Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: I would not want the hon. Gentleman to believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and I suggested that tachograph offences were not serious. If he believes that we said that earlier, he has entirely misunderstood the point. My hon. Friend and I know of tragic cases with fatal consequences that arose because people committed tachograph offences. None the less, the hon. Gentleman is making a good point.

Mr. Davidson: What I described was the impression that I received on the previous sitting. The Opposition mentioned tachograph offences and the little old lady with the shoplifting offences in order to belittle what was proposed and attempt to divert us.

12 noon

I can give the Minister another reported example, in which the father of the Scottish Formula 1 star David Coulthard was fined and sentenced by Scotland's traffic commissioners. An article about it states:

    ``A public inquiry into two haulage firms run by Mr Coulthard revealed he had personally paid fines totalling almost GPB 30,000 for drivers who had broken the law more than 130 times . . . More than 70 offences were admitted by drivers at courts across the country after a major investigation''.

An operation discovered that

    ``drivers at a Carlisle-based firm that was subcontracted by Hayton Coulthard had accumulated 130 offences relating to falsified tachograph records in November, 1998. The firm J&K Williamson, trading as Williamson and Co, claimed at Kendal Magistrates Court in June 1998 that Hayton Coulthard had ordered their drivers to break the law by falsifying records.

    The inquiry heard claims that Hayton Coulthard had threatened to withdraw contracts if they did not comply.''

Those examples confirm the points that I made in the previous sitting about tachographs. That example shows not a trivial offence committed by one driver, but a case in which employers force drivers to commit offences under threat of dismissal and withdrawal of contract.

Mr. Grieve: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He may recollect that I raised the example of health and safety offences. I have been involved in health and safety cases in which the offence was clearly committed for criminal gain. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but the points that we made about tachograph offences in the previous sitting showed how wide the category of offences is. Individual tachograph offences that are not linked to the type of conduct that the hon. Gentleman identified fall into a different category. His examples show how broadly the nature and seriousness of tachograph offences can vary.

Mr. Davidson: I must confess that that was not the impression that I gained from Opposition Members. I thought that it was clear that they were trying to suggest that the Bill could be used to pick up trivial offences such as shoplifting or tachograph offences. If that is a retreat by the hon. Gentleman, I am prepared to accept his confession of wrongdoing, and I shall say no more about the matter. Perhaps he will reconsider his outrageous defence of cattle rustling, to which I shall return on another occasion.

Mr. Foulkes: We have had an interesting debate—more interesting than I had expected. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Spelthorne returning, because we are talking about the recoverable amount, and I am sure that he will agree that we have three options: the amount can be more than, equal to, or less than the

    ``defendant's benefit from the amount concerned.''

We all agree on that. No one suggests that it should be more than the defendant's benefit; at least, I have not heard that argued—

Mr. Grieve: I am surprised.

Mr. Foulkes—however much that may surprise the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. The amount available for recovery could be less than the defendant's benefit, and we have described those circumstances. It seems sensible that the Bill should specify that the amount recoverable should normally equal the defendant's benefit. That brings me to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson).

Mr. Wilshire: I followed the Minister's argument until the very last moment, when he said the words ``normally equal''. I have made the point that the sum should not always, but normally will, equal the defendant's benefit. The sum could, therefore, be less, and it could be to the court's advantage that the sum should be less than the defendant's benefit. I had hoped that the Minister would take that point on board.

Mr. Foulkes: As I understand it—unless I have got it wrong—we have already dealt with the question of the available amount. When the available amount is less than the defendant's benefit, ``You cannot take the breeks off a Hielan'man''. A Hielan'man wears a kilt; he does not own breeks, so they cannot be taken away from him. I am sure that the hon. Member for Spelthorne understands what I am saying.

Mr. Wilshire: Perhaps the Minister credits me with more intelligence than I possess, because I have always thought that I would need a visa to travel north of Watford.

Mr. Foulkes: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be welcome in Scotland at any time.

I return to the points that have been made about the phrase,

    ``equal to the defendant's benefit''.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok asked about the calculation, and he raised interesting questions about cows: should the value of the living cow be calculated, or the value of the cow after it has been butchered and made available for other purposes? He also raised the recurring questions of tachographs and muddled shoplifters. I direct him to clause 80, which describes how the value of property obtained from criminal conduct is calculated. The Committee will return to the interesting question of the calculation of specific benefits in specific crimes and cases.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne said something that must not be allowed to pass unchallenged, and I will deal with that after I have dealt with the following two points. The court has the power to revisit the available amount—to take another look at it—and that matter is covered in clause 23. The question of court time was also raised. We have not undertaken an estimate of the time it takes to assess the available amount, but it is essential that that is done, and the court should do it. I assure hon. Members that that is not a new requirement.

Mr. Hawkins: I accept the Minister's point that that time will need to be taken, but I ask him, yet again, to consult his officials so that he can offer an assessment of how much time will be taken. If he cannot provide that now, will he do so later? It would be possible to make an assessment of it, based on the experience of drug trafficking orders, and that would be helpful to the Committee.

Mr. Foulkes: I am not sure whether that would be helpful to the Committee. The hon. Gentleman is worried about the amount of time that will be taken up by the court, but I am also concerned about the time that would be unnecessarily taken up by officials in calculating matters that are difficult to calculate. That would impose extra burdens. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has more than this piece of legislation to deal with: as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said, legislation on terrorism is also being considered, and it would not be sensible for Home Office Ministers and officials to spend a lot of their time making assessments and calculations that would not be of any real benefit to the Committee.

Mr. Hawkins: I shall put my point to the Minister in a different way. One of the legitimate concerns that is always felt about legislation that introduces new operations into the criminal courts is how it will work in practice. If I thought that officials in the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department never undertook such assessments, I might agree with the Minister that what I am requesting would impose an unreasonable extra burden. However, he would surely concede that they frequently undertake such assessments.

My request is not unreasonable: I have made it when shadowing both the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department, and estimates were provided. I am not asking that my request be acceded to immediately, but when Parliament scrutinises proposals such as those under discussion, it must have some idea what effect they will have on the operation of the criminal courts.

Mr. Foulkes: I tell the hon. Gentleman again that this is not a new requirement. If he wishes his question to be answered, he should go and see how long it takes under the present legislation, or he should talk to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, who could give him an indication, as he has practical experience of the matter.

I return to a strange point that was made by the hon. Member for Spelthorne, as it epitomises many of the points that have been made by at least one of the Opposition parties. He was anxious that the available amount should not be reduced by salting away money in other ways, so that the court would not have access to as much money as possible. However, amendment No. 32, to which he has put his name, would do precisely that. That epitomises what my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok said earlier—it is difficult to know whether Conservative Members really want to make the Bill effective.

Mr. Grieve: We shall deal with amendment No. 32 in a moment, but I must take the Minister to task. How is the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne incompatible with amendment No. 32, which asks the Committee to consider whether bona fide debts should have a special category? As I shall explain, there are social and economic reasons for that, and it has nothing to do with salting away money.

The Chairman: Order. As I have said repeatedly, these are complex and interrelated issues. None the less, I would not want the merit or otherwise of amendment No. 32 to be debated at this point.

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