Power of Police Authority to Retain Unclaimed Property

Orders of the Day — Police (Property) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:33 pm on 7 February 1997.

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Photo of Mr Piers Merchant Mr Piers Merchant , Beckenham 12:33, 7 February 1997

I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 1, line 10, leave out 'a year' and insert '18 months'.

This simple and straightforward amendment seeks to substitute for the period of 12 months the period of 18 months in relation to the time for which the police have to keep property before they can move to acquire it as property in their own name. This is partially a probing amendment to ascertain why the figure of 12 months is in the Bill, but I shall also advance arguments as to why the period should preferably be longer.

By way of explanation, this sub-paragraph is part of a number of conditions that the Bill would impose on the police before they are able to exercise a new right of acquiring ownership of property that has fallen into their possession. Such property may have been forfeited or may otherwise have come into police hands. As we all know, the police acquire a vast amount of property as part of their daily work. Of course they cannot for ever act as custodians of that and decisions must be made on disposing of it in one way or another.

Under the Police (Property) Act 1897, the police have the power to auction this property. That was clarified by regulations passed in 1975. The police do not have the power at present to keep the property even if it would clearly be of great benefit to them. The Bill aims to ensure that they have that power.

Photo of Mr Tim Smith Mr Tim Smith , Beaconsfield

How long do the police have to keep property under the 1897 legislation before they can auction it?

Photo of Mr Piers Merchant Mr Piers Merchant , Beckenham

I was going to come to that point, but I will answer it directly as my hon. Friend asks about it now. Under the 1897 Act—in fact, I believe that it is under the 1975 regulations—the police have to keep property for 12 months before they are able to auction it, although it is six months for property forfeited, so there is a different time scale. However, if they seek to acquire it for themselves rather than to auction it, there is a reason why the period should be different, which I will move on to later.

First, the period of 12 months strikes me as arbitrary, even under the 1897 Act and certainly in the Bill. One needs to take into account various factors that might make a forceful argument for making the period longer. The real owner—the original owner, if you like—of the goods that have passed into police hands needs to be afforded some time to assert his rightful claim. We must take into account factors such as possible illness, possible period abroad, and moving out of the region where the property was originally taken by the police for one reason or another, whether it was lost or part of the proceeds of a crime.

The person who originally owned the property might have moved out of the region and it might have taken time for him to discover where the property was and how to reassert his rights to claim that property, so there are reasons why a period needs to be allowed. In a modern world where people travel much more and where sometimes information from the region where the person used to live takes considerable time to reach him, we might talk in terms of a longer period than that in the Bill.

The second and final argument was touched on, perhaps without his realising it, by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith). There is a distinction between the police auctioning goods which have come into their hands and acquiring them, and this is recognised by the fact that the power does not exist at present. Even if the Bill were passed, the power would be used sparingly.

The difference is simple. The police must be seen to be absolutely above criticism when it comes to handling other people's property. Therefore, the regulations need to be tight. It is one thing when goods are being auctioned; when property is to be acquired by the police, it is a different question. It must be clear to all concerned that the police are not in any way misusing their powers to obtain property which could be useful to them. I am sure that the police would never dream of doing mat, but we must make sure by regulation that no one thinks that. For that reason, an extra precaution needs to be put on the police in this Bill, and a period of 18 months will do that.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Minister of State (Home Office)

Perhaps it would be helpful if I speak now to indicate the view of the Government in case my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) is tempted to accede to the amendment. I am afraid that I hope to persuade him otherwise.

The effect of this amendment would be to require property to remain in the possession of the police for 18 months before it could be retained on the decision of the police authority for use by the police. Section 2(3) of the Police (Property) Act 1897 provides that property which has come into the possession of the police in connection with their investigation of a suspected offence may be disposed of after it has remained in the possession of the police for a year. This is to allow time for a person claiming to be the owner of the property to apply to the court for an order for the delivery of the property, as provided for under section I of the Police (Property) Act 1897.

If property can be disposed of after 12 months, I see no reason why a decision to retain an item should not be taken after it has remained in the possession of the police for 12 months. The property could be sold after 12 months and completely disappear from view. It would not be possible to trace it. So it does not make sense to allow a longer period of time for a claim to be made in respect of property which is to be retained in the ownership of the police authority for use by the police force.

After a suitable period of time to allow the owner to make a claim, it is right that a decision should be made about the future ownership of the property. If no period were set, the property would have to be kept by the police indefinitely, and this would lead to considerable expense in terms of storage and maintenance. This is a matter of judgment, and I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant), but I believe that 12 months is the right period of time. It is neither too long nor too short. If property had to be retained by the police for 18 months before it could be retained or otherwise disposed of, it would place an additional burden on the police with no real benefit to anyone.

Photo of Mr Tim Smith Mr Tim Smith , Beaconsfield

How much unclaimed property do the police have in their possession? How much room does it take up? What burden is it placing on the police at the moment? To what extent would that burden be increased if we were to accept the amendment?

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Minister of State (Home Office)

I cannot give my hon. Friend an exact inventory of the amount of property that the police have around the country, but it can be considerable. Tracing owners of lost property and getting better property marking systems on to computer are priorities for police forces around the country. I consider it a tragedy—as do the police—that after excellent raids such as Bumblebee, the police can fill warehouses with stolen silver and property which is almost impossible to return because it is not properly marked with a post code. There are warehouses full of JCBs, crawlers and other plant which are impossible to return because plant has no unique vehicle identification numbering system. A Home Office Committee, which I started a year ago, has met plant operators and others to try to draw up security schemes for plant similar to those used by the motor industry Vauxhall led the way in this area, with better and safer locks. If we are not to have more warehouses full of unreturned property, it is absolutely vital that all those in the plant and machinery industries take their responsibilities seriously, as car manufacturers have done.

The short answer to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) is that, if police must retain current amounts of property for 18 instead of 12 months, there will, of course, be a 50 per cent. increase on space requirements. I have better uses for police stations than to fill them with property—which I should like to be returned to owners or disposed of as soon as possible.

Amendment No. 6 proposes an 18-month period, which is inconsistent with the 12-month period specified in section 2(3) of the 1897 Act. I have explained to my hon. Friends why I think that the period should be 12 months and why the Bill is correct. Therefore, I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford, the Bill's promoter, not to accept the amendment, and I urge the Committee to reject it.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett , Erith and Crayford 12:45, 7 February 1997

I am grateful for an opportunity to say a few words on the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant)—who is a neighbour, and a very good neighbour, to my constituency in south-east London—for giving us some ammunition and an opportunity to rethink the issue. He and I normally agree on politics, on government and on many other matters but I must disappoint him on this occasion and say that I cannot accept his argument or his amendment.

My right hon. Friend the Minister—who I am delighted to have with us today—has made a very powerful case. In London, under the Metropolitan police, there have been some very successful trawls—such as Bumblebee, which he highlighted—to recover property. It would not be in the interests of the police or of the public if the police had to keep that property for a further six months before they could dispose of it. Time is important to the police, and they have a very difficult and important job to do. Our duty is to help them, and I believe that all hon. Members believe that they should be supported.

I think that 12 months, as specified in the Bill, is a fair and reasonable time for people to come forward to claim their property, if they want to do so. It would be wrong to change that provision now, not only because of the practical difficulties caused to the police, but because it would be out of line with the 1897 Act, which originally set the 12-month period. Therefore, I cannot accept the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham. It has given us an opportunity to highlight the reason why we wanted the 12-month period in the Bill, but I very much hope that he will withdraw it.

Photo of Mr Piers Merchant Mr Piers Merchant , Beckenham

I have listened very carefully and with great interest to my right hon. Friend the Minister and to my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett). Having had an opportunity—which the House has not previously had—to hear why a 12-month period was originally specified in the Bill, I appreciate why those arguments are convincing. I was particularly convinced by the arguments that the police should not be custodians of warehouses, and that their very success in cracking down on crime has resulted in the problem of having to look after such large quantities of property. I also appreciate the argument that property should be disposed of as soon as reasonably proper.

After hearing those arguments, I think that the 12-month period is acceptable. Therefore, on that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 1 to 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.