The effect of the first two amendments, amendment No. 121 being consequential on amendment No. 120, would be to extend from six to 12 months the period during which a magistrates court may make an order to return property to its owner. It is worth the Committee, and Ministers in particular, considering what constitutes a reasonable length of time during which somebody can claim back their property from the Government. I am sure that it is accepted on both sides of the Committee that the Government cannot be expected to hold on to a person’s property for an inordinate length of time or for an indefinite period. Clearly there has to be a cut-off point, but what is a reasonable cut-off point? We do not believe that extending that period from six to 12 months puts an extreme or disproportionate burden on the administration of justice.
There are positive arguments in favour of such an extension. It is quite likely that some people who have their property seized in connection with immigration offences, and might be entitled to it back, are some of the poorest, most vulnerable people in society. Previously, we have had some interesting exchanges about whether the force of the law is aimed at falling more on employers of illegal workers rather than the illegal workers themselves. There has been a fair degree of consensus that it is both more useful and more just to tackle the employers. It is also more efficient, as that would be the way to stop most illegal working. It is nevertheless unarguable that illegal workers will get caught up in the process. We have agreed that many of them are working illegally not only because they are in the country illegally, but because in their vulnerable position they can be exploited and paid below the minimum wage. They are therefore overwhelmingly likely to be poor.
The first and obvious point to make about that group of people is that any property seized from them will not amount to much. More importantly, it might be all their worldly goods. It is not a question of someone paying a fine; it might be everything that they have. In those circumstances, it is important to consider the length of time during which the property can be reclaimed. Ministers might consider whether there is not a moral obligation to keep the case open for as long as is practical, so that the small amount of property that such people have may be returned to them after a reasonable amount of time. Many of them will not be familiar with any kind of legal mechanism for retrieving their own property. Many of them will have little command of the language and absolutely no experience of the legal system in this country, and might well come from countries where for the state eventually to give back property that it has seized is a wholly alien idea. They are therefore unlikely to be sufficiently up to the mark to get their property back.
I would guess that many people who have lived their entire life in this country would be surprised to discover that they can get their property back from the state after it has been seized, but I think that that would be even more applicable to those who might be affected by this aspect of the Bill. Among that group, possible suspicion of the attitude of the state will be increased by some of the terms of the Bill, which they might find onerous. We have had discussions about how much control the Government should take, and are taking, over where people live and how often and to whom they should report. If someone has been arrested, had their property seized and been through a legal process, then come out the other end without having been convicted, they will be unlikely to want to come forward and make themselves known to the state. It may be worth considering giving them some encouragement to do so.
Amendment No. 122 would require the Secretary of State to take reasonable steps to identify the owner of seized property, taking account of the fact that the person may, in the circumstances, need help to retrieve their property. For example, it would be difficult to identify the owner of the property if it had been seized from one of the houses in multiple occupation, which we heard about in an evidence session, where many people live. I have heard in other forums of houses in which beds are rented out for eight-hour periods and occupied for 24 hours a day. Three and four-bedroomed family homes may have 30 or 40 people living in them.
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that in such circumstances, identifying the owner of seized property will not be straightforward and it would not be enough for the authorities to sit back and assume that it would be clear. A few simple, routine steps could be taken that would establish what belongs to whom, and amendment No. 122 and the consequential amendment No. 123 would lay that obligation on the Secretary of State, so that in this relatively small corner of the powers and actions that the Bill promotes there would be some obvious fairness.