Power of Police Authority to Retain Unclaimed Property

Part of 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 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.