Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend is right. We have the duty to decide what should fall under the term ''criminal lifestyle''. If we want to create an extensive list, we can do so. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok will agree that there is nothing to prevent us from listing in the Bill all the offences that the Government consider indicative of a criminal lifestyle—the Minister could easily do that. Such a list might extend subsection (2) but would not cause any real harm.

We are not legislating: we are handing the Secretary of State the power to define ''criminal lifestyle'', and we know that the term will not be scrutinised adequately. I accept that there are circumstances in which it is reasonable to give a Secretary of State such executive power, because he has to take daily executive decisions that Parliament could not try to define. Nevertheless, as we are defining a new category of ''criminal conduct'', an offence that is punishable by confiscation of assets, it is incumbent on us to be careful about allowing him too much leeway.

If the Bill created a criminal offence where none had previously existed, it would be unusual and surprising for Parliament to give the Secretary of State the power to create any number of other criminal offences at will. Unfortunately, we do that too frequently with many

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Euro directives, which we incorporate into our law through statutory instruments. It would be undesirable to give the Secretary of State those powers for such an important provision. I look to the Minister for a justification of the course of action adopted in subsection (2)(c), because I cannot find one.

We have already discussed the issues raised by amendment No. 271, but they should be considered further. The amendment would provide some small fetter on the extensive use that could be made of the power to decide what constitutes conduct that

    ''forms part of a course of criminal activity''.

I do not wish to repeat extensively the arguments made last week. I accept that this is a similar debate, albeit in a slightly different context. I simply signal that subsection (3) allows conduct that

    ''forms part of a course of criminal activity''

to apply to virtually any offence in which financial benefit is shown to have accrued. That could apply to an offence as far down the scale as a failure to have a rear light on a motor vehicle, as arguably a defendant could benefit from not replacing the light bulb. It is as simple as that.

Perhaps the Committee feels that we should include the provision that we have called the Al Capone'' or Al Capone principle, because it offers the state a powerful tool with which to find an excuse for bringing confiscation proceedings against someone who has never had anything more against him than such minor offences as any relatively law-abiding citizen might accrue in six years. The provision is an excuse to go after his assets through the confiscation procedure. Given that there is a civil recovery procedure in the Bill, there are powerful arguments, when one is dealing with such minor offences, to say that the burdens placed on the state, in respect of the civil recovery provisions, should not be arbitrarily removed to allow an excuse for confiscation. The debate, and the Minister's comments, have made it clear that the justification for including the confiscation provisions is that you already know, by virtue of a person's previous criminality, that he falls into a category whereby some of the protections that might be afforded to law-abiding people can properly be dispensed with.

Where do we draw the line? That is a question for the Committee to answer. However, if you decide that offences of level 1 on the standard scale should still be included within the trigger provisions, it could be argued that you are going too far. That is why I tabled amendment No. 271.

The Liberal Democrats propose a minimum limit of £5,000 in amendment No. 280. I will allow the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) to speak to that amendment, but I may seek to catch your eye, Mr. McWilliam, to comment on it. It would introduce a more powerful protection than amendment No. 270, and the Committee might wish to ponder those alternatives.

The hon. Member for Lewes also tabled amendment No. 279, which I shall comment on after he has spoken to it. However, leaving out subsection (2)(e) would be problematic, because it provides some protection, in

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relation to the types and nature of offence. I assume that he wishes to remove it to strengthen the scope of the legislation, and I am interested to hear how that would operate.

With regard to amendment No. 270, the Minister must provide a careful justification of the power in subsection (2)(c). Definitions can be provided, and he has, helpfully, already done that. Why, therefore, should we give an unfettered discretion to the Secretary of State?

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman used the word ''you'' a lot in his speech. That word refers to me alone.

Mr. Grieve: On a point of order, Mr. McWilliam. I apologise for breaking that rule. However, I have difficulty obeying it, because I use the word ''you'' rhetorically, and it is frequently used in that way in the Chamber. The alternative is to use ''one'' all the time, which is rather ponderous. That is why I use ''you'' when I am not addressing you personally. If the ruling is that we cannot use the word ''you'' rhetorically, I will seek to abide by that.

The Chairman: The ruling is exactly that. The fact that the enforcement of it in the Chamber has become relaxed does not alter the original ruling, which is that one uses the third person.

Norman Baker (Lewes): Further to that point of order, Mr. McWilliam. If one is required to avoid the use of the word ''you'', there is an stronger case for reforming the House of Commons than we had previously thought.

The Chairman: That is one reform that I would not oppose.

Norman Baker: I am delighted that we have found some common ground, Mr. McWilliam.

I understand why the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) tabled amendment No. 270. It is an important amendment. I look forward to the Minister's explanation of why the catch-all is required, when he has already given an indication of the sorts of offences that would be covered.

As the debate has progressed, and positions have been staked out, many hon. Members' views on the legislation have become more entrenched. That is certainly so in my case. The Government have the laudable objective of ensuring that nobody can escape from the legislation—that all those who have proceeds of crime are caught and have no way out. Who can argue with that concept? My difficulty is that sometimes I feel that the method employed to ensure that the doors are bolted, the lock is on, and there is an armed guard outside to make certain that no one escapes may mean that the innocent will be caught up or, more likely, those who have been guilty of minor offences will be swept up into the same category as those whom the Government and the rest of us really want to catch. That is a worry.

I was not entirely filled with confidence by the intervention from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok, who seemed to articulate again that he has

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little confidence in the judiciary, and that it should be excluded as far as possible from an unfettered opportunity to express its views on how the law should be interpreted. As a matter of principle, that is a worrying development. I do not want to reiterate arguments in relation to previous amendments, but trying to exclude the judiciary from processes is not the right way to deal with legislation in this country.

In respect of amendment No. 270, it would be helpful if the Minister were to explain why the relevant provision is necessary. It would also be helpful if he were to explain what safeguards there are to ensure that it is not abused. We do not hear the word ''safeguards'' being used much on the Government Benches, which worries me. The Minister may say that he, his colleagues and the Home Secretary intend to use the provision only in line with the views of the Committee and Parliament, in an entirely proper way that will command public support, and I tend to think that that is probably true. I have every faith that that is how he wants to approach the legislation. However, if we write into legislation such wide catch-all phrases, what will happen when we have a Home Secretary or a Government who do not want to respect the views of Members of Parliament or the way in which the Committee has formulated its opinions?

What will happen if a future Home Secretary says, ''I want to pull the levers that I have as far as they can go,'' and asks his civil servants and officials, ''How far can I go?'' When the answer comes back, ''You can go a great distance because, although they have not been used, huge powers are available,'' that Home Secretary will say, ''Great. Let's do it.'' If the Minister is in opposition, it will be difficult for him to criticise such a Home Secretary because he will have piloted through those powers in this Bill. If the Minister were to pay more attention to safeguards, I would have rather more confidence in the way in which the Government are proceeding. I am not criticising the intention of the legislation, which I support, or the intention of the clause, which I also support—it is absolutely right that people who are drug trafficking, money laundering, pursuing gain from prostitution and so on should have their assets seized—but we must ensure that innocent people and those who are guilty of only minor crimes are not caught up.

I merely want to seek the Minister's comments on amendment No. 279—I do not intend to push it too far. I accept that there may be a useful category of offence that is committed over a six-month period and that may not be caught by paragraphs (a) to (d), although it may be caught by paragraph (c) if it remains in place. What category of offence would be caught only by subsection (2)(e)? Why is it necessary? If it is covered by paragraphs (a) to (d), paragraph (e) is, by definition, superfluous. I am also concerned that subsection (2)(e) might, on occasions, enable minor criminal activity to be swept up into the same categories as major criminal activity.

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Let us suppose that a person fiddles the office expenses or a local councillor claims for travelling from his house to the town hall over a period of six or seven months, and it transpires that he has been making false claims. The sum may amount to pennies, but such action would be caught by subsection (2)(e). I do not think that the Minister is interested in catching such people, but will they be caught? Should there not be a safeguard to ensure that the weight of the law is not brought down on them?

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