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Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 29 May 2001 (continued)

Proceeds of Crime Bill: Report of Ad Hoc Committee


The Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee for the Proceeds of Crime Bill (Mr A Maginness):

I beg to move

That the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee set up to consider the draft clauses of the Proceeds of Crime Bill, as set out in Command Paper 5066, be submitted to the Secretary of State as a Report of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It is a gross affront to common decency and democratic values that criminals can openly and fearlessly enjoy and display the fruits of their evil and sinister activities. It is hoped that through the draft Proceeds of Crime Bill they will soon be deprived of their accumulated wealth and that their reign as local crime lords will be a thing of the past.

It is intolerable that any criminal should enjoy with impunity his ill-gotten gains. The Proceeds of Crime Bill will be a major blow against criminals and crime, and it should be welcomed by all right-thinking people. As Members will be aware there has been a significant rise in crime in recent years.

A recent newspaper report stated that the situation has deteriorated drastically since the 1980s. Figures in a recent Government report highlighted the fact that there are now 78 gangs involving 400 individuals engaged in organised crime in Northern Ireland. The Government need to bring forward new measures to tackle these criminals. Innovative measures need to be used against criminals who are increasingly using highly sophisticated methods to profit from their illegal activities.

Over the last eight weeks the Ad Hoc Committee has heard evidence from a number of interested bodies: the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission; the RUC; the National Criminal Intelligence Service; the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) in Dublin; Customs and Excise; and the Inland Revenue. During these meetings many issues were raised and discussed in great detail by the Committee.

The draft Bill is being taken forward centrally by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and the Committee welcomed the opportunity to comment on the proposals in their draft form. The Proceeds of Crime Bill proposes to bring together, in one Act, the law governing investigations, money-laundering offences and confiscation. In addition it will establish the Criminal Assets Recovery Agency (CARA), which will have both an operational and a strategic role. The Bill seeks to empower the agency to recover criminal proceeds through the use of a new form of civil litigation in the High Court and to exercise taxation functions delegated from the Inland Revenue.

The main clauses of the draft Bill have been arranged as follows: the criminal assets recovery agency; criminal confiscation; civil recovery; taxation; investigations; and money laundering. Central to this Bill is the establishment of the Criminal Assets Recovery Agency. This agency will operate at a national level through a director who will be appointed by the Home Secretary. The director must appoint a senior official to have responsibility for exercising the agency's functions in Northern Ireland.

The agency has been modelled on the Criminal Assets Bureau, which has been in existence in Dublin since 1996. Over the past number of years it has had considerable success in civil recovery. To date it has recovered IR£17 million.

The Ad Hoc Committee convened a very useful formal meeting with the Criminal Assets Bureau. Members were impressed by the professionalism and the dedication shown by the bureau staff, often in the face of personal threat from criminal elements. The Committee was also impressed by the Criminal Assets Bureau's evident success.

The Committee welcomed the establishment of such an agency to target the growing problem of criminality in our society. The Committee has made a number of recommendations, which are contained in the report. These include: the director's being autonomous and consulting with the key players; objectives and targets being included in the agency's annual plan; the agency staff's possessing a broad range of experience; and, where possible, secondment's being arranged to ensure that adequate use is made of the knowledge base found throughout the agencies that currently carry out these investigations.

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The official appointed to have responsibility for Northern Ireland should be locally based and should rank sufficiently highly within the agency to be able to take decisions on behalf of the agency in Northern Ireland. The Committee felt that a deputy director post would be appropriate.

The proportion of the agency's budget allocated for exercising its functions in Northern Ireland must be sufficient to allow the agency to be effective and successful. There must also be a clear protocol and understanding between the Director of Public Prosecutions - and any future director of the proposed new public prosecutions body - and the director of the new agency.

The draft Bill proposes to extend the current legislation for handling confiscation orders following a criminal conviction. It seeks to amalgamate and strengthen those powers, which are currently split between drugs and non-drugs Acts. The Committee welcomed these provisions and recommended that, in criminal confiscation matters, confiscation orders should only be made only where evidence meets the civil standard of proof.

Civil recovery is a new and imaginative proposal to deal with the problem of criminal assets where criminals have not been convicted of any criminal offence. The draft Bill proposes to create a new right -

Mr Leslie:

I apologise for interrupting, but does the Member not mean "where persons have not been convicted of any criminal offence", rather than assuming that they are criminals?

Mr Maginness:

I thank the Member for his intervention, which is entirely proper. It focuses on the fact that there are people who have not been convicted, but who are suspected of being engaged in criminality. There may not be sufficient evidence to bring a prosecution, or a prosecution may fail. However, there may be sufficient evidence to bring a civil action against such people.

The Bill proposes to create a new right of civil recovery. That means that where it has not been possible to secure a criminal conviction, or it is thought that there is insufficient evidence to obtain such a conviction, the director of the agency will be able to recover or acquire the assets of a person where he can show to the civil standard of proof - that is, on the balance of probabilities - that such assets are the proceeds of crime.

Throughout the Committee's proceedings, the question was raised as to how that impacted upon a person's right to peacefully enjoy his property. Equally, many issues were raised relating to punishment without conviction, an area enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. Following detailed consideration of these matters - and a comprehensive submission was made by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission - we are content with the opinion that a person cannot consider as punishment the removal of assets to which he was not entitled in the first instance.

During the Committee's visit to Dublin, it was apparent that a number of legal challenges had been made to the existing legislation in the Republic, which is not dissimilar to our draft legislation. However, the Supreme Court in the Republic rejected such legal challenges on the basis that human rights were not being infringed.

I add one health warning: the Republic of Ireland has not yet brought the European Convention on Human Rights into its domestic law. Nonetheless, I am confident that what is proposed in the draft Bill will withstand any legal challenge on the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights. The draft Bill places some limitations on the right of recovery of the director; those should provide further safeguards. This part of the draft Bill is incomplete, and there are several issues on which we were unable to take a view. However, the evidence given by the Criminal Assets Bureau on the benefit of reaching legally binding agreements has convinced us that such provisions must be included in the draft Bill. A recommendation to that effect has been included in our report.

In addition to the right of civil recovery, the director will also be able to raise tax assessments as a means of recovering the proceeds of crime. It is envisaged that that will be the final route available to the director. Preference will be given to criminal confiscation proceedings, then to civil recovery proceedings and, finally, when all else fails, an individual's tax assessment could be raised. The use of that method of recovery by the Criminal Assets Bureau in Dublin has proven very effective. Figures provided by the bureau show that raising assessments has produced IR£33 million in the first four years of operation - an impressive figure. We welcome the inclusion of the provisions.

The draft Bill makes provision for three new powers to assist investigations into the whereabouts of the proceeds of crime. In addition to the production orders and search warrants already provided for under existing legislation, the draft Bill introduces disclosure orders. The power will be available only to the director of the new agency, who will be able to require a person to answer questions at interview, to provide information or produce documentation. An order can be issued against a person whose assets are under investigation or against a third party. Secondly, customer information orders will require banks and other financial institutions to provide the details of any accounts held by a person under investigation. Thirdly, account monitoring orders will require a bank or other financial institution to provide transaction information on a suspect account.

The second and third orders will be used collectively, one to identify the suspect accounts and the other to monitor those accounts. All five powers will be exercised under judicial authority. The draft Bill also seeks to amalgamate the current legislation and to remove the absurd distinction between drugs and non-drugs offences. We welcome the introduction of the new powers and the removal of that distinction.

The draft Bill will reform the definition of the criminal offence of money laundering, and it will remove the distinction between drugs and non-drugs offences in this regard. The draft Bill will also extend the financial institutions' duty to report suspicious transactions to the relevant authorities. We welcome those provisions.

The Bill will go a long way towards tackling the criminality that afflicts society. It will restore the confidence of the general public in the due process of law.

The Ad Hoc Committee endorses the draft Bill, which will provide the opportunity, through a multiagency approach, to recover the proceeds of crime from an ever more sophisticated group of criminals. Those criminals will no longer be able to act with impunity. Society in general will welcome any new legislation that tackles this serious problem and ends the scandal of criminals publicly flaunting their wealth and making a very frightening statement to society - that is, that crime actually does pay.

I submit the report to the Assembly and invite Members to give it their full endorsement. I support the motion.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee (Sir John Gorman):

I am grateful for the opportunity to say something on this matter - my own background includes law enforcement.

When the Committee visited Dublin, the Chairperson behaved with great perspicacity and dignity and impressed our hosts. I was struck, on that visit, by the co-operation of the various arms of Government. The gardaí, the Attorney General, Customs & Excise, the Inland Revenue and social services combined in a joint action in the interests of the public, keeping down crime and ensuring that criminals were not profiting from the community.

We might find that some arms of our Government are less communautaire in how they approach this problem. I hope that, as a consequence of Mr Straw's intentions and of the recommendation of this Ad Hoc Committee, we might see that sort of liaison, particularly in the intelligence field, which is particularly inspiring and aiding the Criminal Assets Bureau in the other part of the island.

I hope that, whatever may happen to other relationships, the Government of the Irish Republic and the Northern Ireland Assembly will collaborate fully in ensuring that both parts of this island work together in the accordance that we saw in Dublin. I am confident that this will be a most flourishing and useful activity in minimising the drug problem, and the money that goes into that. It will also help to combat the other difficulties with criminality and dishonesty that gain so much kudos and revenue for so many people in this country - not least in the paramilitary field. I support the Bill.

Mr Kane:

I welcome the draft legislation. It will be a great asset in bringing the criminal to task. A large number of individuals have led a very affluent lifestyle and are wealthy people who have lived off the community for 30 years. The entire community has suffered because of their bad deeds and will undoubtedly welcome the draft legislation. I commend the draft Bill to the House.

Mr McNamee:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom cupla pointe a dhéanamh faoi thuairisc an Choiste.

I welcome and support the report.

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I also welcome the fact that consultation took place when the Bill was in draft form. Some witnesses who gave evidence to the Committee stated that that procedure should be followed for other pieces of legislation, allowing the public an opportunity to contribute its views at an early stage, prior to legislation's coming to Parliament. However, some sections of the draft Bill, relating to the North of Ireland, are incomplete. Therefore, the Committee's report on the draft Bill can only be provisional upon the completion of the Bill.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission expressed concerns about the compatibility of the Bill with the European Convention on Human Rights. Legislation introduced in the United Kingdom should comply with the Convention. If the Bill is in contravention of the Convention, the human rights of the individual may not be protected for the purposes of the legislation.

We also have to consider the legal consequences of non-compliance of the Bill with the Convention. I support the concept that those who have acquired the proceeds of crime should be prevented from enjoying them. However, if the final Bill does not comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, it is open to challenge. If the Bill is not compliant and is successfully challenged in the European court, the whole purpose of the Bill will be undermined. Our report should deal with the issues raised.

(Madam Deputy Speaker [Ms Morrice] in the Chair)

As usual, the Chairman gave a broad introduction to the work of the Committee, and he referred to the Criminal Assets Bureau in Dublin. However, the European Convention on Human Rights has not yet been incorporated into the domestic law of that part of Ireland. Therefore the legislation in the South may be open to challenge. However, members of the Criminal Assets Bureau were confident that they could deal with any such challenge, given their operation and how they employ the legislation.

Potential for the final Bill to be in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights resides in assumptions which, under the draft provisions, are to be made when civil recovery is employed. The Criminal Assets Bureau felt that the definition of a person's having a criminal lifestyle was somewhat woolly.

Under European legislation, civil recovery could be viewed as a criminal proceeding. Therefore the Bill has the potential to contravene article 6 paragraph 2, articles 7 and 8 of the Convention, and article 1 of protocol 1 to the Convention. Due regard must be given to those comments to ensure that the final Bill is compliant with European legislation and that it can succeed in the purpose for which it was intended. Sir John Gorman referred to our enlightening and educational meeting with the Criminal Assets Bureau in Dublin.

The innovative interagency approach of the bureau was clearly seen. It is made up of people from the Garda Síochána, the Office of the Revenue Commissioners, the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, customs officials and others with professional expertise in law, accountancy and information technology. Those people remain in the employment of their respective bodies while working with the other elements of the Criminal Assets Bureau to pursue the recovery of the proceeds of crime and to assist in the investigation of the proceeds of crime. There are many lessons to be learned, and countries throughout the world are looking at the establishment and operation of the Criminal Assets Bureau.

The Criminal Assets Bureau has been successful in the recovery of the proceeds of crime and in relation to the taxation of those who have benefited from such proceeds. More importantly, the bureau has been successful because of the public's perception of it and the public's confidence in its operation. The public is satisfied that the bureau does what it is required to do. The success of the Criminal Assets Recovery Agency (CARA), which will be established under the Bill, will depend on public perception. It will depend on public confidence in the various bodies that will form part of the agency and in the future police service in this part of Ireland. Interestingly enough, "cara" is the Irish word for "friend", but CARA will not be the friend of a number of people.

It would be useful for the public to be aware of one item of evidence that was given to us. Det Supt Thompson of the RUC gave evidence to the Ad Hoc Committee, and he was questioned fairly thoroughly on the need for a Bill and an agency such as CARA. He was asked about the scale of criminal assets and their nature in this part of Ireland compared to those in other places. Det Supt Thompson said that, in relation to the possible origins of assets and property, the RUC would benefit from this legislation in the pursuit of approximately 180 identifiable people.

Det Supt Thompson was also asked whether those 180 people would be believed by the RUC to be from paramilitary organisations, other organisations, or working as individuals. Interestingly, he said that the majority of people whom the RUC would be interested in pursuing for the purpose of denying them the proceeds of crime were individuals who were working on their own behalf. It is also interesting that the scale of criminality and the extent of the proceeds of crime in this part of Ireland are much less significant than those in many other parts of the United Kingdom.

We can take some comfort from that. We often hear about the enormous scale of criminality and racketeering in the North, so it was some relief to hear that it is not as bad as people make out.

I welcome the report, even though essential parts of it have yet to be drafted.

Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Close:

In many respects, the proposed Bill builds on and adds to the report of another Ad Hoc Committee - the one set up to look into the draft Financial Investigations (Northern Ireland) Order 2001. Its aims are rather similar, and its targets are the same. We are aiming to curb the lifestyle of those who are financed by illegal, illegitimate and ill-gotten gains. The aim of the Proceeds of Crime Bill, as with the 2001 Order, is to hit those individuals in their pockets, where it hurts.

Society needs the necessary legal frameworks to deny these parasites the trappings of their ill-gotten gains and sordid deals. The Assembly must be seen to be making real progress in cleaning up society.

Mr Paisley Jnr:

Does the Member agree that to continue his principle and logic, extending the trappings of Government to certain criminals is also unfair and that the logic that he has rightly applied to this legislation should apply to Government and should, therefore, exclude Sinn Féin/IRA from it?

Mr Close:

There is one huge difference between what the Member says and reality. Not for the first time, the Member who has just spoken is somewhat removed from reality. The reality is that those who are in the Government of Northern Ireland, by way of positions in the Executive, are there by the express will and desire of the people of Northern Ireland. That is democracy. The Member, and a number of other Members, may not like it, but the will and the voice of the people must always be supreme.

Democracy does not enter the equation when we are dealing with criminals and those who have milked society through their criminal activity. Criminals want to deny democracy. I want to see society cleared of those people who benefit from ill-gotten gains. Society wants to see the drug barons who profit from the addiction of helpless individuals stripped of their illegal gains. Society wants to see a cracking-down on the money launderers, the fuel cheats and the tobacco fraudsters. They must be made amenable and accountable for their tax evasion, ill-gotten fat bank accounts, foreign holidays, flashy cars and large houses in Northern Ireland and on the Continent.

Over the years, criminals - and what I would refer to as the "smart alec" - have become more sophisticated. Their methods have become more subtle. It is to be regretted that those who are charged with the responsibility of cleaning up society and trying to make these individuals amenable to the law have been losing the battle to a large degree. That is why those who are intent on crimes such as drug smuggling see it as relatively easy pickings.

The proposed Bill goes some way towards redressing the imbalance that is currently in vogue. It is important that innovative thinking be given its head and that new measures be taken and supported by society to help to clean it up. In that respect, I particularly welcome the views of the Human Rights Commission. It is supportive of the measures and suggestions that are being put forward.

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The Bill will establish a Criminal Assets Recovery Agency which will be able to pursue criminal assets in several ways: the confiscation of assets of convicted criminals; the recovery of assets through civil proceedings; and the taxation of persons suspected of having benefited from criminal activity. Such a joined-up approach, which the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of the Committee have already referred to, is vitally important. I endorse the comments of those who referred to our visit to the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) in the South of Ireland. If you ever needed proof of the success of the CAB you have only to look at the figures. The CAB in the South recognises that crime knows no barriers and cuts across all facets of society, and its impressive figures make it patently clear that there is a need for a joined-up approach.

If we are going to make a real impact in Northern Ireland on the task confronting the Criminal Assets Recovery Agency, adequate resources must be made available. We touch upon these issues in the report's recommendations. However, it is essential that the message reaches the Secretary of State, and through him, the Home Secretary, that Northern Ireland requires the resources to ensure that criminal activity is nipped in the bud and is not given the opportunity to become a many-headed monster. The resources must be made available from day one. The person who is put in charge of the agency in Northern Ireland must be of assistant director status at least and be fully acquainted with Northern Ireland, its people and its organisations. I advocate that the person should be from, and have his roots in, Northern Ireland.

When we took evidence from the police, they pointed out that the effects of drug trafficking and acquisitive crime that is of a highly profitable nature should not be underestimated, and I endorse that view. The impact of such crimes on society, business and individual victims, particularly where organised criminality is involved, has been widely publicised. There is no good argument for allowing individuals to profit from their illegal activities, and it is right that criminals should have their ill-gotten gains taken away. I hope that the House and society will say "Hear, hear" to those comments.

The police also said that it is estimated that 180 people in Northern Ireland have substantial assets from criminal activity. The House must call for those people to be put out of business.

HM Customs and Excise calculate lost revenue in, for example, oil fraud to be around £100 million in 1998. Many people, particularly legitimate petrol retailers who have been put out of business throughout Northern Ireland, would say that that figure is only the tip of the iceberg. New powers are needed to deal with such illegality. The Northern Ireland economy is suffering from a massive haemorrhage because of criminal activity. It is incumbent upon all of us to make sure that the necessary steps are taken and the necessary laws put in place to stop the haemorrhaging.

I endorse the report and congratulate the Chairperson, the Committee members and particularly the staff of the Committee for the excellent work that they did preparing the report in the relatively short time that was available.

Mr Ervine:

I concur with Mr Close's comments about the Chairman, the Committee members and especially the Committee staff. This is a sterling piece of work, and when the legislation eventually comes into effect, it will change our lives - although you would not guess that by the numbers in the Chamber today. It will be a turning point in Northern Ireland. This legislation will allow us to be proactive in the battle against crime and believe that we can win when we continue a battle that we have been fighting with our hands tied behind our backs.

Our fear is that, when legislation is created, people will either not understand it or feel that they are not affected by it. This piece of legislation will most definitely be understood by those who are watching many of the 180 people previously mentioned as masquerading as legitimate businesspeople. Very often they live in middle-class areas and appear to be respectable. Others live in small working-class housing estates, and their wealth can be seen, although their neighbours may not realise that some of the oil paintings are so valuable that they are part of money laundering.

As well as removing assets from those people who have benefited shamefully from crime, the Criminal Assets Recovery Agency will have to deal with those who have assisted them. Legitimate businesspeople, or people who perceive themselves as such, who assist in the laundering of money, should desist, because under this legislation, they will be caught. I have absolutely no doubt of that.

I am not merely pleased with the Bill, I am frankly delighted with it. It will change the whole atmosphere. Ordinary people who live literally yards from me have been watching what goes on around them and asking "Why can somebody not do something about this?". The sterling work carried out by the police and other members of the security services has not been enough to stem the tide of crime. It will be evident quite soon that it is not simply the diligence of individual officers that is important; rather it is the tools with which they have to work. The potential tools in this legislation are quite wonderful and will benefit the security services immensely.

We have heard from those who have visited the Criminal Assets Bureau in Dublin that the degree of public confidence there increased massively when people saw how the bureau goes about its business. Is that not something that we need here? Do we not need to know that someone will protect us and do something to those bad people who are polluting our children?

I commend the police and the Human Rights Commission for their evidence. The police identified approximately 180 people who are, I suppose, quite different in type. There is the gangster who would be a gangster regardless of where he came from. Then there are others who have seen the capacity to make easy money without any constraint. Perhaps there are members of paramilitary organisations who follow the path of benefiting themselves rather than the society that they say they serve. I have watched these people grow and amass a wealth that brings with it power. Today I delight in the fact that that wealth and power have become their Achilles heel.

It is the very way in which we will identify them; it is the very way in which society already identifies them; and it is the very way in which CARA will put them behind bars - or at least, I hope, remove their assets.

We learned about the situation in South Africa, where the security services felt that their hands were tied. They could arrest the criminal, but the criminal accepted that consequence to be how life is. They took the attitude that because they live such a life, they might get caught, they would go to jail, and then they would get out. As the story goes, they accepted their arrest and imprisonment in a very macho way. However, when their assets were seized - their houses, cars, and their capacity to send their children to private schools - when this all came tumbling down around their ears they cried in the dock. There is significance in that story for those who perpetrate ills on this society.

I will go further and say that patriotism is very often the last refuge of a scoundrel. We have watched the old war movies in which there was always a black marketeer. We have seen circumstances in which those in positions of privilege or importance have abused their position. There are paramilitarists in Northern Ireland - I am not sure that we should ever refer to them as Loyalists or, indeed, Republicans - who are a blight on this society. Some will argue that all paramilitarists are a blight on this society - they will say that publicly, but not necessarily in private. However, at what point does society recognise someone to be a chancer, or, as my Colleague described it, a "smart alec"? By this I mean those who say that they are one thing, but who are really involved in it to seek all they can get for themselves.

Members, and many people outside this Chamber, can identify those smart alecs in seconds, in their own areas and communities. There is no longer an excuse for the authorities' failure to identify them also and to follow this problem through to its logical conclusion by stripping from these people the single thing that allows them to ply their trade in my community - the suggestion that they function on behalf of the community. This proposed legislation would create the circumstances by which those people will cease to be a blight on us.

The American Government with its helicopter gunships cannot stop people from taking drugs. They will try, as will other Governments, to make it more difficult for the criminals involved. That is what I advocate that we do, and the United Kingdom Government, through this legislation, will undoubtedly make things logistically difficult.

However, what is really needed to deal with the issue of drugs, which is only one element dealt with in this Bill, is an education programme to involve people in what is happening in their lives. We need to inform adults, or those who are not au fait with the drug culture, of what is happening to their children, and what the effects of this will be. This will be not only about legislation. Society will have to do a great deal, and I look forward to the introduction of the legislation which will help us deal with it.

Oil and cigarette smuggling are detrimental to the Exchequer, and potentially, they give criminals money with which to do bad things. However, my fear is that the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, will be more concerned with stopping the loss of revenue on fuel and cigarettes, rather than ensuring that CARA gets the full resources to destroy those who take life through drugs. My fear is that political direction will be CARA's one Achilles heel. Three Colleagues have already identified the importance of an independent director for CARA - one who is based in Northern Ireland and who preferably has an experience and understanding of the people here. This would create a genuine independence. The director of CARA would determine the direction in which that organisation would move, and political direction based on concerns about loss of revenue would not be the issue.

If the director of CARA had to measure the loss of revenue against children's deaths, the pollution of our society, the massive increase in heroin use and the lives lost through heroin in north Antrim, it would become simple. And where there is one heroin addict, there is one dealer, then two, then three, and so on. There are 59,000 people in the Ballymena borough and hundreds of heroin addicts. Middle-class people, however, cover up the problem because of their sense of shame and hurt, so we do not have a clear picture of what is happening in the area. Our choice has to be the destruction of those who destroy other people's lives.

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I will, no doubt, be accused of hypocrisy, but it is important that the power and authority, skill and ability that will undoubtedly be pulled together to create CARA be directed towards the destruction of those who pollute society and cause unbearable pain. We may not be as bad as other places yet, but we should take the proposals on board. I commend the work of the Committee and the report.

Mr Leslie:

I am pleased that we are debating these important measures. I had feared that the issue would not receive due attention. This is an important piece of legislation, which may be enforced in Northern Ireland before the rest of the United Kingdom, given that it can go through as an Order in Council because it is a reserved matter. However, there are certain drawbacks in being a guinea pig, and it may be in a less refined form when it becomes operable here. Nevertheless, for the reasons that Mr Ervine has outlined, Northern Ireland society will be pleased to see it in force.

I have a slight caveat, however, I acknowledge that the structure of the law needs to be adjusted in accordance with the changing nature of crime. We are forced to adopt our own systems to combat the power of those who are able to subvert the system of justice and acquire huge assets by unlawful means. However, should this legislation hit the wrong target, the affected person would be able to show that the legislation was repressive. That may be true, but it is necessary in the circumstances. The Bill should be introduced as emergency legislation, perhaps for an initial period of three to five years and then renewed by Parliament at two-yearly intervals, so that Parliament has to examine the legislation continuously and be aware of how it is working. Having taken the decision to introduce legislation of this kind, Parliament must be robust and ensure that it works in the way that Members have described this morning.

I noted with concern the comments made by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission about a potential clash with that legislation. I note that the Committee has said that depriving someone of assets to which he was not entitled does not constitute a punishment. I also note that the Human Rights Commission said that Parliament could expressly decide that it wanted to proceed in a way that was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Even if Parliament did so proceed, a successful challenge could be mounted through the European Court of Human Rights.

I imagine that Parliament would not wish to proceed in such a manner, as that would be conceding the point. It would probably prefer to let the point emerge - if it were going to emerge - when someone took a case. There is a potential difficulty there, but I trust that, if it should reach that stage, the European Court would prove to be robust, although that again raises the issue of why Her Majesty's Government put Parliament in the position of being subject to a higher authority in Europe. It is quite extraordinary, and the consequences of that decision will have a greater and more frequent impact on us.

Mr Ervine:

The Member may not be aware of it, but 43 countries are attempting to create - or have created - similar legislation. That adds to our capacity to control the problem, not only in our country but beyond our borders. In this instance, belonging to Europe will not be at all detrimental.

Mr Leslie:

I was not aware of that fact; it is a source of some comfort. In its submission, the RUC said that it was vital that sufficient human resources be made available to allow CARA to operate effectively. A considerable amount of cash will be needed. If one plans to mount a series of High Court actions, one must be sure that there are sufficient resources to do so to the best of one's ability, employing the best legal counsel. A figure of £54 million for the UK for three years has been identified as the funding that would be made available to CARA. I am unable to judge whether that is a lot or a little. It sounds like a large amount, but it could diminish quickly. I endorse Mr Ervine's view that there must be sufficient assets to do the job. A regular review by Parliament of the progress made under the Bill would help to highlight that issue, among others.

Is £54 million a net figure? If CARA is successful in recovering assets acquired through criminal activity, there will be proceeds. What will happen to those proceeds? Will they be absorbed into the funding of the agency? That might be a reasonable thing to do, and it would have the highly satisfactory effect that people found by the High Court to have acquired assets illegally would be financing their further prosecution. Were the agency to be so successful as to recover hundreds of millions of pounds, what would be done with that money? Again, I echo Mr Ervine's concerns; I would like to see the money being used to ensure that CARA is properly funded and returned to the part of society that lost it in the first place. Again, that would greatly add to the public's satisfaction with this legislation.

I note that there is to be a memorandum of understanding involving the director of CARA, the Chief Constable of the RUC and the Director of Public Prosecutions, and I wonder whether some sort of protocol should also be in place with the other agencies that have been mentioned. It would be most unfortunate if we were to find a turf war going on. There must be some risk that that might be the case, although I have noted the comments of my Colleague, Sir John Gorman, about the high degree of co-operation that seems to have been achieved in Dublin. It would be most unfortunate if, instead of the Inland Revenue's being an instrument of CARA, it were to appear that CARA had become an instrument of the Inland Revenue. That would work heavily against the effectiveness of the operation.

I suspect that it is better to keep the definition of criminal lifestyle rather woolly and to give the courts the discretion to interpret it, although you run the risk that the courts will start off with a narrow interpretation that will become a precedent. I hope that Parliament will address that matter in some detail and work out whether it would be better to try to define the term without running the risk of a narrow definition allowing a more imaginative criminal to work outside its scope.

It was noted in the report that the sorts of people with whom we are dealing are exceedingly entrepreneurial in their activities, and we must be aware that the nature of the crime can continue to develop. We should bear in mind an outstanding early example of proceeding tangentially - Al Capone was not put in prison for smuggling alcohol but for income tax evasion.

Finally, I note that the Bill proposes to limit the director of CARA's activities in a number of ways, one of which is to say that he will have a claim on actual criminal proceeds but not the respondent's other property. If the money has been efficiently laundered it would be very hard to identify what was what. The section on money laundering simply set out to make it easier to establish the offence of money laundering. Parliament needs to be careful about the restrictions on the claims that can be made by the director, so as to ensure that a highly entrepreneurial manipulator of criminally- acquired assets does not manage to evade the rules that have been put in place.

In conclusion, the director of CARA will have a key and very responsible role, and I imagine that there might be a number of people from Northern Ireland recently retired from a career in law enforcement who might be very suitable candidates for that job for the whole of the United Kingdom.

Mr O'Connor:

I welcome this report. I had the privilege of deputising for Mr Attwood at a Committee meeting in Dublin. It opened my eyes and gave me hope when I saw that these people can be taken down a peg or two. The people who are purveying death to the children of Northern Ireland can be brought down because you hit them where it really hurts - in their hip pockets.

1.15 pm

I believe that, as Mr Leslie said, we have to find a high-water mark and a low-water mark in order to know the bounds of what can and cannot be done. In the context of the European human rights legislation excerpted in Annex A of the report, this is not a punishment. It is a recovery of assets that they should not have had in the first place.


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