Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Mark Field: I agree with my hon. Friend's comments. The proposal is a probing amendment and, in one sense, it may seem a little perverse, given that we endorsed the idea that the court has much discretion earlier in the Bill, but are now keen to rein back such discretion and ensure that the court is under a duty.

If pressure is brought to bear on an individual to commence proceedings, in order to fall under the subsection, a process of abuse may begin. I hope that the Under-Secretary can assuage the fears of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath and myself in that regard. Clearly, if the court is to have strong discretion that depends on the actions of a particular victim, we could be in a dangerous position. Has he foreseen such problems? Why does he believe that the court should have such discretion rather than having a duty to behave in a particular way as envisaged in the clause?

Mr. Wilshire: My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath explained far better than I possibly could the implications—

Mr. Foulkes: Hear, hear.

Mr. Wilshire: Never mind the quality, feel the width. My hon. Friend explained the implications of allowing such discretion. He is right. Such a provision would open up a loophole. I hope that it does not go unnoticed that Conservative Members are arguing for the Bill to be toughened up. Intimidation of witnesses and extortion are inextricably linked. Extortion is a particular problem in Northern Ireland. It is a serious issue. My hon. Friend did the Committee a favour by saying that the amendment would toughen up on both extortion and intimidation.

I return to the threat assessment of the task force in Northern Ireland. It made it clear in its report that extortion was ''a very serious issue'', and not only because of the sums involved. I shall not pre-empt that debate, because the money involved in extortion is dealt with in a later amendment. The report states:

    ''Extortion is a key factor in perpetuating paramilitary control of vulnerable communities. In the same way as paramilitary beatings, the extortionists create a climate of fear and insecurity which threatens the rule of law.''

We are in serious territory. I say to those who look back at my previous comments on such matters that it is worth noting that the report makes it clear that extortion and intimidation of the sort to which my hon. Friend referred is almost exclusively the domain of the loyalist paramilitaries rather than the republican ones. On this occasion it is not as easy to be even-handed in condemnation of everybody.

It is important to ask whether we are right to pursue the amendment, in the light of what experience shows. The report makes it clear that incidents of extortion and intimidation are getting worse. It says:

    ''Of 86 complaints made to police in the period 1995–1998 only one quarter were successfully prosecuted. Almost half the cases originally reported to police were withdrawn as a result of fear . . . before any investigation could be carried out.''

That is exactly the point made by my hon. Friend: the extortionist moves on to the intimidation of witnesses. To allow any sort of discretion would provide a loophole that such people would use. In case the Committee is tempted to think that the Opposition are kicking up a fuss about nothing, the section of the report on extortion and intimidation concludes:

    ''There is a real danger of organised crime developing more sophisticated extortion rackets. Already vulnerable communities are at greatest risk.''

That is why the amendment, or something like it, is important. I would be grateful if the Minister would at least accept that we have a point that needs to be explored. He may wish to come back to the Committee later with observations on details and improved wording.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: The amendment would mean that the court would have to make a confiscation order for the full amount of the defendant's benefit, even when a victim of criminal conduct—not necessarily terrorist-related—had started or intended to start civil proceedings against the criminal for damages. The clause mirrors the provisions of clause 6. If the amendment were accepted, a victim might not be able to recover damages against the criminal. That is because, once the property had been confiscated and the money paid into the Consolidated Fund, the criminal could be left with no funds out of which to pay any damages. That would not protect the rights of the victim, which the Government have sought, in several respects, to do.

Mr. Hawkins: I think that the Government could get round that problem—I know that the Minister is going to address the basis of our amendment—if they introduced an opportunity for the victim subsequently to take proceedings against the Consolidated Fund. That would protect the victim from intimidation without leaving the loophole that we are talking about. Of course, even if the money has gone to the Consolidated Fund, a victim might still be able to take proceedings under the criminal injuries compensation scheme.

Mr. Ainsworth: Yes, people will certainly be able to do that under the criminal injuries compensation scheme. I can only address the amendments that have been tabled. I have found them rather difficult, conceptually, to understand. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the different circumstances in Northern Ireland in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom. However, in the light of previous amendments tabled by Opposition Members—whereby they were almost expecting us to offer a service to any victim or compensation claimant, at the taxpayer's expense, in almost any circumstances—I found it difficult to understand what he was trying to achieve. We agreed that we would reflect on whether movement was necessary. However, the amendment would prevent not only victims of terrorist-related crime but victims of any crime in Northern Ireland from being able to be given consideration. It would remove the discretion of the court to take into the account the circumstances that apply.

Mr. Hawkins: Perhaps I did not make myself clear. We want to protect victims but also to ensure that the criminal racketeers—the Mr. Bigs—in Northern Ireland are not able to intimidate victims and exploit a loophole. We foresee that a victim may wish to start proceedings. At the moment, the courts' powers are limited the minute such proceedings are started. The defendant may have the opportunity to cut down the order made against him because the victim may make the claim. The problem is that if a victim starts a claim, the defendant or his associates may intimidate him so that he does not pursue it. Therefore, the defendant would get away without the full majesty of the law bearing down on him, and the victim would not get anything.

Mr. Ainsworth: I understand that. However, the hon. Gentleman's solution is to deprive the court of the discretion to examine circumstances and estimate whether there is a real problem. The exemption in subsection (6) is present to allow the court the discretion to turn a duty into a power to examine whether it should continue with the order when circumstances apply. The court will be far nearer to individual circumstances and will be able to consider all those issues. It will not be fettered in any way. If we accepted the amendment, we would deprive the court of that ability.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that the amendment would mean that the court would be unable to consider circumstances when a claim by a victim is pending or in process and would have the duty to continue to confiscate possibly all the criminal's property.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's worries. They are very real in relation to Northern Ireland. We discussed the matter outside the Committee in order to establish the position. I am satisfied that the best way of dealing with the matter is to allow the courts the power to continue with a confiscation order when that is appropriate. The court will be able to take account of the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman envisages, and I resist the amendment, which would deprive the court of that ability.

Mr. Hawkins: Obviously, I understand that the Minister is addressing the point seriously. I had hoped that he might go further when he referred to the indications that he gave during an early sitting when he said that the Government will reconsider how to help victims further. I hope that he will then think about this issue, although he has not said that he will. I see him nodding. If he is prepared to say that he will think again about this matter, which he said that he considered seriously with his advisers, and the genuine problem that he recognises that we have addressed, I will be very pleased.

I said that Conservative Members did not claim to have the perfect solution. I know the potential downside risks to which the Minister referred. However, we hope that there is a better way to ensure that the court has the duty to bear down heavily on defendants and not to give them a loophole through which to climb, while at the same time protecting victims.

Mr. Ainsworth: As I said, we are examining matters that the Opposition raised about compensation claims. There is no reason of principle why we should not cast our eyes over this matter when we do that. That is no hardship, so I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I believe that the best way in which to deal with the matter is by giving discretion to the court, but we will consider his proposal.

Mr. Hawkins: I am very grateful to the Under-Secretary. His response was enormously helpful and makes my task easier. I said that we were probing such matters. He has now said that he will reconsider the proposal, but starting from the point that that the Government are right. Perhaps some of our arguments will cause them to think again and to table a further amendment on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of debate on the amendment proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

Question agreed to.

Clause 158 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 159 to 162 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 163

Assumptions to be made in case of criminal lifestyle

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

12.15 pm

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Prepared 11 December 2001