Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): I understand why the hon. Gentleman has problems with the existing wording and wants a de minimis provision. However, there is a difficulty in including such a provision rather than leaving things to the enforcement authority. One can easily envisage a situation in which a drug dealer—that is the category that we have considered—comes here from another country and boasts that he or she has gained assets from illicit activities. Would it be an affront to the public if there were no way of proceeding against that person for sums that might be less than £10,000 but could be substantial—£8,000 or £9,000, say? How would the hon. Gentleman explain to people in this country that somebody who flaunted those ill-gotten gains from another country could not be proceeded against, as would be the case if the de minimis provision that he suggests were included?

Mr. Grieve: I take the hon. Gentleman's point. The matter could be dealt with not by an amendment but by an assurance from the Minister that consideration will be given to a de minimis provision, and that rules and guidelines will be published accordingly—but as the hon. Gentleman knows, I am always slightly reluctant to give discretion to the Executive if Parliament can identify something better.

I have no idea how many people in the United Kingdom have obtained £10,000 by unlawful conduct—that is a broad term—during their lives. I hope that there are not too many. I have a horrible feeling that if we include certain categories of potential offence, the number may be rather large. I do not

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believe in criminality or approving of criminality, so I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) that there may be public policy reasons why there should be no bottom limit. However, £10,000 does not go very far. If a person is running around the streets flaunting £10,000 of assets as ill-gotten gains, people down the pub may not think much of him. I do not see such an individual as a criminal leader in his community.

Mr. Harris: I assure the hon. Gentleman that any person who flaunted £10,000 in my constituency—or almost any other Glasgow constituency—would not be seen as having peanuts. I suspect that very few people in Pollok, Anniesland or Cathcart have that amount in their bank account.

Mr. Grieve: I note the hon. Gentleman's comments, and I accept that £10,000 may appear to be a greater or lesser sum depending on where a person lives. However, even from the descriptions given by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) of the criminal on the block in his community, I got the distinct impression that if such individuals had made only £10,000, they would not have been very successful. I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman is not here at the moment, but his description of the criminal lifestyle of a person in his constituency did not strike me as referring to a person who had made £10,000 by unlawful conduct, but to one who had made considerably more.

If the Under-Secretary does not like the figure of £10,000, I am open—as I am sure are other members of the Committee—to discussing another de minimis provision. I proposed the sum of £10,000 because I thought it might be a reasonable benchmark, and I started with the assumption about the actual litigation costs. A balance has to be struck, but the Under-Secretary may say that it can be struck by administrative means. I will listen carefully to what he says about that.

In a free society, individuals are entitled not to be bothered about trivia. It is desirable to tackle crime but, as I said earlier, the process through which an individual is being put has to be balanced against the amount that it is being alleged that he gained from his unlawful conduct. If we write a blank cheque and specify nothing for the Assets Recovery Agency, I am not sure whether we are doing our job properly. There are a number of hon. Members—

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) rose—

The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman gives way, I must inform the Committee that the amendment is narrow, and says that the amount has to be £10,000 or more.

Ian Lucas: Thank you, Mr. McWilliam.

Is it not important that there be no reference to an amount in the clause? Would not a limit of any sort undermine the important deterrent effect of the Bill? I know that that would be the case with two more provisions concerning the amounts of money that we seek to recover, and I suspect that in due course that

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will apply to the Assets Recovery Agency, too. The disadvantage of having a figure in the clause is that it might fundamentally weaken the deterrent effect. The arguments that have been put forward do not dislodge the strong emphasis on that.

Mr. Grieve: I slightly question the real deterrent effect of the provisions. They will have a deterrent effect on individuals who derive substantial income from unlawful conduct if they discover that fellow criminals in that category are being stripped of millions of pounds. That will send a powerful deterrent message: they will know that the state has the resources necessary to pursue the Mr. Bigs who have not been convicted of crime. The upshot will be that most of those criminals will remove their assets from the United Kingdom, or at least seek to do so if they have not already been tackled by the agency. That would have a desirable effect on general criminality, by reducing the pool of money available that is often recycled into further criminal activity.

It is unlikely that the provision would deter, for example, a drug addict. Such a person may have a chaotic lifestyle, and although he has not been convicted of any offence, he may be suspected of dealing—indeed, there may be evidence on the balance of probabilities that he has dealt—in drugs on a small scale to feed his habit. I doubt that he will wake up in the night sweating at the thought of the Assets Recovery Agency knocking at his door. If the agency does pursue him, he may feel that he has been victimised. That will be especially true if he believes that he has a defence and that he has been dragged through the procedure, which may be ruinous for him and further disrupt his life. That is why we have to be careful about the point at which that balance is struck. If I felt that introducing a £10,000 provision would remove the deterrent effect, I would be swayed by the arguments of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas). However, I am not persuaded. I believe that in all likelihood the provision will be applied only to substantial criminals, partly because those who are not successful tend to have acquired criminal records and will be dealt with through the confiscatory mechanism. The provision is well targeted against crime barons who have escaped prosecution—and some of those may be foreigners with a bad track record and a bad reputation abroad, who have moved to this country with their assets. I find the idea that the power will be used on such a small scale as has been suggested improbable. If that is indeed how the Assets Recovery Agency will exercise its powers, I am not sure whether I want to give it such powers. Quite apart from the fact that a lot of taxpayers' money will be required for rather a small return, I am worried about unfairness.

I have gone on for rather a long time, and I hope that no hon. Member wanted to intervene. Now it would be better for the Committee to have a general discussion on the subject.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): This is a sensible, practical and pragmatic amendment. I appreciate that for many hon. Members the prospect of allowing a blind eye to

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be turned to someone who has stolen £8,000, £9,000 or £10,000 sticks in their gullet. To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Wrexham, one of the great practical anxieties is that if we do not introduce a de minimis provision we run the risk that the Bill will be ignored. For all practical purposes, the great expense that the agency will incur for each investigation will mean that informally, if not formally and on the record, it will have to have some sort of de minimis provision.

Nothing would be worse than bringing the law into disrepute. One need only consider the law on illegal drugs and how a blind eye is being turned, leading to a rapid unwinding, especially among the young, as they see the rule of law being so obviously ignored.

A figure of £10,000 seems sensible. It might be argued that the de minimis provision should be set at a rather higher level, because of the enormous expense involved in each recovery mechanism. The worry is that, as we are trying to get the Mr. Bigs and the next level down—the Mr. Not-quite-so-bigs—the agency must not be effectively paralysed by an enormous number of fairly trivial claims, which would be the practical reality in the absence of a de minimis provision.

I might understand if the Minister were to say that he would rather not say on the record but that some guidance will be given to the agency. I appreciate that it may be difficult to state that blatantly on the record. As I said a moment ago in response to the earlier comments of the hon. Member for Wrexham, it would be worrying if a blind eye were to be turned to serious, albeit in a numerical and financial sense rather trivial, aspects relating to the proceeds of crime. I hope that we shall have a sensible discussion on the matter.

I was a junior solicitor at the time of the insolvency of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, on which I worked exclusively for eight or nine weeks. I accept that it was a high-profile case, but dozens of staff were working full-time, poring over an enormous number of documents. If we do not give guidance to the agency at this juncture, it is easy to see, in relatively trivial cases, that enormous costs could be ratcheted up. The practical reality is that the agency will tend to use a small number of forensic accountants and lawyers. Those people and other professionals will have a high level of expertise and, dare I say it, their hourly costs will run into many hundreds of pounds.

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