Proceeds of Crime Bill

[back to previous text]

Stephen Hesford: If the hon. Gentleman does not mind my saying so, he is wriggling. The amendment applies to a person convicted of a specific crime, as well as to anyone roped in because of a criminal lifestyle. If it were made, you would have drug money back on the street because of an innocent third party. Is that what he is arguing?

The Chairman: Order. I will not have any drug money on any street. I felt a slight anticipation of the debate on clause 11, too, but never mind.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman agreed that the Bill is not a replica of previous legislation. We want to widen the categories of people from whom assets may be confiscated. I accept that confiscation took place previously and that such a regime operated. I also accept that the Minister knows of no serious complaints. That is reassuring, but we are widening the scope—

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister mentioned the Government's lack of complaints. Does my hon. Friend agree that if an innocent business man were to apply to protect the debt owed to him, solicitors would advise him not to bother because no statutory power exists? The amendments propose a wider regime to protect the innocent.

Mr. Grieve: I agree. I was not in Parliament when the 1985 legislation was debated but I have seen how it works in practice. As a matter of philosophical principle and leaving practical problems to one side, there would have been good grounds in 1985 to argue along the lines that I have today, because this is not an ordinary bankruptcy regime. Unlike in bankruptcy, the state requires substantial sums, so bona fide third parties adversely affected as creditors should be considered. How best to do that raises practical problems and I am mindful of what the Minister said, although I am not persuaded that the system will prevent injustice. Furthermore, bogus applications should be rapidly dismissed.

I must tell the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) that I have not been involved in restraint proceedings. When I was a barrister, my job was to obtain the original confiscation order, but I never dealt with its civil consequences in the High Court. Nor did I deal with practical problems or people adversely affected.

The amendment was a probing one, but I am minded to press it to a Division because the Minister is unprepared even to think about it. Unless he does—and I do not think that he will—I will press it to a vote. I do not expect to win, but I want to mark it up as an issue that may be taken up elsewhere. It may even be taken up in a private Member's Bill. There is a point here that the Committee can sensibly address without detracting from the force of what the Bill intends to do. We support that intention.

Mr. Foulkes: I genuinely thought that I provided convincing arguments. Obviously I did not. I will have another go and try to encourage the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment. All we are talking about is what should be discounted in the calculation of the available amount. Some of what he implied went far beyond that. He said that he found my reply disappointing. We must remember that we are talking about serious matters that affect our constituents. We are not trying to score debating points, although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West that the Opposition spokesman appeared to be pulling back and conceding some points. I do not blame him for that.

Mr. Grieve: We are at the Committee stage.

Mr. Foulkes: That is a perfectly valid thing to do during the Committee stage. The hon. Member for Lewes said that this was a well-intentioned amendment. I do not doubt that, but I hope that he also realises that it would seriously weaken the powers of the Bill. The principal purpose of the Bill is to deter criminals by having real powers to confiscate their assets. That bears repetition.

Norman Baker: I accept that that is the Minister's view of the amendment. I hope that he will go on to say what alternative method he proposes to help innocent third parties.

Mr. Foulkes: I shall come to that. Let us talk about the poor creditors, the innocent third parties and the unsecured lenders. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield asked about secured lenders. If he wanted it to be just a probing amendment he could have tabled an amendment to say that the secured lenders might not be taken into account either. That would have hardened the arrangement. We would then have seen that all his amendments did not tend in the one direction of weakening the power of the Bill.

Inevitably, an unsecured lender will expose himself or herself to a wide range of risks. The fact that the borrower may be subject to a confiscation order is only one of those risks. The borrower or recipient of goods and services may turn out to be insolvent. He or she may die without leaving an adequate estate or may simply default or, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary rightly pointed out, be sent to prison. All of those pose risks for unsecured lenders. This is just one of many risks that we are talking about today.

Mr. Hawkins: Of course what the Minister is saying is right. Those who are in business understand some of the risks relating to bankruptcy. Those in substantial businesses often run credit checks. The Minister forgets that he and his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary conceded that this is a much wider regime. A much wider range of people might be accidentally hit. These are people who could have no way of protecting themselves. Surely he does not suggest that the local greengrocer, to take the original example from my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, should try to secure his position. Greengrocers do not deal in securing their credit.

Mr. Foulkes: The hon. Gentleman said earlier that we would be besieged at our surgeries by these greengrocers with unsecured debt problems—[Interruption.] No doubt they will be throwing things at us. We have checked to see whether that is happening. We have the confiscation arrangement. It covers drug dealers. We are extending it to include other criminals such as money launderers. Let me put it to the Committee, has anyone been besieged at their surgeries by people saying, ``I have lost money that is owed to me by these drug dealers.''? No one is rising.

Mr. Hawkins: Like other hon. Members, I have spoken to many small traders at my surgery. They tell us that they have lost money, had their businesses put at risk and, in some cases, been put into bankruptcy because of a range of issues. As I said earlier, if a small business man were to take professional advice under the current regime about whether he had a chance of pursuing a claim, he would be told not even to try it. He would be told that there are no powers whereby such action can be taken. With such a huge extension to the regime, Parliament should provide protection for the innocent. That is what it is for.

Mr. Foulkes: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he has strengthened my argument. I said that an unsecured lender would inevitably expose himself or herself to a wide range of risks. He has confirmed that.

There are other innocent victims. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok said, one of the reasons for confiscating the money is to deter people from crime and ensure that people do not profit from the proceeds of crime. It is also designed to recycle some of the money to help those who have suffered because of the actions of criminals. My hon. Friend mentioned that on Second Reading, but I mean him no disrespect when I say that such provisions are already in the Bill.

It is explicit in the Bill that some of the money must be used to help people who are suffering, those who need drug treatment and those who have been devastated by the actions of drug dealers. I know about such matters because of what happens in my constituency. The hon. Member for Lewes has told us about the appalling effect that drug dealers have on his constituency. Surely it is right that we should use as much money as possible to sort out some of the damage that drug dealers have wreaked on our communities. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree.

Norman Baker: That aim is entirely laudable. It is not only drug dealers who have an unwanted effect on constituencies, but others who are involved in serious crime. No one would disagree with that idea. However, some of those who are suffering because of drug dealers have unsecured debts, and they will be out of pocket under the Bill.

Mr. Foulkes: I think that I have already dealt with that matter. There is a fairly representative cross-section of hon. Members in the Committee, yet no one jumped up to say that he or she is already besieged by greengrocers, for example, as claimed by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. I say to the hon. Member for Lewes—perhaps on some occasions I should call him my hon. Friend—that if the amendment were accepted, who can guarantee that the defendant, or the criminal, would use the money to pay his unsecured creditors? Surely such people will not say, ``Oh well, the court has been kind. It has taken account of things. There you are, Mr. Greengrocer.'' That will not happen.

Mr. Grieve: I hope that I made it clear that two key factors are involved. If the person concerned is left with the assets, the problem will not arise. The second point concerns a person who, through the seizure of the assets, is effectively bankrupted. In such circumstances, surely it is not beyond the wit of the Government to devise a system whereby they, rather than the person involved, take the money and pay the compensation.

Mr. Foulkes: That is a possibility, but such action would mean a huge new administrative process. It would mean a hierarchy of creditors.

Mr. Hawkins indicated dissent.

Mr. Foulkes: The hon. Member for Surrey Heath is shaking his head, but earlier he was worried about a simpler matter causing extra administrative problems for the Crown court. The Committee must think about the problems that that would cause. Such a measure would be far more complicated than what the hon. Gentleman was worried about earlier.

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 20 November 2001