Proceeds of Crime Bill

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The Chairman: Order. We cannot anticipate clause 26, because we have not yet reached it.

Mr. Hawkins: I am simply trying to point out that there is a link between the two amounts. It would be helpful if the Minister were to turn his mind to that when he responds to my hon. Friend.

5.30 pm

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: It might also help if I were to comply with the rules that you have clearly outlined, Mr. McWilliam, rather than drifting on to subsequent matters and getting myself into deep trouble.

Current legislation contains no facility for the enforcement authorities to write off a confiscation order. The principles underlying the prohibition are that the recovery of the proceeds of crime is especially important and unpaid sums should not be removed from the books. However, the Bill recognises that the amount payable may be amended in certain cases, providing that it is authorised by the court. The main provision for that is in clause 24, with which we have already dealt. If the defendant has cause to seek a variation, he should use the procedure in clause 24.

Clause 25 is designed to provide to a simplified way of dealing with a specific problem that has arisen in some Customs and Excise cases. It relates overwhelmingly to currency fluctuations. We have no preconceived ideas about what further specified situations may be. However, I would note for the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that gold may have been confiscated. The value of gold varies by comparison with currency, and the provision may therefore apply to that. The purpose of the second part is to allow the Secretary of State to make further specifications if a problem develops.

There have been several cases in which people have been arrested at an airport on suspicion of drug trafficking and have been in possession of an amount of foreign currency. Following trial or conviction, the foreign currency, as well as other property, has been taken into account in calculating the available amount, and a shift has taken place in the relationship between the value of that foreign currency and sterling. Overwhelmingly and almost entirely, the only issues in relation to which that simplified version might be useful to the authorities are currency valuations. The hon. Gentleman suggests removing the £1,000 figure, and he is absolutely right. However, we would have to be sure that that would be the only interpretation that would be put on our making provision to vary the figure by astonishingly large amounts. For the purposes that we envisage for clause 25, £1,000 is on the high side. As I said, clause 24 should be used when a defendant wants to challenge the available amount and obtain a reduction.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation, but matters may, of course, work the other way. He gave the example of gold, and during a period of a few days, after 11 September, the price of gold, which, historically speaking, has recently been low, rocketed. Therefore, at the point of sale, the director might be the loser because the amount that the gold would realise, in sterling, was considerably more than the amount that the confiscation order had assessed it to be. In such circumstances, the prosecutor or director would, under clause 24, go back to obtain a variation of the order. Is that really what is intended? The order was correct at the time that it was made, but subsequent matters made it incorrect. Would not such circumstances better be met under clause 25?

Mr. Ainsworth: It is not our intention to allow substantial profits to be made because of fluctuations in currency after a confiscation order has been made, which would result in confiscation of less than the proceeds of crime. However, I ask the hon. Gentleman to note a problem: we may wind up with Customs and Excise unable to satisfy the current legislation because it has no provision to write off reasonable amounts that arise because of currency fluctuations. If there were dramatic movement in the other direction, the director or prosecutor would be able to seek revaluation under clause 23 in the same way that the defendant may use clause 24 to seek to reduce the amount.

We examined only currency fluctuations, which arise regularly in Customs and Excise cases in which foreign currency is seized. That was the only matter that we had in mind and we wanted to make provision in case it became apparent that other circumstances had arisen in which the same simplified measures should be available.

Everything that we have been told suggests that £1,000 is a more than adequate figure. I understand what the hon. Gentleman has said, but, as a result of discussions that I have had, I do not believe that we are considering amounts greater than that and, therefore, facing a high probability that the amount must be changed. If we accepted the amendment, I fear that the hon. Gentleman's simple logic would not be the only matter construed from its incorporation in the Bill.

Mr. Grieve: I note what the Minister has said, and I shall not press the amendment. However, it seems that the Minister and director may lose a simplified process. I am sure that the Minister would agree that clause 25 is not needed at all since one could always go back under clauses 23 or 24. For that reason, clause 25 must have a purpose, and that is simplicity. Nothing would be more straightforward than a case in which exchange rates caused the problem. There is no question of going to hunt for assets that are not present, or even the complex question of valuing a painting on a wall that must be subsequently sold. The matter is straightforward for exchange rates, stocks and shares or the value of gold because they are all quotable and have daily rates that allow for an assessment. In such circumstances, it would be easy for a court to make an immediate assessment about whether the defendant had used sleight of hand or whether there was a straightforward problem of asset realisation.

I assume that clause 25 is supposed to be a cheaper way of proceeding. If it is not, why have it? The Government are missing a trick.

Mr. Davidson: The hon. Gentleman and the Minister may want to consider the dangers that are apparent in the collapse of the value of foreign currencies. Is that a great reason why the Government should undertake a publicity campaign to warn people of the dangers of investing in the euro?

The Chairman: Order. I do not think that it would be wise for any hon. Member to follow that road.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman temps me in a direction in which I cannot go in the light of your ruling, Mr. McWilliam.

People may invest in many currencies, stocks and shares, and gold. I suspect that gold features high in the categories of assets that may be recovered. I invite the Government to think about that. It is clear that somebody decided that it was worth including clause 25, rather than merely relying on clause 23 or clause 24, and I therefore assume that it is a simplified process. If that is the case, I wonder whether we are making sufficient use of it.

I might ask about that matter in the clause stand part debate. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Mr. Grieve: I wish simply to ask the Minister a question that the Committee has not, perhaps, explored in sufficient detail. In what way is it expected that the procedure under clause 25 will differ, in terms of time or cost, from the procedure under clause 23 or clause 24? If it does not differ, why is it there? I assume it is there as a simplified process, and I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify why it was decided to have it in this form, and how, in practice, it is intended to operate.

Mr. Carmichael: Will the Minister explain why, in clause 25(4)(a), the money that is referred to is restricted to England and Wales? As we are dealing with delivery, jurisdictional questions should not arise.

Mr. Wilshire: I have a question that the Minister can deal with at the same time as the other matters that have been raised. It focuses on the same issue that I will seek to address in clause 26, so—if you, Mr. McWilliam, will indulge me—I shall make the two points at the same time and I will not need to repeat myself.

The Chairman: Order. I cannot take that chance. The hon. Gentleman should restrict his remarks to clause 25.

Mr. Wilshire: I was trying to speed up the procedure, Mr. McWilliam. I hope that you will not accuse me of being repetitious, if I make the same point again.

Clause 25 (1)(c) refers to £1,000. In a discussion on a previous clause, the Committee debated varying the amount to take account of fluctuations in the value of money. I assume that the Government hope that the legislation will be on the statute book for a long while, and that it will be effective. Is there no mechanism in legislation that enables sums such as £1,000—or, if I repeat the point later on, £50—to be varied to save us from having to return to the matter and say, ``As time goes by, this is becoming an increasingly silly sum of money, and now, taking account of inflation, it should be a different sum''?

Mr. Ainsworth: Clause 25 provides a simplified version. In certain circumstances, the justice's chief executive, who is responsible for enforcing the confiscation procedures, can apply to the Crown court to have a sum of under £1,000 written off.

As I said to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, this issue has been raised with us because it is one that has arisen. The hon. Gentleman, thinking on his feet, rightly said, ``Well, the reverse could happen, so why on earth do you not provide your other sums in a simplified version?'' The reason is that the issue has not been raised as a matter of concern. During the formulation of the Bill, nobody told us that that they felt that people had been getting away with the proceeds of crime because of currency fluctuations. If someone had told us that, we might be offering to provide a simplified version to address the matter.

The provision is in response to a particular issue that has arisen: the simplified version has been provided to allow the justice's chief executive to get relatively small sums—which have arisen in specified circumstances—off his books, so that he can get on with his other duties.

The provision refers to England and Wales because we are dealing with parts of the Bill that apply to England and Wales. Northern Ireland will be dealt with in part 4, and Scotland will be dealt with in part 3: the provisions in those parts of the Bill will refer specifically to Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, there will be no difference in the way in which the provisions are applied in the different jurisdictions.

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