Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Ian Lucas (Wrexham): In those circumstances, the councillor would be liable only for the benefit that he obtained as a result of his criminal activity and that would limit the extent to which he was liable.

Norman Baker: I hope that that is the case, but I seek clarification from the Minister about the effect of subsection (2)(e). In the Government's laudable intention to ensure that no one escapes the consequences, other people will be swept up by the provisions.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield referred to amendment No. 280. It and a subsequent amendment are attempts to ensure that a de minimis arrangement applies. If the Minister wants to ensure that those who hitherto escaped justice are caught—something that the Liberal Democrats support—and wants to catch the Mr. Bigs, the pillars of society who have managed to evade justice because they employ accountants, lawyers and other paraphernalia that enable them to get round the law, he should have no objection to a de minimis level of £5,000. After all, the Mr. Bigs of this world are not interested in figures of less than that. That provision is an alternative to amendment No. 271, which uses slightly different terminology.

What is the objection to a de minimis level? The Bill is surely concerned with catching big criminals. To date, the Minister has not convinced me that such a provision is not required. He wants to make the provisions as wide as possible in the event that in circumstances that he cannot foresee someone may gain a sum of less than £5,000—a level 1 offence—and be swept up by the Bill. That is not good enough. I seek justification why a de minimis level is not appropriate.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Before I refer to the amendments and the clause, I wish to respond to the hon. Members for Beaconsfield and for Lewes. The underlying accusation that is thrown at us time and again is that we are not interested in safeguards in what is a complicated Bill with much cross-referencing. I remind the Committee that safeguards are in the Bill. I am willing to discuss whether they are adequate, but I want to stop the allegation that there are none.

There are two clear safeguards for the courts to use under the confiscation procedure. If there is a serious risk of injustice, assumptions should not be made. On the balance of probabilities—because we resisted attempts by the Opposition to lift the level of proof required —it is for the defendant to show that the cash or property concerned is not the proceeds of crime.

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There are safeguards in the Bill. Let us have no nonsense about claims that there are none. Let us frame the allegations to ask whether those safeguards are adequate, because I find myself considering issues that are raised repeatedly on every clause, and many of the amendments and propositions that we have considered are attempts to supply not a safeguard but repeated safeguards.

Sometimes it seems that when Opposition Members raise issues about safeguards, they do not want belt and braces: they want belt and braces, locks, chains and chastity belts to ensure that the Bill is safe. I wonder whether they genuinely want the legislation to be effective.

Norman Baker: For the record, I am not in favour of chastity belts. I did not say that there were no safeguards in the Bill—the Minister may check the Hansard record. I said that he does not talk much about safeguards, and that I would have more confidence if he did. I am delighted that he is now doing so.

Mr. Ainsworth: Some of us wear our hearts on our sleeves, and some of us choose not to. There are safeguards in the Bill. We have discussed them, and any member of the Committee who has followed its proceedings knows what those safeguards are. I fear that if we gave into some of the proposals that are made repeatedly as we go through the Bill, we would wind up with a Bill that contains so many safeguards, and so many hoops through which any prosecuting authority must jump, as to be unworkable.

Mr. Hawkins: I appreciate that in the Minister's points about safeguards he was referring to the hon. Member for Lewes, but my hon. Friend for Beaconsfield and I—and other Opposition Members—are more concerned about the unfettered powers that subsection (2)(c) gives to the Home Secretary. I hope that he will deal with that separate point, which is not a safeguards point.

Mr. Ainsworth: I certainly shall.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I want to return to the point about safeguards. Clearly, they are a matter of balance. I do not think that discussion on the subject should be confrontational. We have had a long debate about whether the word ''serious'' should be linked to ''risk of injustice''. Concerns about safeguards stand if there is a serious risk of injustice. That is probably what causes concerns. There are degrees of injustice that would be considered under the safeguards. Would the Minister like to comment on that?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that we have had such a discussion. I am concerned that as we consider different issues in the Bill, hon. Members repeatedly try to build in safeguards. I think that I have adequately described my worries on that subject. If we provided a safeguard that was a very high hurdle for prosecuting authorities to get over,

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that would have the same effect. That was the nature of our discussion about whether we should remove the word ''serious'' and say just ''risk of injustice''.

The courts are capable of considering the two safeguards in the Bill and making certain that confiscation does not occur if there is a serious risk of injustice or if the defendant shows that, on the balance of probabilities, his property is not the proceeds of crime. I have said that in previous conversations, and cannot say it differently or make it any clearer.

Mr. Grieve: Perhaps I have never put the matter to the Minister in this form: I think that he agrees that the Bill excludes certain types of criminal offences—amazingly, I sometimes think, in the light of his comments. A single stealing offence, for instance, would not be sufficient to trigger the confiscation provisions. The Government must have had a reason for deciding that certain categories of offences should be excluded completely. We are not talking about safeguards but about whether we should widen the scope of the categories of offences that should be excluded completely. The Minister has surrendered the principle, because at present the Bill excludes such offences.

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not really understand the hon. Gentleman's point. The Bill is fairly clear. Certain kinds of offences, some of which are in previous legislation, some of which we can readily identify now, and some of which we may not be able to identify now but may become apparent later, should, at the first occurrence, be considered to be an indication of a criminal lifestyle. I do not see any reason why Committee members cannot accept that arms trafficking, for instance, is an indication of a criminal lifestlyle. The Bill should include no requirement for the prosecution to be able to show that that arms trafficking has gone on over a six-month period or that there have been three or four different incidents of arms trafficking in order to accept that it is an indication of a criminal lifestyle.

Mrs. Helen Clark (Peterborough): I would like to take us back to the list that all Committee members received, which the hon. Member for Beaconsfield read out to us today, of the items that could trigger the definition of a criminal lifestyle. I would like to feel that officials would return to that list and extend it. In relation to child pornography, it is clearly right that that should be listed, but other aspects of pornography are equally criminal: snuff movies, bestiality and so on.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The reasons for giving the Committee the list were twofold. One was to try to reassure the Committee that we did not intend to include offences such as speeding as criminal lifestyle crimes, triggering the assumption on the first offence. The other was to enable the Committee to suggest possible omissions. I would welcome hon. Members' thoughts about crimes that should be added to the list. We are talking not necessarily about the seriousness of crimes but about the proceeds of acquisitive crime, so very serious

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crimes that are not acquisitive should, rightly, not be included in the list. That does not detract from their seriousness.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I do not think that any of us would disagree that arms trafficking should be one of the crimes that is caught. However, I cannot see much difference between that and drug trafficking offences and money laundering offences, to which subsection (2)(a) and (b) refer specifically. If it is felt necessary to spell those out in the Bill rather than to do so by regulation, why is the Minister not willing to make specific reference to arms trafficking in the Bill?

Mr. Ainsworth: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the burden of one of the amendments would be that, in order to define arms trafficking as a criminal lifestyle offence, wholly new primary legislation would be required. It would not allow such a crime to be defined by order, with parliamentary scrutiny, as a criminal lifestyle offence. I do not know whether he agrees with his Front Bench colleagues about the procedure that should be required in relation to such definition, but that certainly appears to be the suggestion.

Mr. Hawkins: Front-Bench spokesmen are not always suggesting that.

It appears that the Minister has not fully taken on board the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield. We would be happy to allow everything in the Minister's guidance list to be included in the clause. Arms trafficking could be added to the list. It is as generic a category as drug trafficking and money laundering. They are not specific offences—they are categories. As it has been a principle that has been established in English law for at least 300 years that the citizen should know what the law is, that should be set out in the Bill.

Conservative Members dislike the fact that the Government have repeatedly ignored that principle, and that they have tried to give the Secretary of State a blanket discretion to add whatever he likes—because that means that the citizen does not know what the law is. That is a bad principle in legislation.

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Prepared 4 December 2001