HC Deb 18 February 1986 vol 92 cc213-5
Mr. Mellor

I beg to move that amendment No. 6, in page 19, line 34, leave out from beginning to 'period' in line 35 and insert 'within such'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Governent amendment No. 7.

Mr. Mellor

This also is a technical matter but it is worthwhile. The Bill originally provided that where a circuit judge made an order requiring a bank or other holder of information to produce material to a constable, the bank should have to comply within seven days or "such longer period as the order may specify".

The amendments give the judge a new discretion to specify a shorter period if he thinks that is appropriate. Although it seems technical, there is a real point which I think will be welcomed particularly by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett). The period originally was seven days. The hon. Gentleman, fresh from his discussions with the banks in the Select Committee on Home Affairs, suggested three working days. I must stress again that the banks have been most helpful in agreeing to the arrangements and have displayed a positive approach to the real difficulties in which financial institutions can be placed if unscrupulous people seek to make use of their services to launder dishonestly acquired assets. In Committee other hon. Members seemed sympathetic to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Erdington, so I undertook to consider it carefully.

5 pm

I have to report that the information holders that we consulted — the banks and the Inland Revenue —expressed serious reservations about three working days becoming the norm. They pointed out that the material in question might be at the other end of the country from the headquarters office on which the order was served and that they would have to identify and retrieve it, which might take time. Hon. Members can draw on their own experience of constituents' tax problems. Although the Inland Revenue always deals with our queries with cheerfulness, sometimes it takes longer than three days. The banks and the Inland Revenue have stressed that they would be happy to produce the information in less than three days wherever possible, but they did not want the embarrassment of regularly failing to produce the information on time.

In my opinion, the holders of the information are justified in preferring seven days as the normal period, but we are giving a discretion to the judge to impose an earlier deadline than seven days if he thinks that is justified and practicable, just as the Bill from the first gave the judge discretion to specify a longer time. I hope that deals in a Solomon-like way with the dilemma that we face.

Mr. Corbett

The hon. Gentleman has been his usual wise self. This is a sensible arrangement. I welcome the response by the banks and other holders of information that, where possible, they will not delay the provision of information.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 7, in page 19, line 36, at end insert— `(2A) The period to be specified in an order under subsection (2) above shall be seven days unless it appears to the judge that a longer or shorter period would be appropriate in the particular circumstances of the application.'.—[Mr. Archie Hamilton.]

5.2 pm

Mr. Mellor

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I have the greatest pleasure in standing here, such a relatively short time after the Bill was introduced, to commend it to the House for Third Reading. The Bill has required a great deal of work by my officials and myself, but that work will have been worth while if it results in us having a mechanism whereby we can effectively deprive the drug trafficker of the enormous gains that he can achieve from a successful career pursuing that wretched crime.

Once again—this is not empty piety —I must say how grateful I am to hon. Members on both sides of the House for the positive spirit in which they have engaged in discussions on the Bill. There has not been in any sense passive acquiescence in the passage of a measure that hon. Members were too embarrassed to oppose because of the climate but a full-hearted recognition on both sides that the matter must be addressed speedily. My memory of our discussions will be the recognition that if the matter had to be addressed at all, it had to be addressed properly. There could not be legislation by gesture. We had to provide a mechanism which is capable of being readily enforced, and which bites.

When I introduced the measure in October, I said that the procedures we proposed would have the teeth of a shark. I believe that we have achieved that. Those who have participated in the discussions — I commend particularly the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile)—have considered the details and come forward with amendments which I have been able in Committee and this afternoon to accept or to embellish or work upon in a way that has strengthened the Bill. We should all feel a sense of shared achievement as we send the Bill to another place in the hope that it will be received there as positively as it has been here.

Before turning to matters of general interest, I wish to take the opportunity of dealing with one or two pieces of unfinished business which arose in Committee and which I could not address by way of amendment on Report. It would be inappropriate if the Bill were to leave the House without a full account having been given of our consideration of such matters.

Clause 2(6) provides that the court may adjust its assessment of the proceeds of drug trafficking to take account of changes in their value since they were received. In Committee it was suggested that such adjustments should be mandatory, at least where an increase in value was concerned. It was felt that reductions should continue to be discretionary. We have considered the point carefully, but remain convinced that mandatory adjustment would be impracticable, although attractive in theory.

In some cases it is true that the courts would readily be able to calculate increases in value, but in many cases they would not. Traffickers may well move their money around rapidly. Drug proceeds might be combined with other money to buy assets which were resold and the sale receipts might be used with other funds in different combinations to buy other property. Such a cycle might be repeated more than once before a trafficker was brought to justice. It would often be impossible for the court in reality to assess the increase in the value of the proceeds. In those circumstances, we do not think it would be feasible to make the adjustment mandatory. Discretion will enable the court to take account of any significant gains, if necessary on a broad brush basis. I do not duck the issue, but we have to be realistic. Often a broad brush approach will be the only way of painting the picture. That is what the courts will want to do.

We are taking a fresh look at clause 2 to take account of the points made in Committee and to see whether, notwithstanding the reservations, we can clarify the provisions and make it easier for the courts to use the power of adjustment given to them by paragraph (b). If necessary, an amendment will be tabled in another place.

Perhaps I may mention briefly two drafting points raised in Committee about which we have consulted the draftsmen. It was suggested that the word "present" should be inserted in clause 3(2)(c)—

Mr. Corbett

The hon. Gentleman is pulling in the crowds.

Mr. Mellor

Yes. I am glad hon. Members are now so interested in the Third Reading of a major Bill.