Clause 72

Serious Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 10 July 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

Powers to seize property to which restraint orders apply

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

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

We are extending various powers to accredited financial investigators that are currently enjoyed by police officers under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, and I am cautious whenever I see a proposal that powers of seizure should be entrusted to somebody other than a police officer. We need some clarification on why that is happening in this case and what safeguards exist.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I will speak to clause 72 and add points that are relevant to one or two of the following clauses. I am aware that the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham tabled amendments to leave out this and the subsequent three clauses. As he said, those clauses provide for accredited financial investigators to act under the powers of the 2002 Act. Such investigators already have access to an array of powers: investigating money laundering; investigating the extent and the whereabouts of a suspect’s benefits of crime; and, applying for an order to restrain a person’s assets. Those powers have proved a great success.

The Government recognise the important contribution of the agencies for which such investigators work to the rise in the value of money recovered from criminals. An extension of those powers beyond the police and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to others, such as the Serious Fraud Office, fraud investigators in the Department for Work and Pensions and the immigration service, has strengthened our overall capacity in the recovery of the proceeds of crime. The important point is that we are trying to improve our capacity to recover the proceeds of crime from people who are seeking to gain from criminal activity.

Currently, appropriately accredited financial investigators can apply for restraint orders. Those are interim orders to freeze property and are made in anticipation of a confiscation order following conviction. Police and customs  officers have separate powers to seize property, subject to a restraint order, to prevent its removal from their jurisdiction. The clause will extend the powers of accredited financial investigators, giving them the ability to seize such property.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I intervene at this point only because the Minister is nearing the end of his notes. What troubles me is the identity of the accredited financial investigator. We are referred to section 435 of the 2002 Act, which I have here. However, when I go to that section, I find no definition of who the accredited financial investigator is. I tell the Minister that the Committee would be much happier if it knew something about the identity of those individuals who are so undesignated.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman anticipates my remarks. The accredited financial investigators will first undergo training by the National Policing Improvement Agency, which will then accredit them and monitor their performance. Hon. Members will be aware that other clauses move the responsibility for training financial investigators from the Assets Recovery Agency to the National Policing Improvement Agency. Therefore, they will be trained and accredited by the NPIA, will be expected to conform to a code of practice and will be monitored in carrying out their duties. Of course, as well as accrediting them, it will be perfectly possible for the NPIA to take away that accreditation. Its responsibility, therefore, is to accredit people; and, if they go through the appropriate training and are accredited, they will be able to exercise those powers. I am coming to a point that may answer the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s next question.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

It may be that I anticipate the next answer. The Minister has told us who will train the financial investigators, and I am jolly glad to know that. But where are they seated; are they private sector characters or are they seated in public organisations? At the moment I do not have a sense of who will employ, instruct and pay them, on whose behalf they will act, and where they are to be found.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

As I have said, the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s incisive mind, which we have all come to respect, absolutely anticipates my next remarks. An accredited financial investigator will need to be a member of the staff of a body listed by order by the Secretary of State. Those are public bodies that have a criminal investigation role. They include the Financial Services Authority, the Environment Agency and fraud investigators from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In answer to his point, the accredited financial investigator will need to be a member of such a body, as designated by order by the Secretary of State.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

May I sound a word of caution? I listened to the organisations listed by the Minister and I think that we are moving quite a long way from law enforcement agencies. For example, he mentioned some of the DEFRA organisations and the Environment Agency. While they may have some enforcement role to perform, we are moving quite a long way from organisations whose  primary responsibility is the enforcement of criminal law. I am not going to oppose the measure, but I do think that there is a problem, and we need to watch carefully those whom he has designated.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right. We all want to recover the proceeds of crime from individuals, and he is quite right to alert the Committee to the extension of powers and sound a note of caution. I give the reassurance that we will, of course, monitor how those powers are used. We expect the NPIA to take its responsibilities very seriously, as it will be the regulatory body for the training of those accredited financial investigators.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 72 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 73 ordered to stand part of the Bill.