During the exercise of their statutory functions, immigration officers can lawfully seize and retain property, which may include forged passports, forgery equipment and other evidence of immigration-related offences. In addition, the Bill gives the courts new, extra powers to cause property used by convicted offenders to commit immigration-related crime to be forfeited to the Secretary of State. At present, the immigration and nationality directorate lacks the necessary legal powers to dispose of property that comes into its possession.
The immigration service is increasing its capacityto investigate immigration-related crime and as a consequence the Home Office will incur rising costs in storing and increasing amounts of seized and forfeited property. In some cases, the retention of the property could become unlawful, so it is necessary to provide for the disposal of the property that is held by the IND in similar circumstances to those in which the police and SOCA can dispose of property. The powers have two separate aspects: first, the court has the power to order the disposal of the property, and secondly, the Secretary of State may make regulations for its disposal. I will come to that in a moment.
Many of the hon. Gentleman’s points were about ensuring that adequate and appropriate safeguards are in place in respect of the power of disposal. I will attempt to reassure him about the safeguards. In respect of amendment No. 120, he will know that clause 22 is intended to make provisions that are equivalent to the existing powers of disposal of the police; it is nothing further than that.
Increasing the time in which a person claiming forfeited property can apply to the court for a disposal order would be inconsistent with the existing legislation and I believe that it would be unjustified.
Where we are talking about forfeited property, there will already have been court proceedings, during which the court decided to make the forfeiture order. As part of those proceedings, a claimed owner would be able to make representations. For example, under section 25C of the Immigration Act 1971 the court must give an interested person the chance to make representation before forfeiting a vehicle used to commit a people-smuggling offence.
Once property has been forfeited, a person claiming the property will have a further six months to apply to the court for the return of the property, provided that they can show that they had nothing to do with the original offence that led to the property being forfeited. That is in line with the police and SOCA legislation, and it gives ample opportunity for the court to take account of the legitimate rights of an innocent property owner. The property owner can state their claim at the forfeiture hearing and they also have another six months in which to lay a claim before disposal.
If property is seized from a vulnerable person, the owner will be ascertained and in that situation the court can only order that the property is returned to the owner. So, the property has been forfeited because it has been used to commit a crime; the property will only be returned to that person, as I said, if they show that they had nothing to do with the crime. Therefore, there is protection for a vulnerable person.
In relation to amendments Nos. 121 and 123, the clause allows regulations to be made for the disposal of property where the owner cannot be ascertained, or where the court has already ordered forfeiture.
There are safeguards in the clause to protect the rights of the innocent property owner. Where a court makes a disposal order, that does not affect in any way the right of any person to bring legal proceedings for recovery of the property within six months of the date of that order. Under the police and SOCA regulations, property may be disposed of only after it has been in the possession of the Secretary of State for a year.
Therefore, where the owner cannot be ascertained, the clause absolutely meets the aims of the amendment that the hon. Gentleman has suggested, namely that the period of time before property can be disposed of is increased from six months to 12 months. It is in relation to forfeited property that the period of six months applies. As I said, the safeguard in that situation is that there has already been an order of the court and the person who wants to lay claim to the property can do so. So, if the property has been ordered to be forfeited, it is a period of six months before disposal; if the owner cannot be ascertained, the period before disposal is 12 months.
Those measures are appropriate safeguards. They apply at the moment, both to the police and to SOCA in disposing of property, and they are working well.
Amendment No. 122 is, in fact, unnecessary because in cases where regulations enable disposal of property because the owner cannot be ascertained, the Secretary of State must act reasonably under usual principles of administrative law. That point is already covered; the Secretary of State must take reasonable steps to ensure that the owner cannot be ascertained before disposal and they would be expected to demonstrate that that was the case.
Having given those reassurances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman is able to withdraw his amendment. I would reiterate that the safeguards apply; we meet some of his requirements, and where we do not extend the period of time to 12 months, that is because there has already been an opportunity at a forfeiture order hearing for the individual to lay their claim.