The Bill is vague about gain or loss, and that also needs to be looked at. I would like to give the Solicitor-General an example. Let us say that As mother, M, is a
kind-hearted old lady, and that A fears that people occasionally take advantage of her kindness. As friend, B, asks A whether M has any money, as he needs a loan of £5,000. A knows that M has more than that amount in a savings account, but he lies to B, saying that his mother does not have any money at the moment. The morality of As actions might be open to question, but would there be any criminality involved? [Hon. Members: Discuss.] Yes, it does sound like a university question, but it is none the less fascinating.
Clause 6 deals with the possession of articles. The Solicitor-General has gone considerably further today than was the case in the other place, in saying that there would have to be an intention. He very fairly intervened on the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome on the point. I hope that it will be possible to advance this part of the Bill, to make it clearer and safer.
Clause 11 deals with obtaining services dishonestly. That new offence is necessary because of the way in which things have moved on since the Theft Acts 1968 and 1978. We are now living in an electronic age and it is important to look with clarity at such offences. We need to consider the words dishonest act in clause 11(1)(a). Should there be a specific mens rea requirement in regard to a defendant dishonestly obtaining services in breach of subsection 2? That is undoubtedly what the clause intends, but it could be argued that, under the present wording, such an act would be intrinsically dishonest, so there would be no need for a finding that the person was dishonest. A better interpretation would be to insert a mens rea element to avoid any difficulty.
The Bill is overdue, and it is welcome. I believe that the House will agree to the Governments proposals in large part. However, caveats have been added by several hon. Members, and I join them in expressing my discomfort about some of the offences that lie between involving strict liability and being an ordinary form of offence. Obviously, we need to ensure that it is absolutely clear that we are setting up legislation that is designed to catch dishonest people. However, it is not utterly clear in some parts of the Bill that that will be the way that it will work. Despite those few misgivings and caveats, I welcome this important Bill. In relation to a remark made earlier by the hon. Member for Rhondda, (Chris Bryant) it has not been standing room only here today, but the Bill is important to all our clients[Hon. Members: Clients?] I meant to say constituents. The Bill is important for all our constituents, especially those who might be affected by fraud, but also those who might be tempted to perpetrate an act of fraud.
We in this House think that we always legislate sensibly and that we always get things right. I remind hon. Members that there was a mistake in the Theft Act 1968 as a result of some draftsman forgetting to repeal the provision that a person caught stealing a sheep could be hanged. Let me tell you that, in some parts of Wales, that has caused a great deal of difficulty.
Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak last, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am the tail-end Charlie in this important debate. Given the closeness of the debate, I feel that I am among old friends. At its best attended point, there were 15 Members in the Chamber, and that included Madam Deputy Speaker. However, it has been a good debate, and it is getting better. Or it was until I stood up. Certain parts of it were fairly sterile, but the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) started to inject the subject of people into it and talked about how fraud impacts on the ordinary peoplereal peoplewho come through our surgeries every week.
To use a well-worn cliché that I have heard on a few occasions this afternoon, fraud is not victimless. It is not some sterile concept. Fraud is theft. It is clear and simple theft, committed by very undesirable people. If I may use unparliamentary language, Mr. Deputy Speaker, fraud is, in the main, committed by absolute toe-ragsnasty, unpleasant, self-interested, self-motivated people.
It is easy to talk about fraud as something that is large scalesomething to do, perhaps, with Asil Nadir and Polly Peck, The Mirror pension fund or the BCCI scandal of many years ago. By and large, though, fraud is often small scale. As the hon. Member for Rhondda said, it is committed against ordinary people, who might suddenly find £3,000 taken out of their bank account, not only their £1,000 worth of savings but another £2,000 overdraft on top. It is frightening and, once one gets caught up in the fraud web, it is extremely difficult to unravel it. It can take months or years to get ones life back on track.
Fraudsters tend to be indiscriminate and opportunistic. In my constituency, there is a group of fraudsters who use fake ID to gain entrance to old peoples homes. Some come in the guise of police officers, others as council officers or workers for local utilitygas or electricitycompanies. That is an obnoxious and obscene form of fraud, an absolute abuse of trust and a misrepresentation of the worst kind. I hope that, when the Bill becomes an Act, it will ensure that people who use fake ID or credentials to gain access to peoples homes feel the full force of the law. Ten years may not be long enough.
I met a local vicar earlier today, a minister of Rosedale church, whose mother had someone on her doorstep claiming to be a police officer and gaining access to her home in that way. She is an extremely clued-up woman. She quickly realised that something was wrong, she led him into a room that happened to be her garage and she locked him in it. It was 8.30 at night, so she thought that the police would not be interested in coming to arrest him and left making the phone call until the following morning. She thought that she would let this young man contemplate the error of his ways in her garage. Unfortunately, when the police turned up the next morning, he had found a way out of the garage. That may sound like an amusing anecdote, but it was only her presence of mind that allowed her to navigate her way out of that unfortunate situation. Many elderly people find their trust being abused and pay a huge cost for it, not only financially, but in their mental well-being.
As well as people who gain access fraudulently, there are the so-called rogue traders who use fake
qualifications to gain peoples trustI am from the federation of master builders; I know what I am talking about. All of a sudden, the vulnerable find themselves paying out vast sums of money for work that did not need doing to complete crooks who have used fake qualifications to con their way into a position of trust in order to abuse it. Once again, I hope that the Bill will cover those sort of fraudulent acts.
We must also understand that we have a responsibility and we need to be vigilant against fraud as well. That is the real meaning of responsibility. The hon. Member for Rhondda spoke about phishing schemes in which e-mails are sent claiming to be from the Halifax, advising people that they need to update their bank accounts. People are still falling for that con. I believe that it has been running for three or four years, yet I still find that some of my constituents are falling for it, giving out their financial details and losing vast sums of money in consequence. We, collectively as politicians, the Government, the financial services industry and local authorities need to educate people to be on their guard.
Why are we still throwing out our bank and credit card statements in the general rubbish, providing a rich source of opportunity? Some of us have bought shredding machines, but then we hear about armies of people sitting in darkened backrooms, putting together what we have shredded so that they can still read our bank account numbers. That is happening [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda looks bemused, but I can assure him that this is absolutely the case. In fact, Frank Abagnale, one of the worlds top authorities on fraud, visited the country only a couple of weeks ago and said, For crying out loud, people, dont just get something that shreds vertically. Get a proper criss-cross shredder, so there is absolutely no chance of the information being reconstituted and used to defraud people.
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does my hon. Friend believe that magistrates take a suitably robust approach to the obnoxious practice, prevalent in my constituency and across the country, of distraction burglaries, which are particularly aimed at older people, the most vulnerable in our community?
Mr. Walker: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Nothing upsets the police more than the fact that, when they actually catch an individual who has been preying on the elderly and vulnerable and he is brought before the magistrates courts or even the Crown court, he is given a one or two-year suspended sentence or a bit of community service. That individual then goes back to doing what he was doing very well beforeripping people off. People like that should be locked up and if the Solicitor-General can lock them up not for three or four years but for 10, good on him.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is making a case to show how the world of fraud has changed in recent years, but is not the truth of the matter or the real nub the very ancient problem that, as Shakespeare put it:
There is no art to find the minds construction in the face.?
I must confess that the hon. Gentleman has foxed me with that intervention. Being a man of limited intellect, I was never a great student of Shakespeare, but perhaps we can meet afterwards to
talk it through. I am sure that he is talking perfect sense and thank him for that intervention.
I shall now deal with particular provisions, starting with clause 2, which the hon. Member for Rhondda also spoke about. We have seen the promotion of fraud conducted over computers through e-mail and the internet. The hon. Member for Rhondda and others mentioned phishing, but there are also the K-scams, largely from Nigeria, where people are told that they will receive a large sum of money from a relative of the former deposed king or local warlord who has $55 million to launder. People are asked to send £20,000 so that they can have the whole lot. Unbelievably, people are still falling for it. We have to go with the adage: if it sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true. In plain and simple, non-Shakespearean English, if it looks too good to be true, ignore it and walk to the other side of the street. How will the Bill deal with international scams, as phishing and K-scams are run from Africa, by and large, or from parts of the former Soviet Union that are not yet in the European Union?
Clause 3 deals with failure to disclose information. A classic example would be the estate agent who visits an elderly or young persons home and says, I have looked at your very nice home and you should put it on the market for £165,000. Lo and behold, a buyer turns up the next day and offers to buy it for that sum. The seller is extremely happy and the deal goes through, but he then discovers that the home was really worth £220,000 and that the estate agent undervalued it so that one of his mates could buy it, only to put it straight back on the market with the two splitting the profit. That is a classic example of fraud, which I hope the Bill addresses.
Clause 4 deals with fraud by abuse of position. Before I entered Parliament, I worked in recruitment businesses and what went on in some of our offices was phenomenal. Nice young men or women would be hired and given a computer at their desk. They would work away, but a year later, we might find out that they were running a completely parallel business from that desk. They might have downloaded all the companys information on its candidates and clients, crossed it over to their computers and run two businesses. If they were caught, they would be fired, but they would often leave with all the data and set up business down the roadanother classic example. I congratulate the Government on introducing legislation to deal with that sort of fraud. I am in a very congratulatory mood today.
One part of the Bill causes me some concern and I am sure that someone will say that I am making a fatuous point about clause 11, which deals with obtaining services dishonestly. It strikes me that the rights to cover test matches at the Oval are owned jointly by Sky and the England and Wales Cricket Board. Fair enough. Will the clause be used against the hundreds of people who like to dangle out of windows or sit on the roofs of the houses around the Oval, watching the cricket? The point is not necessarily fatuous and it is worth raising. People could get a knock on the door from Sky or the England and Wales Cricket Board, who then ask them what they are doing accessing the match. They might say, You havent paid to access the match, so please remove yourselves from the windows or roofs.
The hon. Gentleman makes a poor point, but a better point is that many people deliberately
buy Sky boxes and take them to Spain, France, Germany or Italy, so that they can use UK rights, which they had not bought, to watch in other countries.
My final concern relates to the decision to retain the offence of conspiracy to defraud. I understand some of the Governments reasons for doing so, but clause 7, on the making or supplying of articles for use in frauds, would cover that, by and large. We have talked about people walking around with crowbars. Of course, it is debateable whether someone is taking a crowbar to lever open a door or to lever off a manhole cover and go about his business if he is a plumber. However, if someone is caught walking around with a cash machine keypad recording device, it is very difficult to argue that that person did not know what it was for; they are specific machinery manufactured only to defraud. I hope that clause 7 will cover a large amount of what is still viewed as conspiracy to defraud, but the Government have a slightly different view.
Mr. Jackson: My hon. Friend referred to Frank Abagnale, one of the worlds leading experts on fraud. On counterfeit measures, does my hon. Friend agree that Frank Abagnale has stated that most modern identification cards can be counterfeited at least within 18 months and, possibly, two years?
Mr. Walker: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and to the Solicitor-Generals credit, he did not talk about ID cards in his opening remarks. Some people say that ID cards will help to reduce fraud, but many people think that they will worsen the problem. Fraudsters will get hold of ID cards and manufacture them, and they will find them an effective way to win peoples trust and take their money. We already see that with passports and there is no reason why it should not apply to ID cards.
The Solicitor-General said that he was very much in favour of police forces merging, so that they could pool their resources in tackling fraud. May I say for the record that I am totally opposed to the merger of police forces? I believe that most Conservative Members and some Labour Members share that view. Most of my constituents would not buy the argument that one needs to merge police forces to tackle fraud better. Most of them believe that the police are doing a pretty good job and that, when caught, fraudsters need to spend more time in prison and less time on the streets.
In conclusion, I broadly welcome this Government Bill. I have greatly enjoyed speaking in the debate and the interventions from the hon. Member for Rhondda and my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con):
I am delighted that someone such as my hon. Friend the
Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) has found this afternoons debate such an enjoyable occasion, because, as he knows, the Government are here to provide us with pleasure, and they have, in fact, done it 53 times since 1997. This is, I think, the 53rd Bill that they have introduced to do with the criminal justice aspect of criminal policy. Probably, on this 53rd occasion, this is the one Bill that I can more or less wholeheartedly welcome, so long as they implement it.
I have tabled a number of parliamentary questions to the Home Secretarythis one, the last one and the one before thatto ask which Bills have been brought into force, which of their provisions have been repealed before they came into force, which have been repealed since coming into force and which are yet to come into force, and it is quite amazing how one gets back a telephone bill of an answer, too big to be e-mailed by the relevant Home Office department, to show how active the Government have been in producing legislation, but how dilatory and, indeed, how repetitive they are in the work that they do in bringing it into force. So they are a Government who chase headlines, but thanks to the Law Commissionon behalf of the official Opposition, I send my thanks to the Law Commissionhere at least we have a Bill that looks pretty good.
I also thank the Joint Committee on Human Rights for producing its 14th report, which deals in part with the Bill, and there is some good reading to be had in there, not least because it points out some of the concerns that the Government ought to haveI am sure that the Solicitor-General has themabout aspects of the European convention on human rights and the way in which it bites on the Bill, particularly in relation to articles 5 and 7.
A number of hon. Members have expressed our interest and support for the continuance of jury trial. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and others have all expressed views in support of jury trial and quite sensibly stated that the problem with some of the more difficult fraud trials is not the jurys participation but the case management and the way in which the prosecution case has been presented to the jury.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield pointed out, very often those cases have fallen apart well before they get to a jury. Certainly, if there was much space in the Governments armoury for arguments against the use of juries in fraud trials, that space has been utterly emptied by the production of the Bill, which is, no doubt, intended to simplify and clarify the criminal law in relation to dishonesty. I trust that the Government will be extremely slow to introduce not only another criminal justice Bill, but a Bill to implement section 43 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, to abolish juries.
As my hon. Friend and I have said, we broadly welcome the Bill and are prepared to allow the Government the three-year period to consider the aspects of it that have been discussed in the other place and in the House in relation to the common law offence of conspiracy to defraud. However, I remind the Government of what my noble Friend Lord Kingsland reminded the Attorney-General of on 29 March, when
the Bill was read for the Third time in the other place. I quote his remarks as recorded in the Lords Hansard:
The Attorney-General has helpfully summarised in paragraph 8 of his draft advice the judgment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, the then Lord Chief Justice, in the joined cases R v Rimmington and R v Goldstein. The latter part of the portion of the judgment which appears in paragraph 8 reads,