all the holes, as the Minister put it, there is a danger that the Bill will be seen by a wide range of people in society—those concerned with civil liberties and others—as being so draconian that it will be a significant threat to individual liberties. By effectively setting the balance more in favour of serious offences, rather than the full wide range of offences, there is a much stronger case for defending the wide range of measures that can be brought to bear on the individuals finding themselves the subject of the confiscation procedures.

Finally, I offer one practical consideration. The full range of offences that could trigger the confiscation procedures here is enormous. Any assets recovery agency or unit of the Crown Office in Scotland could be overwhelmed by the sheer variety of offences and cases that they may have to prosecute. I have not been particularly taken by the analogy with the Child Support Agency, but one of the big difficulties that the CSA encountered in its early days was the sheer volume of work that it was burdened with.

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case, which I hope that the Minister, his advisers and members of the Committee will take on board. He has come to the similarities between this new agency and the CSA. Does he agree that one of the problems that we found as parliamentarians when the CSA was introduced was that the Government—a Government of my party—had not anticipated the sheer volume of work that it would have? It was not just that huge volume, but that no one had expected it.

Mr. Carmichael: That is a perfectly legitimate point. I offer the amendment in the spirit of trying to strengthen the provision, and the early days are always the most important. If we create a new agency that must find its own way and set up its own procedures, it may be simply overwhelmed. That would risk dealing a fairly serious blow to the agency's credibility in the early days, which would be a great pity. Once the credibility of a public agency is affected as that of the Child Support Agency was, it is difficult ever to recover lost ground. I therefore invite the Committee to consider the amendment.

Mr. Grieve: We support the amendment's intention. The issue may call for a momentary examination not only of the amendment but of the relationship between clauses 6 and 70.

The amendment would restrict the operation of the clause to persons who are convicted of offences in the Crown court. I suspect that anyone outside Parliament who is looking into the matter will have assumed that the people pursued under the confiscation mechanism will be serious criminals who should have gone to the Crown court in the first place, not petty criminals, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said.

The matter is even more odd. If confiscation were the only method of recovering criminals' assets, I would accept that there might be an argument according to what was described on Second Reading as the Al Capone principle—

Hon. Members: Capone.

Mr. Grieve: Having heard the name of my constituency pronounced Beeconsfield rather than Beckonsfield, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that when I was a spokesman on Scotland, I was taken to task for my inability, certainly initially, to pronounce a variety of constituency names from north of the border. We shall talk about the Al Capone'' clause if it pleases him—and leave the Hansard staff to work out how to deal with the nuances.

Clearly, if confiscation under part 2 were the only method available for recovering criminals' assets, I could see an argument for the criminal who has fallen foul of some minute piece of legislation but whom everyone knows is Mr. Big being taken to the cleaners through that process. There would be a compelling argument for the Minister to say that the confiscation provision should be drawn so wide. However, as we shall find during later consideration of the Bill, there is an alternative method for recovering the assets of people suspected of crime, wrongdoing and the accumulation of unlawfully gained money: the civil procedure. The argument does not have much force, because an alternative exists.

I am troubled because, as we have discussed, the confiscation route is a draconian procedure. It is heavily weighted in favour of the director or prosecutor who decides to undertake it, on the basis that, after an individual has been convicted of a linked offence, it is right and proper that the usual protections of the burden of proof should be substantially reduced and transferred on to him to enable confiscation to take place.

However, the clause is so wide that it extends, admittedly at the magistrate's discretion, to virtually every criminal offence in the book where a benefit can be shown to have accrued to the person concerned. I do not know how the Minister envisages the legislation's implementation. Is it his view that the habitual and chaotic shoplifter, rightly alluded to by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, should be taken through this process to have his probably derisory assets—perhaps what is left over from spending on his drug habit—removed, so that the battered old settee in the living room will be carted off, or is the provision targeted only at those who can be identified as having what a sensible outsider would view as substantial assets: a motor vehicle, a house or a bank account containing several thousands of pounds? If the latter, extending the confiscatory mechanism so widely to petty offences is pointless and will have practical consequences, one being the transfer of what should be a magistrates court case into the Crown court.

3.15 pm

I am aware that the Government are considering various proposals for the reform of the criminal justice system. At present, magistrates courts handle a substantial burden of this country's crime. Clauses 70 and 71 suggest that the Crown courts will have a massive burden placed on them to sentence offenders for the most minute of offences if the prosecutor has decided that matters should be transferred there in respect of the asset position.

I look to the Minister for guidance. As he knows from Second Reading, I am troubled about clause 75, which allows the Secretary of State to specify a range of offences in relation to the assumption process. That also ties in with the great unfettered power conferred by the Bill. The amendments have much to commend them. What category of person do the provisions target?

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