Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Wilshire: I am still struggling with the first point that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley. I hope that I correctly understood the Minister on that. When he was challenged about the phrase ``in connection with'', I was pleased that he made it clear that the Government do not intend to widen the scope of the legislation, and that he subsequently suggested that the intention was to clarify.

However, neither I nor my hon. Friend are lawyers, and—with the greatest respect—nor is the Minister. Therefore, I ask him to consult lawyers to discover whether it is the case that that phrase will clarify without widening, and to inform the Committee of the legal beagles' view of what he has said. I hope that what he has said is correct, and if that phrase clarifies matters, I would support it. However, I want him to give an undertaking to the Committee that, if the advice that he receives suggests that the phrase might widen the scope of the legislation, he will consider changing the wording.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am more than happy to give that assurance. I am confident that the hon. Gentleman is wrong, and that the phrase does not widen the concept to cover property used in connection with—rather than obtained as a result of—crime. However, I will confirm that, and inform him that that is the case.

Mr. Johnson: Logically, the insertion of that phrase must cause a widening—otherwise, it would be impossible to make sense of it. If there is any causal connection between a villain's ownership of property and his criminal conduct, that will be entirely captured by the phrase ``as a result of''. There is no need to insert the phrase ``or in connection with'' unless the intention is to widen the legislation by dragging in for expropriation property that was not obtained as a result of criminal conduct.

Mr. Ainsworth: Let us try to address the point of principle: is there a major issue at stake, or do we agree with each other, being concerned merely about the wording? If the hon. Gentleman believes that property obtained in connection with criminal conduct should not be confiscatable, he should make his case for that. However, I cannot see why it should not be confiscatable. If hon. Members are opposed to that principle, they should state that—in interventions or in their own contributions—so that we can examine whether the argument has some substance. If that is not the case, the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) wants assurance that the Bill will not do something that was not intended. That is the only issue between us. Having assured him that I shall check that the Bill will not do that, we must return to whether there is an issue of principle. Property obtained in connection with the proceeds of crime should be confiscatable. It should be a matter for the court to decide. I do not believe that property so obtained should be put beyond the reach of confiscation, and I hope that hon. Members agree with me.

Mr. Carmichael: We are in danger of trying to count the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. The Minister referred to there being a matter of principle. I do not agree, other than that legislation should be well drafted and mean what it says. He said that such a form of words is used already in legislation. When he thinks deeply about the request of the hon. Member for Spelthorne, will he consider the danger that, if we restrict the wording of the Bill, it will be regarded by the judiciary as restricting the operation of the law.

I am generally in favour of the amendment. It is logical, and that must not be lost sight of. When the Minister cited various examples, I found myself mentally picking each one off and thinking, yes, that should be covered by confiscatable property. However, each time I agreed with him, I then thought that such matters would be covered by property obtained ``as a result of'' such conduct. I do not think that ``or in connection with'' adds any meaning to the Bill, so let us get rid of it. The amendment makes common sense. It is that simple. Such words do not widen the scope of the Bill.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I have a simple question. I understand why the hon. Gentleman made the point that, if the words do not have a purpose, they are redundant. When someone obtained property or proceeds as the result of a secondary role in what was a larger scale offence, it could be argued that he had not obtained the property or proceeds directly as a result of, but in connection with wider criminal activities.

Mr. Carmichael: The hon. Gentleman used the interesting words ``as a result of''. He then tried to import the question of a direct result. There is no question about that in the Bill. I could understand the force of the statement, ``as a direct and immediate result or in connection with'', but that is not what the Bill says. When no real benefit is to be derived from using certain words, why should they be there? The matter is as simple as that. The only possible sense in which such words could be used to widen the scope of the clause is the example highlighted by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield when he referred to possible confusion between confiscation and forfeiture. That has already slightly muddied the water and, if there is a danger that the wording under discussion will muddy it further, we must devoutly avoid it. We would not want to die in a ditch over the matter, given that the Minister has assured us that he will consider it.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is right. If the words are totally superfluous, they should be removed from the Bill. The hon. Member for Henley pursued a point about widening. He rightly exposed the potential difficulty that if the words were removed, the courts might interpret that as narrowing the definition. He said that he would not want to do that, and we must examine the matter. We currently believe that if we removed the words, we would narrow the definition, and that is why we want to retain them.

Mr. Carmichael: I do not share the analysis of the hon. Member for Henley that we would widen the definition of the clause in a way further than I have mentioned. He said that if the words are present, they must have a purpose, which is to widen the definition. I beg to differ, and I suggest that there is no good reason to include the words, except that they have been used in previous legislation.

Mr. Hawkins: I do not want to prolong the argument unnecessarily. The words either have meaning in their natural and ordinary usage in the English language, and have a widening effect as a consequence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley said, or we can get rid of them because they are not intended to widen the Bill.

Mr. Carmichael: I think that that might be the case. We are splitting split hairs. As I said earlier, there is not a great principle at stake, but the question of neatness and appropriate use of language. I urge the Minister to consider the matter.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I am not entirely convinced that the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is not a question of principle. I hope that the Minister will assure us of that when he sums up. I was worried by the comments of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe), who may have let the cat out of the bag. If the words ``in connection with'' have any meaning to the proceeds of crime—I am not convinced by the Minister commenting that there are no circumstances in which they mean anything different from ``as a result of''—we are opening a Pandora's box of all a defendant's past conduct. Therefore, we would provide a belt and braces beyond moneys that have been confiscated.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): I do not have the benefit of legal training. As a lay person who read the clause, I had the impression that the scope was being widened. I still have that impression.

Mr. Field: I thank my hon. Friend. There is a philosophical point in saying that surely even convicted drug dealers have rights over property that has been legitimately earned. Are the words ``in connection with'' an attempt to muddy the two streams of legitimate and illegitimate assets?

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Am I correct to assume that Conservative Members are worried about the assets of drug dealers? Yet again, they are more concerned about drug dealers than about their victims.

Mr. Field: That is a tough one to reply to. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman umpteen times that that is not the case. I am concerned that we are taking the law further forward to muddy the waters for not only convicted drug dealers but all of us. There would be a sense that the moment a person is under investigation, all his or her assets could be placed in one pot, and considered as the proceeds of crime. I hope that the Minister will reassure me that the words are redundant and should be removed, but if they are not, the only meaning that I can perceive is the muddying of the two streams of illegitimate and possibly legitimate assets.

11.30 am

I fully appreciate—I know that we have pursued such matters previously—the worry that we do not want criminals to get away with assets that they have built up. However, there may be more than a reasonable doubt about the assets.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): Am I right in assuming that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues consider that the rights of drug dealers are more important than the rights of those who suffer as a result of them?

Mr. Field: I speak for myself and not necessarily for all my hon. Friends on the matter. Splendid isolation is occasionally not a bad position to be in.

We are trying to get to the bottom of the words' meaning, which is the ultimate purpose of any Committee. If I am to be convinced that the words have no meaning—the point has been elucidated by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley—let us remove them from the Bill. If they have meaning, my only worry is that they are used to give a belt and braces. If we do that for convicted drug dealers, where will the line be drawn? I suspect that there would be a precedent for future Bills in which people are investigated, and that would allow organisations, particularly the Financial Services Authority, to consider all assets in one pot.

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Prepared 27 November 2001