Draft Crime (International Co-operation) Act 2003 (Designation of Participating Countries) (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) Order 2008

[back to previous text]

Mr. Blunt: Will the hon. Lady give way?
Meg Hillier: One last time, but then I really must make some progress.
Mr. Blunt: I am quite sure that we have enough time to bring this matter to a satisfactory conclusion, within the limits imposed on us.
The Minister cannot say that the United States is just one other country, as though it is Romania or Bulgaria. The United States is roughly the same size as the European Union. It has a slightly different attitude to pursuing its interests abroad—particularly with regard to financial instruments—from the states of the EU. Presumably, the Home Department has made some assessment of how this instrument will be used by the United States authorities. If it has not, will she just tell the Committee?
Meg Hillier: We have had arrangements with the US in the past with which there were no problems, and which this order simply transfers to the 2003 Act. It is important to recognise that although this secondary legislation will apply the Act to one additional country—the US—mutual legal assistance arrangements with the US are in place already, and they operate very effectively and are not overburdensome.
Clearly, we will always keep an eye on the situation. If we receive information from the banking world, or others, that there is a problem, we will look at that, hold discussions and, if necessary, carry out further impact assessments. However, the judgment was rightly made that one additional country, with which we already have mutual legal arrangements on a number of issues, did not require a further impact assessment. It is very easy for the Opposition to demand more assessments here, there and everywhere; however, it is important that we make them not for poor reasons, but when we believe that we will get a reasonable outcome. In this case, we judged that we did not need to make one, but we are always open to conversations with the banking industry, should any problems arise. However, we would be very alert to any problems, because clearly the requests must come through the Secretary of State.
Interestingly, the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds was happy to quote Liberty and former Members of this House. I mentioned earlier that this is a question of whether we extend the existing law. However, he did not mention victims and those whom we are protecting. I have also mentioned the issue of passenger name records, so I shall not go into that again. However, it is important to remember that the Government deal with facts, the needs of the people of this country, and victims and criminals—not with speculation. In many respects, I have great respect for the Daily Mail—[Interruption.] As a former journalist, I always enjoy reading interesting newspapers. However, I do not think that such matters are a suitable basis for a debate in this Committee.
The banking institutions have systems in place already to deal with such issues, and to my knowledge they have not raised with us any problems with them. The guidelines are published on the Home Office website, but they do not set out the time to be spent on searches and so on—that is a decision for individual banks. I refer the hon. Gentleman to that website.
Mr. Ruffley: The Small Business Service suggested in the Home Office’s assessment that there
“should be a limit for the amount of time spent per bank per search”.
That should be in the guidelines. Does the Home Office website refer to that, and if not, why not?
Meg Hillier: I just said that it does not.
Mr. Ruffley: But why not?
Meg Hillier: It is a matter for the institution to determine. I am puzzled sometimes about where the Opposition are coming from—an Opposition who talk about rolling back state interference, while asking for such detailed guidelines. We discuss these matters regularly with the banking industry across government, and if there is an issue, it will doubtless raise it with us. We are talking about guidelines, and it is not for the Government to prescribe every activity of private institutions. Nevertheless, it is important that they comply with the law.
Mr. Ruffley: Will the Minister give way?
Meg Hillier: One last time.
Mr. Ruffley: That was not my proposal. Perhaps the Minister would like to listen again: the Small Business Service said that there
“should be a limit for the amount of time spent per bank per search”.
Why did she not take its advice?
Meg Hillier: It is easy to pick out one organisation asking for one thing, but other voices offer contrary points of view. The Government must weigh those views and opinions and come to a balanced judgment. I repeat that, to date, there have been no requests, so I am not sure with what the guidelines would deal. I grant it to the hon. Gentleman that in the future, if we see this flood of requests that he predicts, we might need to talk to the banking industry about guidelines, but we have not yet had any requests. So I think that he is rather over-egging the situation.
John Reid: Would victims of a potential terrorist attack be deeply impressed if we told them that we had given up looking after four days, for example, because that was the limit we had set on investigations into the matter?
Meg Hillier: My right hon. Friend’s point speaks for itself.
Mr. Kilfoyle: Following on from the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts, does the Minister not agree that the public will be concerned about the totally artificial time limits proposed by the Opposition? A particular case with which I am involved will take 12 years. It involves drugs, guns and money laundering. It comes to court in October and it will be set down for six weeks. There has been no artificial limit on the investigation because when there is criminality, the public want a resolution. If there is money laundering, does the Minister not agree that the public expect the banks to go as far as they need to go to establish the truth of the matter, as long as a prima facie case has been made?
Meg Hillier: Once again, my hon. Friend speaks more eloquently on the issue than I could. The victims and the resolution matter. That is what the Home Office and the Government believe, and it is important that we respect that.
Let me nail the numbers issue once and for all. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington raised the important issues in a calm, measured and polite way. If we consider the total number of mutual legal assistance requests that we currently have between the US and the European states, we see that the larger European countries request more from us than America currently does. On the balance of the evidence, it is likely that we will get more requests from European states than from the United States. I think that we can over-egg this big bad America attitude that seems to be coming from the Opposition.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether any more orders were on the way. This is the first designation under these sections. Orders for the new EU states, which ceded after June 2006, will be dealt with but under a slightly different procedure. There will be other European countries coming in, but at the moment, there are no proposals for others. The hon. Gentleman asked why we are making the change now. In the past, it was considered that the 2003 Act, which related to overseas authorities gaining evidence in the United Kingdom, was sufficient to meet our treaty obligations. However, after further consideration—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not want to hear details of lawyers’ discussions—it was decided that it was necessary to designate under the legislation the specific provisions of the 2003 Act to apply to America.
On comparing the different organisations from the US and the UK, we have well-trodden routes with other exchanges and mutual legal assistance. I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman if he would like details about which organisations are involved. We are quite well practised at having that comparability both within Europe and with other partners.
I have covered all the points. I stress that the Government take the matter very seriously. We need to tackle international crime, including money laundering. It is important that we have access to information from foreign states, and that we give such assistance to countries that provide the relevant level of evidence and that have gone through the safeguards that this order lays out. I commend the order to the House and I trust that we will have cross-party support.
3.48 pm
Mr. Ruffley: We have had some rather interesting answers from the Minister and we thank her for that, particularly on the number of orders. She is right to say that if the order goes through, the Government will monitor the number of requests that are made. When I asked the Minister what the response would be if there were a flood of requests—I merely suggested that there might be—she gave us the useful answer that there would be a regulatory impact assessment and that they would keep the situation under close scrutiny. However, she must not feel concerned that we ask such questions. After all, that is what parliamentary debate is about.
I conclude by taking issue with an effort by the Minister to traduce me. There was nothing in my remarks that could even approach being called anti-American. The repetition of that canard by Labour Members reinforces my feeling that we hit a raw nerve in asking some rather difficult questions today.
On time limits, it was wrongly implied earlier that I thought that there would be a limit for the amount of time spent per bank per search. In cracking down on crime and terrorism, we should not be worried about the cost to a bank. Had the Member in question listened more carefully, they would know that I was making a point about why that proposal was in a Home Office document. It was not me saying that, and I am not advocating that. I think that fighting crime and getting the villains must come first, so I am not desperately keen on such a provision. It was the Small Business Service in a Home Office document—in other words, the Government—that said:
“there should be a limit for the amount of time spent per bank per search”.
That was Government advice, not mine. I happen to think that wrong.
I merely asked the Minister what had happened to that advice. She gave a straightforward answer, and I do not have any difficulty with it. However, it is interesting when parts of government suggest something and nothing happens. We are entitled to ask what happened to that advice. On this occasion, I happen to think that, because there have been no orders, it is probably a waste of time having any guidelines. I can infer from what the Minister said that if there is a flood of requests, those guidelines will have to be refined, and time limits and the question of a need for them will have to be debated at a later date. I have no difficulty with her answer, but certainly no one on the Labour Benches should criticise me for asking what happened to the Government’s own advice.
Mr. Gray: Does my hon. Friend not think it odd that, in seeking to answer his point about there possibly being a flood of requests, the Minister went to some length to say that, in the three years’ experience that we have had so far with the continent of Europe, there have been no such requests? That raises an obvious question about whether there are civil liberties problems, which there may be. I do not necessarily read the Daily Mail, but it thinks that there might be such problems. If there are, what on earth is the point in doing this, given that there have not been any such requests for three years anyhow?
Mr. Ruffley: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I have to say that a lot of heat but not much light was generated by the Labour Members when I suggested merely the possibility of a flood of requests, praying in aid a report from the Daily Mail. I was merely asking for a response. The answer was straightforward—there have been no orders so far, but we will keep the matter under review. Had the Minister said that straight away, and if the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts, had answered in a calm and measured way, I would have had an answer to a perfectly legitimate question. Instead, we got that sideshow about electioneering and the rest of it. It was a straightforward question and a relatively straightforward answer, but we had to go around the houses to get it.
As I said when I opened my speech—I do not know if the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts was in his place at the time—we are debating an order that reflects the fact that crime in the 21st century has no respect for national borders, and in the case of financial or serious organised crime, terrorist groups can now send money around the world in an instant, in furtherance of their evil trade. My use of that phrase clearly implied that many people suffer—yes, as victims. It is of paramount importance for those in the House passing such legislation to make it as tough as possible. What we have been doing today is testing the propositions and getting some questions answered on issues—far from clear ones—raised by the order. The Minister has done her best to answer those questions.
3.53 pm
Meg Hillier: I am glad that we are finishing the debate on a calmer note than we started it on. We all agree that scrutiny is important. I can only commend the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, and my right hon. and hon. Friends behind me, for their calm and measured approach. I hope that we can conduct future debates in such a way, rather than in a spirit of thunder and lightning.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Crime (International Co-operation) Act 2003 (Designation of Participating Countries) (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) Order 2008.
Committee rose at six minutes to Four o’clock.
Previous Contents
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 3 July 2008