HC Deb 31 March 1995 vol 257 cc1335-41

Amendment made: No. 14, in page 23, line 7, leave out subsections (5) to (7) and insert— '(5) Section 1 above shall not apply in the case of any proceedings against any person where that person is convicted in those proceedings of an offence which was committed before the commencement of that section. (6) Sections 8(1) and 9 above shall not apply where the offence, or any of the offences, in respect of which the confiscation order was made was committed before the commencement of section 1 above.'—[Sir John Hannam.]

Order for Third Reading read.

12.42 pm
Sir John Hannam

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

I am proud to have had the opportunity to guide the Bill through the House. As I embark on what may for me be the last lap, I must express my thanks for all the kind support that I have received from both sides of the House throughout proceedings on the Bill. It has made the journey thus far a good deal smoother than it might otherwise have been, since the subject matter of the Bill is not entirely straightforward, as I would be the first to admit. Hon. Members have commented on the complexity of what appears, on the face of it, to be quite a simple Bill.

The Bill has not emerged entirely unscathed from its passage through the House and I will comment briefly on the amendments. First, we changed the long title to allow for clause 14 to be inserted.

Clause 1 amends the Criminal Justice Act 1988 substantially and has not been amended. Clause 2, which deals with the confiscation of the proceeds from persistent offending, is at the heart of the Bill and has been much debated, especially in Committee. It has been amended so that the court can apply the assumptions where the defendant is convicted of only two relevant offences in the same proceedings instead of four. The assumptions have also been strengthened and brought into line with drug trafficking legislation.

Clause 2 has also been amended so that it will apply only when the triggering offences are committed after the Bill comes into force. That amendment is intended to ensure that it conforms with our international obligation and takes into account the decision of the European Court of Human Rights which was issued immediately after the Second Reading.

Clauses 3 and 4 are unaltered. We have made technical amendments to clauses 5, 6 and 7. Those are consequential on the new provision in clause 2, which allows the court to assume that property held by the defendant has come from crime. The purpose of those technical amendments is to prevent unfairness, about which we have been anxious during the Bill's passage.

Clauses 8 to 13 are unchanged. Clause 14 is the new clause that amends the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 and the Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Act 1990. It was introduced to provide a more effective enforcement of external forfeiture orders. Clause 15—formerly clause 14—has not been amended. Clause 16—formerly clause 15—now provides that certain sections of the legislation will apply only where offences are committed after it comes into force. That is a result of the Welch case in the European Court of Human Rights. It has also been amended consequential to clause 14.

As hon. Members will see, the changes that we have made have not affected the Bill's basic structure and thrust. The Bill is now even better and more valuable than when it started. It sets out to strengthen our protection against criminal conduct by extending the courts' powers to confiscate the accrued gains of life-style criminals in all types of crime. If crime is seen to pay, there is a continuing incentive to commit offences, even with the risk of a prison sentence. Whether a life-style criminal is engaged in theft, fraud, pornography or whatever, if he or she stashes away and launders the proceeds of crime ready to pick them up after completing a sentence, that criminal will be deterred and victims reassured that justice prevails only if we seize those illegally gained assets.

By removing the £10,000 threshold, abolishing the expunging of confiscation through a prison term, and providing the fullest powers of search and investigation of criminal assets, the Bill takes the important steps needed to win the fight against crime. I am therefore proud to commend the Bill to the House.

12.48 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

The House has never been divided on the Bill. Although we have had a number of votes, the House has generally accepted the amendments put forward. Throughout Second Reading and in Committee we have never disputed a matter to the point of dividing the House. However, the Bill has changed and the hon.*Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) has done a service to the House in introducing this measure. I am still doubtful about why a private Member's Bill was necessary, given that the Government support the measure. Nevertheless, it is the hon. Gentleman's choice and the Bill has undergone various procedures.

What upsets me about our procedures is that Standing Committee C, which is the only Standing Committee that can discuss private Members' Bills, spent three weeks discussing this Bill. I know that time must be spent discussing Bills and that, even if probing amendments are tabled, they serve a purpose and help to shape a Bill's development, but a sittings motion could have been passed to allow the Bill to go through Committee much more quickly.

The Committee's third sitting lasted for 18 minutes. Those 18 minutes took up an entire sitting day and presented a grave problem for hon. Members with important Bills further down the queue. The hon. Member for Exeter is aware of what one of those important Bills is, because he has supported it. It is the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, although that is not the only important Bill in the queue.

Sir John Hannam

It is fair to point out that the Committee's third sitting would have lasted much longer if the important new clause, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale was due to present, had been proceeded with and not withdrawn on that day. It could have been a long debate because, as we have heard this morning, that new clause dealt with an important matter. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) should understand that, although that sitting finished within half an hour, it was expected to last much longer.

Mr. Barnes

I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said. I nevertheless consider that I am entitled to feel aggrieved about procedures that have been followed, and especially about the work in Standing Committee C. It is not merely the Proceeds of Crime Bill that has taken longer than it should have done in that Committee when there was no dispute, and when there was adequate agreement between parties on both sides of the House to seek to progress with the measure.

I wanted to place those matters on record, rather than to say anything about the nature of the measure before us. I appreciate that the House has reached agreement about the measure and there will obviously be no Division on Third Reading.

12.50 pm
Mr. Merchant

I shall speak briefly in support of the Third Reading of the Bill.

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) on bringing the Bill to the House and successfully piloting it through its stages. He deserves great credit for doing so, and I hope that he receives that credit publicly, because that tough piece of legislation obviously builds on the public's expectations of action.

Confiscation is tough in itself, but confiscation of assets acquired over a period, which are presumed to have been the proceeds of crime, is an even tougher step to take, although it is absolutely right. It should be borne in mind that the Bill incorporates in its clauses proper defences for people who can show that those assets were not illicitly gained.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that that hardening of the law is so widely accepted. Time was when such a suggestion would have produced a series of objections from all quarters. It struck me that today even the Opposition were beginning to sound like parts of a Conservative party conference.

Mrs. Roche

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is no new departure? If he casts his mind back, he may recall that the previous legislation on forfeiture and confiscation received the whole-hearted support of the Opposition, especially as regards the proceeds of the dreadful trade in drugs.

Mr. Merchant

I am not so certain that the Opposition were always so keen on fighting crime as they now purport to be, but I am happy to accept the hon. Lady's remarks about the drugs trade at least.

Increasing crime has created a massive public backlash against a perceived weakness of the law and the courts, and that anger is understandable. It is caused not only by fear but by the juxtaposition of those who live law-abiding lives and note what gains they receive and those who appear to be getting away with a life of crime and obtaining much greater gains.

There has been a demand for tougher punishment and a demand to ensure that people do not profit from the proceeds of crime. Other legislation tackles the first issue, but the second issue is adequately and thoroughly tackled by the Bill. It is not over-simplistic, and it is important not to be so in tackling crime.

However, the Bill precisely tackles the problem. It is not about the yob who gets drunk and thumps someone; it is not about a teenager with a personality difficulty who goes astray; it is not about the pathetic habitual criminal who finds that he cannot get away from a life of crime. The Bill concentrates on the professional criminal. It concentrates on the successful crook and fraudster. It concentrates on the racketeers, on the people who cock a snook at society and in many cases acquire massive fortunes—large houses, pools, yachts, foreign villas—who live on the in my view rather inaptly named, "costa crime".

Those criminals may try to live an upper class life-style, but they do not practice upper class crime; they involve themselves in the violence and intimidation that one encounters at all levels of the criminal fraternity. The Bill strikes against some of the most evil gangsters, against the cold and calculated decisions made by some to profit from crime, against the Mr. Bigs, against the criminal fraternities and organisations and especially against international crime. The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) made a good speech about that type of crime on Second Reading and it is regrettable that it is becoming ever more prevalent in Britain. We can see the effects of it in Itaiy and the United States.

I am delighted that the Bill has reached its Third Reading. I hope that it will pass into law quickly, so that proper measures can be taken against those who have profited from crime. Punishment is important, but it is not enough. It is also important to make criminals realise that the price of their behaviour is not worth paying. They should realise that they will be caught up with eventually and that crime does not pay. The Bill will ensure that that happens and for that reason I am happy to support it.

12.55 pm
Mrs. Roche

It will not surprise hon. Members to learn that I welcome the Bill, as I did its Second Reading. My hon. Friends and I also supported it in Committee. It is right that life-style criminals should not profit from their gains and that legislation should be brought into line with that currently enforced against drug traffickers.

This is a particularly topical week in which to have the Bill's Third Reading, because we have learnt that the risk of becoming a victim of a home burglary has trebled from one in 32 in 1979 to one in 11 last year. Similarly, a person's risk of being a victim of violent crime now stands at one in 64 whereas it was one in 213 in 1979. Unfortunately for my constituents, the figures for London are even more alarming. Only yesterday the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys revealed huge increases in burglaries from its general household survey which, unlike Home Office statistics, collects the details on all burglaries whether or not they are reported.

The Opposition believe that the criminals who burgle our constituents' homes and jeopardise their safety should not profit from their actions. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) should note that it is right to say that the Labour party is not only tough on crime and the causes of crime, but on the proceeds of crime. We have demonstrated that by our continuing support for Bills of this nature.

One of the concerns that I raised on Second Reading was that the proceeds of confiscation should be used to fund crime prevention. Where possible, the money that is confiscated should go back to the victims—those who lost a great deal through the crimes of others. Where that is not possible—in many instances, due to the passage of time, it is almost impossible to identify the victims—the money should go towards crime prevention. As I said on Second Reading, just 0.2 per cent.—a tiny proportion—of Britain's spending on the criminal justice system is devoted to crime prevention. Numerous reports have called for better crime prevention policies and many schemes cannot be implemented due to lack of funding.

This week, the Government announced 120 successful bids for closed circuit television schemes. That is welcome, but only seven of the excellent bids from London were successful. The unsuccessful bids included one for a CCTV scheme for Wood Green high road. It had the support of Wood Green traders and businesses, Hornsey police and Haringey council in my constituency. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for making a special plea for that excellent scheme. We are still absolutely flabbergasted that it was unsuccessful and do not understand why. It is, however, one of many worthwhile schemes that should be supported. It would be fine and fitting to think that money confiscated from criminals as the proceeds of crime could be rechannelled to prevent further crimes.

I have already spoken about a particular CCTV bid in my constituency, but I also know that there is great concern among the Jewish community, which also put in bids for CCTV for Jewish schools. Unfortunately, I believe that not one of those bids was successful. As hon. Members will know, unfortunately there are many security fears within the Jewish community. Many Jewish schools, with the encouragement of the police, put in bids that were unsuccessful. I should declare an interest because I was a pupil at a Jewish school which, while I was there, had occasional security alerts and risks.

We are coming to the end of this stage of the Bill's passage through this House, so it is right to congratulate the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) on the courteous and expert way in which he handled the Bill in Committee. I am a comparatively new Member of Parliament, but I believe that he has followed the very best traditions of the House. On behalf of the Opposition, I offer him our warmest congratulations. I also pay tribute to the sponsors of the Bill, including my hon. Friends the Members for Stockport (Ms Coffey) and for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), who served in Committee. We wish the Bill well in its passage through the other place.

G. K. Chesterton once said that it was not true to say that thieves had no respect for property. He felt that they had a great respect for property: they respected it so much that they wanted it to become their own property so that they could more perfectly respect it. The Bill's purpose is to thwart that aim and we support anything that can achieve that purpose.

There is a well-known adage that crime does not pay. Unfortunately, for too many criminals crime pays very well indeed. The Opposition are happy to support a Bill to ensure that wealth accumulated through crime does not profit the perpetrators. We believe that in the 20th century criminals should not be rewarded for their crimes. For that reason, we give our wholehearted support to the Bill.

1.2 pm

Mr. Maclean

I reiterate the Government's gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) for agreeing to take forward this important Bill. I know that that gratitude is shared by the whole House and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) for the warm tribute that she paid to my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend has remained unfailingly calm and considerate in the face of what he rather generously described as provisions which are not entirely straightforward. The concept of what we wanted to do, and what my hon. Friend has achieved in his Bill, is very straightforward. However, because of the nature of the amendments that we have to make to previous legislation, the Bill is very complex. Indeed, I am relieved that I did not have to take the lead on it. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the masterful way that he took the lead and for his unfailing courtesy during the Committee stage.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes). He knows that in every private Member's Bill Committee there will be Back Benchers, from both sides, with their own agendas. However, if he looks at the Committee proceedings he will recognise that most of the probing amendments that were tabled have ended up being accepted because they were eminently sensible. Contrary to what may happen with some private Member's Bills, where a number of spurious amendments are tabled but never accepted, most of the amendments tabled to this Bill were accepted.

The Bill was given a thorough scrutiny in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter was right to point out that it is only because our hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) twisted our arms for a debate on the Floor of the House today, and because I agreed seriously to consider our statutory instrument making power, that our hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale agreed to curtail our discussions in Committee last Wednesday. The improvements that have been made to the Bill should ensure that enforcement authorities in the courts have at their disposal some worthwhile powers to use against life-style criminals. I want briefly to dwell on those important changes.

We have given wholehearted approval to the amendment from my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter which lowers the first trigger in clause 2 from four convictions in the same proceedings to two. Let no one underestimate that change. It represents a substantial strengthening. We agree with hon. Members who have drawn attention to the fact that convictions for four offences in the same proceedings may mean that the sort of criminals that we are all aiming at will escape. A defendant may, for example, be convicted of only three offences in the same proceedings; that, to say the least, would be most unfortunate.

Amendments have proved necessary as a result of the European Court of Human Rights judgment in the Welch case. The Government agreed to those amendments with considerable reluctance, but I reassure the House—this is the important point—that the substantive provisions of the Bill remain unaffected by those amendments. The assumptions in clause 2 will apply, looking back six years from the date of the offender's conviction. All that the amendments do is to provide that the triggering offences must have been committed after the commencement of the Bill.

It is worth reflecting on some of the clauses that have not been debated today—for example, clauses 3 and 4, which provide for statements by both the prosecution and the defendant. That will do much to ensure that confiscation orders are made for the true value of the benefits that have been obtained. The police will welcome the new powers in clauses 12 and 13. Both in Committee and in the House today, hon. Members have mentioned how adept criminals are at concealing and laundering the proceeds of their crimes. It is vital that the police are given the same powers to obtain financial information from banks, and to have search and seizure powers in relation to the proceeds of crime generally. The law allows them to do that in relation to the proceeds of drug trafficking.

All too often, despite all the information available to it, the court manages to confiscate only the tip of the iceberg. All too often, as the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green rightly said, a crime is seen to pay. It is important that the criminal should not be able to conceal the proceeds and get away with it. Clauses 5, 6 and 7 will give prosecutors new powers to go back to court and seek a revaluation of the proceeds if new evidence comes to light.

It only remains for me to repeat that the Government are deeply grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter for steering the Bill so ably through Committee and through the House today, for listening to my hon. Friends, and for making sensible amendments to the Bill. Last year, various sections of the big Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 received much media attention. I do not think that the media or, perhaps, my colleagues in the police service have fully realised the extent and effect of the Bill before us today. They may have seen that it was a private Member's Bill and how terribly complex it was, but perhaps failed to pick up how sexy it is deep down.

I hope that, after the Bill returns successfully from another place, becomes an Act of Parliament and begins to bite, a wave of fear will go through the criminal fraternity. It will say, "Where on earth did this measure come from? Who invented this? We didn't know this went through." My hon. Friend will take the credit for that. It is a pity that he cannot also take a percentage of the assets belonging to the individuals who have been robbed and burgled and that we shall recover, as it would be a sound investment.

The message should go out from the House today that a powerful weapon has been created in the Bill. That weapon will be used effectively not just against drug traffickers and terrorists—we have provision to do that—but against every criminal who wants to profit from the proceeds of crime. We can get at their assets. We can destroy their life style. The Bill will ensure that, for a great many of the nastiest criminals in society, crime does not pay. I commend it wholeheartedly to the House and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter yet again.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.