Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman must allow me to respond to the amendment about exceptional circumstances and to his own amendment, which would curtail time. The current arrangements for the postponement of confiscation hearings were examined carefully in the performance and innovation unit's report. That was the origin of the Bill. It examined how the current legislation was working, and its shortcomings. The PIU report examined the length of time allowed under the current legislation, which is where the proposal came from for the change under the Bill.

The defects of those arrangements are discussed in full in the PIU report, paragraph 8.22 of which concluded that the short six-month deadline meant that some

    ``confiscation orders cannot be obtained . . . due to simple administrative delay. For example, lack of court time, unavailability of counsel, trial judge, or defendant, or the ongoing trial of a co-defendant''.

Those have been identified as reasons why confiscation has been lost under the current legislation.

3.15 pm

In line with the repeated assurances of hon. Gentlemen that they do not wish to prevent the confiscation of the proceeds of crime, I ask them to accept that that six-month period has effectively prevented us from confiscating the proceeds of crime. That is the basic reason why we are seeking a longer period.

Norman Baker: I am grateful for that explanation. On that basis, I do not wish to pursue my amendment. However, if the problem is that the courts are taking too long to deal with such matters, or that judges are not turning up, I hope that the Government will try to deal with that.

Mr. Ainsworth: I would like to think that we could sharpen up the court process all around. We tried to do that, and we have had considerable success with regard to youth offending. It was part of our manifesto, and we have managed to cut the time considerably. These are matters of justice, and problems arise from time to time. If we impose an unreasonable time limit on postponement, people will in effect be allowed to avoid confiscation and maintain their ill-gotten gains. We would not want defendants to be able to frustrate the purposes of confiscation by stalling in the hope that the six-month period will expire. That point was highlighted in the PIU report. With that background in mind, we view amendments Nos. 103 and 104 with trepidation, because they would take us back to the position that currently applies, and, in one case, further shorten the period allowed. I therefore ask hon. Gentlemen not to press their amendments.

Mr. Field: Clearly, in the light of what has been said, and on the basis that our proposed time limit is even shorter than that suggested by the hon. Member for Lewes, we will be happy not to press amendment No. 104 to a vote. However, this matter raises serious questions about the administration of justice in this country, given that a six-month limit is thought to be too short, and a two-year limit is thought necessary. I hope that the Committee's concerns about that will be passed back. All of us appreciate that, at times, confiscation matters are complex, and involve the tracing of significant assets overseas. Equally, however, the individuals involved will no doubt have been subject to long-standing investigation. Those matters are of great concern.

We will withdraw the amendment about exceptional circumstances. We have been comforted in part by what we have heard from the Minister—but the problem relates back to the issue of slack and loose drafting. Anyone who has seen American legal documents, as I did when I worked in international law in the early 1990s, will know that one of the joys of working with large contracts is the belt and braces approach in every sub-clause. The sloppy drafting in clause 15 is not isolated, and we may find more elsewhere. A belt and braces approach is necessary, for some of the reasons that have been set out. Equally, it is confusing to see how it is put together—

Mr. Ainsworth: I genuinely do not understand why the hon. Gentleman introduces the issue of drafting. It will be for the court to decide whether to allow a postponement. The court will, of course, not allow a postponement that is absolutely unnecessary and unjustified; it will decide whether a postponement is justified. The court will hear a case that suggests that there are exceptional circumstances that would apply beyond two years. In normal circumstances, it will not allow a postponement beyond two years. That is what the Bill says. It extends the current provisions—for good and proper reasons—and I do not understand how drafting comes into it.

Mr. Field: The lack of logic at the heart of the process is that there is to be a permitted period that can be exceeded before the postponement period knocks in, notwithstanding the exceptional circumstances referred to in subsection (3).

Mr. Davidson: Is the hon. Gentleman trying to find a loophole for bad people?

Mr. Field: Something must have been put into the water today. Conservative Members have become much tougher, and the hon. Gentleman will be pleased that today's discussions show that we are not as soft on crime—or, more to the point, on criminals—as may have been implied during the past two or three sittings.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend may have forgotten that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok, for entirely understandable reasons, was unable to be with us for the early part of this morning—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman knows better than that.

Mr. Field: On that note, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Hawkins: I want to raise one point and receive the Minister's guidance on a matter that arises from the explanatory notes. I have been critical of many of the Government's changes to Parliament, but explanatory notes have been helpful. I know that they have no statutory force but they can alert hon. Members to particular points, especially if the Bill is big and complex and provisions are new. Paragraph 37 of the notes, which relates to subsection (7), mentions

    ``a new provision which provides that if an application for extension is made before the end of the period of postponement, it does not matter if the court makes a decision on the application after the end of the period of postponement. This deals with the situation where an application is made in time but, because of listing difficulties, the court cannot hear and make a decision on the application before the existing period of postponement expires.''

All hon. Members who practised in the criminal courts understand listing difficulties, which do not often enter the ambit of those who are not lawyers. It is a professional problem for court clerks, judges, barristers and solicitors. However, that brings us back to a question that I asked the Minister of State, Scotland Office about the way in which the Bill may impact on the court service and cause additional difficulties. I raise the matter now because if the reason for subsection (7) is, as the explanatory notes say, because listing difficulties are anticipated on occasions—we all know that the criminal courts are busy—that reinforces the point that was pooh-poohed and dismissed by both Ministers, but especially the Scotland Office Minister, when we asked for details of how the Government and their advisers thought that the Bill would affect the courts' burden of work. I confess that I did not spot this in a previous debate, but now we have a new provision to take account of listing difficulties.

The point is not huge, but I thought that it was worth getting it on the record and hearing the Minister's comments. I do not suggest that the provisions should not take account of listing difficulties, but what we are doing is new, and clearly the Bill greatly extends the law. We think that it will make extra work, perhaps more than the Government want to suggest.

The more effective the Bill is at stopping Mr. Big keeping his ill-gotten gains, the more applications there will be under the provisions. How does the Minister think clause 15 will operate as a whole? Will he refer to subsection (7) in particular?

Mr. Ainsworth: Subsection (7) is technical. It will ensure that listing and the other problems that the hon. Gentleman described do not become an issue. It was not thought necessary because of any burden that the Bill would place on court proceedings. I cannot remember the extent to which he accused us of pooh-poohing his previous comments, although I think that it was when he suggested that we were creating another Child Support Agency.

I have told the Committee about our thoughts on the level of confiscation orders and civil recovery issues as well as the use of taxation powers. The hon. Gentleman may be right in that the legislation could be used more widely, but subsection (7) was not drafted because we thought that a crazy system would be imposed on the courts. It was included in the Bill only, as he recognised, because of the problem of listings. It was not felt that those problems should rule out a postponement.

We consulted the Lord Chancellor's Department about court time. It is obviously aware of the Bill and of our assessment of the extent to which its powers will be used. The hon. Gentleman thought that they would be used far more widely than we had suggested. I cannot prove that he is wrong; I can only say that I think he is wrong.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister is being helpful. I appreciate that he has rightly consulted the Lord Chancellor's Department. I did not say that such a system would impose crazy burdens on the courts. I do not disagree with him to that extent, and so far I am pleased with his response. However, in addition to consulting the Lord Chancellor's Department, which is sensible, has the Home Office consulted circuit judges? If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that would not be appropriate, will he check whether the Lord Chancellor has consulted the circuit judges who are at the sharp end?

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