Proceeds of Crime Bill

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The Chairman: Order. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that when I moved from Scotland to England 25 years ago, I did read my history books, because the kind of history that I was taught in Scotland is rather different from the kind of history that one is taught in England.

Mr. Wilshire: Yes, Mr. McWilliam, that is right. I would not claim to be a student of Scottish history, but I am sure that you would accept that it is not sufficient to say that because we are English or Scottish—or British—we would never do what other countries do and abuse the powers given to the Government of the day. We would be foolish to assume that we would never go down that route. It is therefore entirely wrong for the Bill to include a clause that says, in effect, ''This Act can mean whatever the Home Secretary says it means.'' Either the list that the Minister provided is included in the Bill as a further list of offences, or it does not ultimately mean anything. The Minister can give us all the assurances that he likes, but he could be replaced by somebody who will have no obligation whatever to stand by those assurances. He is wrong to reject amendment No. 270. I urge him to accept that more thought should be given, on Report or in another place, to extending the list of the items that are to be caught, so that the potential need to return to primary legislation is reduced to an absolute minimum. It is no

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argument to say that we cannot afford to run the risk of needing primary legislation to close a loophole. Only last week, it was reported that human fertilisation and embryology were not covered by legislation. That was a rarity; in my 14 years in Parliament, that has not happened often—and the events of last week demonstrated that if something of that sort cropped up, we could deal with it.

If the list in the clause is sufficiently long and robust, there is only a small risk that Parliament will need to close a loophole through primary legislation. It would be worth taking that risk in order to counter the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok, who said that we were giving the Home Secretary the power to run the country by diktat.

12 noon

The Minister did not respond to the question that he was repeatedly asked: why does the Home Secretary need this power, unless it applies only to legislation? We asked the Minister to tell us whether there was any other reason why the Home Secretary should have that power.

The Minister asked whether there were other ways to alleviate our concerns. I think that there are. If the Minister is determined to dragoon his Back Benchers into voting against the amendment, he should restrict the type of offence that the Home Secretary can introduce by diktat. We could specify that the Home Secretary's powers should cover only offences that carry a specified minimum term of imprisonment, or a fine of a specified minimum level. That is an alternative way of stopping the Home Secretary from catching whatever he likes.

I think that it was the Minister who said that the severity of the crime does not necessarily equate to the benefit derived from it. Clearly, he has thought about the fact that simple minor crimes could be used, but that is precisely what he suggests will not happen in this case.

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. George Foulkes): Why does the Opposition Whip feel that he must intervene at such length? Does he believe that the Opposition's excellent spokesperson has not challenged the Government adequately? I think that the Opposition spokesperson is very good, and the hon. Gentleman should have more faith in him.

Mr. Wilshire: I would never presume to suggest how the Government should organise their business, and I hope that the Government will not tell us how to organise ours.

Mr. Foulkes rose—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman's previous intervention was not related to the clause, so far as I could detect.

Mr. Foulkes: Being a man of erudition and intelligence, Mr. McWilliam, you will be able to testify that I did not tell the Opposition what to do. It was a very gentle inquiry, by my standards.

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Mr. Wilshire: And it was a very gentle reply, by my standards. There are six Opposition Members in the Committee. We work as a team and divide up the work. All Opposition Members are content with that; if the Government are not, that is their problem, not mine.

Mr. Davidson: Does that mean that the intervention made by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster about adding insider dealing to the list was the unanimous view of the Opposition team? If that is the case, I very much welcome it.

Mr. Wilshire: When the issue of insider share dealing was first raised, I wondered whether I should raise a point of order—but I took the comment light-heartedly, and thought that I should let the matter run. Now that the issue has been raised again, I must say that I felt that the original intervention was perilously close to suggesting that my hon. Friend might somehow be involved in insider dealing. If that is the case, that suggestion should be rebutted.

The Chairman: Order. I, too, thought that there might be a point of order on that subject—and I almost raised it myself, because I got the impression that the constituents of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster were being accused of insider dealing. Given that I still appear on the electoral roll for Cities of London and Westminster, it went through my mind that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok might not be treating the Chair with the deference to which I am entitled.

Mr. Wilshire: I hear what you say, Mr. McWilliam. It is not only when we say ''you'' that you feel got at, but when we refer to certain issues. That is another good reason why the matter should be left alone. You can now sleep peacefully in your bed in the constituency of Cities of London and Westminster.

Subsection (2) states:

    ''The condition is that the offence (or any of the offences) concerned satisfies any of these tests''.

I take that to mean any one of the tests. It is important that that matter is clarified because it would give substance to some of the issues that flow from it. The clause refers to an offence having been

    ''committed over a period of at least six months''

Let us suppose that that was the only test.

Mr. Ainsworth: Any test means any one test.

Mr. Wilshire: I am sure that the English language aspect of the clause does not need to be clarified, but we need to know whether any one of the tests will be sufficient. The matter may seem trivial, but it puts in the frame someone who has been driving a car for more than six months with one of the brake lights not working, which had not been noticed by the police.

Mr. Davidson: Or the tachograph.

Mr. Wilshire: Yes, there are plenty of examples of the provision being a catch-all. That is why it is right to worry that it may provide loopholes for the prosecution rather than for the defence. Any minor activity that has been going on for six months is

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sufficient to be caught by the Bill. I suggest to the Minister that some thought ought to be given to specifying the severity of the activity that has been going on for six months, so that we do not have to worry. Some may say that by raising such trivial points, I am lowering the debate to an absurd level—[Hon. Members: ''Hear, hear.''] I am grateful to Labour Members for confirming that, because it reinforces my worry.

If we give the Home Secretary power to do what he wants by diktat, and a provision allows him to catch rear lights or tachographs, there will come a day when a Home Secretary—who may not be Labour, Conservative, or even Liberal Democrat; who knows?—may use such a trivial point to tip the balance of justice so far in favour of the prosecution that serious, not minor, injustice is done by diktat. I ask the Minister to consider such matters.

Subsection (2)(d) refers to an offence that

    ''constitutes conduct forming part of a course of criminal activity''.

Will the Minister clarify whether the provision refers to a course of criminal activity in which convictions for each of the items of conduct are considered, or to a course of criminal activity about which the prosecution makes assumptions and says that because the person is a criminal, it should be assumed that his conduct was criminal activity? The critical question is whether that means conduct of which someone has been convicted, or conduct that someone is assumed to have been involved in.

I draw the Minister's attention to subsection (3)—[Interruption.]

Mr. Foulkes: Now the hon. Member for Henley is in trouble.

Mr. Wilshire: I did not notice the cause of the entertainment.

The Chairman: Order. It is not in order for a member of the Committee to refer to anything happening beyond the Floor of the Committee. Anything beyond the barrier does not exist.

Mr. Wilshire: As far as I knew, nothing did exist there, Mr. McWilliam, because I did not notice what was happening.

Subsection (3) refers to a person who benefits from certain conduct. I assume that the Government mean financial benefit, but it would help to have that clarified, for two reasons. If they mean financial benefit, we could argument for a de minimis figure—although whether the hon. Member for Lewes is correct to suggest £5,000 is not an argument that I wish to enter. We should specify a level below which a court will not waste its time by chasing the money, because—even for the Minister—a point is reached at which a sum becomes trivial. I accept that the sum is not £5,000 in the Minister's case—and probably not in mine, either.

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We should be clear whether the Bill means benefit in kind rather than financial benefit. I shall give the Minister an example, which is not trivial and raises questions about how we should proceed. Last week, I raised on the Floor of the House a matter involving crimes of religious hatred. I will not debate that again, but the example involved an allegedly Christian cult that was involved in pornography and paedophilia. The cult's literature is prosecutable, and at the time of my investigations, the printer of the material was known. The police were not able to make a case, but it was clear that the printer in the midlands was not being rewarded financially. The material that he printed was prosecutable, so the crime was substantial. However, the printer, as a paedophile, was provided with young children from the sect to satisfy him in his base activities. Money did not change hands, but he received a benefit. The organisation owned large amounts of money.

Will the Minister explain whether ''benefited'' means benefited financially? If it means benefiting in kind as well, that should be in the Bill, to avoid doubt and to ensure that people who indulge in such disgusting activities, for whatever reason, know that they will be caught.

Subsection (3)(a) refers to other offences, and states that a person must have committed three such offences. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield said that that would exclude a single motoring offence. In my constituency, I am blessed—or otherwise—with the part of the M25 that is subject to compulsory speed limits. A person can drive on the M25 from home to Heathrow airport—quite possibly in order to indulge in substantial criminal activity—and, depending on the severity of the traffic, commit three motoring offences on the same morning by passing three separate speed cameras. That is a further reason to specify the minimum offence and to exclude speeding offences. Otherwise, we hand the prosecution a loophole it may be tempted to use against a person on whom a charge cannot be made to stick in any other way.

Subsection (3)(b) refers to convictions on two separate occasions. I mentioned the example of someone going to Heathrow airport to indulge in major criminal activity—after all, drug trafficking, money laundering and so on often takes place at that airport. That could occur on two separate occasions, and a person could rattle up three offences in one morning, go to Heathrow airport twice in the same week, and thus satisfy the conditions that the Minister tells us he does not intend to be a loophole to undermine the safeguards. The Minister did not address those genuine points the first time he spoke, so I invite him to do so when he responds now. If he does not, I hope that my hon. Friend will press the amendments.

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