Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): Thank you, Mr. Gale, for explaining the ground rules so helpfully. There are some serious general issues that must be ventilated, but I accept that we must ventilate them only once, even if they recur throughout the Bill.

Perhaps Opposition Members should explain why we are raising the subject of terrorism. The Government could respond by asking why we should have the provisions that we suggest for Northern Ireland but not elsewhere. I readily accept that criticism. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) has explained, we are not legal draftsmen, and if the Government think that there is some substance in our argument, better wording could well be used.

Although the amendments relate to Northern Ireland, I do not advocate that Northern Ireland should be treated specially, and differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. If the our provisions were to find favour, we would argue that they should be incorporated in the parts of the Bill that relate to England, Scotland and Wales as well. If we had spotted the issue at the beginning of the Committee's proceedings, we could have debated it when we considered the provisions for England—but we did not. I put that on the record, so there is no misunderstanding. We are not arguing for special treatment for Northern Ireland terrorists; we believe that everyone should be treated the same.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that being a terrorist or a member of a paramilitary organisation in itself constitutes a criminal lifestyle?

Mr. Wilshire: I accept that it can do, but I shall explain later why I believe that there is a distinction, and why a distinction is necessary. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear with me. He makes a valid point.

Some people, both in the Room and elsewhere, will be conscious of my contributions to debates on Northern Ireland in the past. However, the issues that I have raised in the past are not relevant to the Committee, and I do not intend to discuss them here. In the past I was speaking for myself, and any comments that I have made in the past should not spill over into a contribution being made today by a representative of the Opposition Whips Office.

Today's debate is about terrorism in general. For this morning's purposes, I draw no distinction between terrorists, whatever the motivation, and whether they are in Northern Ireland, the rest of the United Kingdom or the rest of the world. As far as I am concerned—and I am sure that this goes for everyone else in the Committee, too—all terrorism is to be condemned and all terrorists, whatever their persuasion and whichever part of the divide they come from, are equally guilty of the same atrocities and crimes, and we must deal firmly with them all.

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I do not believe that my hon. Friends and I are pursuing an Opposition agenda. I believe that we are pursuing a laudable Government objective in strengthening the hand of the Government and law enforcement agencies against terrorism in the United Kingdom.

To understand why we should specify what is suggested as well as referring to criminals, we also need to understand the nature of the problem with which the amendments are intended to deal. There is little doubt in my mind, and there seems to be no doubt in the Government's mind, that organised crime in Northern Ireland is a serious problem. To quote the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland:

    ''The transformation of Northern Ireland society promised in the Good Friday Agreement is already underway. The next great challenge is to build a society worthy of the next generation. To achieve that, this generation cannot tolerate or overlook those who refuse to give up their profitable criminal activities—from drugs to vehicle theft, counterfeit goods to extortion.''

It is a serious problem, as the Government recognise, and the amendments are intended to help them deal with it.

It helps to be clear about the sums involved: this is not petty crime or petty extortion. I draw the Committee's attention to an episode in October when illegal goods worth half a million pounds were seized in County Armagh, which followed the seizure of £700,000 worth of counterfeit goods in County Antrim. Two recent episodes in one month involved £1.2 million worth of counterfeit goods—and that is the tip of an iceberg. It is important to deal with the particular crimes and particular nature of activity in Northern Ireland.

We also need to understand what the Government have done thus far. Their response has been to set up an organised crime taskforce, which they did early last year. On 23 March it produced a threat assessment that identified some 78 groups involved in organised crime in Northern Ireland, and about 400 participants in organised crime. That may not sound like many people, but if we compare the population of Northern Ireland with that of England, that number is the equivalent of about 12,000 people being engaged in organised crime in England. In terms of the percentage of the population involved, that is serious. Of those 78 groups and 400 people, the Government's taskforce estimated that half were in some way linked to paramilitary activity.

It is clear that the Government have established that there is a serious problem of organised crime and that large sums are involved. In response to the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe), I must emphasise that it is not only ordinary criminals—if that is the phrase—who are involved. The activity is driven by the paramilitaries, and it is correct to address that group over and above criminals.

The types of activity that we are discussing are covered by later amendments, so I will not stray down that route, apart from commenting that the organised crime taskforce has assessed the situation. Its conclusion about the types of crime that we wish to deal with is summarised in its document, which says:

    ''The legacy of terrorism is a significant influence. More than half of the groups known to police are either associated with, or controlled by, Loyalist or Republican paramilitary organisations. In some criminal areas such groups are predominant. The pervasive existence of some local problems—notably extortion—can be traced directly to terrorism. Some important local criminals derive their influence/status directly from their current, or historic, paramilitary links.''

That last point is relevant to an understanding of the difference between criminal activity and terrorist activity. What terrorists gain includes influence and status, and there are further considerations that distinguish the terrorist from the criminal, because this is about more than individual financial benefit, which we have been discussing thus far. I will elaborate on that aspect in due course.

It is interesting that the Government have worked out a system in Northern Ireland that we appear to be following. As the Committee will know, the Proceeds of Crime (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 was introduced in Northern Ireland as an attempt to deal with the problem. The order has proved successful, as I noted from the Belfast Telegraph of 6 November. This will be a sorry tale for some members of the Committee, because the first victim caught in the net of the order, which deals with money laundering among other matters, was a Belfast solicitor. He was the first person in Northern Ireland to be charged with money laundering.

The Government have gone down this route, and it requires strengthening. The amendments would help. If one listens to the politicians in Northern Ireland with the greatest experience, it is clear that we must do more than we are doing now. I shall cite just one example to demonstrate that point. When the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) addressed the Labour party conference in October, he urged the Government to match their seizure of Taliban assets in the United Kingdom with a crackdown on the profits of terrorist groups in Northern Ireland. One of the leading figures attempting to create a new society in Northern Ireland is asking us to do more. We should approach the amendments in that spirit, because they would help the Government to make a greater impact.

I now turn to the amendments themselves, and I shall try to answer any questions. Amendments Nos. 368 and 369 would add a terrorist lifestyle to the definition of a criminal lifestyle. Of course, it would be out of order to return to the question of what a criminal lifestyle is—

The Chairman: Yes, it would.

Mr. Wilshire: None the less, one must make a contrast. I refer hon. Members to the debate that we had about that, because we had a clear image of the Range Rover and other aspects of a criminal lifestyle—[Laughter.] I am only quoting what other people said; I am not making that up. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) is not here now to add a graphic description in his Glaswegian dialect, but we can refer to Hansard to discover how the criminal lifestyle was described. The important point is that that is very different from the terrorist lifestyle, and we should draw a distinction between the two.

The terrorist is the opposite of the flash, obviously wealthy criminal. The terrorist sets out to be ordinary and inconspicuous, and to ensure that he cannot be accused of having any of the characteristics that we talked about—and cannot talk about again, Mr. Gale. If such accusations were levelled at terrorists, that would draw attention to them.

We are talking about a group of people who appear to lead very ordinary lives. The most remarkable thing about the perpetrators who have been brought to trial for terrorist incidents in Northern Ireland or England is that they are ordinary and inconspicuous people, and that for long periods, they do not fraternise with anyone else in the terrorist world. That is not how the criminal fraternity tend to behave, as I gathered from that debate that we cannot have again.

Terrorists are often inconspicuous loners who do not get noticed, and who would not be caught by the definition of a criminal lifestyle—in fact, their lifestyle is the exact opposite of a criminal lifestyle. If amendments nos. 368 and 369 are not adopted, someone who ought to be caught in the net could say in his defence, ''But I don't have a criminal lifestyle.'' However, it might be straightforward to demonstrate that he is involved in terrorism.

There is another difficulty: a conclusion must be come to about what constitutes membership of a terrorist organisation. I anticipate that some Labour Members might ask me to explain how we would identify someone as a terrorist, because such people do not carry membership cards advertising that they belong to a terrorist organisation. To identify such people, considerable emphasis will have to be placed on the police and the security services, and provisions exist that address that need. A problem will arise between the House and the other place over the coming 48 hours, with regard to identifying terrorists and deciding what rights they should have. That issue spills over into the legislation under discussion.

Another important question might be asked: what do I, and other hon. Members, mean by the phrase ''terrorist organisation''? I do not draw a distinction between terrorist organisations and the political parties that represent them—between, for example, Sinn Fein and the IRA, or the Progressive Unionist Party and its paramilitary godfathers. Someone who is involved in what might be termed the respectable end of terrorist activity should be caught by the legislation as much as should the person who carries the gun or plants the bomb. It should not be the case that a gun-carrying terrorist is caught by the legislation, but someone who pleads that he does not carry a gun but is merely the official spokesman of the terrorist organisation, is not caught by it. We should be able to catch anyone who has anything to do with terrorist activity: I am talking about someone who will not unequivocally denounce all kinds of terrorist activity, violence and criminal activity.

Amendment No. 370 introduces the notion of ''benefiting from'' terrorist activities. It could be argued that many terrorists are not wealthy individuals. However, there is plenty of evidence—and I will not bore the Committee by referring to it, unless hon. Members insist—of personal wealth being generated by certain members of terrorist organisations. The simple reason for that is that large sums are involved. It would therefore be foolish to say that, just because people who have a terrorist lifestyle do not look wealthy and are not flash, they have not managed to stash away a fair amount of money somewhere.

I have stayed in hotels in the Republic of Ireland that are notorious for being funded by terrorist money. There are plenty of examples of that sort of thing. Another thing that one must understand about the wealth of terrorism is that it will be incredibly difficult to make a defence—

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