HC Deb 23 June 1992 vol 210 cc199-212 7.27 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Michael Jack)

I beg to move, That the draft Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986 (Designated Countries and Territories) (Amendment) Order 1992, which was laid before this House on 9th June, be approved.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

It may be for the convenience of the House to know that with this order we shall take the second order: That the draft Criminal Justice (International Cooperation) Act 1990 (Enforcement of Overseas Forfeiture Orders) (Amendment) Order 1992, which was laid before this House on 9th June, be approved.

Mr. Jack

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for that clarification.

This Order in Council signals our determination to press ahead with measures to strengthen international co-operation against drug trafficking. The Government put around £½ billion a year into efforts to tackle drug misuse. The steps that we are taking today are just one example of our resolve to tackle drug misuse on the international front. In recent years, we have made great advances in our ability to deal with the drug problem at the international level. Our investigators are using ever more sophisticated equipment and techniques. We are at the forefront of efforts to improve international co-operation. We have been very active in our support of international organisations such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe. We have also given encouragement to other countries in their efforts to deal with the problem, including the provision of equipment, financial support, and the sharing of expertise.

Last year, we ratified both the 1988 United Nations convention against illicit traffic in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances—more commonly known as the Vienna convention—and the 1959 European convention on mutual assistance in criminal matters. Those events marked a significant step forward in our ability to co-operate with other countries in international investiga-tions and criminal proceedings. The Vienna convention provides a framework for countries to co-operate on, among other things, the tracing, freezing and confiscating of the assets of drug traffickers. Even before the convention took shape, the United Kingdom had embarked on the creation of a network of bilateral agreements on the tracing, restraint and confiscation of assets. That exercise was made possible by our strong confiscatory powers—contained in the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986—which are an important part of our anti-drugs strategy, both domestically and internationally. We now have 25 such agreements, and the network is constantly expanding.

Our powers to restrain and confiscate proceeds may be extended only to countries which have been designated by Order in Council. By bringing forward such orders, we are able to keep up to date the designation of countries which have ratified the Vienna convention, or with which we have concluded a bilaterial confiscation agreement in the recent past. The House has already approved several such orders, and we have now designated a total of 51 countries and territories. Like its predecessor, which the House approved in June 1991, the present order has its legal basis in section 26 of the 1986 Act. As before, it simply amends the original order made under the 1986 Act by adding to the list of countries designated in that order. The new countries are named in the schedule to the order.

The House will no doubt be aware that asset seizure legislation is a highly complex and technical sector of the law; even more so in the international context. Drug traffickers are constantly looking for more sophisticated ways of concealing their ill-gotten gains. We must do all that we can to stay ahead of their efforts and block any avenues which are open to them. The order has that purpose in mind. First, it will enable us to implement the bilateral agreements that we have recently negotiated with a further four countries—Argentina, Germany, Guyana and Uruguay. Secondly, it will ensure that we continue to comply with our international obligations under the Vienna convention by designating those countries which have decided to ratify the convention since the last amending order.

The order is made in the spirit of reciprocity, and it is understood that the countries designated would be able to offer to us the same powers in return. It will enable us to enforce requests from any of the countries listed in the schedule to freeze and confiscate the proceeds of drug trafficking. By proceeds, we mean the traffickers' profits in all their guises—cash, property, investments and so on. Perhaps I should mention here that the other order, which I shall be moving shortly, will enable us to do the same as regards instruments used in drug trafficking—such as cars, boats or aircraft—as this order enables us to do for proceeds.

A Scottish equivalent of this order is being laid separately. A separate order in respect of the enforcement of confiscation orders in Northern Ireland is not required; any country which is designated under the Drug Trafficking Offences Act for England and Wales is automatically designated for Northern Ireland.

To make the legislation effective, we have established a single system to handle all requests from overseas to restrain and confiscate assets. At the centre of this system is the United Kingdom central authority, a department in the Home Office which receives and dispatches requests for mutual legal assistance. The central authority acts as the point of contact between equivalent overseas authorities and the prosecutors in this country who will put foreign requests before the courts for enforcement. When the central authority receives a request from a designated country, it checks its acceptability and passes it immediately to the national criminal intelligence service. A unit within NCIS then co-ordinates our response to the request. In practice, the NCIS will arrange for either the Crown prosecution service or customs prosecutors to carry out the necessary enforcement action in the High Court. When dealing with requests from the additional countries designated in the orders, the courts will be exercising a general discretion in deciding whether or not to comply with the request. An order from a foreign court will not be enforced unless it is clear that it has been properly made. Safeguards exist to protect the rights and liberties of the accused or convicted person and the rights of third parties who may be affected by the enforcement process.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

Before the new regulations take effect, may I ask how much money, if any, has been received under the old order as a result of confiscation seizures?

Mr. Jack

As far as I am aware, the latest cumulative figure for orders under the Drug Trafficking Offences Act is £35 million, about £10 million of which has already been recovered. We also have moneys gifted to us under the seized assets fund, which runs parallel to those arrangements.

Mr. Steen

What actually happens to that money? Is it used for a specific purpose or does it just go into the fund? [Interruption.]

Mr. Jack

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) tries to anticipate my response. The larger sum of money goes to the Consolidated Fund and contributes towards the £500 million that goes towards the Government's overall fight against drugs. Money that goes into the seized assets fund can be used for a number of schemes to further the fight against drugs, including the purchase of sophisticated computer equipment to assist us in that work. If my hon. Friend wants further details, I shall be pleased to write to him.

In the case of restraint orders, the High Court will want to be sure that proceedings have been or are to be instituted in the foreign jurisdiction. No property will be restrained unless there is a realistic prospect of a confiscation order following.

A restraint order must be notified to any person affected by it. All those affected have a right to apply at any time for the order to be varied or discharged. No property may be realised in satisfaction of a confiscation order unless people with an interest in it have had an opportunity to make representations to the court. Those are essentially the same conditions as those applying to restraint, confiscation and forfeiture in domestic proceedings. The House can therefore be assured that due care has been taken to uphold the proper standards of justice which everyone in this country is entitled to expect.

I am delighted that the hon. Member for Huddersfield is replying. I know that he fully supported the drug trafficking legislation when the previous order was debated in Committee in June 1991. I sincerely hope that we can rely on his continuing support for this and future orders, whether they are taken in Standing Committee or on the Floor of the House.

I commend the order to the House.

7.38 pm
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

It gives me pleasure to support the Government on this occasion. The Opposition have always supported measures which aim to prevent international drug traffickers salting away their ill-gotten gains so that even long prison sentences seem relatively rewarding. If a drug trafficker is put in prison for 10 or even 15 years, the colossal sums involved may make some of the offenders think that it is worthwhile to spend such periods in custody. We want to prevent the salting away of the proceeds of the evil trade.

It would be remiss of the Opposition not to mention one or two matters tonight. I intend to prod the Minister for some clarification as to how the orders will work and how they will impinge on the other changes to which he alluded—agreements entered into since the last time we held such a debate.

The orders were introduced under the affirmative procedure, deriving from the 1986 Act. The Minister was kind enough to remind us that even at that time, when I was not involved, the legislation had the Opposition's support. We debated similar orders in May 1990 and again in June 1991. On both occasions, I debated the subject with the right hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten). It was necessary at the time to add further countries to the list, since when another four have appeared on it—they are the whole point of this procedure.

I draw the Minister's attention to a press release issued by his predecessor shortly after our last debate. A Home Office press release, it is dated 29 August 1991 and entitled, "United Kingdom ratifies European convention on international crime". The convention was an important step forward. In our previous debates, the right hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon anticipated a broader and more integrated structure in Europe for dealing with international drug trafficking and fraud. The fact that the convention would be signed was seen as important. In August 1991 the European convention described in the press release was ratified. It will radically increase co-operation between countries in the fight against international crime.

How does the convention impinge on the orders? We had looked for increased co-operation from the country closest to us, France. France is not designated in the orders, but it is a signatory to the European convention. Germany, which this evening is being added to the list of bilaterals, is already a member of the European convention on international crime, but we still have no bilateral agreement with France.

I tried to discover from the Minister's predecessor why we needed bilateral agreements with European countries once the convention came into force. We have signed that convention, yet we now add Germany to the bilateral list and France is still missing. There may be a simple answer to this question, but I hope that the Minister will give us it.

Mr. Steen

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that all European Community countries should automatically be part of the campaign to rid us of drugs? Is it not extraordinary that any country should choose not to co-operate? Should not the Minister lean heavily on such a country at the Council of Ministers?

Mr. Sheerman

That is precisely my point. I am fundamentally pro-European, so I did not want to call one of our great partners in Europe any names if I had misjudged its position. In our previous debates it was said that France has a different legal tradition; it has Roman law. We have common law, so extradition treaties are complicated and necessitate changes in domestic legislation.

The convention was signed in the summer of 1991 and came into effect in January 1992, so it has been in effect since only the start of this year. Perhaps the official Opposition are being rather dim on this occasion, but we still require an answer to my earlier question.

In earlier debates, we discussed the effectiveness of tracking down international criminals. Sometimes our discussion ranged more widely, covering the increasing problem of international crime. The signing of the European convention certainly marks a healthy change, and more than 50 countries have joined the bilateral list —but do not we need to go further than treaties and bilateral agreements? Do not we need to get our hands dirty by taking on international criminals across Europe? Trevi, for instance, is important in this context. Germany seems to be adopting a more positive attitude than we are to Europol, believing that it can be used as a positive force to combat international drug crimes in particular. My impression is that Germany wants Europol to have a dedicated operational arm dealing with international drug traffickers; Britain, by contrast, seems to be dragging its feet. We say that we do not mind it having a role as an international intelligence gathering service—but no more. We should emulate the German approach to Europol.

The Minister's predecessor, discussing the convention and comparing it with these sorts of order, stated: This convention, together with the legislation we have introduced in order to ratify it, provides a very valuable weapon in the fight against international crime—particularly fraud and drug dealing. It is interesting that the Minister coupled fraud with drug crime. A certain newspaper empire cannot be discussed at present because the matter is sub judice, but fraud is alleged to have been perpetrated within it and money is alleged to have been salted away in European countries. There is a parallel to be drawn between methods of hunting down the ill-gotten gains from drugs and those from fraud. How would the two activities be dealt with under the convention or under the bilateral agreements?

I see that the list of signatories to the convention includes Liechtenstein and Switzerland. I often get the impression that when we are chasing the Mr. Bigs, the real criminals, the top people who have made millions of pounds out of both drugs and fraud, their money goes to safe havens in Liechtenstein and Switzerland and we cannot retrieve it.

We have a convention with which the Minister's predecessor was pleased. A press release stated that the United Kingdom had ratified the European convention on international crime, a convention that would help us with the fight against international crime—particularly fraud and drug dealing. The press release then goes into detail. It states that the convention will make it possible to serve on individuals in the UK summonses and other judicial documents … empower the UK courts to seek assistance from overseas authorities in obtaining evidence for use in investigations … provide for UK prisoners to be temporarily transferred overseas … enable courts in the UK to authorise the police to exercise powers of search and seizure for evidence, on behalf of other countries; and provide for the enforcement in the UK of overseas court orders for the forfeiture of items used in the commission of serious offences. If that means anything, a plain person's logic will cause the following questions to be asked: "Why cannot we get our hands on money that is salted away in Liechtenstein and Switzerland, whether by newspaper barons or by drug traffickers? If we have a European convention, why cannot we get our hands on money that has been derived from crime? Why is that not possible if we have bilateral agreements with some of those countries, if not all of them?"

I hope that I have not strayed too far from the matters which are before us. I believe that I have raised an important issue and I shall seek to drive home the point. When the Minister's predecessor discussed these matters in 1990, he produced a good example. In my usual style. I said that I did not fully comprehend these matters in theoretical terms. I then asked whether he could give me an example of what actually happened. The Minister replied: A request would be made by our central authority in the Home Office—we should be notified of the criminal's existence—to the equivalent in the Ministry of the Interior, or the Ministry of Justice, in Spain, Switzerland, the United States, or whatever, for the property in their respective jurisdiction to be restrained. This is stage one. While criminal proceedings are underway, we do not want the money to flip out of the relevant jurisdiction. Therefore, the first step is to obtain a restraining order, pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings. The right hon. Gentleman then said: As soon as criminal proceedings and the committal stage begin in this country, our central authority would act quickly and say, We believe that Mr. X or Mrs. Y has property in your country. A trial is pending and we wish those assets to be frozen. At the same time we should seek to put a restraint on assets owned by the accused in the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom."—[Official Report, Third Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c., 16 May 1990, c. 6.] Is that the procedure that is now established, whether for drugs or fraud, and is it being implemented in highly publicised cases? I would go to sleep much easier tonight if I knew that the assets salted away in Switzerland or Liechtenstein by whoever would not disappear somewhere else during the period preceding a long trial. I hope that I have made my point and that I have kept in order.

Our purpose is to assess the effectiveness of the order and those which have preceded it. I was pleased when the hon. Member for south Hants—

Mr. Steen

South Hams.

Mr. Sheerman

The hon. Gentleman changed his constituency. I remember his previous constituency rather than his present one.

When the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) intervened and said, in effect, "How much money?", I was disappointed by the Minister's response. Almost two years ago we were talking about £27 million. Given the estimates of international drug crime, the profits that flow from it, the amount by which it is growing and the sums that are being made by international criminal syndicates, it seems that the tip of the iceberg with which we are dealing is not becoming larger at the pace that we might expect. I am concerned that we are not dealing with the sort of sum with which I would have expected us to deal at this stage.

Perhaps that reinforces my argument that we need to take a much more effective stance to buttress the order by having a much more positive agreement with others, through Trevi or Schengen, to ensure that the fight against international drug crime and the international fraudster becomes much more effective. I shall introduce the only sour note this evening by saying that we are not doing enough. International drug crime is growing rapidly and we know that the problem is becoming worse. Are we not becoming a little too complacent about our effectiveness in the fight against the international criminal?

We support the order because we will support anything that is designed to stem the flood of drugs into the United Kingdom, but should we not consider other methods of achieving that purpose? I know that the Minister and his ministerial colleagues have a dialogue with colleagues in other Departments who are responsible for shedding 400 Customs and Excise officers over two years—a 10 per cent. cut. The order will have all-party agreement, but it is important to recognise that the most effective way of stopping drugs coming into the country is through Her Majesty's Customs and Excise. The police rarely manage to get hold of any substantial quantities of drugs. That is the truth. I have asked parliamentary questions about that matter and I think that the Minister will agree with what I have said.

It is the staff of Customs and Excise who at points of entry—ports and airports—apprehend and mark up major victories against international drug traffickers. I hope that the Minister will take that on hoard. I hope also that he understands that he has the Opposition's complete support for anything that will stop the international drug criminal. I trust that my remarks have demonstrated the fullness of that support.

7.57 pm
Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

It will be with pleasure that I take up one or two remarks of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman)—I endorse most of his arguments—in my short contribution to the debate.

I welcome the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), to the Government Dispatch Box. I believe that this is his first appearance to talk about the extremely important subject that is before the House. I wish him well in all his efforts on behalf of the Government and of every person living in the United Kingdom.

I have the honour to be chairman of the all-party drugs misuse group, which has supported the Government in their efforts, most particularly in the two pieces of major legislation to which reference has already been made—the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986, which was designed to confiscate illegally gained assets, and the Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Act 1990, to allow the seizure of the tools of crime and their disposal following seizure. I welcome the extensions of the Acts to embrace Argentina, Germany, Guyana and Uruguay. I look forward to further amendments to broaden the embrace of the bilateral agreements that we have struck.

That brings me to my first question. Can my hon. Friend the Minister anticipate any further steps in the imminent future to increase the number of bilaterals which have been struck with, for instance, countries which are such important suppliers of the raw materials of drugs that are misused in Britain and reassure the House on their necessity? I immediately think of countries such as Colombia, Bolivia, India and Syria.

Closer to home, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned, there are those members of the EC, those signatories of the Vienna convention, with whom we ought to have bilaterals in order to be sure that we can take the steps that we want to take and have them take the steps that they should take on our behalf and on our mutual behalf.

Can my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that the legislation and the orders which allow the British criminal justice system to enforce requests by those other countries included in the orders are entirely reciprocal? Do those countries which we are discussing this evening and other countries which have been included in the legislation by previous amendments behave in a reciprocal way? Have they passed the relevant legislation needed so that they can do so? If not, can my hon. Friend reassure the House that they have the process in hand? I am aware that that process is long and drawn out—longer and more drawn out in some of those countries than in Britain.

There is no doubt in anybody's mind, in the House or outside, that vigorous tackling of trafficking in drugs and crime associated with it is a crucial part of the Government's well-directed efforts to meet the growing menace of drug misuse. As the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, it is, tragically, a growing problem.

The number of addicts has doubled in the past four years. The number of drug offenders under the age of 17 has quadrupled, and that is largely due to amphetamines and cocaine and new drugs such as Ecstasy, which is a class A dangerous drug. There are signs that between one in 10 and one in 25 between the ages of 15 and 30 have used Ecstasy at least once, causing 14 tragic deaths last year.

Like others, I praise the police and customs at home. In addition, a marvellous job is being done by British drugs liaison officers around the world. They particularly deserve our praise because they sometimes operate in extremely dangerous circumstances. I also commend British support for, and for many years leadership of, the Council of Europe Pompidou group. That has been admirable. I trust that my hon. Friend the Minister will continue to play as vital and vigorous a part in it as his predecessor in the responsibilities that he now holds.

I also want to mention the successful British initiative to establish Europol. Unlike the hon. Member for Huddersfield, I rather doubt whether in present or foreseeable circumstances it is wise to consider Europol as an operational entity. But there is no doubt that, as a central source of intelligence, it is excellent and admirable. In the same context, the establishment and operation of the drugs intelligence unit here at home has also been important.

There is a further question that I want to raise, not precisely pertinent to the orders but which I hope I shall be allowed to mention, and that is the question which still remains about the central organisation of anti-drugs police activities in Britain. There is still room for centralised operation and control. So long as that operational unit, built up into a substantial force and divided from other forces, is composed of people seconded from existing police forces rather than building its own recruitment and training, it should be able to overcome the natural worries of chief police officers.

Moneys raised from confiscations make a marvellous contribution to many aspects of the Government's efforts to tackle drug misuse, but there is still a peculiar divide between assets fed in from abroad, which can be used specifically by those fighting against drugs, and those assets which are seized within Britain, which go into the Consolidated Fund.

I plead with the Minister yet again—this point has been made over and over again—to tackle his colleagues in the Treasury to try to obtain specific identification of those funds and channel them back not to the forces which seized them, because that would be indiscriminate, but to all the various efforts not only in trafficking and criminal control, but in treatment, and so on, which so desperately need extra funds. They should be looked upon as extra funds, not as part of a substitution for funds which the Government already make available.

I commend the Government on what has been achieved and on their continuing efforts. There is still room to do more and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will allow me and other members of the all-party group to keep reminding him about that, not just in tackling trafficking, but in reducing production and improving methods and availability of treatment and, most important of all at the end of the day, in reducing demand.

Britain has given a genuine lead to other countries in the fight against drug misuse and I hope that we shall remain in the lead by ever-expanding efforts which include the measures that we are discussing today.

8.6 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

It is a pleasure to see many of my hon. Friends present for a debate on a matter which obviously is of concern to the whole House. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) has taken a particular interest in this subject. He was a member of the Third Standing Committee on 16 May 1990 which debated it. It is good to see that his interest has sustained all these years. No doubt he will make one of his excellent contributions shortly.

I have only three points to make. First, I am concerned about the countries which have been added to the list of countries under the reciprocal arrangement. Many countries are missing and I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Minister can explain why. For example, many of the West Indies are not on the list. I have just come back from Trinidad as a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation. It admits that it has an increasing drug problem. Why is it not on the list? Why is Barbados not on the list? I know that a Barbados Minister has visited Britain. I cannot see Holland anywhere. Am I wrong? Is it excluded from the reciprocal arrangement? When my hon. Friend replies, will he tell us why some countries are missing, particularly some of the important countries which admit that they have a drug problem?

My second point concerns money. It is right that some of the money should go to defray the costs of the drug enforcement procedures. The rest of the money is lost in the Consolidated Fund and none, as my hon. Friend explained, goes to the many voluntary groups which try to fight drug abuse and the quasi-organisations which the Government fund through other sources. They do not receive any specific money. The Government should specifically identify money coming from drugs and the drug barons and put it back into preventive work rather than just enforcement work or the drug intelligence unit. It would be a useful and constructive step for the Government to ensure that ill-gotten gains were put into preventing drug abuse. My constituency includes part of the English riviera, but I much regret that the drug Ecstasy is readily available there. In fact, parents in Brixham say that their children can obtain Ecstasy cheaper and more easily than a Devon cream tea—and everyone knows how readily available cream teas are in the constituency that I have the privilege to represent.

Not enough preventive work is being undertaken or funded by the Government. I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to consider whether the proceeds derived from drug barons should go towards helping community groups and other voluntary organizations—such as those found in Brixham, where a concerned group of parents are themselves funding a voluntary effort to prevent any growth in the ready availability of Ecstasy. I hope that my hon. Friend can give an assurance that money seized from drug trafficking does not get lost in the bottomless pit of the Consolidated Fund, and that more of it will be used specifically to fund voluntary work.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Mr. Malcolm Jack.

8.11 pm
Mr. Jack

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for rechristening me. I am sure that my parents will be very interested to learn of my new name!

I will do my best to respond to the interesting points made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), including his remarks about European co-operation. I believe that they were directed at the European convention on mutual legal assistance, which was covered by the Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Act 1990. It was introduced to enhance our ability to extend mutual legal assistance to countries requiring help in the fight against drugs and serious crime. Its powers are different from those provided by the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986, which concentrated on freezing and confiscating proceeds.

The 1990 Act enables people to travel abroad to give evidence, gives powers to take evidence and to obtain documents, and provides for police assistance in respect of powers of search and seizure and in serving court documents.

Good relationships have been established between our law enforcement authorities and those of other European countries, which assists us in our investigations. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Huddersfield placed emphasis on European co-operation. He will be aware of the Council of Europe convention to which the United Kingdom is a signatory. We hope to be in the lead in ratifying that convention, which will provide a comprehen-sive range of powers for dealing with many of the matters that the hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned. I hope that it will receive widespread support. Taken together with the Vienna convention and the bilateral arrangements that form the basis of the orders, the Council of Europe convention will represent a comprehensive response.

France is already designated under the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986, so we can co-operate fully with that country in tracing, freezing, and confiscating proceeds. We can also provide a wide range of mutual legal assistance under the 1990 Act. In no way are we leaving France out of the picture.

In responding to the hon. Gentleman's remarks about Liechtenstein. I shall try not to stray too far from the substance of the orders. We have powers to investigate financial fraud both in this country and abroad, and they are adequate in respect of Liechtenstein. The 1990 Act enables us to extend a full range of mutual legal assistance. In addition, Department of Trade and Industry investigators have powers of their own under the Financial Services Act 1986. Work can also be undertaken by Serious Fraud Office investigators under the Criminal Justice Act 1987. Liechtenstein should not present any barrier.

Mr. Sheerman

I mentioned a particular example cited by the Minister's predecessor. When a court case is just beginning, do the authorities have the power to freeze assets in Liechtenstein or Switzerland fast—so that they do not disappear to some other part of the world? My understanding of the convention and of the orders is that they make that possible. However, one reads in the national and international press of concerns that moneys disappear to different destinations before trials are concluded and anyone is sentenced.

Mr. Jack

The hon. Gentleman's question requires a detailed response, but I will make a general reply. The arrangements contained in the orders will enable us to move very quickly. Once we know that a country wants to exercise its rights, an ex parte application can be made to the High Court to restrain the movement of assets. provided that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting drug trafficking. The whole idea is, as the hon. Gentleman says, to get in quickly. I assure him that such a mechanism exists.

Mr. Sheerman

A press release issued by the Minister's predecessor dated 29 August 1991 said that the convention —which the Minister said is part of the weaponry against the drug trafficker—mentions also the international fraudster. If a drugs or fraud trial commences in this country, will the arrangements that we have with Liechtenstein and Switzerland allow the authorities to freeze the accused's assets now rather than at some time in the future?

Mr. Jack

As I explained, I answered in general terms —but I undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman about the specific arrangements relating to Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Meanwhile, I assure him that speed is of the essence. I also refer the hon. Gentleman to the written answer that I gave the hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), reported in column 78 of the Official Report for 9 June.

Mr. Steen

Do the arrangements that my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned in respect of France apply also to Holland? I see no mention of that country in any of the lists.

Mr. Jack

I hope to deal with Holland in a moment. If I do not, I shall ensure that my hon. Friend receives an answer in due course.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield asked about our international arrangements in relation to money launder-ing. Our own arrangements—which are clearly internationally based—have been reviewed by the Group of Seven financial action task force, an ad hoc group set up about three years ago. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will derive some comfort from the fact that a report that we have just received from its examining team concludes that our approach to money laundering is effective and comprehensive, and could serve as a model for other countries. That, surely, is encouraging.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about our approach to crimes other than drug trafficking. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 empowers us to confiscate the proceeds of serious crimes; those powers can be used on behalf of other countries, subject to the designation procedure.

Mr. Sheerman

The Minister mentioned the G7 appraisal. I am sure that everyone knows that our methods are becoming pretty good. The trouble is that an international drug trafficker or fraudster with any sense will no longer put his ill-gotten gains into British banks. Since the dramatic changes that have taken place in the London banking climate, and the enactment of legislation, the international criminal has put his money in other parts of the world. The efficiency of our war against such crimes should be measured not by how good it is in London, but by how good we are at gaining access to other banking capitals. What does G7 say about that?

Mr. Jack

G7 commented on our own problems rather than the problems in other countries to which we have no access. The hon. Gentleman, who plainly understands these matters, will know that at the heart of our ability to counteract money laundering in connection with drugs is the reporting of unusual transactions within our own banking system. I have visited the national criminal intelligence service, and have observed the degree of international co-operation that exists, in terms of both contact and manpower. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that a sophisticated and dedicated fight is being waged against those who benefit from the entry of suspicious moneys into the United Kingdom, and that that fight is succeeding.

We are aware that some areas, such as British dependent territories, require upgrading. A great deal of work has been done to ensure that places such as the Caribbean can comply in legislative terms, and that they operate legislation similar to ours.

If the hon. Gentleman had read the terms of the Vienna convention, he would have noted that countries that sign the convention—their number is increasing almost daily —must be able to reciprocate in terms of their own legislation. We must have reciprocal arrangements to confiscate the proceeds of money laundering. Although I would not say that there is a worldwide uniformity of approach, our targeting approach—for example, the process by which we decide whether we wish to go further than the conventions by negotiating bilateral arrange-ments—focuses on the need for workable solutions. This is not a "sloganising" exercise to extol the virtues of our actions; we take the position very seriously, and where there are loopholes to be plugged we try hard to assist the process.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Customs officers. Let me pay tribute to their achievements in regard to the enforcement and seizure record. It is a proud record; theirs is unstinting and dangerous work, and I am sure that the House will join me in congratulating them. I was grateful for the tone of what the hon. Gentleman said: he was right to probe, and I assure him that I shall remain vigilant.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathhone), who chairs the all-party group on drug misuse, made a telling contribution. I congratulate him on his continuing dedication and interest in the subject; we have met, and I have listened carefully to the views that he has advanced on behalf of the all-party group. As a long-standing member of the Council of Europe, he will no doubt appreciate some of my comments about wider European legislation and co-operation.

My hon. Friend asked about the policy on increasing the number of bilaterals. We are working hard to identify further countries in this regard, and to find the best way of co-operating. In time, more bilaterals will certainly be announced. We consider them to be very important in operational terms: they help to secure a smooth conclusion to any inquiries that are made, and any prosecutions that have begun, under the terms of the orders. Here I pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield. When bilaterals are in place we can have good working relationships, which are vital if we are to be quick off the mark.

I agreed with what my hon. Friend said about the Pompidou group, and with what he said about the national criminal intelligence service. As I have seen, serving police officers—as my hon. Friend pointed out, they are sometimes seconded from other forces—are working extremely hard to make the sophisticated fight against drugs succeed. I am sure that my hon. Friend's observations about the use of assets seized in connection with drugs activity will not go unnoticed by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I hope that he will be reassured by my reply to my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen): good use is being made of the seized-assets fund.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams asked about missing countries. I assure him that nations involved in this work are not wandering around the world like Marie Celeste, seeking an opportunity. He specifically mentioned Trinidad. I can tell him that officials from the United Kingdom and the Trinidad Government have been holding detailed discussions about a bilateral agreement; further progress awaits the completion of Trinidad's domestic legislation. I hope very much that bilateral arrangements will soon be in place. As I told my hon. Friend earlier, a good deal of work is going on in the Caribbean to strengthen legislation in the British dependent territories.

Mr. Sheerman

As the Minister will know, I agree with the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) about missing countries. We need bilateral arrangements with them. But what about the missing Customs officers? The Minister paid tribute to Customs officers, but he did not mention the reduction of 200–10 per cent.—in their number. Where are they now, and will he ask for them to be returned to their jobs?

Mr. Jack

I hope that the hon. Gentleman has at least noted the effectiveness of the Customs operation. As I said at the beginning of the debate, the Government are putting £500 million into the fight against drugs. We take the matter very seriously, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises that we have done our best to equip those engaged in that fight in a way that enables them to carry out their task.

Mr. Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire, North)

Is the Minister aware that the number of Customs officers engaged on anti-smuggling operations at Birmingham and Coventry airports has been halved? That undermines his claims about an effective Government response to drug trafficking. It cannot be effective if Government policy does not interrelate with the areas under discussion.

Mr. Jack

I was trying hard to avoid hiding behind the excuse of a Minister at the Dispatch Box for not answering the question, but the hon. Member for Huddersfield has supplied me with the answer: the Home Office is not directly responsible for the Customs service. The hon. Member for Warwickshire, North (Mr. O'Brien) may have studied in some detail the effectiveness of drugs enforcement at the two airports that he mentioned. If he has reservations, I strongly recommend that he writes to the Treasury Minister directly responsible for Customs. In general terms, seizure figures show the overall effectiveness of Customs work. Customs officers would tell the hon. Gentleman that effective Customs work relies heavily on good intelligence sources. The hon. Gentleman will have heard me refer to the national criminal intelligence unit at Scotland Yard and the excellent contribution that it is making.

Mr. Steen

As I represent 88 miles of south Devon coastline, I pay tribute to Customs officers and say how much their work is appreciated. They have seized millions of pounds worth of drugs on yachts that entered ports on the south Devon coast. Although the number of seizures has decreased, the amounts that they have seized have increased. The sophisticated devices that they use show that men are being replaced by machines rather effectively.

Mr. Jack

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's endorsement of my comments about the effectiveness of the Customs service.

Comment has been made about the use of the seized assets fund. We have spent some of that money on projects to counteract drug misuse. Indeed, 147 projects have benefited from the disbursement of funds. The fight against drugs has been enhanced. Computers have been purchased for Customs, encrypted radios have been purchased for the police and we have funded drug rehabilitation schemes, educational materials, needle disposal projects and fast launches for overseas customs services.

We have tried hard to strengthen the fight against drugs at home and abroad. I urge the House to support the orders.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986 (Designated Countries and Territories) (Amendment) Order 1992, which was laid before this House on 9th June, be approved.


That the draft Criminal Justice (International Cooperation) Act 1990 (Enforcement of Overseas Forfeiture Orders) (Amendment) Order 1992. which was laid before this House on 9th June, be approved.—[Mr. MacKay.]