HC Deb 27 February 2002 vol 380 cc749-68

'(1) The Secretary of State must prepare a code of practice as to the exercise by the Director and appropriate officers of functions they have under this Chapter. (2) After preparing a draft of the code the Secretary of State—

(3) After the Secretary of State has proceeded under subsection (2) he must lay the code before Parliament. (4) When he has done so the Secretary of State may bring the code into operation on such day as he may appoint by order. (5) The Director must comply with a code of practice which is in operation under this section in the exercise of any function he has under this Chapter. (6) An appropriate officer must comply with a code of practice which is in operation under this section in the exercise of any function he has under this Chapter. (7) If the Director or an appropriate officer fails to comply with any provision of such a code of practice he is not by reason only of that failure liable in any criminal or civil proceedings. (8) But the code of practice is admissible in evidence in such proceedings and a court may take account of any failure to comply with its provisions in determining any question in the proceedings. (9) The Secretary of State may from time to time revise a code previously brought into operation under this section; and the preceding provisions of this section apply to a revised code as they apply to the code as first prepared. (10) The following provisions do not apply to an appropriate officer in the exercise of any function he has under this Chapter—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government new clause 12—Code of Practice (No. 2).

New clause 8—Investigations: anonymity of Agency staff and others—

'(1) Where the Director is satisfied that there is good reason to believe that the conduct of an investigation or the safety of a nominated officer might be prejudiced if the identity of that officer were known, he may determine that the nominated officer shall have the benefit of anonymity. (2) For the purposes of this section, a nominated officer is— (a) a member of staff of the Agency, or (b) an accredited financial investigator. (3) Where, apart from this section, a nominated officer may be required for the purpose of exercising his functions in the conduct of an investigation to produce or show any written authority or otherwise to identify himself, a nominated officer with benefit of anonymity shall—

(4) Where a nominated officer with benefit of anonymity exercises his functions in the conduct of an investigation in writing, such function shall be exercised in the name of the Agency and not in the name of the nominated officer with benefit of anonymity. (5) Any document relating to proceedings arising out of an investigation where a nominated officer had benefit of anonymity shall not reveal the identity or address of a nominated officer with benefit of anonymity. (6) For the purposes of this section, "investigation" means any investigation specified in section 336 other than a money laundering investigation.'.

New clause 9—Offence of prejudicing investigation by identifying nominated officer with benefit of anonymity—

  1. '(1) This section applies if a person knows or suspects that a nominated officer has the benefit of anonymity for the purposes of section[Investigations: anonymity of Agency staff and others].
  2. (2) A person commits an offence if he publishes or causes to be published—
  3. (a) the fact that an individual is or was a nominated officer with the benefit of anonymity,
  4. (b) the fact that an individual is a member of the family of a person who is or was a nominated officer with the benefit of anonymity, or
  5. (c) the address of any place as being the address where an individual who is or was a nominated officer with the benefit of anonymity or a member of the family of a person who is or was a nominated officer with the benefit of anonymity resides.
  6. (3) A person does not commit an offence under subsection (2) if—
  7. (a) he does not know or suspect that the identification of a nominated officer with benefit of anonymity is likely to prejudice the investigation, or
  8. (b) the identification is made in the exercise of a function under this Act or any other enactment relating to criminal conduct or benefit from criminal conduct or in compliance with a requirement imposed under or by virtue of this Act.
  9. (4) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (2) is liable—
  10. (a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or to both, or
  11. (b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or to a fine or to both.'.

Amendment No. 63, in clause 337, page 197, line 18, leave out "a civil recovery investigation".

Government amendment No. 108.

Amendment No. 67, in clause 352, page 206, line 11, leave out "either".

Amendment No. 66, in page 206, line 11, leave out "or at once".

Government amendments Nos. 98 and 99.

Amendment No. 167, in clause 384, page 222, line 3, leave out "either".

Amendment No. 166, in page 222, line 3, leave out "or at once".

Government amendment No. 102.

Amendment No. 73, in clause 447, page 258, line 15, after "295(4)", insert ", 359(4)".

Government amendments Nos. 251 and 103.

Amendment No. 75, in page 258, line 26, after "295(4)", insert ", 359(4)".

Government amendment No. 253.

Mr. Ainsworth

Well done, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

New clause 4 requires the Secretary of State to issue a statutory code of practice on the exercise of the investigation powers in chapter 2 of part 8. It will provide guidance on how the use of such powers on confiscation, civil recovery and money-laundering investigations is to be conducted by the director. New clause 12 provides for a similar code for Scotland.

We acknowledge that the powers contained in part 8 are fairly intrusive. None the less, we believe that such powers are fully justified, because without them it is unlikely that the director of the new agency or others involved in law enforcement would be able to make any substantial improvement in asset recovery.

Similar schemes in other legislation include codes of practice to ensure that there is a measure of control. The code will be published in draft, put out for consultation and laid before both Houses and the Scottish Parliament. Any breach of the code would be admissible as evidence in criminal and civil proceedings.

It is entirely sensible to have a code that supports and guides the investigation powers in part 8. We intend that it should offer clear and helpful guidance on how the functions vested in the director and accredited financial investigators should be conducted. It will also be used as a safeguard to ensure that the powers are operated consistently.

Government amendments Nos. 102 and 103 provide that the order that brings the code of practice into operation will be subject to the affirmative procedure.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

Will the Minister confirm whether the Government intend to publish a draft code of practice for consideration, as the Bill moves from the House to another place? He was very helpful in Committee in talking about publishing such drafts and, at all stages, the Government have tried their best to provide helpful, indicative guidance. Will he follow that example with the new code of practice?

Mr. Ainsworth

I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that we have made this proposal because of concerns expressed by him, his hon. Friends and others. I will try to ensure that people receive any draft so that they can see it in advance, but I do not know what the practicalities or the time scale for that will be.

Having confirmed that any such order will be subject to the affirmative procedure, I turn to the new clauses and amendments that the Opposition have tabled. New clause 8 would grant anonymity in certain circumstances to the agency's staff. The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) is sitting in his place, and I welcome the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's latest report on the proceeds of crime, the recommendations of which are reflected in new clauses 8 and 9. The Government are considering the report very carefully.

We are aware that the Criminal Assets Bureau in Ireland enjoys statutory anonymity, and we are considering the position in the United Kingdom, as we want the agency's staff to be able to carry out their job effectively, to bear down on the proceeds of crime, without suffering from intimidation or reprisals in doing so. However, we must take into account the current provisions that apply to those who deal with the criminal fraternity.

Anonymity is currently only available to police and customs officers in very limited circumstances in investigating terrorism, and civilian staff working for the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office have no statutory right to anonymity. So it would be a big step to allow anonymity for agency staff, but I am fully aware of the situation in Northern Ireland, which perhaps differs from that in the rest of the jurisdiction. I am also aware of the worry that the agency should be able to attract good-quality staff and to do its job effectively in Northern Ireland. I want to reassure Members that, although I do not want to accept the new clause now, we are seriously considering the position.

6.15 pm
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I appreciate the Minister giving way on that point because not only did we discover that anonymity was effective in the Criminal Assets Bureau, which faces similar troubles, but we discovered today that there are those from England, Scotland and elsewhere who believe that anonymity is important if they are to fight organised crime, which is increasing not only in Northern Ireland but elsewhere. I welcome the Minister's acceptance of the issue, but I ask him not to give too much weight to the views of those who think that it impinges on civil liberties because we have to consider the liberties of the servants of the state who are trying to defeat organised crime.

Mr. Ainsworth

I was about to deal with the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. Not only the agency's staff but those working for law enforcement and asset recovery bodies in Scotland will be involved, and they will do exactly the same job and be answerable to the Scottish Ministers or to the Lord Advocate, so we cannot consider only the agency's staff. Other financial investigators who operate outside the agency in other public bodies will investigate serious offences, and we would not necessarily want an automatic difference to be drawn between those who work for the agency and those other people.

Hon. Members understand some of the difficulties involved. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about not being too concerned about some of the civil liberties arguments. I absolutely recognise the particular circumstances that can apply in Northern Ireland and the fact that we may have to deal with people who commit offences in the rest of the jurisdiction that are as serious as those that need to be dealt with in Northern Ireland, and I seek to assure the hon. Gentleman that such issues will be considered properly and that they will be discussed in another place.

Norman Baker

Although I personally accept that it is sensible to provide anonymity for certain individuals who may be threatened—to that extent I welcome the new clause—does the Minister agree that, if that principle is accepted, a check needs to be put in place to ensure that that opportunity is not abused?

Mr. Ainsworth

The hon. Gentleman points out some of the complications and difficulties that exist. We will announce our conclusions as soon as we reach them, having listened to everyone concerned and will, if necessary, table amendments in the other place.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I understand that people have a right of appeal if they think that such legislation is used unfairly. That protection would be acceptable, but given that we live in a world where two strikes are allowed before action can be taken, where people are acquitted by the courts and have gone free and where godfathers have not been brought before the courts, does the Minister accept that it is important to consider the lifestyle as well?

Mr. Ainsworth

Yes, and we have got to take seriously—not only in the Northern Ireland context—the cross-reference between organised crime, money-laundering offences and terrorism. If that was not apparent to all of us before the events of 11 September to the degree that it should have been, it certainly ought to be apparent to us now. Some serious issues therefore need to be considered. I do not promise the hon. Gentleman that I will be able to square the circle to his satisfaction and that of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, but we shall certainly consider those issues seriously, and we intend to table amendments if we can find a way through such things.

Opposition amendment No. 63 would exclude civil recovery investigations from the offence of prejudicing an investigation. The Government believe that there should be sanctions and that anybody who prejudices an investigation or a prospective investigation by making a disclosure about it or by tampering with documents relevant to that investigation should be subject to the possibility of penalties. I neither understand nor accept the justification or reason for the amendment, and unless I hear something very strange from Opposition Members, I shall be asking the House to oppose it.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

Will the Minister help the House by saying in which other circumstances anything so draconian is available in civil proceedings? I do not know of any.

Mr. Ainsworth

I respect the right hon. Gentleman's knowledge, but ask him to accept that we considered the civil classification and differences that apply under part 5 for many hours in Committee. In normal civil circumstances, the situation is straightforward: an allegation is made and tested in court, one to one. In these circumstances, the director needs some investigatory powers in order to be able to bring a case in the first place. We are not talking about a straightforward confrontation over an issue as usual in civil litigation.

Effectively, Opposition Members suggest in the amendment that people should be allowed to tamper or interfere with or prevent an initial investigation free from any chance of anyone taking action against them. I do not accept that that should be so. I believe that, broadly, we have cross-party support on bearing down on the proceeds of crime and that the proposed investigatory powers, which are essential to making the civil part of the Bill work, should not be tampered with.

Mr. Stinchcombe

Will the Minister confirm that there are occasions already where interfering with civil proceedings can lead to criminal offences—for example, trying to pervert the course of justice in a libel trial?

Mr. Ainsworth

My hon. Friend is more knowledgeable then me on the matter, but I can tell him that there are similar criminal sanctions associated with civil investigations in other legislation. For example, under section 177 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, a person can be fined or imprisoned if they produce false or misleading material to an investigator. So, as my hon. Friend's example also shows, the proposed provision is not entirely without precedent.

Government amendment No. 108 will extend the definition of judges who may hear applications in the Crown court in England and Wales. It was tabled in response to an issue raised in Committee. I assured hon. Members that I would revisit it. The amendment's wording is designed to exclude people such as the Lord Mayor of the City of London and aldermen, who are entitled to sit as judges in the central criminal court, but none the less widens the definition as suggested by Opposition Members in Committee.

Under Opposition amendments Nos. 66 and 67, the director of the Assets Recovery Agency would not be able to conduct an interview with an individual under a disclosure order with immediate effect. We discussed that point in Committee. The proposed disclosure order is modelled on the Proceeds of Crime (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, which contains the word "forthwith". The Northern Ireland legislation contains a code of practice in relation to the exercise of the investigation powers. That is one of the reasons why we have proposed under new clause 4 to introduce similar guidance. We will try to address the specific point raised in Committee by covering the whole gamut of provisions, such as access to legal advice and the rest, in guidance.

Opposition amendments Nos. 166 and 167 would do the same in Scotland. Government new clause 12 will require Scottish Ministers to introduce a similar code of practice. I therefore hope that hon. Members will be able to accept that the same logic should be applied to jurisdiction north of the border.

Government amendments Nos. 98 and 99 are technical. I hope that I do not have to waste the time of the House in going over them. We had overlooked the fact that the powers of the High Court in Northern Ireland are more limited. Amendment No. 98 broadens the scope of clause 370, and amendment No. 99 excludes from the clause account monitoring orders made in relation to a civil recovery investigation in England and Wales, as the High Court of England and Wales already has the powers to deal with such applications.

I accept that Opposition amendments Nos. 73 and 75 would introduce similar provisions to those in paragraph 7(3) of schedule 6 to the Terrorism Act 2000, which are exercised under the affirmative resolution. We consider, nevertheless, that given the limited and technical nature of the definition of "customer information" in the Bill, the negative procedure is reasonable and will provide for appropriate parliamentary scrutiny.

I invite hon. Members to withdraw new clauses 8 and 9 and amendments Nos. 66, 67, 73, 75, 166 and 167.

Mr. Hawkins

I welcome once again the way in which the Minister has responded to a number of the points that we made in Committee, and I thank him for his helpful response to my earlier intervention. We hope that it will be possible at least to see a draft form of the code of practice referred to in some of the Government amendments. I thank him for saying that he will investigate carefully the practicalities of that.

The fact that the operation of the guillotines prevents discussion of certain very important matters on Report has once again been demonstrated. Just before we began considering this group of amendments, the House was not given any opportunity to discuss two other groups, which included some amendments on which Opposition Members wished to vote. In effect, especially because of a large number of speeches by Government Back Benchers on a previous group of amendments—I do not blame the Minister—and the operation of the guillotine, just as many matters were never reached in Committee, they have not been discussed by the House. Important matters will go to the other place completely undebated by this House.

6.30 pm

I make that point because of an example that arose last night, which also relates to Northern Ireland. Opposition amendment No. 145 was not reached before the guillotine fell. It went to the same point as the excellent new clauses 8 and 9 tabled by members of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. All hon. Members accept the importance of the links between organised crime and racketeering in Ulster and the funding of terrorist paramilitary organisations. That is why I welcome the unanimous report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I hope that Ulster Unionist party Members and others will speak to those new clauses, and I encourage members of the Select Committee to press them to a vote; if they do, Conservative Members will support them.

Mr. Ainsworth

First, I should like to firm up my offer and state that we can produce a draft code. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a timetable, but I can give a commitment that we will do that. Secondly, on the issue of time, I point out that our extensive debate before the knife fell on the first part of our debate today was an almost exact re-run of a Standing Committee debate that was described by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) as the longest single debate in the Committee. If that hon. Gentleman then spends more than half an hour moving his amendments, he must expect that we will run out of time and that other business will not be discussed.

Mr. Hawkins

I welcome the Minister's first point. It is helpful to know that it should be possible to see the draft code of practice, and I am grateful to him for firming up that assurance.

I think that the Minister would accept that his criticism of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) is unjust. My hon. Friend was dealing with important matters and he took many interventions from Government Back Benchers. Hansard will show that it was almost entirely owing to his generosity in responding to the points made by Government Back Benchers that the debate was extended. Furthermore, Hansard will reveal that a huge proportion of the total time spent on those important matters was taken by Government Back Benchers re-running previously made arguments.

Those who have read the Committee proceedings on the Bill will be aware that the Opposition have repeatedly stressed our concern about the crucial issues that relate to paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. The Minister will agree that few matters relating to money laundering and associated offences affecting United Kingdom citizens are more important than the way in which such offences and similar racketeering operations occur in Northern Ireland. Although all money laundering is a serious crime, it is hard to imagine anything more serious than when it is done for the specific purpose of funding terrorist murder and other acts of violence.

I therefore welcome the unanimous report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I draw the House's attention to paragraph 6, in which the Committee describes its visit to the Criminal Assets Bureau in the Republic of Ireland. I have discussed that with the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), and I know that he wants to reinforce some of the points made in the report. The report states: The Republic of Ireland's Criminal Assets Bureau deals with sophisticated and dangerous criminals, some of whom have paramilitary connections. In a number of cases these individuals, prior to the establishment of the Bureau, had evaded the law enforcement agencies by verbal and physical intimidation of both witnesses and officials. We"— that is, the Committee— were told that on occasion extreme violence had been used. Officers working for the Bureau are dealing with cases which it would frequently be difficult to pursue through other means without exposing staff to considerable personal risk. We all know that that sort of thing goes on. During one of our debates, I mentioned my great concern on being told that even senior officials working on the mainland for the Crown Prosecution Service had had to be moved because of threats from representatives of organised crime.

We recognise that members of the Select Committee, under the distinguished chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), have taken the opportunity to table new clauses 8 and 9 to try to put much tougher measures on the face of the Bill. Although the Minister is being helpful and has said that he is prepared to contemplate introducing similar Government amendments at a later stage, the issue is so important that I encourage those behind the new clauses to press them tonight. Both in Committee and in the House, the Opposition have often been accused of seeking to water down the Bill. There can be no argument that the new clauses would have that effect; on the contrary, they would toughen up the Bill in the same way as our amendment No. 145—sadly, not reached last night—would have done.

We welcome the fact that in several of their amendments the Government have responded to concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, other Conservative Members and I raised in Committee.

Government new clauses 4 and 12, the second of which relates to Scotland, reflect the importance of the code of practice and are therefore welcome.

Government amendment No. 108 to clause 338 is, as the Minister explained, a specific response to concerns expressed by my hon. Friend and reinforced by other Conservative members of the Standing Committee. We argued that there should be an opportunity to define precisely the range of judges able to use the powers in the Bill when it is enacted, and the range of the jurisdiction they exercise. I ask the Minister to make it clear whether the new wording will allow those who sit as Crown court recorders, rather than as circuit judges, to exercise that jurisdiction. I understand why the Minister expressed his argument as he did and we accept his point in respect of those who are given the status of circuit judge purely in their ceremonial capacity, such as City of London aldermen. We thoroughly welcome his concession in response to our arguments.

Amendments Nos. 67, 66, 167 and 166 would remove the words "either" and "or at once". We regard the matter as important. I shall listen to the Minister's response in due course, but I signal now the possibility of our pressing the amendments to a vote, especially amendment No. 66. Our aim is to make the operation of a new draconian measure more reasonable. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said, draconian powers that require the organs of the state to demand instant action are not normal. Usually, even when serious allegations are involved, there is provision to allow legal advice to be taken.

I acknowledge the Minister's attempt to assist by saying that the matters may be dealt with in a code of practice, but we want to ensure that the procedure operates properly. The Government have said that the Bill complies in every respect with the Human Rights Act 1998—Ministers now have to certify that when they present a Bill. However, unless the Government accept a provision such as the one proposed in amendments Nos. 67, 66, 167, and 166, I wonder whether there is a danger that the procedure might be struck down in a future case. The Minister might say that the Government are prepared to risk it; I shall listen carefully.

Similar concerns prompt amendment No. 63 in respect of civil recovery investigations. We wonder whether it is appropriate for such draconian powers to exist in what my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal correctly says is a civil procedure.

Vera Baird

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He said that it had occurred to him that there might be a breach of the European convention on human rights as a result of the demand laid on someone to supply information or answer questions at once. If that is right, has he worked out which article of the convention he fears might be breached?

Mr. Hawkins

I am tempted to say that that is a question of which I might require notice. I shall give the matter some thought, and perhaps I shall be able to respond more fully in a later intervention on the Minister or on the hon. Lady, after I have discussed the matter with my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield.

I wanted to say that the Opposition welcome Government amendments Nos. 98 and 99. As the Minister said, such technical amendments are not expected to cause much debate. They are tidying amendments, and we recognise that the Government are right to say that the High Court jurisdiction in Northern Ireland was more limited. The Government have undoubtedly been sensible to respond to that. Again, Government amendment No. 202 is purely technical in relation to the code of practice.

Amendments Nos. 73 and 75 are more significant. They deal with the meaning of customer information, which is set out in clause 359(4). We feel that that matter should be referred to again in clause 447. Again, I shall listen to the comments of the Minister and other hon. Members on that. Government amendments Nos. 251, 103 and 253 are also technical, and we have no difficulty with them. I shall be interested to hear the contributions of right hon. and hon. Members.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West)

I want to speak on new clauses 8 and 9, which I tabled along with the Chairman and other members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. We do not intend to press the new clauses to a vote. None the less, they outline issues that are clearly worthy of serious debate.

Before I deal with the substance of those issues, I shall explain why I propose the new clauses. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee had a pre-arranged visit to Northern Ireland in pursuit of its inquiry into the financing of terrorism, and it was not anticipated that members of the Committee would return in time for this debate. Unfortunately, the timetabling of the debate was such that the original arrangements could not be altered. Having said that, some members of the Committee, whom I understand have taken an early flight back from Belfast, are present for this debate. Although I am still beholden to make our case, it is a reflection of the seriousness and concern with which they regard this issue that they have made such an effort.

The Committee's objective was to pinpoint the key sources of paramilitary funds, and to examine ways in which the Government and law enforcement agencies could cut off those money flows. The Committee is still taking evidence and I am therefore restricted in what I can say. However, I can say that we learned very early in our consideration of the subject that there is an increasingly strong connection between paramilitary organisations and organised crime. As a result of that discovery, the focus of our inquiry has shifted to a certain extent.

6.45 pm

We recognise that the Bill is directed at more conventional criminality than paramilitary-linked outrages. Nevertheless, the added benefit of the Bill is its potential for cutting off the finance that fuels the flames of violence in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has an Organised Crime Taskforce to tackle the problem, but the proposed Assets Recovery Agency will be an important and welcome addition and support.

Although the Committee's examination of these issues has been in Northern Ireland, there can be no doubt that some considerations are common to fighting criminality anywhere in the UK. Above all, those who are subject to financial investigations are likely to be ruthless and vicious people, whether or not they have paramilitary links. The closer that such investigations get to the targets, the more dangerous the targets are likely to become. That assumption lies behind new clauses 8 and 9, and it is one based on experience. The new clauses were prompted by recent visits to the Republic of Ireland, where we met and interviewed members of the Criminal Assets Bureau. The principal findings from our visit were published in our second report on 14 February, as previous speakers have mentioned.

The Criminal Assets Bureau is the Irish equivalent of the proposed Assets Recovery Agency. We were told that the formation of the bureau in the mid-1990s arose from widespread public concern about the growth of organised crime, and especially about the murders of a policeman, Garda Jerry McCabe, and the investigative journalist, Veronica Guerin. Those two murders illustrated most clearly the potential dangers of the work that must be done. Over and above that, we heard other tales of intimidation, threats and violence against officials working on issues such as drug trafficking and social security.

When inviting people to take posts as financial investigators or when staff of other agencies are involved in investigations, we must recognise that we are exposing people to risks for which they may never have been trained. The success of the agency will depend to a great extent on staff with professional skills who may never have envisaged being in the forefront of the fight against organised crime. In such circumstances, it is necessary to give them maximum protection. It seemed to the Committee that if we are to pursue serious criminals effectively, we need to provide officials who do so with a measure of protection. That protection will allow them to go about their work with confidence that no harm will come to them as a result. They and their families must also feel secure that no harm with come to their relatives.

In the Republic of Ireland, that protection has been provided to civilian staff of the Criminal Assets Bureau through the statutory provision of anonymity. When staff participate in searches, they may be identified to the respondent only as "a member of the bureau staff", provided that they are accompanied by a member of the local Gardai. When letters are sent out about unpaid tax under the revenue Acts, they can be signed off merely in the name of the Criminal Assets Bureau, and not in the name of the individual conducting the investigation. Furthermore, it is an offence to identify publicly any member of the bureau's civilian staff or any member of his or her family. Staff of the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform have stressed to us just how important they believe that protection is in enabling the bureau to pursue the recovery of criminal assets effectively.

The assets and money recovered are a measure of the bureau's success. So far, 50 cases brought under the Republic's proceeds of crime legislation have been taken through the courts successfully. As a result, 21 million punts have been frozen and a further 28 million punts taken in tax. Given the time scale involved, there will be further returns from assets that are currently frozen.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee recognises the potential for the Assets Recovery Agency to play a similar role in pursuing organised crime. We want it to be as effective as the Criminal Assets Bureau in the Republic of Ireland, if not better. Protection for the staff of the new agency will be vital, both in encouraging the right people to take up the work and, above all, in enabling them to concentrate on the work without fear of personal danger.

We tabled new clauses 8 and 9 because it was not apparent to us that such protection would be provided under the Bill. We do not claim that the new clauses provide all the answers to all the questions posed.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for speaking to the new clauses so ably on behalf of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I wrote to the Minister on behalf of the Committee when we published our special report and, as a result of receiving a generous response suggesting what he might say tonight, we discussed the issue when the Committee met in Belfast this morning. We concluded that his reply was as far as we could expect a Minister to go given the short notice and the circumstances. We welcome the suggestion that he will consider the matter closely and sympathetically. That is why the Committee decided that we should not press the new clauses to a vote.

Mr. Bailey

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. As a member of the Committee who was not in Belfast, I am glad that by a process of intellectual osmosis I was able to reach the right conclusion.

I welcome the assurances that my hon. Friend the Minister gave in his opening remarks and his constructive engagement with this issue. I accept his genuine desire to find a way forward to overcome some of the legal obstacles. On the basis of that, I thank him and hope that he will take seriously the comments made in the debate and will do everything within his power to address the issues that have been raised.

Norman Baker

I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey). He put his case with moderation and probably convinced nearly everyone in the Chamber of the validity of his arguments. I also welcome the fact that the Minister has been good enough to say that he believes that there is merit in those arguments and that he will consider them. As the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) said, that is as much as we can expect of a Minister at this stage.

New clause 8 has considerable merits. Liberal Democrat Members support it and my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), our Northern Ireland spokesman, expressed his support when I discussed the matter with him earlier. It seems sensible not to press the new clause to a vote, and I must point out to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), with whom I worked on and off in Committee, that we are working under a guillotine. Therefore, if a Minister says that he will consider a new clause carefully, it is not a sensible use of time to spend 15 minutes in the Division Lobbies, not least because a Division now might persuade Labour to vote the wrong way when we want them to vote the right way after they have had a chance to consider the matter.

One point that I would make in passing about new clause 8 is that it is paramount that, if the safety of an individual is compromised or could be compromised, anonymity should be provided for the individual. Equally, checks and balances must be in place to ensure that the facility for anonymity is not misused. If there is a choice between accountability and safety, safety must come first. Let us make sure that the process is not misused if it is introduced.

Another point occurs to me but it probably goes beyond this debate. It is important to ensure proper co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Criminal Assets Bureau in the Republic. If we are to make the Bill work properly, a concordat or a similar measure should be in place to ensure co-operation. Perhaps it takes place already, but Northern Ireland Members will know more about that than I do.

I am sorry to return to the arguments of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, but it is not fair to criticise the Government for the time that they have allocated to the Bill. Such criticism is not appropriate. They provided 39 steps—if I may call them that—in Committee and a great deal of time. If members of the Committee did not reach the amendments that they wanted to discuss, we should look to ourselves and the way in which we used our time instead of blaming the Government.

I am not particularly convinced that amendments Nos. 67, 66, 167 and 166, which were tabled by Conservative Members, are the appropriate way forward. I am not sure that they make sense. Amendments Nos. 66 and 67 would delete the words "either" and "or at once" in clause 352(4)(a), which is the paragraph that deals with answering questions, but the same words also appear in subsection (4)(c), which covers the production of documents. As far as I can see—I might have misread the amendments—the words are not deleted in that paragraph. Therefore, if the Conservative amendments are approved, there would be no requirement to answer questions at once, but there would be a requirement to produce documents at once. That might be the intention of Conservative Members, but it appears a little inconsistent.

Mr. Hawkins

Answering questions at once is very different from having to produce documents forthwith. Much legislation already contains the requirement to produce documents forthwith, but there is a danger involved in forcing people to answer questions at once without their having any opportunity to take advice. This point also gives me an opportunity to respond to the hon. Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), because there is also the danger that the Government may face problems under articles 6(3)[b] and 6(3)[c] of the European convention on human rights when these matters are analysed in the courts.

Norman Baker

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has taken the opportunity to refer to the relevant articles of the convention. Perhaps the hon. Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), who knows more about these matters than I do, might wish to vouchsafe whether they are the relevant articles.

If it is inappropriate to require questions to be answered at once, it is even more inappropriate to require documents to be produced at once. After all, one can answer a question after one has received legal advice, and the Minister has referred to the safeguards that he wishes to introduce. I hope that he will provide more information on how the safeguards will work to ensure that people are not unduly forced to provide information if they have not received legal advice. He suggested that he was aware of the issue, and I would be grateful if he could pick up on that point.

A person can theoretically answer a question at once, but they could not necessarily produce a document at once, perhaps because it was elsewhere. In a sense, it is a more onerous requirement. In addition, clause 352(4(b) contains the requirement to produce information specified in the notice, by a time and in a manner so specified". The time specified could be immediately, so the deletion of the words "or at once" does not get round the problem that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) tried to identify. Unusually, the hon. Gentleman's amendment does not make a great deal of sense and is not coherent. It is not justified if the Minister has the safeguards in mind to which he referred. I shall be grateful if he expands on that.

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I am not convinced that the requirement to have answers at once, if there are safeguards, would breach the Human Rights Act. I shall be interested to hear whether the hon. Member for Redcar has a view on that. I am keen to invoke the 1998 Act wherever possible. It is good legislation and one of the best things that the Government have done. I am struggling to find a means by which it could be applied in the way that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath would like to see.

Let us allow the Minister to leave the House and think about new clause 8. I am happy, for the sake of appearing not to be too supportive of the Conservatives, to disagree with their amendments in the group that is before us.

John Robertson

I am pleased that new clauses 8 and 9 have been accepted in principle, if not in their entirety. I am glad that I will not have to decide which Lobby to pass through, as it seems that the proposals will not be put to a vote. The Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs should be congratulated on the work that it has done.

I shall move on to amendment No. 63, and I hope that I will be intervened on when I ask my questions. Why do the Tories not want an offence of prejudicing investigation in the context of a civil recovery investigation? It might be said that it is a draconian measure, but draconian to whom—the victims of crime, or those who profit by crime? To me, a draconian measure would suggest that everybody suffers. But the only people who appear to me to be suffering at present are the victims of crime.

I am in a quandary yet again in relation to amendments Nos. 66, 167 and 168, which are basically the same. Those amendments would seem to be advantageous to those who in the director's opinion have information. Why would we not want to gain information, and why would we not want to obtain it quickly? Criminals can move vast sums quickly, so surely we would want to get hold of them immediately. As I mentioned earlier in terms of the Drug Enforcement Agency in Scotland and Strathclyde police, the point was made on several occasions that we must seize assets quickly and, if possible, obtain the relevant information even more quickly. Why are we seeking to introduce measures that would lengthen the time during which we secure information? Perhaps the Opposition's spokesman will answer these questions for me in his summing up.

Mr. Mark Field

The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that I shall leave the summing up to my Front-Bench spokesman.

It is easy to see these things in black and white, and I think that what we have tried to do throughout is to look at them in shades of grey. The innocent parties who concern the Conservatives and whose interests need to be protected are on the whole—though not exclusively—innocent members of the public who find the juggernaut of a new state agency up against them. It is against the background of the almost Kafkaesque world in which it would seem some Labour Members try to live that we have tabled what we hope are searching amendments. That is not to say that the general thrust of what is being proposed is not supported by my right hon. and hon. Friends.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is developing into a speech.

John Robertson

I understand the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's questions, but it is time that the juggernaut to which he refers got to grips with crime. The Conservative Government were in power for a long time but they did not get to grips with it. The Labour Government have been in power for more than four years, and we have not properly come to grips with it. The Bill is the best measure that I have seen to enable us to get hold of criminals and their ill-gotten gains—assets that have been taken from those who have become drug addicts, or from organised crime in large cities or smaller ones. Perhaps we have got to the crux of the matter as regards Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, as I think they call themselves. Perhaps they have become total oppositionists who feel that they have to oppose every Bill that the Government put before the House and to advance reasons for so doing. That is sad.

Mr. Wilshire

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that the Opposition oppose only for the sake of it, will he explain why it is that when we have opposed certain things those on the Government Front Bench have agreed with us, accepted our opposition and brought forward amendments? Surely that undermines the hon. Gentleman's argument.

John Robertson

There is always the exception that proves the rule.

We listen. We have become a listening Government, much to the annoyance of the Opposition. The fact that we may have listened to some of the arguments and found something worth listening to probably surprises me more than anyone. The fact remains that the Opposition oppose everything that the Government put before the House, and especially this Bill.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I welcome the opportunity to make a few comments, given that I intervened earlier. I share the concern that has been expressed by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) about dealing with drug addicts and about smuggling in Scotland. The lesson that has been coming through is that the best way to tackle these folk is to hit them where it hurts, and that is through their finances and by dealing with the crimes that they are committing. Like the hon. Gentleman, I do not believe that there is a juggernaut directed against the citizens of the United Kingdom.

If anything, it is a juggernaut against those who have been growing rich on the poverty and misery of others in the UK.

I speak as a Northern Ireland Member, but I have always thought of myself as a British Member of Parliament. When Northern Ireland Members illustrate our experience, I regret that it is thought that we are dealing only with Northern Ireland. I understand that recently in Yorkshire there was a vast smuggling expedition, which had an impact on the Treasury. There might have been some people from Ireland, but at this stage I cannot comment emphatically.

The Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs took the opportunity, as the Bill was passing through Parliament, to highlight some gaps. We welcome the fact that the Government are ready to examine these matters. I trust that before the Bill leaves the House, some amendments will be accepted and fine tuned. There is some time to go.

As I have said, some gaps have been noted. For example, people speak of the relationship between Northern Ireland and southern Ireland. In the Northern Ireland courts, recently, we were able to imprison a person who was retailing illegal petrol, but we could not deal with the person in the Republic who supplied it. Why was that? The answer is that in international terms there seems to be no legislation that allows for extradition for fiscal charges.

It seems to me that ultimately all crime comes down to fiscal issues. There is the person in poverty who steals because she wants to feed a child and has not the money to do so. That is a fiscal problem. The Government must consider the issue with their colleagues in the European Union and perhaps elsewhere to ascertain whether something can be done to cross frontiers.

When members of the Select Committee visited the Republic, we discovered that perhaps one of the greatest benefactors of what has been going on possibly lives in the east end of London. It is an interesting world that we live in. Anyone who thinks that the Bill has been introduced simply because of Northern Ireland or, for that matter, the Republic, should think again.

I regret to have to say that in the House some years back, a former Minister in the Northern Ireland Office defended the fact that social security was provided for a person who had a job in this place that he would not take up. He would not take up a job, yet the family was getting social security. Why? Because otherwise some social security staff might have been endangered. That is why the concept of anonymity must be tackled seriously. I urge the Government not just to consider the matter, but to press ahead with the necessary legislative changes before the Bill returns to us in this place.

Vera Baird

I join colleagues who have complimented the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, particularly its Chairman, on the convincing, honest and straightforward way in which the Committee presented its arguments.

I shall deal briefly with amendments Nos. 66 and 67, which would amend clause 352, under which a judge can make a disclosure order which might require someone to answer questions at a time specified in a notice at a place specified in a notice, or at once. I agree with the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) that amendment No. 66 does not deal with the problem, if problem it be, because even if the words "at once" are removed, as long as one leaves in the power to specify a time and a place in the notice, one can specify the time and place of delivery of the notice, which is the same as "at once".

Mr. Grieve

I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady, but I disagree with her slightly. If the words "at once" were removed, the court would have to infer reasonableness in the way in which the order was defined. I would consider it unreasonable for an immediate demand to be made, when it is clear from the rest of the clause that a time and place to be specified ought to give the person at least time to prepare himself. Removing "at once" removes a mischief.

Vera Baird

I take the hon. Gentleman's point—he does have a point—but bearing in mind the tenor of the power in clause 352, I am less sanguine that the courts would necessarily connote that reasonableness involved the opportunity to delay. That is my concern about the entire clause. Whether the power to order answers at once is express or implied, that difficulty arises. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can help me with that.

I do not believe that there is a breach of the human rights convention and article 6.3. There is no human right not to answer questions. What matters is the use to which the answers are put thereafter. Of course, under clause 49 the director can pass on information which has been obtained by means of those unique powers. That may cause a difficulty, but it is the subject of a later debate.

Mr. Hawkins

Both my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and I are listening carefully to the hon. Lady. Does she recognise that those of us who have practised in the courts are familiar with the many occasions on which the standard police warning—the caution—is given: "You are not obliged to say anything, but anything you say will be taken down and may be used in evidence"? The new procedure has no provision for cautioning. Does the hon. Lady consider that if we leave the words requiring somebody to answer questions at once, without taking any advice at all, there is cause for concern? I appreciate that, in part, she supports us on the matter

Vera Baird

It is obviously a long time since the hon. Gentleman was in practice, if he thinks that the caution takes that form any more, or has done for the past decade. I do not accept entirely what he says about caution and the absence of a caution from the clause. There are powers in the financial services provisions and in the fraud provision to require answers without the need for caution. The limitation is on what the answers can be used for.

The dilemma is this: whether, at common law—leave out human rights entirely—there ought in all realism to be a right to take legal advice. Even my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) does not imagine that the wealthy criminals whom the Bill attacks keep their lawyers in a box, drinking wine and waiting in case the director should come to call. How will the power to demand answers at once—whether that power is express or, as I suggest it would be, implied—be consistent with giving people their basic right to be advised? The Minister will recall that the matter was raised in Committee, but it was never resolved. That remains my anxiety.

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Mr. Davidson

I do not intend to answer the question, "How many lawyers should fit in a box?"

I shall follow on from the earlier point about the interrelationship between crimes. Just as the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee explored the subject of petrol smuggling in Northern Ireland directly, so indirectly did the Public Accounts Committee. That discussion made clear the extent to which drugs, petrol smuggling and other crimes were all tied in together and all involved money laundering. Interestingly, it also showed how the outwardly respectable are clearly involved in illegal activities.

In the case of petrol smuggling, there is no doubt that the large oil companies are major players in the field. They supply enormous amounts of fuel to petrol stations just over the border in the Republic, knowing that such quantities of fuel will not be consumed in the immediate area. They are, so to speak, fuelling the smuggling trade by providing enormous quantities to those who they know, or ought to know, are using it for illegal purposes, in the same way as the tobacco companies collaborated in smuggling in various locations.

The words "at once" are an important element of the clause, in terms of providing both documents and answers, but particularly documents. Over the years, I have been surprised by the number of businesses in trouble which have fires in their offices. That is obviously entirely coincidental and nothing whatever to do with any suggestion of malpractice, but if the police or other authorities have an interest in documents, it is clearly important that they are produced at once, before they spontaneously combust.

Mr. Hawkins

The hon. Gentleman may have been temporarily absent when it was made clear that we have not sought to amend the provisions of the Bill in relation to documents. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) said that to be consistent, we ought to have done so, and we pointed out in response that there is a difference. It is perfectly well understood in the law that one must produce documents at once. Our amendment seeks to avoid the obligation to answer questions at once.

Mr. Davidson

I was sure that even the Conservatives would not have the gall to suggest that documents should not be provided at once in the circumstances, even though, from their conduct in the Committee, it seemed possible that we were moving in that direction. All the parties represented in the Chamber, with the nationalists, who were not on the Committee, will be aware of the approach that the Conservatives generally took.

I return to the matter of providing verbal answers at once. I have a difficulty with the prospect of people being tipped off that the authorities want to investigate some matter, and preparing an alibi and the lies that they will tell. That is as true of lawyers, accountants and bankers as of anyone else. There should be a provision for answers to be demanded at once. I fear that to delete such a provision would in some circumstances be to draw the teeth of the legislation. I accept that, if possible, it would be better to allow people time to prepare and to lift their lawyers, who may or may not have been drinking wine, out of the box, but there will be circumstances in which that is not in the public interest. The provision should be allowed to remain as it stands, the better to protect the people whom many of my colleagues and I represent, rather than the crooks and shysters for whom the Opposition want to find loopholes.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth

I shall be brief. I am not seeking to offend anyone, but as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) read his prepared script and appeared not to have listened to any of my comments on the amendments, I do not see any reason why I should say the same things again. The hon. Gentleman asked whether recorders were covered. That is precisely what was sought in Committee; they are covered, so they will be available and able to help.

We discussed the term "at once" in Committee and I accept that it is exercising people. I do not want to go into detail on what the guidance will cover; indeed, I do not think that I can do so. The guidance that we envisage in new clauses 4 and 12 is designed to deal with the concerns raised in the amendments. That is our purpose and intention. It is not our intention to override people's rights to representation. However, some hon. Members appear to be encouraging me to preclude the ability to question people at once. Such questioning can be a very useful tool and I want to try to leave it available for use in appropriate circumstances, but yes, I also want to make certain that people have the right to advice, representation and the rest. Those are exactly the issues that I shall seek to cover in the code.

Mr. Grieve

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ainsworth

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment; I notice that his hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), who raised concerns in that regard, is temporarily out of his seat. Disclosure orders cannot lead to criminal proceedings, so some of his comments were unnecessary and uncalled for.

Mr. Grieve

Clearly, the code of practice has the potential to be very helpful. However, if, as I think is likely, the code says that somebody who is required to answer questions should be given time—it may not be very long; even half an hour might be specified—to understand and check their legal position, will not that be the most compelling of reasons to remove from the Bill the extraordinary two words, "at once"? The term is simply unnecessary and imposes a fetter through its insistence on immediate replies—an insistence that could turn out to be incompatible with the guidelines that I suspect may be produced.

Mr. Ainsworth

I shall try to satisfy the hon. Gentleman at some point during the Bill's passage that the sort of issues that he raises are unreasonable and unacceptable, and that we will seek to cover such concerns in other ways. I do not want to preclude in all circumstances the ability to require somebody to give information at once, and I shall try to avoid doing so.

John Robertson

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in half an hour, millions, if not billions, of pounds could move between one country and another? Should not such matters be dealt with immediately, and not in half an hour's time?

Mr. Ainsworth

I agree with my hon. Friend that such events can occur. However, it is not reasonable to demand information there and then in all circumstances without access to advice and all the rest of it. None the less, my hon. Friend raises a genuine issue and we will try to cover it.

On the issue raised by members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, I am trying to get the balance right. I do not want to indicate that this is a done deal or that I can satisfy them completely. I hope that I have explained that there are considerable hurdles, while impressing upon them that I am not attempting to fob them off in any way; that I recognise the issues; and that I shall do my level best to ensure that we can do something that is effective if that is in any way possible. I am trying to get the balance right: I do not want those hon. Members to walk out of the Chamber thinking "We're okay, we've done it; there aren't any problems", but neither do I want them to walk away with the opposite view. I am trying genuinely to say that I do not want my officials or anybody else to think that this is not a serious issue that wants serious examination. If we can find ways and means of giving such useful protections, we should seek to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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