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22 Jun 2006 : Column 1578

Furthermore, the Government have already supported a number of legislative changes in recent years, such as stronger penalties for copyright crime in the Copyright, etc. and Trade Marks (Offences and Enforcement) Act 2002. We updated copyright law to reflect the digital age by introducing the Copyright and Related Rights Regulations 2003, which implement the European Community copyright directive. Those regulations introduced new offences relevant to the most damaging online distribution of copyright material. In making those changes, we have sought both to promote better public protection and improve enforcement against counterfeiting and piracy. We are well aware of the threat that intellectual property crime poses and that it is a worldwide problem, as the hon. Gentleman said. In response, the Government have taken action in a number of key areas, which I shall set out.

First, in July 2004, with the full support of the Prime Minister, the Department of Trade and Industry, in partnership with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, established the creative industries forum on intellectual property. Several work streams have emerged from that group. Raising consumer awareness and enforcement are two on-going issues. Secondly, we have implemented the Patent Office’s national intellectual property crime strategy. A multi-agency intellectual property crime group was set up involving the Government, the police, trading standards, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, which has now been subsumed by the Serious Organised Crime Agency—that came into being on 1 April this year—and key industry sectors.

The objective of the intellectual property crime group was to deliver better targeted enforcement action. Our achievements so far include: the creation of a new creative industries focus group under the intellectual property crime group to ensure that concerns can be fed directly into the intellectual property crime strategy; a new intellectual property crime intelligence database; better training for enforcers—trading standards officers already receive practical training with the help and support of the Patent Office; greater collaboration between national and international Government agencies; annually updated assessments of intellectual property crime; and progress reports overseen by Ministers, which will ensure accountability and continuing delivery on the matter.

Thirdly, I am pleased to say that, in June last year, we published our consumer strategy, “A Fair Deal for All”. One of our commitments is that, from 1 April this year, all asset recovery agencies including the trading standards service in England and Wales will be able to get back 50 per cent. of what they recover under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. This will take time to dig in, but it represents a major advance not only in relation to the proceeds of crime, but to the damage that it will do to the heart of the capacity of criminal businesses to continue trading. It will also allow assets rightfully to be returned to the community and provide support for the activities of the enforcement agencies. The assets recovered could include monies related to the confiscation of pirated goods, and the scheme will be administered by the Home Office.

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In addition, we highlighted the importance of intellectual property as part of our EU presidency programme by supporting the creative economy conference in London in October 2005. As part of our presidency of the G8, we agreed a specific tasking statement with our G8 colleagues on action to reduce intellectual property crime by improving enforcement. That statement is available from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, but I will send a copy to the hon. Gentleman. I would welcome his comments on what more we could do in this regard.

Tackling counterfeiting and piracy is vital and I agree that an essential part of the solution will involve building respect for creators’ rights. Failure to respect creators’ rights is ultimately self-defeating for consumers. The Government recognise that there have been inconsistencies in the response to intellectual property crime across the country in the past. That was often due to competing priorities and the lack of a cohesive approach between all the enforcement agencies.

The national intellectual property crime strategy seeks to provide a co-ordinated approach to combating counterfeiting and piracy. We are piloting 11 regional teams whose priority will be to tackle the most urgent issues for their locality. They will be cracking down on the real criminals, and £3 million, which will be available over the next two years, will get the teams up and running and provide for the network of regional intelligence teams essential for the focus on intelligence-led enforcement. If the hon. Gentleman or his Committee wish to meet members of those teams, once they are operational, I will arrange that for him.

The aim is to encourage a more joined-up enforcement network and to spread best practice among the trading standards services around the country. The Government are committed to improving Britain’s consumer regime. To do that, we need to foster an environment that empowers and protects consumers while supporting open, competitive and innovative markets. I think that that is how the hon. Gentleman described car boot fairs. He might like to know that my wife goes to boot fairs regularly. She raises money for my election campaigns through them. I can assure him, however, that it is all “legit”.

We are also committed to reducing crime. In short, we want to remove the market for counterfeit and pirated goods and to make it harder, riskier and less appealing for thieves to steal other people’s creativity and deprive them of their due livelihoods. There is undoubtedly a need for better co-ordination and shared intelligence between local authorities, rights owners, enforcement agencies and the Government to help to fight the growing threat of counterfeiting and piracy. However, we feel that that can best be achieved through a structured intelligence-led approach and a co-ordinated response from within the national intellectual property crime group. Again, if the hon. Gentleman’s Committee wishes to discuss this matter with the Home Office or with the new criminal intelligence agency, such a request would be met with an enthusiastic response.

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The first enforcement operation carried out by the national intellectual property crime group occurred over four weekends last December. Wembley market was raided and more than £1.5 million worth of illicit goods were seized. However, that was not the only significant outcome of the operation. Further intelligence about the method of supply of counterfeit goods was uncovered from seized trader documents. Other intelligence was also uncovered and passed on to the relevant Government agencies. As a result of this operation, it is estimated that 34 people will be prosecuted, and at least two cases will be the subject of Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 investigations. There was support for this operation from the legitimate stall holders at Wembley market, who had been struggling to compete with the illegal traders. The operation demonstrates—as have the operations in Essex that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—that shared intelligence and co-operation between enforcers gives excellent results using the existing legislation.

In conclusion, proposals to improve and provide consistent and workable enforcement regulations across the country are always welcome. However, all new recommendations on legislative change must be carefully considered, and not all of them can be introduced quickly. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Kent County Council Act 2001 and the Medway Council Act 2001, and the Home Office consultation. A report was laid before the House in December 2004. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) has confirmed, in a written answer to the hon. Gentleman on 19 June, that he will consult on this issue. I will write to my ministerial colleague at the Home Office and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman about when the consultation will take place and to ensure his involvement in it.

I say that for two reasons. First, I think it pretty unlikely that the hon. Gentleman will be able to get his occasional sales Bill up and running and secure a proper debate on it. Secondly, the issues that he has raised are serious, and we must grapple with them. I hope that the consultation will give the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to put his case.

As for whether I, as consumer Minister, will consider further legislation, I shall view the matter in the light of the result of my hon. Friend’s consultation. I shall be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman at a later date if that will help. We have a common cause. We may sit in different parts of the House, but one thing is certain: we believe in legitimate business and the growth of the United Kingdom’s creative industry. We are also anti-criminal and anti-crime, and opposed to the ripping off of our intellectual property. We are opposed to the ripping off of our constituents by organised crime.

I hope that my response has been sufficient to give my hon. Friend an indication of my willingness to work with him to produce some effective results. I thank him again for raising the issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Seven o’clock.

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