Proceeds of Crime Bill

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Mr. Ainsworth: Is it one that commends itself to the hon. Gentleman, given the comments that he has just made?

Mr. Wilshire: Of course. If my hon. Friend wants me to support him on a technical matter I shall do so unhesitatingly, as he is the expert who speaks on our behalf. I have no problem with that. All I am saying is that I cannot stand up and offer other alternatives. It is not good enough for the Minister to say, ''I don't like what the Opposition are saying, and they don't have any other ideas. Therefore my idea is guaranteed to be brilliant.'' I cannot go along with that train of thought.

First, will the Minister tell us whether he has considered alternatives? We have come up with one alternative, and there are bound to be plenty more. If the Minister wants us to believe that his solution and choice of wording is the best, he ought to be able to tell us all the alternatives that have been considered by the experts—whether they are tyrants or not is irrelevant—and explain why they are not as good as the preferred choice. I have not heard that, and I am therefore not persuaded. I do not believe that the assertion, ''This is the best; vote for it,'' is good enough for the Committee.

Secondly—although I am conscious that to go down this route is wholly out of order—the comments that have been made about relationships between clients, accountants and lawyers open up a debate that we ought to have if the point is to be pursued—although I shall not do that, Mr. O'Brien. The question of professional conduct and standards, and relationships between individuals and qualified people, cannot be discussed in relation to accountants and lawyers alone, as it is also relevant to the confessional, the medical consulting room and so on. Even if there is a determination to rewrite that relationship, it cannot be done merely by a statement in this Bill that

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accountants and lawyers will be treated differently from other professionals.

Mr. Field: I do not want to open up the issue too much, but it strikes me that that is relevant to our constituency surgeries, too. Individuals, some of whom can be excitable, may come to speak to us confidentially. Is it seriously being suggested that if we are made aware, even by an excitable individual, that a criminal act may have taken place, and we think that there may be a grain of truth in what that individual says, we are obliged to go to the police?

Mr. Wilshire: I find this fascinating—

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wilshire: If the hon. Gentleman can contain his enthusiasm, I shall deal with one intervention at a time, and come back to him.

I agree with my hon. Friend that another relationship is under discussion. My only hesitation is that as a Member of Parliament, I have never considered myself a professional, but rather as a tradesman. However, my hon. Friend is right about the principle—we are all are told things in our surgeries, in confidence, by people who are desperate to cry on the shoulder of someone who can be trusted not to go rushing around telling other people. I do not believe that the issue can be considered in isolation.

Mr. McCabe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I acknowledge his comment about professionals and Members of Parliament. I am not sure that Members of Parliament, or doctors, have too much to do with such financial transactions, but does he agree with the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster that if someone came to a Member of Parliament's advice centre and disclosed details of a criminal act, he should use the guise of confidentiality to keep it concealed from the authorities?

Mr. Wilshire: That is an interesting question.

Mr. Foulkes: Yes or no?

Mr. Wilshire: I am conscious of the need to choose my words carefully. When information is given in confidence to a doctor, accountant or lawyer, or me, as a Member of Parliament—I make no attempt to speak for my hon. Friend, but only for myself—

Mr. Field: My hon. Friend is a Whip, so he does tend to speak for me as far as my vote is concerned.

Mr. Wilshire: The confidentiality of the Whips Office—the torture chamber—is another matter altogether.

I shall try to give the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) a serious answer, as that is what his question deserves, rather than a flippant party political one. All professionals who from time to time hear things that are passed on to them in confidence—I include myself in that category—need to ask themselves what is in the best interests both of the constituent and of society at large before they decide what action to take about what they have heard. I would not therefore be willing to give the hon.

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Gentleman a categorical assurance that I would never pass on information, nor that I would always pass it on. That would be a matter for consideration.

Mr. McCabe: Even if there had been a criminal act?

10.15 am

Mr. Wilshire: That would depend on whether it seemed blatantly criminal, and whether one had knowledge or reasonable grounds to suspect. I do not believe that one can have a blanket set of rules. That is the problem with the professional relationship. We cannot draw up rules for every circumstance. If, for example, someone goes into a confessional and says, ''I killed Joe Bloggs last night''—

The Chairman: Order. I think that we have had a stand part debate on this amendment. I draw the Committee's attention to what the clause says. It mentions concealing, disguising, converting and transferring criminal property, and we would not hear about that in a confessional box or an advisory centre. I suggest that we look at the clause and deliver our deliberations on what we are supposed to be talking about. I make it clear now that there will be no stand part debate on the clause, because I believe that we have already covered that.

Mr. Hawkins: On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. I accept your ruling that we have had a stand part debate and will not have a second one, but although the amendment would insert the word ''knowingly'', paragraphs (a), (b), (c) and (d), to which you referred, are part of subsection (1). If one were to debate the whole issue, one would have also to consider the defences in subsection (2), which deals with authorised disclosure, and the issue of what is appropriate and what might be revealed—which is what I was going to say had I been able to intervene on my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). [Interruption.] Yes, clause 323, too, deals with authorised disclosure. Some of the points made about the constituency surgeries of Members of Parliament could be relevant to clause 321(2) and the points linked with it.

The Chairman: We are considering disclosures, and the fact that the amendment would insert the word ''knowingly''. Can we direct our remarks to what the amendment says and what impact it would have on the clause?

Mr. Wilshire: I accept that, Mr. O'Brien. I was trying to respond as fully as you would allow me to what I consider a relevant question that should not be simply shrugged off.

Mr. Hawkins: I do not want to disrupt my hon. Friend's flow, but in the context of debating the relevant issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, may I point out that as well as debating the amendment tabled to clause 321, we are debating amendment No. 428, with which it is grouped, and that would affect clause 323.

Labour Back-Benchers, particularly those who represent Glasgow constituencies, have repeatedly said in Committee that there may be people in their constituencies who have large amounts of money and appear reputable pillars of the community, but are in fact Mr. Bigs. If any of those people came to one of the

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Labour Back-Benchers' constituency surgeries and said things that their Member of Parliament would usually treat in confidence, would not my hon. Friend's comments be particularly relevant, even to those Members?

Mr. Wilshire: I certainly understand what my hon. Friend says. I do not want to pursue the point—and neither do you, Mr. O'Brien. All I shall say about what I might hear at a surgery—I believe that this point is relevant to the Bill—is that my response would be based on whether I had reasonable grounds for suspecting that what I had heard was criminal. That takes us back to the question of whether we must assume that every constituent is a criminal unless they prove that they are not, or how we are to decide whether what we hear gives us reasonable grounds to suspect. That is where the debate started, and that is where it will undoubtedly finish.

The Minister gave us some statistics. If the Belgians have more cases than we do, I accept that, given the size of the financial market in Brussels compared with that in London, we must take that point seriously.

However, there is an additional point, which I do not know whether the Minister wants us to consider. I think that he said that 180 cases were brought in the United Kingdom last year, and that there were 32 convictions. I hope that I was not to take that as meaning that too many people were being found not guilty, and that the intention of the Bill was to make sure that more people were convicted. I am worried about that, as it would simply be an attempt to get the statistics right. The innocent would be put behind bars, and the odds would be stacked so much in favour of the prosecution that every time a case was brought, it would result in a conviction. If that is the purpose of this part of the Bill I am appalled, and would be deeply worried. I can understand that it may lead to an increase in the number of cases brought, but if the argument is based on the difference between the number of cases and the number of convictions, the legislation would be tyrannical.

My concerns centre on the point concerning which I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath—the question of criminal property. That is why it is necessary to think about clause 329, too. I asked my hon. Friend at what point property became criminal property, thinking that if someone is acquitted, the property is not criminal, and never has been. However, clause 329 states that property is—not might be—criminal property

    ''if . . . the alleged offender . . . suspects''

that it is.

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