Proceeds of Crime Bill

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The Chairman: Order. If it were not in order, Mr. Davidson, I would not have said that—which is why the answer to your question is yes.

Norman Baker: There are worse things to be called in this life than innocuous—although I do not accept that particular accusation.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok is entertaining, as always, but I want to pick up a point that he made in responding to the debate. I resent the suggestion that anyone who draws attention to what may be excessive state power in whatever manifestation is somehow trying to weaken the Bill or being soft on criminals. As he and the Minister said, a balance has to be struck. Most of us are, sensibly, trying to decide where that balance should be. That is what this is about. It does not help to suggest, as does the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok, that anyone who wants to introduce a safeguard is being helpful to criminals or is on the side of collaborators. If the Government had introduced a Bill that provided that people could be arrested without charge, have no access to lawyers and be kept inside for seven days without due process and we wanted to water it down, we would be accused of being on the side of collaborators. That is not a sensible approach.

Mr. Hawkins: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Obviously the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok sometimes has his tongue in his cheek, but there is always an underlying theme—a theme about which I share the views of the hon. Member for Lewes. There have been one or two occasions on which both the hon. Member for Lewes and his colleagues, and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and I, have raised issues that by any standards—even those of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok, as I am sure he would agree if he studied Hansard—would be recognised as trying to toughen up the Bill. It is perhaps unfortunate that those were all in the week

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that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok was away getting bronzed.

Norman Baker: I do not know about that, but given the Government's thrust, it is more difficult to find ways of toughening up the Bill than of introducing safeguards, which some of us are trying hard to do.

Mr. Davidson: Yes, there are ways of toughening up the Bill. It might have been suggested that the word ''substantial'' be deleted. That was a clear opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to toughen up the Bill, but you declined to do so, and instead—

The Chairman: Order. I did not decline to do anything at all.

Norman Baker: I am glad that you did not, Mr. Gale.

That would have toughened up the Bill. However, it would also have meant a huge number of extra inquiries about a whole range of innocent people on matters of little value, which would have been a complete waste of time.

Mr. Hawkins: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be perfectly possible for the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok, if he were not terrified of the Government Whip, to table his own amendment to do precisely what he is now advocating and delete the word ''substantial''?

5.30 pm

Norman Baker: Throughout our debates we have had a number of useful contributions from Labour Committee members. That has been good for democracy. However, there has been a shortage of amendments tabled by them, which is regrettable, as some of them have been very eloquent, albeit careful to couch their points in terms that stay on the right side of the Whip.

We discussed the point about the Human Rights Act this morning in relation to clause 335. I do not want to return to it in detail—

The Chairman: Or at all.

Norman Baker: Only in so far as it is relevant to this clause, Mr. Gale.

It will not do for the Minister to keep saying that if the other provisions do not work, the Human Rights Act is there as a backstop because it requires proportionality. Of course the Human Rights Act is there. However, there is also a requirement for legislation introduced by the House to be consistent with human rights legislation in itself—not for it to be inconsistent and for us to rely on the Act to be used later to make up for any deficiency. The test is not whether another piece of legislation helps, but whether the legislation before us is compatible with the convention. I suggest that it might not be, for the reasons that I spelled out earlier.

Incidentally, the Minister did not respond to the point, which is also relevant to this clause, that it is open to a future Government to repeal the Human Rights Act. In that case, all the legislation that is reliant on invoking it at some distant date will be useless; there would not be safeguards in the legislation that had not been repealed.

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The amendment was very moderate and reasonable—innocuous, even. I do not think that it was cuddly, but it was the other three things. What is wrong with the court having to be satisfied that information is directly connected to determining whether someone is in possession of recoverable property and to any offence through which the property was obtained? It seems entirely reasonable. I have listened carefully to the Minister's objections, and I understand the thrust of his argument. It seems that there is a debate to be had, and I understand his genuine concerns.

I am not saying that the amendment is perfect, but equally, the Minister has not said that he understands why I tabled it, nor has he responded to the points raised by Conservative Members in recognition that this is a serious issue. It would have been helpful if he had said, ''I understand that this is a serious issue for the following reasons, but I am not happy with the amendment for these other reasons.'' He has not said that; he has given the impression that there is no issue and that the matter should be swept away. That is a pity.

The Minister made one particularly valid point. He was concerned that the amendment would apply to the confiscation investigation—and that was indeed not intended. I am more concerned about the civil recovery investigation element, which was also the concern of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield this morning. For that reason, I shall not press the amendment, but I hope that the Minister will recognise that there is a serious issue concerning how far legislation goes, and how far safeguards have to be introduced.

The Minister has not answered my earlier question about other legislation, already on the statute book, that could be invoked to help in such inquiries. I mentioned the Police Act 1997 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Law is there to help with investigations of this nature. I do not know whether those who drafted the Bill have cross-checked whether the powers that they seek to introduce are already present in legislation. I suspect that that has not been done, because I have been able to give two examples.

Mr. Ainsworth: The disclosure order is available only to the director with regard to criminal confiscation that has been passed on to him by the prosecuting authorities because of the complexity of pursuing the case, and civil recovery. Those powers are unavailable in other circumstances, and no other equivalent powers exist; they are for the director and for those two uses alone.

Norman Baker: I hear what the Minister says, but could not a disclosure order also be used to establish the movements of someone in whom the director was interested? Legislation already exists for establishing someone's movements; the two pieces of legislation to which I referred would allow that to be pursued in the same way, so I do not think that there has been a cross-check of legislation.

I am sorry that the Minister does not want to accept that that there is any point in the amendment. I am

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trying to be helpful to him, but he is not being helpful in response.

Mr. Wilshire: I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman is reasonable and straightforward, and is trying to be helpful to the Minister in saying that he does not want to press the amendment to a Division. However, some of us would like to vote, so will he reconsider his niceness and generosity?

Norman Baker: From my point of view, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, there is a fine balance between whether to vote or not. I accept that the amendment is not 100 per cent. perfect and that the Minister has a point, but I am disappointed that he has not acknowledged in his responses to myself and to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath that a real issue exists. As the Conservatives want to vote, I will not withdraw the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 13.

Division No. 33]

Baker, Norman Brooke, Annette Field, Mr. Mark
Hawkins, Mr. Nick Johnson, Mr. Boris Wilshire, Mr. David

Ainsworth, Mr. Bob Baird, Vera Clark, Mrs. Helen David, Mr. Wayne Davidson, Mr. Ian Foulkes, Mr. George Hesford, Stephen
Lucas, Ian McCabe, Mr. Stephen McGuire, Mrs. Anne Stinchcombe, Mr. Paul Stoate, Dr. Howard Watson, Mr. Tom

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 347 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 348


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

Mr. Hawkins: I hope that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok pays attention to what I say, because he will be surprised by it. Have the Government considered toughening up the Bill in respect of the appropriate sentences referred to in this clause? We shall address the matter again, in a corporate context, under clause 355, when the hon. Gentleman may again put pressure on the Minister to be tougher.

Clause 348 suggests a level 5 fine, which is currently £5,000, and a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment, which is the normal top of the range for summary offences. The clause suggests two years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine for knowingly or recklessly making a false or misleading statement.

In respect of the ''knowingly or recklessly'' offence, which all hon. Members will recognise as the serious end of the scale, have the Government considered a punishment greater than two years' imprisonment? The most serious offences in other criminal justice legislation that I have had a part in debating—not necessarily with this Minister, but with his predecessors—have generally been given a maximum

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of five years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. I was surprised that the Government went to the top of the scale of summary offences but did not go as high as they might for the knowing or recklessly offence. No doubt, the Minister will explain the thinking and tell us of the discussions that he has had with those who advised him on the matter.

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