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Standing Committee Debates
Proceeds of Crime Bill

Proceeds of Crime Bill

Column Number: 795

Standing Committee B

Tuesday 8 January 2002

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Proceeds of Crime Bill

4.30 pm

The Chairman: Good afternoon, and a very good new year to those hon. Members whom I have not already seen. By way of a few housekeeping notes, I remind hon. Members that those who are brave enough may remove their jackets—but only while I occupy the Chair. It is up to other Chairmen to decide how they want to proceed in that regard.

We have endeavoured to do something about the heating, and so far we have failed, but I am reliably informed that an engineer is on his way, and even that may make hon. Members feel warmer.

Clause 288


Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I beg to move amendment No. 449, in page 167, line 7, leave out from 'property' to 'and' in line 8.

The Chairman: With this we may take the following amendments: No. 450, in page 167, line 13, leave out from 'property' to 'and' in line 14.

No. 455, in clause 293, page 170, line 14, leave out paragraph (b).

Mr. Grieve: I wish you and the Committee a happy new year, Mr. Gale.

We now come to the recovery of cash in summary proceedings. Amendment No. 449 concerns what can be searched for by a Customs officer or constable who is on premises lawfully. It is important at the outset for the Committee to appreciate the novel aspect of the power in question. As I understand it—and the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—the power under the clause provides for action by an officer who is lawfully on premises for any of a variety of reasons, such as a search of premises under some other warrant or even simply because he has been invited in: ''Excuse me, Mr. Bloggs, may I come in and have a word with you?'' Having got in, and with no other invitation—we shall reach that issue on clause stand part—he might decide that he wants to carry out a search for cash.

The clause sets out two categories of what can be searched for. The first is recoverable property—a concept with which we are familiar. The second is property

    ''intended by any person for use in unlawful conduct''.

It seems to me that that must mean money intended to be paid to someone in furtherance of unlawful action. Reciting the matter in those terms—and I wait to hear from the Minister that I have got things wrong—appears to highlight the difficulty of proving the concept. After all, if I had in a box in my house £150

Column Number: 796

in cash, which I intended to use the following week to purchase cocaine from a dealer round the corner, without external evidence it would be very difficult to form a reasonable suspicion of my intentions. By contrast, if recoverable property were involved, there might already be independent evidence to suggest that I was in possession of such property.

What bothers me about the clause and about the fact that it applies to money intended by any person for use in unlawful conduct is the risk that it is a blanket invitation to the police to confiscate any cash from premises. I should like clarification by example of the circumstances in which, otherwise, a police officer would have reasonable grounds to suspect that cash on premises was intended for use in unlawful conduct. I can admittedly think of one or two rather far-fetched examples. I suppose that if the police had evidence from a telephone interception, in which the person occupying the premises said, ''I've got £25,000 in cash in a box in my house ready for the deal,'' it is possible to understand how that instance would fit into the category. Other than that, I foresee a difficulty. I hope that that we can explore my anxiety about the scope of the power and the way in which it will be used. It could simply be used as a blanket excuse for the confiscation of any cash that is found on anyone's premises.

Amendment No. 450 also applies to searches. Subsection (2) states:

    ''If a customs officer or constable has reasonable grounds for suspecting that a carrying cash which—

    (a) is recoverable property or is intended by any person for use in unlawful conduct . . .

    he may exercise the following powers.''

The clause then says that the Customs officer or constable may search that person. Again, I should be grateful to receive clarification from the Under-Secretary about what ''reasonable grounds for suspecting'' would mean in practice. Otherwise, stop and search powers will be granted not to stop and search for stolen property or for the proceeds of crime, but to seize money that is held lawfully by individuals who happen to be carrying it about their person. Such a power means invasion of a person's property and the searching of a person who is carrying money.

Amendment No. 455 refers to Scotland and is formed on the same basis as the other two amendments. I should be grateful to receive a full explanation from the Minister of how he envisages the provisions working in practice.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Happy new year to you, Mr. Gale, and to members of the Committee. I am sure that everyone has been looking forward to seeing more of the outrageous ties of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) and hearing about visits to the drawing rooms of council houses in Pollok. Such thoughts certainly excited me during the holiday period.

The amendment would remove the ability to search for and seize cash that is suspected to be intended for use in unlawful conduct. The recovery of cash scheme would therefore be limited to cash that is recoverable property and the proceeds of unlawful conduct.

Column Number: 797

Amendments Nos. 449 and 450 relate to the search provisions under clause 288. Amendment No. 455 covers the search provisions under clause 293.

The existing legislation relating to drugs and terrorism allows for the seizure of cash that is intended for use in those crimes. The drugs-related scheme was introduced under the Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Act 1990. Its provisions have proved to be successful and resulted in the forfeiture of £4.5 million in 2000. The Government can see no operational or theoretical reason for the Bill's cash recovery scheme to be different from the existing schemes, especially as the Bill's scheme builds on and replaces the existing scheme under the Drug Trafficking Act 1994.

Cash seized under the drugs scheme has illustrated the difficulty in distinguishing between the proceeds of and the funds for drug trafficking. On many occasions, it is just a matter of the time at which the intended transaction is intercepted—whether it is before it has taken place, or after. If the amendments were accepted, those that were intercepted after it had taken place would be forfeit, and those that were intercepted but the timing was slightly wrong—although there is a pile of illegal drugs, and it can be proved to the civil standard that the cash was intended to purchase those drugs—would not be forfeit.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): I may be missing something, but would the Minister not have power under section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to pursue that anyway?

Mr. Ainsworth: The Bill builds on that legislation, which, as I said, has been effective. I cannot see why only the proceeds of crime after the crime has been committed should be forfeit.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I understand entirely what the Minister is getting at when he says that the existing legislation has been successful. As he understands, my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and I are not trying to water it down. However, we are slightly concerned about whether the wording of the existing legislation is the same. As my hon. Friend just said to me, the concept under discussion is rather more diffuse. I am worried that the way in which the existing legislation has worked successfully could be spoiled by wording that is too wide. I have a genuine concern about that, having been involved in such cases in the past.

Mr. Ainsworth: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, this has been a well-trodden path over the past couple of months. On each and every one of those occasions, the justification tends to be to deny that it is an attempt to water down the provisions, and to suggest that because the powers are broader, they need to be narrower. In some circumstances, that may be appropriate—

Mr. Grieve: What has been going on over the past two months is a reluctance to let legislation go through on the nod.

Column Number: 798

Mr. Ainsworth: I understand and appreciate some of the points that have been exposed in Committee. I have no problem with that, and I hope that, because of some of the issues that have been raised, we shall wind up with a slightly more workable and better Bill, which will achieve something. Separately, however, amendments have been tabled repeatedly and continually, whether or not they are pressed to the vote—some of them have been—that would indeed water down current provisions. Despite the protestations of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) the amendment does exactly that. Albeit that the current legislation is narrower—this was a well-trodden path at the back end of last year—the existing legislation provided that not only would cash that was the proceeds of crime be forfeit, but cash that was intended for use in crime. We are not changing the concept but broadening the use to give an inland provision. I accept that and I do not apologise for it. We are not introducing a new concept. The concept has worked, and has resulted in considerable forfeiture under the existing legislation.

Mr. Grieve: I take the Minister's point, but there is a slight difference between someone who is about to board a plane to go to the Caribbean being searched and having large quantities of cash confiscated, which has happened, and someone who has invited a policeman into his home to discuss parking problems in the street finding that his premises are suddenly being searched, or someone who finds himself being stopped in the street and searched for cash.

4.45 pm


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