Clause 76 - Conduct and benefit

Proceeds of Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:30 pm ar 4 Rhagfyr 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 12:30, 4 Rhagfyr 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 281, in page 47, line 40, leave out from 'conduct' to end of line 2 on page 48.

I shall be brief, as we have just had rather a long discussion. The amendment is to some extent related to the previous clause, although, rightly, it has been grouped separately. Its purpose is to ensure that the Government put on the record a statement of their policy on retrospectivity in this legislation.

Many of us are concerned when retrospective provisions are inserted in any legislation. That is not a process that many of us like to see, and there has to be a very good reason for it, as is well set out in law. It is a principle of basic justice that a person should not be convicted of an offence if, when the offence was committed, it was not a criminal offence, or if the penalties applicable for that offence at the time were different from those that applied subsequently because of retrospective legislation.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

The hon. Gentleman is making a valuable point. Has he had an opportunity to discuss the Liberal Democrats' concerns about the European arrest warrant with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who, like the Minister and myself, is involved in considering the matter? Some of the concerns that he is currently expressing would be reamplified if the Government were to sign up to the European arrest warrant at the European Council at the end of this week.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I shall respond—briefly, Mr. McWilliam, as I notice the flick of your eyebrows. Suffice it to say that I have numerous and lengthy conversations with my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, normally at very unsocial hours such as 3 o'clock in the morning—although that is an exaggeration. He has discussed the European arrest warrant with me, and we have concerns about retrospectivity in that context, as we do in relation to this Bill, and as a general matter of principle if an activity is subsequently criminalised when previously it was legal, or if the penalties for a particular offence were previously relatively minor but a swathe of hard-hitting legislation—I shall not use the word ''draconian'', which is pejorative—has suddenly been introduced.

For instance, the Bill shifts the burden of proof on to the person accused of criminal activity or of benefiting from the proceeds of crime. It will require the person accused to prove that possessions have been legally obtained and are not the proceeds of crime. That person will therefore have to produce tax returns and bank statements going back quite a long way. Earlier, the Minister spoke against an amendment that I tabled to limit that process to six years, and against the idea that the prosecution should bear the onus of proof when events are more than six years ago. Despite the fact that hard-hitting measures have been agreed

earlier in the Bill, the Minister should at least give a full explanation of why such general retrospectivity needs to be included in the Bill.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

I share the general concern expressed by the hon. Member for Lewes on behalf of his party about retrospective legislation. It has always seemed to me an important principle of English law that Parliament should be sovereign, but that it should not be able to create, with the stroke of a pen, criminal offences out of activities that were not previously criminal. The Government will have to work extremely hard to convince not only the Opposition but the world outside that such a draconian extension of the law is justified. Although we want to hit the Mr. Bigs to whom the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok and other hon. Members have rightly repeatedly referred, we must make sure that the law appears to be fair and does not retrospectively criminalise. If the Bill is brought into force in anything like its current form, great swathes of conduct and property that were not the subject of the law beforehand should not be criminalized from the moment that it is enacted.

I mentioned to the hon. Member for Lewes that I was concerned about the European arrest warrant. Committee members might be aware—not least from today's press, following the fiasco of yesterday afternoon's European Standing Committee B on the European arrest warrant, which had to be abandoned after 50 minutes, and is due to be recommenced de novo on a date that we do not yet know—that great concern is being expressed about the possibility that the Government are about to say that people in this country can be at risk of arrest for things that are not an offence in this country, but which might be declared, under the generic title of ''swindling'' or ''xenophobia'', to be offences in another country.

The same concern applies in the present instance. That is why the two matters are related. People should not be at risk of arrest in this country for activities that are not offences in this country, and people should not be at risk of being dealt with by a new Act of Parliament for things that were not criminal before it was enacted.

Important principles are at stake. Although I do not expect that the debate will be lengthy, I hope that the Minister will address the matter seriously. I also hope that Government Back Benchers will contribute to the debate; many of them have a proud record, both in the House and in their previous careers, of standing up for the rights of the individual, of being public supporters of organisation such as Liberty and Justice, and of ensuring that our legislation is not too draconian.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I will be brief, as I do not wish to provoke you, Mr. McWilliam. However, it is apparent that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath believes that a German ought to be allowed to break the law in this country, if the offence that he commits is not an offence in Germany.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

No, I do not believe that. I do not want to get too deeply involved in a debate that we will resume at another date—which has yet to be fixed— with regard to another measure. However, to respond to the Minister's point, I must explain that we have always had proper extradition arrangements that address offences in each country, and examine where matters can be separately identified in each country's criminal law.

With regard to the European arrest warrant, the concern is about the generality of the descriptions. I am not speaking for my party alone on this subject. The same concerns have been expressed by many noble Lords, including Labour and Liberal Democrat Lords. When distinguished jurists such as Lord Lester of Herne Hill, and distinguished judges such as Lord Scott of Foscote, express themselves in terms as strong as those that they used on 19 November, when the matter was addressed in the other place, a serious issue is at stake.

We are currently addressing serious principles of a similar kind. Therefore, the hon. Member for Lewes is right to alert the Committee. I hope that we will hear from Government Back Benchers, because I hope that they will not simply ignore the seriousness of the point about retrospection, which concerns a fundamental principle in our law. I will be interested to hear how the Minister tries to defend this sweeping extension to our law.

Debate adjourned.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to One o'clock till this day at half-past Four o'clock.