Proceeds of Crime Bill

[back to previous text]

The Chairman: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman's conclusions dovetail entirely with those reached by the Chair. The debate is narrow and matters will be discussed more fully under clause 75.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to you, Mr. Gale. I am glad that I second-guessed your response to the Minister. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield because the amendments took much thought over a weekend. They did not take us only five seconds. We both racked our brains to find a better and more accurate way of drafting them. My hon. Friend came up with the words:

    ``is an habitual criminal for gain''.

We decided that that was the best form of wording because we feel that this and the related clauses need to concentrate on a concept with which the courts are familiar: looking at people who have criminal records for the kind of offences that should properly bring them within the ambit of such a new agency.

That is perhaps a way in which I can respond to the charges, which the Minister and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok were starting to make, that we wanted to rip the heart out of this Bill when we debated some of the early amendments. We are not seeking to do that. We are not opposing the whole Bill because there is a case for legislation to continue a battle that, as the Minister reminded us, was started under Conservative Administrations in the 1980s. In that regard, I am grateful to the Minister for quoting my noble Friend Lord Hurd of Westwell when he was Home Secretary. Although we are worried about certain parts of the Bill and their consequences, we are not trying to undermine the whole Bill—we genuinely think that the suggested wording will target more precisely the measures that the new agency, its director and his staff will try to use.

We are worried about introducing such a new concept—I speak with the support of organisations such as Justice and Liberty, which have sent us detailed briefings. Not only is it novel and alien to the common law but it has all kinds of dangers. It is a kind of subjective test, which courts will find difficult to use, whereas using the words that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield suggested—

    ``an habitual criminal for gain''—

will make it much easier for the courts to identify whom are the proper targets for the new agency.

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough): I do not quite understand the hon. Gentleman's point given the narrow remit of the debate. As I understand it, the amendment would merely change the name and not the concept. The concept is defined by the conditions, which he is not attacking.

Mr. Hawkins: Obviously, Mr. Gale, I am anxious to abide by your earlier warning and ruling, and I do not want my comments to range too widely. However, if the hon. Gentleman considers the change under discussion, and the wider amendments that we have tabled to later parts of the Bill, and considers how they dovetail together, he will recognise that the rest of our amendments would not work without the suggested change of wording. I can see him nodding his assent to that, but I do not want to go into that wider debate because of your ruling, Mr. Gale.

Because of the system in Committee, which is a good one, we must table amendments when we first discuss clauses that raise the issue of the wording and the way in which the concept is used, which is now. There is fairly wide agreement among Liberal Democrats, Conservative Members and perhaps even the Minister that certain clauses form the nub of the Bill—clauses 6, 11, 70 and 75—and part 5 will also raise many issues. There will, of course, be debates on other clauses, but those provisions will provide the biggest area of debate. I see the Under-Secretary nodding his assent to that. Inevitably, unless we have a consistent approach to clause 6 and the related clauses, including clause 75, to which one amendment in the group refers, we cannot get to the other half of our argument.

I hope that I have raised the issue in a sufficiently narrow compass—to some extent, it is semantics—while setting it in a context. This is not a probing matter. I will be asking for support from my hon. Friends, other Opposition Members, and even from independently minded Labour Members—

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): Where are they?

Mr. Hawkins: I have had an opportunity, as we have been in Committee for a couple of days, to examine some of the backgrounds of Labour Members on the Committee. Some of the lawyers on the Government Benches have been involved privately—

Mr. Tredinnick: My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government business managers will have been doing everything that they can to stop them talking, in order to make progress with the Bill.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend may be right in his observation. He may have observed more than I have. However, I know that a number of people have an independent mind: the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok in particular has shown that. One or two Labour Members who are distinguished lawyers have been involved with organisations such as Justice and Liberty before and since entering Parliament. They may well be persuaded by those organisations' views.

Mr. Tredinnick: My hon. Friend has been a Member of Parliament for sufficient time to know what it was like to have jibes about Lobby fodder thrown at Conservatives. We now have a situation in which we wonder whether some Labour Members will speak at all.

The Chairman: Order. I will be grateful if hon. Members will confine their interventions to matters under discussion. It is clear that any hon. Member who wishes to catch my eye is at liberty to do so.

Mr. Hawkins: I understand entirely my hon. Friend's point.

We regard the matters as substantial, although they are tightly drawn on the amendments. I will invite hon. Members to support the amendments, which are not merely probing because they relate to highly significant matters. We will return to related issues when considering later clauses, particularly clauses 70 and 75.

Mr. Grieve: The Minister is right that the matter involves semantics. I hope that he will accept that I would encourage the Committee to alter the words even if I had not tabled any further amendments.

Words matter because the way in which we define things colours our view of people. If part 2 has a purpose, it can be defined using words from the amendment: targeting habitual criminals for gain. In contrast, the definition of a criminal lifestyle is about as wide as is possible. I encourage the Committee to consider the wording if it were slightly altered and suppose that, instead of referring to a criminal lifestyle, the Bill stated that the court must decide whether the defendant is a nasty piece of work. I do not think that there is any difference between the definitions of ``a nasty piece of work'' and ``a criminal lifestyle''.

Mr. Davidson: Every time I look across the Chamber at the Conservatives, I see many nasty pieces of work. However, that is not necessarily the same as saying that they have a criminal lifestyle.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman reminds me of two things. It is possible to have a criminal lifestyle without being a criminal. I could take up residence in one of the outer suburbs of London in a large property with substantial electric gates, which are especially seen in parts of the Essex fringe. I could acquire two rottweilers called Ronnie and Reggie and buy a 4x4 for my wife—I think that the Vitara is the one that they go for—and a Range Rover for myself. I could wear shades throughout the year and have rings on my fingers that include large sovereigns. I could have small tattoos on my knuckles that are indicative of my general outlook. If I did that, it might be said that I had adopted a criminal lifestyle. However, that does not mean that I would be a criminal.

Mr. Davidson: You would be a fashion victim.

Mr. Grieve: I might well be a fashion victim, but that would not make me a criminal. Although the Bill has been carefully thought through, it contains a definition of criminality that might brand innocent people as criminals. I am concerned by that. We should not go down the road of that kind of branding identification; it will turn into a slippery slope that will lead to sloppy thinking about what we are trying to do, and who we are trying to do it to.

4 pm

Mr. Tredinnick: I am reminded of the phrase ``negative stereotype'', which was employed by Mr. Ken Livingstone, the former Labour Member for Brent, East, and the current Mayor of London. The Bill's definition of a ``criminal lifestyle'' is guilty of negative stereotyping.

Mr. Grieve: I agree, although that might be unintentional. I would like to know which member of the Home Office drafting department dreamed up the phrase ``criminal lifestyle''. It is a lovely term, but it is unfortunate and unnecessary, because it is possible to define more accurately the people we should be targeting.

I thought about that matter over the weekend, and I came up with the phrase in the amendment, which neatly and precisely encapsulates the people we wish to target. Does the Committee agree that it would be preferable to have that definition in the Bill, rather than the current definition, which will raise eyebrows because it will create a new, and unnecessary, category of hate figure?

Ian Lucas: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman has settled on that phrase because he is a lawyer, and that it would not connect with the people to whom the legislation is addressed. The phrase ``criminal lifestyle'' means a lifestyle that is pursued by a criminal. It would be understood as such by the public, and it is an appropriate way of deterring the people whom the Bill is intended to target.

Mr. Grieve: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The phrase ``criminal lifestyle'' refers to people who have the outward appearance of criminality.

The point that I am raising is not merely an exercise in semantics. I understand the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok and others that the communities that they represent deeply resent people with the outward and visible signs of criminality. However, such people might not be criminals, and I dislike the Bill's branding identification, especially as it is unnecessary. The Bill deals with people who engage in criminality for gain: indeed, those who do not engage in it for gain are not covered by the trigger mechanisms that start the confiscation.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 15 November 2001