Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
I suppose we should be grateful that the Government have deigned to engage Parliament in its much heralded war against terrorism. After all, judging by the stream of policy announcements made by the Home Office to favoured newspapers in recent weeks, a stranger to House procedures might conclude that the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs and the Home Secretary had unfettered authority over domestic affairs.
First, we have seen the nonsense of proposals for compulsory identity cards for all. It was then unilaterally announced that there will be a seven-year sentence for anthrax hoaxers, and 10 days ago it was decided that incitement to religious hatred would be made a criminal offence. Perhaps this debate, and I hope others in the future, will be a timely reminder to the Home Office that we live in a parliamentary democracy.
I may be one of only 166 Members of the official Opposition, but I am certain that the people of Cities of London and Westminster sent me to this place to stand up for the ancient freedoms of the people of this country and to hold this increasingly illiberal and intolerant Government to account. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may laugh. I realise that, whatever I say today, this Bill will almost certainly become law in some form or other, but I hope that there will be careful scrutiny in Committee. I know that in the years ahead, I shall look back upon my contribution to this debate with a sense of honour, whereas I suspect that many Labour Members will feel a sense of shame when they realise how they have allowed themselves to so cravenly approve many of the measures.
I should remind the House that this legislation was originally published as long ago as March and was intended to prevent criminals from laundering the proceeds of their offences.
Stephen Hesford (Wirral West) (Lab)
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I want to get on.
The now apparently indispensable measures that target the financiers of terror were added only as an afterthought. Last week’s press release – this goes back to a point made by the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) – made it clear that the Government intend this legislation to deprive international drug barons of their ill-gotten gains. Apparently, the top five Mr. Bigs at large have illicitly amassed some £204 million in assets. On that basis, one might ask what objection any reasonable person would have to these measures.
As ever with this Government, the devil is in the detail. The proposed scope of this Bill goes considerably beyond the handful of multi-millionaire crime bosses. In effect, it allows the State virtually a free rein to investigate the financial affairs of each and every one of us, placing the burden upon the individual to explain his every economic action.
Politicians have an overriding responsibility, especially during times of international crisis, to resist taking a populist approach to appease the understandable public demand for swift action against crime. After the appalling terrorist outrages of 11 September, I entirely understand the temptation facing the Government to introduce a whole raft of new laws – part of this was drafted post-11 September – to pacify a nerve-racked population. That temptation should be firmly resisted. Equally, amid the current uncertainty surrounding our military action on foreign soil, I can appreciate the fact that the Government find themselves under intense pressure to be seen to be doing something on the home front.
I represent an inner-city seat in the centre of the capital and I accept, as I think we all do, that we will have to grow accustomed to wider surveillance of certain groups of people in our country. That may involve tougher laws on money laundering and other things. However, it does not justify the wholesale erosion of our liberties that is heralded by the Bill.
The traditional values of freedom and tolerance, which were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), have underpinned our open society. The implicit attack upon the presumption of innocence that is contained in the Bill will go a considerable way to dismantling those democratic freedoms, which so many of us hold close to our heart.
My party recognises the importance of fostering the values of individual responsibility and self-determination in our fellow countrymen. Many of those coming to our country from abroad do so from nations where all authority flows from a centralised state and where all too little reliance is placed on individuals having the freedom to live their life free from the demands of officialdom.
The Bill proposes to confiscate the assets of people who may have been convicted of no crime at all. As many hon. Members have said, the mechanism of the Assets Recovery Agency involves the introduction of the use of presumptions about a person’s past conduct as a “criminal lifestyle”. On that basis alone, an individual’s assets may be confiscated on the grounds that it can safely be presumed that they must be the proceeds of crime. The presumption of innocence, which is at the centre of the rule of law, is thus replaced by the notion that the police and other authorities “know” that the accused is guilty.
Worse still, the Bill introduces into English law the entirely novel concept of “unaccountable wealth”. If you or I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, cannot explain the source of our income, the state will apparently have the authority to confiscate assets, either directly or by means of punitive taxation. As if those presumptions were not bad enough – we must remember that this applies to people who may not have been convicted of anything – the ability to remove people’s assets will be on the basis not of the criminal test of proof “beyond reasonable doubt”, but on the civil test of the “balance of probabilities”. In essence, a criminal sanction will be imposed without the normal safeguards.
As has been mentioned by a number of Labour Members, these provisions were originally directed specifically at the proceeds of drug-related crime. However, we must look carefully because, as was made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset, the civil forfeiture regime has been extended to apply to all offences.
I have the privilege of representing Cities of London and Westminster and, as had been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), I must report to the House that there has been considerable disquiet in the financial services community as to the likely effect of the money-laundering provisions in part 7 of the Bill. Although this may stretch the incredulity of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson), under the current regulations, bankers, lawyers and accountants are already under an obligation to report to the police any suspicions they may have about someone’s financial assets. That was made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight). Indeed, failure to do so amounts to an offence under various money-laundering regulations. However, the courts still have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a financial intermediary knew of or suspected money laundering.
These provisions, particularly clause 324, severely dilute the burden of proof. In future, a prosecution will be upheld if a judge determines that a professional adviser should objectively have had reasonable grounds for suspecting that another person was engaged in money laundering. It strikes me that that goes to the very heart of the client-professional adviser relationship. Such relationships should be based upon mutual trust, yet these regulations put an almost impossible burden on the very scrupulous and ethical professional whom the police should be trying to engage in co-operation over the most serious and flagrant instances of criminal wrongdoing. Instead, as soon as a lawyer or accountant passes on suspicions to police – he will be guilty of an offence if he fails to do so even when there are merely reasonable grounds for suspecting that money laundering has taken place – professional ethics will prevent him from continuing to deal with that client’s affairs and he will not be able to alert the client to the fact that he has made a report to the police.
As well as eroding the sense of trust that underpins any professional relationship, it is fair to say that in the sphere of financial services the Bill will create a community of informants. It will undermine the essence of professional relationships and will involve bureaucratic procedure that will not come cheap. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield pointed out, all organisations in the financial services industry will now face the enormous cost of employing an army of compliance officers and other internal regulators. That flies in the face of the City’s attempts to remain highly competitive in the fast-moving global market of financial services and adds a further significant layer of regulation – there has been a significant amount of regulation recently – at a point in the economic cycle when the City is already under intense pressure over profit margins.
I realise that we are dealing with many issues, but I shall concentrate on the money-laundering provisions. There are some serious practical considerations that suggest that some of the money-laundering provisions might be unlikely to be effective against terrorists. There is a key difference between terrorism and organised crime such as that involving drug barons. Drug barons usually try to obtain their funds illegally and seek to use the banking system to conceal that fact whereas, by contrast, terrorists often acquire their funds by entirely legitimate means.
Osama bin Laden, for example, is the son of a wealthy industrialist and built up a considerable fortune not only by means of political donation but by engaging in large-scale Government contracts. There is little to suggest that the funding of his sophisticated network of international terrorism would necessarily fall foul of the Bill’s money-laundering provisions.
It seems that the likely effect of many of the Bill’s provisions would be to add a significant regulatory burden to our financial services industry. It would also work to dissuade potential depositors from using City of London institutions and would shroud our entire financial sector in an atmosphere of mutual distrust. It would do that while failing to have a serious impact on the funding of global terrorism.
Contrary to what the Government tell us, none of the provisions will make Britain a remotely safer place: international terrorism will continue to evade with ease the money-laundering provisions and many of the Bill’s other provisions. I believe also that the most prolific drug barons will continue to find the wherewithal to escape the clutches of state control.
Like many Opposition Members, I have been instinctively suspicious of many of the often self-serving arguments of civil libertarians. However much the Home Office likes to try to persuade us that this Bill which it now seeks to rush through Parliament will curtail only the legal rights of terrorists, drugs barons and their associates, I implore hon. Members on both sides of the House to consider carefully before approving this barrage of ill-thought-through and draconian measures.
One should remember that when a state adopts draconian powers against strangers today, it will use them against friends tomorrow and against oneself the day after that. In a world in which the influence of lawyers seems to be ever more intrusive –
I thought I might receive praise on that point alone from the hon. Gentleman.
No one is beyond redemption.
Perhaps I should make it clear that I too am a former lawyer. All that, however, was some years ago.
In a world in which lawyers’ influence seems to be ever more intrusive, it is easy to be dismissive of a highbrow defence of the rule of law. However, it is especially in times of such national crisis that the rights of the individual must be defended with particular vigour.