Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Vera Baird: I accept the analysis of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that the phrase ``as a result of'' conduct—that effectively means criminal conduct, because the stage is beyond that of a criminal lifestyle—means only because of crime. Therefore, I understand why he believes that ``in connection with'' does not add a great deal to the Bill. However, there is a possibility of an intended drugs deal where money is given to a man who will purchase drugs from the deliverer. That man may have that money when he is arrested, and that arrest may occur before the crime is committed, because the drugs equivalent of the flying squad has been watching events. In such a case, we would want the would-be criminal to forfeit the money, to use the hon. Gentleman's word. It would torture language to say that the person had the money as a result of a crime that had not been committed.

Mr. Carmichael: The particular set of circumstances that the hon. Lady outlined would constitute at least an attempt to commit, under sections 4(3)(b) or 5(3) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the offence of possession with intent to supply or of being concerned with the supply of drugs. The person would have the money as a result of his attempt to commit such crimes.

Vera Baird: Again, I can see the force of that point. If, in the middle of confiscation proceedings, we argue about sufficiently proximate acts to define attempts, conspiracies, or incitements, it is far better to insert terminology that covers that.

A lay person reading the legislation would not think that the would-be perpetrator had received that money as a result of the crime if, for all practical purposes, the crime had not taken place. That difficulty is covered by such a turn of phrase, which—although I have listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Henley said—does not widen the application of the provision. It does have a purpose, which is to deal with a situation like that, and that it is not dangerous.

The judiciary exists to do justice, and to ascertain what is criminally obtained property under the Bill, not to be sidetracked into the minutiae that we are discussing. People should be reassured. The analogy of the car inherited from granny that has been used in the course of a crime will not help the criminal, because a separate set of provisions would confiscate that car.

Mr. Wilshire: On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. While you and your colleagues have been in the Chair, this Committee has thus far been conducted with a great deal of good humour. Some frank and helpful exchanges from both sides have been given and accepted in the spirit in which they were intended. However, at the risk of missing out on that good humour for a moment, I must challenge the comment by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson). It introduced a sour note about our intentions. No apologies are needed for doing the job of the Opposition. The Opposition, among other things, test the accuracy of the wording of the Bill. The Minister said that he was willing to consider whether our points about accuracy should be further reviewed. Accuracy is important, and I thank him for accepting that.

Equally, we should not apologise if we question the Bill's intentions. Much of it is supported by all members of the Committee. Where there is some question about the intention, it is our duty to raise it. The Minister, again with good humour, disagreed with our doubts about the intention and the widening of the Bill, but did agree to look into it. To do the job of the Opposition—to challenge accuracy and intention, particularly when the Minister responds positively—can in no shape or form make us the friends of drug dealers. I resent the slur made by the hon. Gentleman, and wish to put the record straight.

The Chairman: That is not a point of order for the Chair, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's words have been heard.

Mr. Davidson: I recall a meeting in my constituency, in which the chairman intervened. Someone said, ``Methinks they do protest too loudly'', to which the chairman replied, ``I have to, otherwise the people at the back of the room cannot hear''.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne is making far too much of the matter, which shows that there is substance to our argument. We have we spent an enormous amount of time on the amendment, and at the end of today a guillotine falls, by which time we must reach clause 40. If we do not, there will be no debate on the clauses that have not been discussed. The strategy of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is to ensure that some of the provisions at the end of clause 40 are not discussed, so that they may seek amendments to them in the other place on the basis that they were not discussed here. A more honest approach would be to argue their case on the subsequent clauses rather than trying to obfuscate the position.

I was interested to hear the words ``minimalism and simplicity'' from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, as they are not words that I would associate naturally with him and his colleagues. Indeed, ``obfuscation and rapacity'' might be better terms for lawyers in general and the hon. Gentleman in particular. If he and his colleagues want to be taken seriously, perhaps it would be better if they were to make constructive suggestions and stop posing as the drug dealer's friend.

Mr. Ainsworth: As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said, we were up late last night, or later than we are accustomed to in these modern times—12 o'clock was early not so long ago, but it becomes harder when it is not so frequent. Perhaps we have not been as clear as we otherwise could have been in the debate that we have been having.

As I tried to say previously, there are two issues: whether there are words in the Bill that mean absolutely nothing—in which case, if we can be utterly assured that they mean absolutely nothing, they should not be there—and whether there is a danger that, by removing them or leaving them in, we widen the concept or narrow it. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) has convinced himself on this point, as he has on others, that the intention is to widen. He is worried about that, as is the hon. Member for Henley.

I shall repeat what I said, and clarify for the benefit of the two hon. Gentlemen, that the Drug Trafficking Act 1994 refers to a person having received payment or other reward ``in connection with'' drug trafficking. We have tended rightly to concentrate on the connection aspect, because of the wording of the amendment, but it is already in the 1994 legislation. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 refers to a person having obtained property

    ``as a result of or in connection with''

the commission of an offence. Taking those two precedents fully into account, if we removed ``in connection with''—more so than ``as a result of''—we would narrow the meaning of the legislation. We would send a clear message to the courts that we were intending to narrow the definition. That is the issue raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, and we would have to be sure, before removing those words, that that was not so. The danger is that we would narrow the definition, not that we would widen it.

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough): Given that the words that the amendment purports to remove are found in other similar legislation, is it not clear that such cases are exactly the kind that would be removed?

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not think that the courts could interpret it in any other way than if we remove those words, we intend to narrow the definition.

If that is the case, as I said when I tried to move the debate on to whether this is an issue of substance, I shall oppose removing the words. Only if I were absolutely convinced that it were not the case would I be prepared to accept the amendment. I hope that it is not an issue of substance, and that the Committee will accept that we should not narrow the definition. If we accept the amendment, there is a danger that we will do exactly that. On those grounds, I ask the hon. Member for Beaconsfield to withdraw the amendment, but, in response to the hon. Member for Spelthorne, I shall check whether that is the case and, having taken advice on the matter, I shall make the position clear to the Committee.

11.45 am

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to splitting hairs, but I fear that I have raised a hare—a rather different concept—during this morning's discussion.

Mr. Ainsworth: It has been running all over the Room.

Mr. Grieve: Indeed.

I am especially mindful of the contribution of the hon. Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) and her reasoned analysis of the clause. The term used is not ``criminal offence'' but ``conduct''. I share the opinion of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that that would fall plainly within ``result'' and that there would be no problem even if it occurred before the offence had been committed.

I do not want an exercise in semantics, but I should highlight one slight anxiety. I am fully aware—the Minister has explained, and it comes to no surprise to me—that what has been used is the mere repetition of a term that has been in legislation for some time. The problem is that experience in practice has over the years persuaded me of the extraordinary capacity for words and expressions that are slipped into statute to lie dormant for prolonged periods and suddenly to surface bizarrely, not necessarily to change the law, but to create all sorts of problems. Before they have been sorted out, they end up in the criminal Court of Appeal because a Crown court judge reaches his decision on a day when the prosecutor has not, unfortunately, read the Hansard for that day's Committee, and the prosecutor suggests, because he reasonably believes, that the judge's powers are wider than Parliament intended.

I have witnessed that countless times not only in the case of statutes, but in respect of unguarded, off-the-cuff comments and extempore judgments by lord justices after a good lunch. It causes problems and has to be sorted out. I flag up the matter for that reason and because cheap and streamlined justice is one of the Committee's aims. Mindful of that, I urge the Minister to consider carefully with his officials what is intended.

The hon. Member for Redcar rightly said that forfeiture proceedings will apply to property used in connection with crime, whether it be the sledgehammer used to break down the door or the JCB used to carry out the ram raid. All such items can be confiscated. I am reminded of judges confiscating with some enthusiasm the paraphernalia of a brothel at the conclusion of proceedings on offences related to such a business. It is precisely because of the close proximity of the two that I am anxious that people should not get it into their head that the two have been married together in the Bill, causing a problem that must subsequently be untangled.

On that note, and given the assurance that I am grateful to hear from the Minister that the matter will be given further thought, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

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