Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. McCabe: I want to make sure that I did not misunderstand the hon. Gentleman. Did he say just moments ago that he knowingly stayed in hotels that were fronts for terrorist activity? How did he justify that behaviour?

Mr. Wilshire: I did not say that they were fronts for terrorist activity. I did not know of their connections until I got there and was subsequently enlightened. When I stayed in such hotels, I had been booked into them by the Irish Government, and had meetings with TDs—Members of the Dail—so I did not set out to aid and abet any sort of terrorism. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and my defence is that I only discovered all that afterwards; I hasten to add that I have not been back to any of those hotels.

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. George Foulkes): Ignorance is no excuse.

Mr. Wilshire: Ignorance may indeed not be a defence.

My point about the phrase ''benefited from'' is that if you were—I do not mean you, Mr. Gale; I should say, if I were a terrorist—[Interruption.] I managed to avoid that one. If I were a terrorist and robbed a bank, it could be argued that I was not doing that for myself, and that the proceeds of the crime belonged to an organisation. That is why it is important to understand that such organisations do not have membership cards. I would therefore argue that something that might appear to be communal wealth is also the individual wealth of the person who robbed the bank.

Will the Minister assure me that if I were to rob assorted banks, threaten to kneecap people unless they paid me protection money, and run black taxis and pocket the proceeds, the fact that I had passed on the money to my godfathers in terrorism would not prevent that money from being taken away under what will be the Proceeds of Crime Act? I hope that if a terrorist is convicted of a crime involving the obtaining of large sums of money, even if it is argued that that is now in the hands of a paramilitary organisation rather than an individual criminal, the amendments will cover that point. If not, I hope that the Government will table amendments to make it crystal clear that in the event of a terrorist being convicted of obtaining £1 million by threatening to kneecap people, that £1 million can be seized, just as terrorist money has been seized from bank accounts in this country. Perhaps the anti-terrorist legislation will necessarily deal with that, but I would be grateful for the Government's comments.

Not only is there a difference in lifestyle between terrorists and ordinary criminals, but it is notoriously difficult to press criminal charges against terrorists, for the simple reason that witnesses are required. Witnesses usually want to stay alive, so they tend to become very quiet. If one looks at the situation that has developed in the United Kingdom through the terrorist experience in Northern Ireland, one will find that many people are clearly identified as being involved in terrorism. The membership of the Army Council of the IRA is well known, and the individuals are identified, but it is not possible to get people to go to court to give evidence against them. Relying on the definition of a crime to take action against criminal activity, and on obtaining convictions simply for the committing of crimes, patently does not work in the case of terrorism. It is therefore important that we include terrorist activity per se in the Bill.

Another reason why it is important that we take this route is the question of amnesties and pardons, which my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath touched on, and to which one of the amendments refers. During a previous sitting, I referred to the fact that somebody who has been pardoned may still be guilty—but the Government have chosen to say that if somebody is pardoned, they are exempt from certain parts of the Bill. In attempting to create a different society in Northern Ireland, the Government—I do not confine this comment to the current Government, as the previous Government took much the same view—have decided that the sensible thing is to release terrorists from jail and introduce amnesties.

In many respects, the Government are saying that such terrorist activities are a thing of the past, and we must build for the future. I am anxious that that should not be used as a defence against action for the money that has been taken. It may seem a good idea to release terrorists and provide them with amnesties and pardons in order to build a new society, but that is not sufficient justification to allow them to retain the money that they have obtained in the past. Given the evidence available, the comments of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the organised crime taskforce research, it has become clear that, notwithstanding the amnesties, the early releases, the pardons and the ''new start'' philosophy, organised crime by paramilitary groups continues. The amendment concerning amnesties is intended to make sure that, irrespective of what happens in the future, if somebody continues to benefit, or has benefited in the past, from the proceeds of crime, they cannot use as a defence in proceedings under the Bill the argument that, as they have been given an amnesty by the Government, they are not guilty, and the legislation does not apply to them.

We are talking about big sums of money, a phenomenon that is not—thank goodness—typical of other parts of the United Kingdom, and a group of people who do not fit into the common definition of ''criminal lifestyle''. They are a menace, they are rich, and, as we will show when we discuss the amendment that refers to adding to the list of crimes, they are engaged in a series of unpleasant activities, from which they profit. If I understand the Government correctly, they want to ensure that people do not profit from crime. On this occasion, although we might have appeared to be trying to soften the effects of the Bill during the past few weeks, I hope that the Government will accept that we are trying to strengthen their hand, strengthen the Bill, and deal with a specialist criminal activity that is abhorrent to all of us.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale, and I am grateful to have this opportunity to speak to the amendments. As I was looking at the amendments last night, I pondered about which of the Ministers would want to respond to the debates today. I reflected on whether the Committee would have the benefit of the considerable charm of the Minister of State, Scotland Office. All Opposition Members noticed the generous remarks that he made about the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, whom he knew in the House. The Minister has served in the House for more than 20 years, and formerly represented South Ayrshire; he has now been transferred across from his former duties of writing cheques for the deserving poorest countries.

However, I understand that the hon. Gentleman is not going to perform today, and that it will be the Under-Secretary—[Interruption.] I was trying to be generous, in the hope of attracting favourable concessions later. The Under-Secretary was a metal worker for many years, and a shop steward. Many of my constituents work in his constituency. He was the senior Lord Commissioner to the Treasury in the previous Parliament. My hon. Friends may think that that sounds like a friendly occupation, but the Under-Secretary was an enforcer. He was one of the hard men in the Labour party, whose job was to squeeze the breath out of Members who were recalcitrant—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): A miserable git.

The Chairman: Order. I am not entirely certain that ''miserable git'' is a parliamentary expression—nor am I certain that undue flattery is in order. The Committee should return to the amendment under discussion.

Mr. Tredinnick: I did not realise that I had strayed, Mr. Gale—but I shall not now go on to describe the hon. Gentleman as a parliamentary anaconda, as I had been minded to do. None the less, I am seriously worried about addressing the Committee this morning, because I have a document here that says: ''Labour thugs attack MP.''

The Chairman: Order. I may expect members of the Committee to stray from the subject of our discussions on one occasion, but I do not expect to have to tell them twice about such matters.

Mr. Tredinnick: I am grateful to you, Mr. Gale, for reining me in, but I want to refer to the document. I gather that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) has now departed from the life of the new Labour party.

Mr. McCabe: Will the hon. Gentleman give way to me? I am only giving him time while he writes the next part of his script. Surely he is not accusing the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham of having a criminal lifestyle, or having joined a paramilitary organisation.

The Chairman: Order. Hon. Members are well aware that I allow some levity in our proceedings, as do all Chairmen. However, we have a considerable number of clauses to debate, and if the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) cannot get back to the matter in hand, I shall call the Under-Secretary to wind up the debate.

Mr. Tredinnick: I shall certainly not try to work out whether terrorist activities have been employed against the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham. It would be wrong to do that. Instead, I shall offer the Committee details of my experience of the matters to which the amendments relate. When I was 19 years old, I was in the Army in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] I see that the Minister is being smothered by the Whip, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire).

I shall be flippant no longer, Mr. Gale. I am grateful for your leniency, of which I have perhaps taken advantage, but now I want to raise some serious issues. I am not sure whether other members of the Committee have had the experience of being in the Army in Northern Ireland in a terrorist situation. When I was 19, we marched into Londonderry off a ship in the Foyle to try to restore order. Looking back, it seems strange how crude our techniques were compared with the rather more sophisticated techniques that are used today. If there were rioters, we would unfurl a banner, one side of which said: ''Disperse or we fire.'' On the other side, it said: ''Anyone crossing this line will be shot.'' There were colonial riot drills that had been used in Cyprus. We could learn a lot from that time about how to deal with terrorist groups and win over hearts and minds, and the lesson could be learnt in Palestine and Israel.

Amendments Nos. 368 and 369 are intended to give the Bill greater force by adding the idea of a terrorist lifestyle to that of a criminal lifestyle. One point that became crystal clear when I was in Northern Ireland was how all-pervasive terrorism is, and how it does not mean simply that there are people on the streets throwing petrol bombs. There were men who organised such terrorist activities, and the support structure went far beyond one or two individuals armed with armalites or other equipment. I put it to the Under-Secretary that a wide range of support structures are in place for terrorists. I shall list some of them.

First, there are the munitions holders. In all the houses on the front line in Belfast or Londonderry, there would be weapons dumps. Householders would be required to store equipment; that was the status quo. Fortunately, the peace process is apparently succeeding in Northern Ireland, but if things deteriorated in that theatre or elsewhere, the status quo ante could recur. The munitions holders are crucial. There are also those who provide safe houses, into which terrorists can disappear if necessary.

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There are also the allegedly bona fide businesses, such as the construction industry, which is important in Northern Ireland. I attended a conference a few years ago with the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body—I see the Under-Secretary nodding—in one of the border counties; I think it was Cavan. I was struck by the sight of a hotel complex in the middle of nowhere, built to a very high standard, with a lot of cement. I made inquiries, and by the end of our stay, which lasted a few days, I was certain that the money to build the hotel had come from unorthodox sources.

My hon. Friend the Member for Staines—sorry, I mean Spelthorne; that does incorporate Staines—mentioned black taxis. We have all heard that black taxis are a massive racket on both sides of the line of the Shankill road. There are many people operating such cabs, and they should be covered by the provisions.

There is also the issue of massive organised benefit fraud. Many people assist terrorism through such fraud. There are also the people who work petrol rackets, using the difference between the cost of petrol in the Republic and in Ulster. That, too, should be addressed. There are the farming fiddles, too. We have all heard stories of pigs being driven across the border, and other methods of defrauding the state.

My hon. Friends on the Front Bench may want to think more carefully about where we draw the line on what we should add to the definition of ''criminal lifestyle''. What, for example, should we do with farmers who move animals around and contribute to the coffers of terrorists in their area? There are also the protection rackets: people visit housing estates, businesses, garages or restaurants and demand protection money.

I have tried to list some of the activities that make up a sort of terrorist mountain. I use as an illustration the arrest in New York of the Genovese family—an allegedly criminal family. Their lifestyle epitomised much of what has gone on in Northern Ireland, too. They were involved in every conceivable racket under the sun, and terrorists in Northern Ireland are involved in the same range of activities.

Amendments Nos. 368 and 369 would include terrorist activity in the ''criminal lifestyle''. The situation in Northern Ireland is different from that in the mainland UK, and we were right to table the amendments. Northern Ireland has always been a special case.

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Prepared 11 December 2001