Clause 171 - Provision of information by defendant

Part of Proceeds of Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:30 pm ar 11 Rhagfyr 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Ceidwadwyr, Spelthorne 12:30, 11 Rhagfyr 2001

The clause raises some serious issues on which the Government should reflect. I realise that there is a need to keep the legislation in line with the rest of the country. However, there are circumstances in Northern Ireland that leave me nervous about the way in which the clause is worded. I cannot understand how the principle of keeping the legislation the same throughout the United Kingdom is undermined by reflecting on the wording used in particular parts of the country. In Northern Ireland, an invitation for the court to draw such inferences as it sees fit is rather worrying. I do not say that in a sense of wanting to provide loopholes or to be soft on anybody. We must understand the nature of Northern Ireland's society and the pressures that are on people there, which are not necessarily on people who are charged with such crimes in other parts of the country. It is much more likely that a person who refuses to answer a question under those circumstances will be absolutely terrified of the implications of answering it. The history of violence in the terrorist and criminal fraternity in Northern Ireland is of a different order from that which applies in the rest of the country.

I worry that the court would be invited to assume that a person was guilty if they refused to answer questions. A person might not be guilty but, for various reasons, be afraid of implicating someone else. Terror would be struck into a person by the thought that if he answers the question and says: ''It wasn't me, guv, it was so-and-so,'' he would know that he, his family and his children would be equally at risk. Such pressure is different in Northern Ireland.

We must be very careful in inviting a court to draw whatever inferences it deems fit because answers could be given for reasons other than telling the truth. People may be persuaded to admit to something because they are covered by an amnesty. That is a danger of giving people early release. People may admit to past crimes that are covered by their release from prison. Such admissions may not necessarily be the truth but would provide the courts with information that the person may wish to give for reasons other than establishing the truth.

A feature of terrorist organisations is not that one side tries to stitch up the other, but that the various sub-groups within any paramilitary organisation will try to stitch up one another. A court that asks for information when enforcing the Bill will open up an opportunity for intra-organisation stitching up of people whom others wish to put away for a long time. Will the Minister reflect on my worry about whether the wording is as tight as it could be for the special circumstances that obtain in Northern Ireland?

Circumstances in Northern Ireland mean that we should consider whether the court is entitled to accept allegations on face value. If a person makes allegations, the court may proceed along those lines. That is worrying, because it is an invitation to encourage people to say whatever they like. There will be an inclination to believe it, because someone has said it. For reasons that I outlined about drawing inferences, it is dangerous for a court to accept allegations when the motivation for those has nothing to do with establishing rights and wrongs or obtaining justice, and everything to do with a carve-up among paramilitary organisations. That is a dangerous road to go down.

I hope that the Minister will reflect on my points and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath. We want not to open a loophole but to ensure that the situation in the courts reflects the complexities and variations of the way in which the criminal and terrorist fraternities work in the Province—or anywhere else.