§ 'In this Act (except in section 448(1)) a reference to an enactment includes a reference to—
- (a) an Act of the Scottish Parliament;
- (b) Northern Ireland legislation.'.—[Mr. Bob Ainsworth.]
§ Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
§ Order for Third Reading read.8.22 pm
§ Mr. Bob Ainsworth
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
As I did not have the opportunity to say the usual words at the end of the Committee stage for reasons that are understood—we can blame nothing but the system—I should like to record my thanks to a few people at the start of the Third Reading debate. This is the first Bill for which I have had responsibility and it has been like jumping in at the deep end. I want to thank my hon. Friends for their considerable support in Committee. The outrider, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson), was ever reminding me of the need for these measures and tried to ensure that I did not go soft or make them ineffective. I also thank my other hon. Friends who have considerable legal experience and brought their expertise to the Committee.
I genuinely thank both the Opposition parties that were represented in Committee for the way in which they handled matters. We have had our differences, which I will touch on briefly, but we gave the Bill proper scrutiny and have made a number of amendments. I am enormously grateful for their work and effort. I know how hard it is to do so from the Opposition Benches and the amount of time and effort needed to give such a measure proper scrutiny. I thank my officials and the officials of the House as well.
I should like to remind the House of the need for the Bill. The Bill is about crime. Catching criminals and putting them away is not enough—if crime is profitable, they are quickly replaced. Unless hon. Members are content to allow that situation to continue, they must support effective measures to remove the profit from crime. Recovering the money deprives crime of its working capital, increases the deterrent by taking the profit away and addresses the lack of public confidence in the rule of law.
It is to everyone's detriment that over the years this country has been lacking in terms of recovering the proceeds of crime. The majority of offenders go through the criminal justice system with little or no attempt made to apply confiscation. Only 1,200 drug traffickers and fewer than 200 other offenders had confiscation orders made against them in 2000–01. Enforcement of confiscation orders is poor. In the same year, orders to the value of £50 million were made and receipts were only 785 £20 million. Restraint is rarely used—about 250 orders per annum were made. It is not available early enough, so prosecutors often wonder what on earth is the point as the money will have disappeared.
In the absence of criminal proceedings, there is no means of challenging the possession of criminal assets, no matter how blatant or powerful the evidence. The 1999 survey of law enforcement agencies showed that £440 million of suspect assets was held by 400 individuals. If that is evenly distributed, we effectively have 400 criminal millionaires living in our midst.
Much organised crime is still based on cash. The police are often unable to intervene when they can identify suspect cash being carried or on premises. The seizure of such cash and its forfeiture in summary civil proceedings can have a major disruptive impact. That measure is currently not available other than at borders.
Financial investigators need more help to trace criminal proceeds and gather evidence. Customer information orders and monitoring orders will help us to even the odds in the fight that we need to carry to the criminal fraternity.
Money-laundering regulations offer unnecessary loopholes. Defendants are hardly ever prosecuted and even when they are, acquittal rates are well above the average for many countries in similar situations.
There is continuing evidence of slackness in the reporting of suspect transactions. Last year's report to the Financial Services Authority on the Abacha case proves the point. The UK cannot comply with a request to freeze criminal assets until criminal proceedings are imminent in the requesting jurisdiction. That factor impeded the UK's ability to assist the Nigerian Government in the Abacha case.
Because of the powers that we are taking, we have tried to ensure that we have given sufficient concessions and safeguards. I believe that the Bill is now effective and balanced. We gave a commitment this evening to look at protecting the anonymity of staff in the Assets Recovery Agency in appropriate circumstances, as proposed by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. It will not necessarily be easy, but it is worth examining the matter seriously.
I was surprised by the position taken by Conservatives Members, and I continue to be so. I was convinced that the Liberal Democrats would adopt the position that they did indeed adopt, but I was surprised at the position of Conservative Members, which perhaps goes to show that naivety can continue well into one's forties—[Interruption.] I am talking about myself.
I entered into our consideration of the Bill believing that the main thrust of the Conservative Opposition would be that it is not as effective as it should be and that some measures should be strengthened. I was therefore surprised by the tabling in Committee of substantive amendments that would have weakened the Bill. [Interruption.] I happily acknowledge that some of the proposals that were made in Committee were useful and potentially make the Bill more effective, easier for us to pass into law and more compliant with the European convention on human rights. However, others would have punched great holes in our confiscation and assumptions proceedings. Measures in existing legislation that were enacted when the Conservative party was in power were suddenly considered to be too draconian and in need of watering down.
786 In response to debate, we have undertaken to insert the proposed list of lifestyle crimes into the Bill, retaining the power to update it from time to time by order. For unlisted offences, the Bill raises the number of convictions that are required before the burden is placed on the defendant to show how his assets are not the proceeds of crime. We are retaining the serious risk of injustice proviso—the measure to which the House of Lords attached such great importance in rejecting last month's appeal on the Rezvi and Benjafield cases.
§ Mr. Davidson
I thank the Minister for saying that, like many of us, he was surprised by how soft the Conservatives appeared to be on collaborators with crime. They consistently sought to weaken the Bill in various ways and threatened to try to get measures reversed in the House of Lords. Does my hon. Friend welcome the fact that the Opposition Front-Bench boss has now arrived, hopefully to keep the apprentices in order and to ensure that they support the Government more fully in future? Does he think that the shadow Home Secretary was probably unaware that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) was descended from sheep and cattle thieves and therefore had a domestic interest in the matter?
§ Mr. Ainsworth
More importantly, the shadow Home Secretary was fully aware of the position that was taken by Conservative Members on the Committee on behalf of their party, and is therefore largely responsible for it. My lips are sealed about the source of that information, and will remain so until such time as I come to write my memoirs, if I ever do. It is all part of the touchy-feely operation that the hon. Gentleman is putting in place on the Conservative Benches.
§ Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)
I am most grateful to the Minister for his charming efforts to introduce me into the conversation. I hope that he can satisfy himself that he was not unduly naive. He is merely wholly misinformed about the view taken by myself and my hon. Friends about the role of a responsible Opposition. We believe that the only way in which the rule of law will be preserved is if people have sufficient confidence in our legal system, and that that will exist only if there is an appropriate balance between the rights and the protection of the innocent and the pursuit of the guilty. The Minister and I should be joined in that view.
§ Mr. Ainsworth
I totally agree. That is exactly what we tried to achieve through the way in which we managed the Committee proceedings and listened to the genuine concerns that were raised by Conservative Members and Liberal Democrats.
I remind the shadow Home Secretary that there are two classes of innocents. First, there are those who wind up being accused of crimes that they did not commit or who face having profits taken from them which are not the proceeds of crime. Secondly, there are the victims in our constituencies who wind up living with the consequences of money laundering, drug peddling and other organised crimes and the profits that flow from them. I sometimes feel that Conservative Members want to give that a lower priority than do I and my hon. Friends.
I do not want to prolong the debate or to prevent any hon. Members from having an input into Third Reading. I could go through different parts of the Bill to point out 787 the need for the measures that are being taken and to show how we have tried to ensure that they are balanced and proportionate. We have heard the views of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, some of which did not take into account the full balance of the issues concerned. For example, it was prepared to come down against aspects of the assumptions proceedings without fully considering the safeguards that the Bill provides. It suggested, without the support of recent case law, that the provisions on civil recovery are wrongly classified.
We have safeguarded the traditional position of the matrimonial home in Scotland, leaving ourselves open to allegations about the regime in England and Wales. That issue was flagged up by the Human Rights Committee. However, it did not properly address the fact—it will have to do so—that the provision deals with the position of families who find themselves in danger of potential action against their matrimonial home as a result of measures against the proceeds of crime. Families may often find themselves in that situation during the normal course of their lives owing to debts or loss of work.
I shall draw my conclusions to a close. I hope that we have sent the Bill to another place in a better state. I am pleased that we received so much support for many of its provisions. I sincerely hope that we can all look back many years from now with a degree of satisfaction that the measures have been effective and have made a difference. In Committee we looked back at comments made by Home Office Ministers of many years ago about the effectiveness of the measures that they were introducing. In many cases, we have had years of experience of seeing that they have not been effective. We bring our democratic process into disrepute if we introduce measures that promise effective action on things that are important to the people we represent which are not capable of delivering the change that is expected. I hope that we have made the Bill sufficiently effective so that it makes a difference and so that we can be pleased with our role in bringing it into effect
§ Mr. Grieve
I echo the thanks extended by the Minister. I had a brief opportunity in Committee to thank the officials of the House and the civil servants who helped us, but I should like to repeat that tonight and in addition thank all hon. Members who participated in the Committee, not just my hon. Friends. I was mindful that throughout the proceedings the Minister and the Minister of State, Scotland Office, went to a great deal of trouble to ensure that our concerns were properly addressed and, if they were thought to be legitimate, acted on. Above all, there was the spirit of co-operation that I had hoped for when I said on Second Reading that our conduct in Committee might be a model of its kind. I am aware that we did not always get things right—certainly the guillotine sometimes came down at the wrong time—but there was an effort to ensure proper scrutiny. I hope that the Bill has been improved as a consequence.
I assure the Minister that we are at one on the key issues. We know why the Bill is needed. We understand the pernicious problem of criminality which, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) has made clear many times, affects the poor much more than the wealthy. It destroys communities, especially in respect 788 of drugs, and the most disadvantaged are usually at a greater risk of the predatory activities of those who make money from crime. We are mindful of that and have no hesitation in believing that the Bill is necessary and desirable. Indeed, as the Minister acknowledged, the genesis of many of the measures that we have considered was under Conservative Governments.
It is equally clear that during our deliberations on this enormous Bill, which now stands at 450 clauses, we changed what had been an add-on to the normal criminal justice system into an administrative law system for the confiscation of criminals' assets. At no time should an Opposition be more resolute in its defence of civil liberties and the rights of the individual than when the state takes upon itself, for whatever good reason, such enormous extra powers. I make no apology for the fact that in Committee we spent our time probing, asking and trying to understand what the Bill's consequences might be in practice, and making suggestions when we thought that it could be improved.
I disagree entirely with the Minister on one thing: the Bill's efficacy in seizing the assets of criminals would not have been reduced one iota had he accepted the amendments that we pressed to a Division. He might care to reflect on that if he re-reads the amendments. I am prepared to concede, however, that if the Bill is properly administered—for which the Executive and the director of the Assets Recovery Agency will have a great responsibility—some of the fears that are reflected in our amendments may not be realised. I distinctly hope that they will not be. We have tried to ensure throughout the process that the framework provides a balance between the desire to seize assets and the civil rights of individuals, not just those from whom the assets are to be seized, but the third parties, be they spouses, children, partners, business associates or, in some cases, innocent bystanders who are caught by the procedures.
The Bill has undoubtedly been improved. I thank the Minister for the amendments tabled on Report. They ensure that the problem of legal professional privilege, which was overlooked in some parts of the Bill, has been properly addressed. The restrictions on disclosure of information to foreign Governments, which the Minister has undertaken to consider further, are important because some Governments have mixed motives when they decide to pursue individuals for assets and do not have the standards of probity that we enjoy in this country. The provisions on confiscation increase the duties of the director to provide information in cases of injustice. That went a long way to meeting many of our concerns in Committee.
That said, anxieties remain and the Minister will forgive me if I highlight them as a reminder. We need to be sure that part 2 offers adequate protection to prevent injustice. The lack of safeguards in respect of families, spouses and children pains me, and the amendments that we tabled yesterday in that regard were modest. A similar system exists in Scotland, and Scottish MPs—even those on the Government Benches—have made no attempt to gainsay it or to get rid of it, which suggests that it provides good protection. I hope that, even at this late stage, that issue might be reviewed in another place. The law can be very hard, and tempering such harshness is one of our responsibilities as parliamentarians.
789 I am also concerned about compensation. I heard what the Minister had to say on that, but because compensation will be available only in cases of serious default, and not of negligent default, those who are wrongly taken through a process and subsequently found blameless will be obstructed in their efforts to recover any resulting consequential losses. Perhaps that issue should be examined further.
On civil recovery, we need to consider compensation for third parties in respect of the actions of receivers. I find it difficult to understand why we cannot require the director, before initiating proceedings, to have reasonable grounds for believing that there are assets to be recovered. It has struck me throughout that that modest measure would provide reassurance and remind the director of his duty. Is it not the responsibility of Members of Parliament to remind those who execute its authority of where their duty lies? If we do not do that, nobody else will.
Although the part of the Bill that deals with money laundering is undoubtedly one of the most important—indeed, I hope that it will reap great dividends—onerous duties and requirements are, as the Minister knows, nevertheless being placed on law-abiding and blameless individuals who seek through their work in the financial and regulated sector to help others in a perfectly proper way. I am sure that they will wish to shoulder those burdens cheerfully, but it is sometimes difficult to do that when a sword of Damocles is hanging over one's head, and one slip after a bad night—however innocuous or innocent—could lead to a five-year prison sentence. That is one aspect of the Bill that has given me particular cause for concern.
On the part of the Bill dealing with international matters, it is absolutely vital, as I have said, that the system of co-operation be transparent. First, the House must be aware of what is being done, which gives rise to the question of affirmative and negative resolutions—we did not have time to discuss them today—and the framework established by Order in Council. Secondly, there should be some monitoring of the way in which the system works, to ensure that foreign Governments do not use it for unintended purposes. Parliament has a duty to ensure that the rights of individuals are protected against foreign Governments who may not have our standards.
That said, I congratulate the Minister on his Bill. He has handled it cheerfully, skilfully, with good humour and—I am satisfied—with the best of intentions. In that regard, I am also satisfied that the Government's intentions are transparently honest and correct, and that the aspiration that underpins the Bill is worthy. For that reason, we give it our support, mindful that it may be possible to reconsider and correct in another place some of the aspects that I have touched on, and which continue to give us some cause for anxiety. On that basis, we welcome the legislation and give it our support.
§ Mr. Stinchcombe
I, too, welcome the Bill, and I do so warmly. I believe that it could lead to a sea change in the fight against acquisitive crime. For that reason, I was delighted to serve on the Standing Committee. I am pleased to have been able to participate in the debates on Report, and I am grateful to the House for the opportunity to make a brief contribution on Third Reading.
Throughout our deliberations, we have heard much from Tory Members about their concerns for human rights and the need to ensure that the Bill properly reflects the
790 Human Rights Act 1998 and properly respects the European convention on human rights. I share some of their concerns, as I made clear in Committee, but I would give greater credence to the arguments that have come from their mouths if any of them had voted for the Human Rights Act in the first place. Many Conservative Members vehemently oppose that Act. At least one of them supported it, but he did not have the courage to vote for it—the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who has led for the Opposition in the debates on the Bill.
I spoke in favour of the Human Rights Act 1998, and I voted for it. If called upon, I will vote for this Bill, and I would do so for an identical series of reasons. I genuinely and passionately care about human rights. I believe that they should be protected against violation, but that the most important of our fundamental human rights is not the right to protect the secrecy that surrounds our dodgy deals, but the right to live free from fear and free from crime. The Bill will do more than virtually any other measure that has been enacted while I have been a Member to tackle our fear of crime and protect that fundamental human right.
In the past two months, I have visited an old lady in my constituency whose skull had been caved in during broad daylight by a young thug with a golf club. I was visited by another elderly lady whose arm had been broken when a bag was wrenched from it, again in broad daylight. I have talked to the police about a phone call received in the evening from an eight-year-old boy who was concerned because his father had been marched upstairs at gunpoint.
Why do my constituents—in middle England, in Northamptonshire—suffer from such crime and why do they live in such fear? I believe that it is because 10 per cent. of the young adults in my constituency from some of the estates are addicted to drugs, because heroin is available at £5 a wrap, because crack cocaine is now found in my constituency, because of the needles that I can find everywhere and because many of my constituents have to steal to feed those habits. We have made it harder for them to burgle, so they have now taken to street crime.
It is imperative that, in the House as well as elsewhere, we do everything that we can to fight that crime and street violence. We have to do so in many ways—by getting more policemen on the beat, by intelligent policing and probably by using more tagging—but we also have to tackle the drug trade itself, and we have to do so at both ends: the supplier and the user. As for the users, I want more to be done about drugs rehabilitation than we have ever tried to do, especially in prison. As for the suppliers, I want the profit to be taken out of crime, so that they cannot make their millions, or even their thousands, by peddling their filth and ruining the lives of innocent people. The Bill will help to tackle that, which is why I welcome it so warmly.
§ Norman Baker
Parliament has dealt with the Bill in an exemplary fashion. If it were to approach other Bills similarly, we might all end up with better reputations outside the House than we probably collectively have at present. May I pass on my thanks to the staff and officers of the House for their help with the Bill? I also thank the Minister, who has been willing to respond to legitimate points. He has been polite and cheerful throughout and has been the sort of Minister whom one would hope to be responsible for a Bill.
791 I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and his colleagues. The hon. Gentleman in particular has given the Bill a great deal of his time and raised a number of legitimate issues, and the Bill is better as a consequence of some of the amendments that he moved. I also thank my own colleagues, of course, including my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who has kept me busy and otherwise helped me during the debates on the Bill.
I also pay tribute to Labour Members, who raised legitimate issues and took a real interest in the Bill. I particularly mention the hon. Members for Redcar (Vera Baird) and for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), who managed to raise issues about which the Government did not necessarily want to hear, but did so in a constructive way that was loyal to their party. It is not always easy to strike that balance, and that should be recognised.
My colleagues and I have always supported the principle of the Bill. I do not think that there will be a Division on Third Reading, but if there is we shall support the Bill. We support its principle because it takes the profit out of crime. I bear in mind the fact that two thirds of crime is motivated by profit, and that we must ensure that crime does not pay. That very old slogan needs some teeth, and this Bill gives it teeth. We are much better at convicting people than at depriving them of their ill-gotten gains. If the Bill goes some way to addressing that, it will have achieved a great deal. If we follow the money, we will end up getting the criminal, and that is a welcome change from traditional methods of approaching such matters.
The principle of the Bill is agreed, so proceedings in Committee were largely about detail—or, perhaps, tensions. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield referred to some areas of concern, some of which I share and others I am less concerned about. I have identified four tensions that I will take to my colleagues in the Lords as areas of difficulty.
The first tension is the key one: the balance to be struck between the power of the state and the rights of the individual. The Bill undoubtedly contains several heavy weapons to try to deal with serious crime committed by very clever people who may have expensive lawyers—or whatever the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) wants to attribute to them—and have escaped the traditional methods of justice and existing law. We must deploy heavy weapons against those people. I recognise that, even if it causes some trepidation. The other side of that coin is that we need strong shields to ensure that the innocent are not swept up in the process.
As the Minister said, there is more than one kind of innocent person. There are innocent people who are the victims of crime, about whom we rightly heard from the hon. Members for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) and for Glasgow, Pollok. Innocent third parties can be swept up unwittingly and unfairly by such heavy legislation unless there are safeguards to enable them to escape it legitimately.
There are also those who are guilty of negligence, who we do not want to treat the same as those who are guilty of deliberately seeking to launder money. Both are 792 problems, but they are not on the same scale. We need to ensure that there are shields for the innocent and that the penalties for those who are guilty of lesser crimes are not the same as those for major crimes.
The hon. Member for Beaconsfield referred to the loss of the family home, which was discussed yesterday on Report. That brings me to the second tension that was evident during our proceedings in Committee: that between what happens north and south of the border. In the case of the family home, the Bill is very much Scotland 1, England 0, which cannot be right.
§ Norman Baker
It is a half-time result, as the Bill is yet to go to the other place—but the score may stay that way. How can it be right for a spouse to lose her home if she lives in Berwick but not if she lives in Galashiels? That worries me.
Differences between legislation north and south of the border are inevitable. Indeed, I am a keen supporter of devolution, as are all my colleagues. We recognise and rejoice in the fact that there are differences north and south of the border, but I prefer the differences to occur in matters of policy and priority rather than in essential justice. The example of the loss of the home is a matter of essential justice. I regret that we have a different solution in Scotland from that in England.
There have of course been moves to eliminate such differences. As the Minister will remember, it was proposed that courts in Scotland have discretionary power to make confiscation orders although such power was mandatory in England and Wales. That has now been evened up—the wrong way, in my view. It is a pity that the evening up did not go the other way, with the Scottish model imported into England.
The third tension is between those who legislate—us—and those who interpret the law, namely the judiciary. As we have gone through the Bill, I have asked to what extent it is legitimate for Parliament to constrain the judiciary. Parliament has a right and a duty to legislate, and courts have a duty to interpret. The courts are an important backstop to ensure justice. In the past century, we find instances in which the courts have intervened to protect justice when Parliament has got it wrong; juries, too, have acted in that way. We can all think of cases that have led to changes in the law. The judiciary is an important feature of our democracy and it must be given the elbow room it needs to perform that function.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok made it plain in Committee that he does not trust the judges. His solution, without wanting to put it too crudely, was as far as possible to write them out of the script in terms of the scope available to them for interpretation. As he does not trust the judiciary in its current form, he wants judges to be servants of Parliament, but that is a dangerous road to take. I agree that there is a need for reform in the legal system, but that is an entirely different proposition from cutting them out of the script altogether.
That is one of the reasons why throughout proceedings on the Bill my colleagues and I have been keen to ensure that the judiciary is not written out of the script, and that judges are given the appropriate flexibility to interpret the law. That is why attempts were made to amend clause 6 793 to give the courts greater flexibility of action. The clause starts: "The …Court must proceed". Many wanted to replace "must" with "may", and the Liberal Democrats suggested inserting "normally" after "must". On Report, a further attempt was made to qualify the provision and give the courts elbow room to act if they detected a real risk of injustice.
The Government were not keen on those amendments or on providing elbow room. I think that they should adopt a more relaxed attitude and realise that it is in their long-term interests not to constrain the judiciary too tightly, as they tend to do throughout the Bill. Their motives are of the best, but I conclude that ultimately the right balance has not been struck between the two elements.
The fourth tension is between the need—perceived and actual—for the far-reaching heavy measures in the Bill and the requirements of the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. I am happy to concede that Government Members are as keen on the Act as I am, and that they acknowledge that it was a big step forward and is an important part of this country's legislation. I am glad that the Minister referred to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, if only to disagree with it, because it shows that he recognises the importance of responding to the issues that the Committee raises.
Incidentally, the report with which the Minister disagrees was agreed by all members of that Committee representing all three main parties and both Houses of Parliament. That does not mean that the report is necessarily right, but there is a substantial body of opinion, which includes hon. Members present tonight, that the recommendation and the wording of the report were appropriate. There will always be tension, but it is important that the Government pay proper attention to what the Joint Committee on Human Rights says. The Government themselves created that important body and its words should be heeded.
I am not sure that the Minister entirely understood or accepted my point that there is an absolute requirement that each Bill introduced by the Government be consistent within itself with the Human Rights Act. On the front of the Bill was a statement that it is so consistent and that its provisions are compatible with convention rights. The Minister will remember that the Committee learned that the clause headed "Requirements for making of production order", originally clause 335, replicated provisions within the Drug Trafficking Act 1994, but without the Act's public interest protection provisions. The explanatory notes to the Bill said that that was because judges are required to act in a way that is compatible with the convention, and that the public interest protection provisions were therefore no longer necessary. That is a fundamental point. Those public interest protection clauses should have been included in the Bill, irrespective of the existence of the Human Rights Act.
§ Mr. Bob Ainsworth
The area on which we disagreed—or on which I failed to understand the hon. Gentleman—was in relation to his apparent insistence that it was not good enough for us to say that this measure in 794 no way cuts across people's rights under the European convention on human rights. Even when we said that, it was not good enough for him.
§ Norman Baker
If that is the opinion that the Minister formed, I am happy to clarify matters, as the Secretary of State for Transport, local Government and the Regions might have said in one of his illuminating statements. If the measure itself does not cut across the Human Rights Act, of course it is compatible with it. However, if the mirroring safeguards that would have been included in legislation previously are not included in this Bill, it will have fewer safeguards, by definition, because of the existence of the Human Rights Act.
I shall not take very much longer, as other hon. Members want to contribute. I shall just raise one other point that I raised on Second Reading—which I do not think has been dealt with since by me or anyone else—about the hierarchy. Throughout the Committee, the Minister clearly explained how the hierarchy would work and gave several assurances for which I was grateful and which the Committee accepted. However, my one residual concern relates to the situation in which somebody is charged with a criminal offence and acquitted, and the lesser method—civil recovery—kicks in. The danger would be that, in the case of a high-profile acquittal, the public at large—who would not understand the hierarchical system—would view such recovery as persecution of an individual. That poses dangers to the credibility of the Bill.
If such a conclusion were reached, the authorities might in turn be encouraged to engage in the equivalent of plea bargaining—which nobody in this place wants—and to opt immediately for civil recovery rather than a criminal charge. Of course, the threshold for civil recovery is lower than it is for a criminal charge, so that option will be tempting. In the same way, authorities sometimes pursue the charge of driving without due care and attention rather than the charge of dangerous driving.
Overall, however, this is a good Bill, and Liberal Democrats are pleased to support it. We wish it well in the Lords and we shall table one or two amendments to deal with residual matters of concern. I thank the Minister for the considerate and helpful way in which he has ensured the progress of this Bill.
§ 9.7 pm
§ Mr. Davidson
The Minister said that this was his first time piloting a Bill in Committee. He was not nearly as bad as we expected for an ex-Whip seeking to rejoin the human race. He was perhaps over-keen, on occasion, to compensate for his previous form. Nevertheless, he conducted himself with good humour throughout the Committee, as did most hon. Members. I was frequently phoned by the press, who asked for a list of members of the Committee broken down by age and sex. I replied, "All of them." That was a fairly easy response, but still a good one.
In relation to the Opposition parties, it is worth while to remark that there were three Liberal Members on the Committee, but they were never present at the same time. I wonder how many other people noticed that. Even 795 tonight, there are only two of them, and one is sitting on the Front Bench and the other is behind him. That demonstrates their addiction to questions of hierarchy.
§ Mr. Carmichael
The reason why there were only ever two of us was that—notwithstanding the difference in the numbers of Liberal Democrat Members and Labour Members—the sheer force of our arguments, if we had all been present, would have been overwhelming. Although the hon. Gentleman may not have raised many issues in Committee, he raised a number of laughs. Regardless of what his colleagues have said about him, I always thought that he was okay.
§ Mr. Davidson
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman speaks on that point. He told us earlier that his 11-year-old son was cutting his first teeth. Children always use an especially hard type of stone in Orkney and Shetland for such purposes.
I see that the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) has rejoined us. It is interesting that after many absences in Committee he has obviously been told to stay away, which seems eminently sensible. He spent much time in Committee signing his books. I understand that he had not completed colouring in some of them. He was sent away for Ugandan conversations at one stage. Given that he is a Member who has newspapers to sell, it is understandable that he was not always in Committee. I find myself hurrying past "Big Issue" sellers in case it is the hon. Gentleman—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)
Order. Despite the general appreciation of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, we should return to Third Reading.
§ Mr. Davidson
You are correct, Madam Deputy Speaker.
We would have had a much better political exchange in Committee had nationalist Members served on it. As they did not volunteer, that obviously was not possible.
§ Mr. Salmond
I have recently been studying some figures. It seems that the hon. Gentleman has spoken more in the past two days than he has spoken in the Chamber since the last general election. That is remarkable. I want to apologise to him, because yesterday I implied that his participation record in the Chamber was miserable. That is not true. The figures show that it is not miserable; it is just not very good. He is 27th out of 55 in the activity rate among Scottish Back Benchers, which I suppose—
§ Mr. Salmond
In consideration of the Bill that is before us, and others, the hon. Gentleman's activity rate is just above relegation level.
§ Mr. Davidson
I am aware that we are on Third Reading, Madam Deputy Speaker, so it would be inappropriate for me to say that even though my record 796 in the Chamber might not be particularly good, I still have a better voting record than that of the older nationalists on the Bill and on other issues.
One of the strengths of the Committee was that a range of views were expressed by Labour Members. The Labour party that I joined was a broad church, and that was a good thing. One of the things that has caused me most unhappiness about new Labour is the way in which it has sought to narrow the range of acceptable opinions.
The Tories have stressed their support for the Bill on Third Reading, but words are cheap. There were many occasions in Committee when they procrastinated and deliberately spun out discussion so that some clauses were not reached. It was made absolutely clear that those parts of the Bill could be dealt with in another place.
We must see what the Conservatives seek to do to the Bill in the other place. They will be judged by their actions there. There is a real danger that they will try substantially to weaken the Bill, which will be to the detriment of our people.
§ Mr. Grieve
I fear that the hon. Gentleman is beginning to suffer from the paranoia that starts to infect Governments after their first term. It is uncharacteristic of him to have succumbed because he has always been rather semi-detached. I can assure him that consideration in another place will be as constructive as we have tried to make it in this place.
§ Mr. Davidson
If that were true, I would welcome that. I recognise that there are still some issues that would benefit from some rubbing and polishing, but that has not been the impression that I have gained from Conservative Members in Committee. We shall see.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, no matter how ameliorative he was in Committee, will not be prepared, in enthusiasm to get the Bill through Parliament, to accept from the other place things that we were not prepared to accept in Committee or in the Chamber.
§ Mr. Hawkins
The hon. Gentleman spoke about procrastination. I remember an occasion in Committee when he caused a series of Divisions entirely on his own, to the astonishment and horror of his Whip. Was that part of his crusade against the nationalists, or something to do with procrastination?
§ Mr. Davidson
No, that was nothing to do with procrastination. It was a result of the operation of the Sewel motion and the fact that we were unable to debate some clauses dealing with Scotland because the hon. Gentleman and his Conservative colleagues had spent so much time on earlier clauses spinning out the debate. I do not remember whether they spun out an entire part of the Bill or just a day's debate, but they clearly wasted time—the Whip intervened on several occasions to keep things going—with the deliberate intention of preventing us from reaching some provisions applying to Scotland. I made my point reasonably well by forcing a number of votes. For the benefit of those who were not in Committee, it is fair to say that I lost them all, but that was not a surprise.
797 This is not the end of the road. We must consider implementation. I very much welcome the new unit that is to be established in Scotland and the announcement made by the Minister of State, Scotland Office. We must make sure that we have adequate resources for the police specialist units and the professional help being provided to them and to the Procurator Fiscal Service.
If we are to have confidence in the legal system in Scotland and in England and Wales, we need to tackle its modernisation as a matter of urgency. I recognise that that is an area in which there are substantial vested interests and where there is producer domination. However, if we genuinely want the modernisation of our society, we cannot just be hard on soft targets. We must be hard on some of the real vested interests.
I was asked earlier whether I wanted to reflect on my view of lawyers and the law. Yes, I probably do. On a number of occasions, I was not nearly hard enough. The more people bring me examples of the sort of behaviour to which I object in the law, the more I believe that more hon. Members should take up these issues in the interests of our constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) expressed more eloquently than I could the motivation behind my participation in the debate on the Bill in the House and in Committee. It has been a long slog, but I believe that if hon. Members representing areas such as mine are not prepared to put a substantial effort behind measures such as the Bill, we do a disservice to our constituents.
We must protect those whose lives are cursed by drugs and crime in their communities. I have mentioned several times before, and I make no apology for mentioning again, the families who are unable to go out together for an evening or at any other time because they are afraid to leave their house unoccupied. We must take action against the society that allows that to continue. I hope that the Bill goes some way towards creating a better Scotland and a better Britain.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth
I appreciate the opportunity to say a few words. My interest was sparked many years ago when I brought to the attention of the then Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Sir Kenneth Newman, a scam using stocks and shares to pass money to terrorist groups. It took some years before anything began to happen.
I understand the comments of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). When a previous discussion was going on, my erstwhile colleague Enoch Powell expressed concern that we were interfering too much with civil liberties. However, the harsh reality of life is that society has changed dramatically. On behalf of my colleagues on the Select Committee, I express our thanks to the Minister for the reception that he gave our report, and to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) for his kind words.
For far too long, law enforcement bodies have not worked together. The Bill should help them to move together. It is amazing how long it is since income tax legislation brought Al Capone to justice. It is also amazing how often we fail to realise that various law enforcement officers must come together to make a difference.
798 In that context, I should like to say something about lifestyle. A glazier who was doing some work in my office said to my secretary one day, "What is going on in this world? I am driving an old banger and doing my best to make an honest living, but I saw one of those godfathers driving into the petrol station the other day in a Mercedes." Fascinatingly enough, the papers began to refer to such lifestyles, and we saw the same person who drove the Mercedes pay tribute to his financial adviser, who helped him to invest wisely, although he earned only £3 a week in his prison days. I have yet to find out who that financial adviser is; I could do with him.
Lifestyle means something. On reclamation of income tax, £10 million has already been restored through the Criminal Assets Bureau in the Republic to the Treasury—money that would never otherwise have been lifted in income tax. Some £20 million is waiting to be dealt with; it must be done legally and appeal methods can be involved. None the less, the reclamation of that money is a reflection of what is going on in our society.
I welcome the movement that the Bill represents and I wish it speed through the other House, although I also welcome the fact that the Government will have the opportunity that has been given to successive Governments, whatever their hue, to be made wiser by the second opinions given in that place. I look forward to improvements being made. In Northern Ireland, the Bill is not only about terrorism—a subject to which some people keep returning—but about a whole change in our society. When we consider the courts, I think about the problem of drug pushers and other criminals in Ballymena, who are brought to the courts and remanded on bail so they can go out and make enough money to pay any fine that is imposed. While the judiciary must be careful in sentencing, it must realise that its job is not only to see that the law is not administered in a draconian way, but to ensure that the victims are protected.
§ John Robertson
I thank the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) for his speech. What happened in his Province today is an example of why we need to tackle the proceeds of crime. The people of Northern Ireland know full well what happens with such proceeds in terms of terrorism and intimidation, and I should like to thank him personally for his contribution.
In giving my own thoughts and feelings, I shall keep my remarks as short as possible. The Bill is a 301-page document with 450 clauses and nine schedules, so I can assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the Committee stage was a long slog. It seemed more like 139 steps than like 39. While I might not have the same experience as other hon. Members—especially those in the legal profession—I have always tried to put victims first. I make no apology for that; the criminals will always be second. The people who perpetrate crime will always have to be taken care of, and I see the Bill as a way of ensuring that that happens: it is a start in allowing us to attack the Mr. Bigs, the money men; or, for that matter, the Mrs. Bigs—I do not want to be sexist.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) is in his place. He gave a good example of the way in which the official Opposition have conducted themselves throughout the Committee stage and in this debate. In Committee, he tried to justify 799 the money laundering of the City of London. At one stage, he actually said "We need the money in London; otherwise it will just go somewhere else".
§ John Robertson
I would be very disappointed if the hon. Gentleman did not wish to intervene at this point.
§ Mr. Field
I think that I have made it clear, as has the Minister, that it is crucial to the City of London that we should not be seen as a soft touch in terms of money laundering or any of the other problems raised in the Bill. The hon. Gentleman rightly puts his constituents' interests first. The City of London is part of my constituency, and it is right for me at least to put the arguments against the problems of over-regulation and over-compliance, which are important to exporters. I do not suggest that those arguments should override all those advanced by the hon. Gentleman, but they should at least be heard.
§ John Robertson
If those in the City of London and people like them had put their house in order in the past, I would not be attacking the hon. Gentleman now. I feel, as do the police and the Drug Enforcement Agency—which I mentioned earlier—that such people must be brought to book. Lawyers have rules, and they have not stuck to them.
I will not attack lawyers and bankers, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson)— I certainly could not do it as well as he did—but, as I have said, these people must be brought to book. They seem to feel that they can turn a blind eye to the passage of illegal money through their hands. It is nothing to do with them; they are just doing their job, and they are well paid. No one can tell me that a lawyer in such circumstances does not know that someone is making a living from a criminal lifestyle. I am sorry to say this, but lawyers are not going to the police and telling them about such people. Indeed, lawyers defend them and get them off when they knew fine well from the outset that they were guilty as sin.
The Liberals, who may be described as the unofficial Opposition—
§ John Robertson
The hon. Gentleman would say that, wouldn't he? Anyway, the Liberals are very nice men. Unfortunately, criminals just love very nice men. I know that their hearts are in the right place, because they told me so, but they cannot sit on the fence for ever. They will become sore after a while if they do. We know that: we tried it for long enough.
May I say a word about the nationalists? I will not say anything about a Committee on which they did not sit—and I mentioned the fact that they did not ask to sit on it—because I would be ruled out of order if I did. I will say, however, that it is a pleasure to see them tonight. I am glad that they made an input today—I think—but whether it was effective is another matter. The leader-in-waiting made a slight input, but it was so slight that I will not even mention it.
800 The Committee stage was excellent. We had some fun. Members on both sides acted in good faith, for what they believed to be right. It just so happens that we are right and Opposition Members are wrong.
§ Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley)
I am grateful for the chance of intruding a few comments into the dying moments of the debate. I take my leave of the Bill in the immortal words of Geoffrey Howe, who referred tothe tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long."—[Official Report, 13 November 1990; Vol. 180, c. 465.]
My loyalties are divided, as are my instincts, following 39 fun-filled sittings.
I have listened with great care to the passionate and sincere speeches of the two Glasgow Members. They plainly want to devise a Bill that creates a great money-extorting machine that will put every criminal inside it and squeeze them until the last bawbee—if I have the right term—drops from their pockets. I want to say how sincerely I agree with them in that ambition. I have listened to the hon. Members and I think that they are right, although I sometimes think that the landscape of Glasgow that they portray is a trifle too depressing. Not a single innocent sunbed-owner, and not a single innocent suntan—save, perhaps, that mantling the brow of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok—escapes their attention. None the less, I share their general prejudice against the criminals who inflict great misery on people not only in their constituencies but in those of all hon. Members, including my own.
It has been a privilege and an education for me to listen to the Ministers and to the many learned and distinguished Labour and Liberal Members, all of whom have shown remarkable command of their subject. I have also been profoundly impressed—of course, I would say this, but I mean it—by the wisdom and humanity of our own Front-Bench Members. It became clear to me as our deliberations went on that, no matter how vehemently we agree with the ends, it is our duty as conscientious legislators sometimes to dissent from the means, particularly if the means that we are advocating will frustrate the very ends that we have in view.
Let me risk the disapproval of some of the most learned Labour Members by trying to grasp this great Bill by its fundamentals. I shall not dwell on the minor points, but a problem still extant in the Bill is that some foreign Governments could decide that the legitimate property of London Bond Street salerooms was the proceeds of crime. I am thrilled to see that the Home Secretary has arrived at this critical point, and I hope that he will address his vast brain to this question. It is still a problem that those salerooms could be the object of the jealousy of a rapacious foreign Government who might want to repatriate an artefact—an image resembling the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe), perhaps—on the ground that it resembled Hammurabi, for instance. They might contend that it had been stolen by some British archaeologist in the 1920s.
I shall leave those concerns on one side, however, and pass on to the guts of the Bill. I want to put an end to the Minister's perplexity by explaining what the Conservatives were trying to do during the 39 Committee sittings. We were right to take the line that we did, not 801 because we want to water the Bill down, but because we want it to work. I stand to be corrected, but my understanding is that the Bill appears to mean, in a nutshell, that if a convicted criminal—who could have been convicted of anything—can be shown, under the nebulous terms of clause 75, to have a criminal lifestyle, the court must order the confiscation of their assets unless they can show that they are not the proceeds of crime.
That is a terrifyingly powerful engine for getting money out of criminals. I can see why the eyes of Labour Members glitter when they contemplate it. All I can say is that there seems to be a risk, in some of the language, that the measure could be used not just against the Mr. Bigs—whom we all oppose—but against the innocent, such as the relatives of whom my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) spoke so movingly, and the mules—the victims of the drugs trade who are more likely to end up in the hands of the police.
Time after time, Conservative Members have tried to ensure that the rights of the innocent are protected. That is not, as I have said, because we want to attenuate the Bill, but because we want to make it more legally robust and more successful. Unless the Bill is intelligently and humanely drafted, it will fail in its objective. It will net no assets, and all the glitter and excitement in the eyes of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok and his friends will be frustrated, and they will be disappointed.
I shall give an example of what I mean. As the Minister knows, in 2000, the courts convicted one Robert McIntosh. I think that he was from Glasgow; he might even have been a constituent of one of the hon. Members here tonight. He was a very bad man—he is a very bad man; I think that I can say that without fear of contradiction. He was a drugs dealer and the court ordered £18,000 of his assets to be confiscated. The money was confiscated, but the decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal in Scotland because it involved the assumption, without any proof, that those assets were the proceeds of crime. That is exactly the way in which we are formulating the Bill and it will be a great shame if it fails to net the assets that we all want because, as the Scottish Appeal Court found, that means of the state getting its hands on the proceeds of crime conflicts with the Human Rights Act 1998.
§ Mr. Bob Ainsworth
Surely the hon. Gentleman is aware that there has been recent case law, particularly in the case of Rezvi, that has upheld the use of the assumptions in confiscation and not just in drug money.
§ Mr. Johnson
I am grateful to the Minister for that important clarification. I am of course aware of it, but I have only to look around the Chamber tonight to see legal brains of the kind of rarity and skill that could easily use the Human Rights Act 1998 to frustrate the very purposes that we have been trying to advance day in, day out and week in, week out during our consideration of the Bill.
In conclusion, the Bill has been improved by the efforts of hon. Members on both sides of the House, to protect the rights of the innocent because that is the way to make it—
§ Mr. Johnson
The hon. Gentleman said that it should be a juggernaut, but the problem with a juggernaut is that 802 it tends to crush the innocent and the guilty alike. It would be much better if the Bill were transformed—and I think that it has been—into a subtle and relentless octopus that picks the pockets of the guilty alone.
§ Mr. Davidson
Would it be helpful if I pointed out to the hon. Gentleman that although the McIntosh case was overturned by the Scottish Appeal Court, the conviction was finally upheld by the Privy Council?
§ Mr. Johnson
I am more than grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, but I think that I have already addressed it. Nor am I sure whether what he says is accurate. In fact, I think that he is trying to spoil my conclusion by making things up on the spur of the moment.
§ Mr. Hawkins
My hon. Friend may have been confused by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) talking about the Privy Council when he may have meant the House of Lords. Does my hon. Friend agree with the words of a distinguished former Member, Sir Alan Herbert, also a journalist and distinguished playwright? He said:As far as I am concerned, Scotland can govern itself for ever, but I hope the Scots never govern us. I have come back from one week-end in Scotland, and I must say that I found that there the laws were more barbarous in some respects than any laws which I expected to exist in these islands."—[Official Report, 9 May 1945; Vol. 410, c. 1945.]
§ Mr. Johnson
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that very good point.
In conclusion, let the Bill be a subtle and relentless octopus, not a juggernaut which crushes the innocent and guilty alike. I think that we have done a good job in ensuring that and I hope that the other place will continue our work.
§ Ian Lucas
I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) who is glancing at his watch. Clearly, he wants to go and put The Spectator to bed and I am sure that he will do it very well.
I want to make two brief points. The first is about the process. I speak as a new Member who was elected last June. Somewhat to my surprise, I have been impressed by the process and the way in which the Bill has proceeded. The main reason for that is that there was excellent input from all members of the Committee on which I was proud to serve. Everyone expressed their views freely and sincerely. I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) who has worked extremely hard on the Bill. Today, I was amazed to see the hon. Gentleman lose his rag for the first time, when he was baited by Scottish National Members. I did not believe that that would ever happen, but he was pushed to that extent.
I have been impressed by the way that the Bill has proceeded. The measure is important and goes to the heart of what may be the major problem facing this country. I hope that, when Labour Members talked about the communities that they represent, Opposition Members learned more about those communities than they knew before the introduction of the Bill. I suspect that they have done so.
803 The official Opposition and the other Opposition have also helped by tabling amendments so that the Bill is better than it was on Second Reading. We all agree about that.
One continuing misapprehension about the Bill is that it contains no safeguards. I confess that I am a former lawyer so I instinctively followed some of the arguments made by Opposition Front-Bench Members. However, I have studied the Bill closely and it includes an extraordinary number of safeguards. Some of the drafting has not assisted in understanding the measure, but the Bill strikes the right balance. Balance is the key word. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) referred to tension. That is present throughout the Bill.
A strong voice has spoken from the Chamber and from the Committee—a voice that represents people in the communities afflicted by the serious problems associated with drugs. As politicians we must speak out for those communities. The people who must listen to us are in the other place—especially the lawyers who will regard the Bill in a certain way. I suffered from that disease in the past, but as a new politician I have learned that I have a responsibility to look at legislation differently—in a way that reflects the problems and fears in the community that I represent. That voice will not be represented in the other place, but it is important that Members in that place hear from us about these grave matters and are assured that we have considered the Bill closely and that it must be taken forward.
The Bill is already having an effect. I am sure that my very hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) will be delighted to know that two or three weeks ago the front page of the Law Society Gazette warned lawyers to be on their guard because the Proceeds of Crime Bill was on its way.
§ Annabelle Ewing
I join hon. Members in supporting the Bill's Third Reading. We were happy to join the Government in the Division Lobby to support them on various issues during the past two days. It is clear that strong measures are needed to tackle the serious problems associated with drugs and other organised crime, which have cast a blight on communities the length and breadth of Scotland and throughout the rest of the United Kingdom.
Before the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) takes up his barracking again, I want to agree with him on the important issue of resources. It is all very well to create new agencies and powers for—in Scotland—the procurator fiscal service, the Crown Office and so forth and our police force, but if there are no resources the new powers are not worth the paper on which they are written. I hope that issue will be addressed.
§ Annabelle Ewing
I shall not give way. I want to speak briefly as I know that other Members want to contribute before the debate ends.
804 I and my colleagues are very disappointed to note that new Labour Members voted against our amendment No. 229 tonight. It would have ensured that part 3 of the Bill, which went through substantial change in this House, would have been referred back to the Scots Parliament.
§ Annabelle Ewing
No. I want to be brief and allow other hon. Members to speak.
In the debate on Report, all parties agreed that there had been major changes to part 3 of the Bill. The Minister of State, Scotland Office, told the Scottish Affairs Select Committee on 7 November that, if substantial changes were made, there would be a political imperative to refer the matter back to the Scots Parliament. Those changes have been made, but new Labour Members tonight voted against that referral. That action must be regarded as indefensible, undemocratic and an attack on the very basis of the Scots Parliament. Scots Labour MPs, in particular, should be thoroughly ashamed of their conduct tonight.
My last point is that the Sewel motion issue clearly remains unresolved. In his comments over the past few days, the Minister of State repeatedly confused the Scots Parliament with the Scottish Executive. The issue needs to be resolved. The substantial number of votes that my party garnered from other parties in the House—our amendment gained 172 votes—shows that there is an imperative to resolve the matter properly, in a way that respects both the spirit of the Scotland Act 1998 and democracy in Scotland.
§ Mr. Carmichael
There were 39 sittings in Committee on this Bill, and we have spent two days on Report and Third Reading. One would have thought that everything would have been said by now but, remarkably, there remains something to add.
I turn first to the question of Sewel motions. That matter was touched on by the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) and by the Minister of State, Scotland Office in his earlier statement. The Minister's statement is to be welcomed. There is no manual for dealing with Scottish legislation going through Westminster in the post- devolution context, especially when it arrives here as a result of a Sewel motion. The experience has been instructive for me and for other hon. Members from Scotland who served on the Standing Committee.
There is a need to define the role of Scottish MPs, post devolution, in this House. I do not object to the Sewel process in principle, but there are aspects that need to be refined. It encourages a dialogue between Government and Executive that bypasses the important role that can be played by Parliament, both here and in Edinburgh. Those matters must be taken seriously.
For example, it was drawn to my attention that any subsequent amendment to the Bill passed by the Scottish Parliament will be capable of being struck down by a court if it is not found to be consistent with the terms of the Human Rights Act 1998. The principal Bill can be given only a certificate of human rights incompatibility, and a number of other, similar issues that will have to be addressed.
The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) and other hon. Members have said that a degree of legal expertise has been brought to bear on the Bill. I am a new Member 805 of Parliament. The Standing Committee considering the Bill was the first on which I have served, and I was struck by how remarkably easy it was to be dubbed an expert.
However, I and other hon. Members—such as the hon. Members for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) and for Redcar (Vera Baird)—did bring to the Committee's deliberations a certain amount of experience of the criminal justice system. We all approached the debate from the point of view that all the different constituent parts of the criminal justice system—the judiciary, the prosecutors, defence solicitors, social workers, police—do an excellent job, often in very difficult circumstances. We only ever hear about the occasions when they get it wrong. We do not hear about the many occasions when they get it right and things go smoothly.
It is apparent, with all these constituent parts, some of which are conflicting, that a system of checks and balances has to be in place. Liberal Democrat Members remain concerned that a number of checks and balances are not present in the way that they might be. I am concerned that the Lord Advocate in Scotland now has yet another function to perform. I hope that the Scottish Executive will keep a close eye on the manner in which his functions, provided in part 5 of the Bill, are to be executed and that, if necessary, setting up a separate Scottish Assets Recovery Agency may be given serious consideration at a later date.
It is apparent that the days of the Lord Advocate as a Minister in the Scottish Executive are numbered. The number of functions that he has in terms of his prosecuting role and the additional responsibilities provided by the Bill must make that position more difficult to maintain. I say that as someone who has a great regard for the office of Lord Advocate. It is a very important one, but in this post-devolution age there should be no sacred cows. If the reform of an ancient office is necessary, so be it. Let us go ahead.
806 Liberal Democrat Members have accepted the need for the Bill. We accept that it is broadly good and wish it well. I shall watch its progress through the courts with great interest. It has been a pleasure and an honour, as a new Member of this House, particularly as a Scottish Member, to be part of these proceedings. We wish the Government well in their dealings with it in the other place.
§ Mr. Mark Field
It will be a very brief speech indeed, Mr. Speaker. It is lovely to have the last word; I wish it were like that all the time in politics.
I wish to associate myself with many of the comments about the consensus on the Bill. I fear that that is the last word. [Laughter.]
§ Question agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.