Clause 348 - Offences

Proceeds of Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 5:30 pm ar 29 Ionawr 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

I hope that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok pays attention to what I say, because he will be surprised by it. Have the Government considered toughening up the Bill in respect of the appropriate sentences referred to in this clause? We shall address the matter again, in a corporate context, under clause 355, when the hon. Gentleman may again put pressure on the Minister to be tougher.

Clause 348 suggests a level 5 fine, which is currently £5,000, and a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment, which is the normal top of the range for summary offences. The clause suggests two years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine for knowingly or recklessly making a false or misleading statement.

In respect of the ''knowingly or recklessly'' offence, which all hon. Members will recognise as the serious end of the scale, have the Government considered a punishment greater than two years' imprisonment? The most serious offences in other criminal justice legislation that I have had a part in debating—not necessarily with this Minister, but with his predecessors—have generally been given a maximum

of five years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. I was surprised that the Government went to the top of the scale of summary offences but did not go as high as they might for the knowing or recklessly offence. No doubt, the Minister will explain the thinking and tell us of the discussions that he has had with those who advised him on the matter.

Photo of Ian Davidson Ian Davidson Labour/Co-operative, Glasgow Pollok

I am glad that some of my exhortations are at last bearing fruit, but will the hon. Gentleman tell me why he has not tabled an amendment? The Opposition have tabled amendments that would water down the Bill, but when they claim that they want to toughen it up they simply talk about it.

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

There are two parts to my answer, the first a technical and the second a tonal point. When my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and I examined the Bill, some amendments that we tabled were not selected for debate because they challenged the basis and the substance of the clause. Those amendments were effectively replaced by a stand part debate. I do not know whether we could have drafted an amendment that would not have been automatically swallowed up by a stand part debate. In any case, we chose not to.

Secondly, the tonal point is that the Government and those who advise them may have some technical reason why they wanted to balance a top of the range level 5 fine for summary offences with only two years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. There may be a reason for that, and we want to hear what the Minister says.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to toughen up the Bill, he could have tabled an amendment as a Government Back Bencher. As it is, he has not tabled a single amendment while we have tabled hundreds.

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

The hon. Gentleman is pointing at the Whip—I can well believe that he is afeard of her. Having established that point in Hansard thanks to his admission against his own interest, I shall give way.

Photo of Stephen Hesford Stephen Hesford Llafur, Wirral West

If the hon. Gentleman wants symmetry in the clause, and believes that five years should be given for the more serious offence in subsection (3), should he not logically want a different maximum for the offence in subsection (1)? At the moment, there is symmetry between the summary only offence and two years, which takes a view as to the overall criminality involved. If he had a point, should he not argue that the penalty under subsection (2) should be on indictment two years, raising that maximum as well as the maximum for the more serious offence?

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

That is another way of analysing the clause, but I analysed it differently. I am used to a tendency in Bills, from not only this Government but my own party when it was in government, to fix a penalty at the top of the summary scale, as this clause does, and then as a balance to fix a penalty of five years for the indictable, more serious offence.

The hon. Gentleman is a lawyer, and has experience of courts and knows what happens in practice. People rarely receive the maximum penalty prescribed by statute: they tend to get less than the maximum, and if they receive a custodial sentence, the time that they serve in custody is far less than the sentence. There have been many debates between members of different parties about so-called honesty in sentencing. For a long time, my view has been that the great British public would be much happier if they knew that when a judge told someone that he would serve two years in prison, he served that time. A lot of the public probably still believe that the person will serve the time, not that he will come out after two months when he has been sentenced to six months or that, when the Act of Parliament suggests six months maximum, people are given three months and come out after four weeks.

The point about honesty in sentencing can be made against Governments of both parties, so it is not politically partisan. It is interesting to consider whether the public are constantly if innocently misled by the terms of legislation and the sentence of the court. I have believed for a long time that it would be far better if courts sentenced for a defined term of imprisonment that was actually served. That was our party's policy at the general election last summer. It was not the Government's policy, and the Government were re-elected, so I accept that we did not prevail in that argument, although I doubt that it affected many people's decision about which way to vote. As a lawyer, the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) will understand my concern.

In some earlier debates, we talked about what caused some of us to go into public life and seek election to this place. Some time ago, we debated making laws make sense for lawyers and for ordinary members of the public. One factor that motivated me to seek election to Parliament for the first time in 1987, and subsequently to be elected in 1992 and re-elected since, was to try to bring about more honesty in sentencing. I have felt strongly about it for a long time.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Llafur, Birmingham, Hall Green 5:45, 29 Ionawr 2002

I do not know whether we have reached a new stage in the Committee in which the clause under discussion is not supposed to bear any relation to the previous clause, but is it not slightly strange that the hon. Gentleman should argue for tougher penalties for breach of an order that he has spent the best part of the previous hour arguing is draconian, non-specific and likely to lead to fishing trips?

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

That was an interesting, if completely tongue-in-cheek intervention. Even the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary could not keep his face straight, let alone all the other Labour Members. If there were any serious substance to the hon. Gentleman's point, I should say that of course the clauses ought to stand together in any part of the Bill, and that goes for part 8 no less than any other.

When we consider appropriate sentences, there is an important point that the hon. Member for Wirral, West took seriously, even if the hon. Member for

Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) did not. It is that in many pieces of legislation the balance has been six months or level 5 summary only, and five years or unlimited fine on indictment. For some reason that I have not yet heard, because the Minister has not yet responded, the Government and those who advise them have suggested two years. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green may not realise that we genuinely want to toughen up the provision, but he knows that those who act knowingly or recklessly represent the more serious end of the problem. One has to consider them and say what is appropriate. I think that I have said enough at this stage.

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

I have been generously taking interventions, so I do not know why the Minister is shouting so loudly. I have been responding to his Back Benchers. We ought to hear the Under-Secretary's justification on whether the more serious, longer-sentence maximum has been established.

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

I thought that my hon. Friend was applauding the hon. Gentleman. If he is a believer in honesty in sentencing, perhaps he ought to start with something wholly in his power, which is some more honesty in debating.

The hon. Gentleman gave two reasons why he did not table an amendment. One was that he did not believe that an amendment was possible. Anyone who looks at the Bill to see whether one could find a different level of penalty and get such an amendment into order will realise that that view cannot be taken seriously. His other reason was, as he said, tonal. The cynic might have something to say about that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green capably pointed out. We want to introduce appropriate sentences and investigatory powers that actually work and oblige people, where appropriate, to co-operate with the legislation. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath appears to have been proposing for some time now that we should have much less effective investigatory powers, but that to cover any deficiency, or for other reasons, we should increase the sentences.

The sentences under the measure are the same as those imposed for non-compliance with disclosure orders issued by the director of the Serious Fraud Office, as set out in the Criminal Justice Act 1987. A disclosure order will not only be aimed at the defendant, but will cover third parties. We think that the two-year imprisonment maximum is about right, so we have not considered raising the penalties. Our intention has been to try to make the investigatory powers effective in the first place.

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

I think that the Minister slightly caricatured what I said about the difference between a debate on a specific amendment and a clause stand part debate. I think that he knows, in his heart of hearts, whatever he may say in badinage, that it is sometimes better to have a debate on clause stand part, because it deals with the principle without descending to the detail.

Throughout the Committee's proceedings, the Minister has made a point of saying that some of the

existing powers do not work well enough. One of the issues must be whether the sentences for the more serious offences are long enough. I query whether he and his officials have examined that, particularly in relation to the small number of prosecutions. He has repeatedly remarked on that. He has almost treated the issue as a simple arithmetical exercise—there have not been enough prosecutions, so lots of people must be getting away with it. That, however, does not follow at all. Has he considered with his officials how people are currently sentenced? I would like to see a schedule showing the sentences handed down to the small number of people who have been prosecuted.

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

The sentences are derived from the Criminal Justice Act 1987. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 348 ordered to stand part of the Bill.