Clause 11 - Forfeiture of land vehicle, ship or aircraft

Modern Slavery Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 9 September 2014.

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Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 10:30, 9 September 2014

I beg to move amendment 70, in clause 11, page 8, line 25, leave out “or ought to have known”.

[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] It was worth waiting for. I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Pritchard, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North for taking clauses 1 to 10.

Amendment 70 is one of a series of probing amendments that we have tabled to the next few clauses in order to get some clarity about how the Government are thinking on particular issues. We support clause 11—we do not have a problem with it. It is absolutely right that those found guilty of an offence under clause 2 can potentially forfeit a land vehicle, ship or aircraft. There is no problem with that.

As the Minister will know, clause 11(5) contains a definition of how the clause will apply to individuals found guilty of an offence under clause 2. As drafted, subsection (5) says:

“This subsection applies where a person who, at the time the offence was committed—

(a) owned the ship or aircraft, or

(b) was a director, secretary or manager of a company which owned it, knew or ought to have known of the intention to use it in the course of the commission of an offence under section 2.”

It is perfectly reasonable to apply the clause to an individual convicted of an offence under clause 2 who  owns the ship or aircraft: people who own an asset should have knowledge of what it is being used for. It is perfectly reasonable for an individual who is the director, secretary or manager of a company that owned the ship or aircraft to be held responsible for the ownership and actions involving that asset. It is self-evident that if someone knew that an asset for which they were responsible was being used for the commission of an offence under clause 2, their inclusion under the clause is perfectly reasonable.

I have tabled amendment 70 to test what the Minister means by including in subsection (5) the words “ought to have known”. That is a very wide phrase. I potentially ought to know what is on television tonight, but I do not. I ought to have known about Government amendments 5, 25 and 26 to the previous clause, but I did not, because my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North dealt with them. There are lots of things that I ought to have known but did not. Will the Minister define what she means by “ought to have known”? It is important, not because I want to delete those words from the Bill, but because when the Bill becomes law, at some point in time, somewhere in the United Kingdom, someone will be in the dock in a court because they “ought to have known” what an asset was being used for. I do not want either the defence or the prosecution to make a case that is full of holes because of subsection (5).

I would like some clarity, so I challenge the Minister to use this opportunity to put into Hansard what she means by “ought to have known”. There is clarity in “ownership of an aircraft”, in “director, secretary or manager” of a company, and, subject to prosecution tests, in “knew” what an asset was being used for. “Ought to have known” is slightly more off beam and needs clarity. I have tabled amendment 70 to give the Minister an opportunity to supply that clarity.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. It is nice to hear from him for the first time in this Committee, and I look forward to him challenging me during our consideration of the Bill, which I am sure he will.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thought nothing less.

The amendment raises important issues about the balance of property rights and property owners’ responsibilities not to allow their assets to be used in human trafficking. It relates to circumstances where the trafficking offender themselves did not own a ship or aircraft or was not the director, secretary or manager of a company that did, but where the actual owner of the ship or aircraft—or the manager, director or company secretary of a company that owned the ship or aircraft—knew or ought to have known of the intention to use the ship or aircraft in the commission of a trafficking offence. The provision is effectively a safeguard for dealing with larger, and so more valuable, ships or aircraft, as smaller ships or aircraft used in trafficking can be forfeited regardless of the knowledge of the owner.

I am grateful for the opportunity to set out why I believe it is right for individuals who ought to have known that their ship or aircraft was being used in human trafficking to be at risk of forfeiting that ship or aircraft. First, the focus of the Bill is to bring modern slavery out into the open and to encourage individuals to act to tackle that horrific abuse. The amendment suggests that, even when faced with evidence that any reasonable person would recognise as signs of human trafficking, an individual remains free from any responsibility to take any action to stop exploitation being carried on through his or her assets. It seems reasonable that an owner of a ship or aircraft who is faced with obvious signs of human trafficking should take steps to stop their own asset being used to carry out such a crime—for example, by reporting their suspicion to the authorities. If the owner opts to turn a blind eye, it seems reasonable that he or she puts himself or herself at risk of seeing that ship or aircraft detained and ultimately forfeited.

Secondly, the test set out in subsection (5)—

“knew or ought to have known”— is a widely used test in legislation, in particular in the field of criminal law. It appears in the legislation on sexual offences, and the test of “knows or ought to know” also appears in clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill. Without the second arm of the test—“ought to have known”—defendants can argue that they did not know what was taking place even in scenarios where it is unfeasible that they could have been unaware that their property was being used to commit a human trafficking offence. That would make it extremely difficult for the power to be used in practice, and we need to ensure that the Bill delivers meaningful and effective powers for law enforcement to improve its response to modern slavery.

Finally, the forfeiture power is based on an existing power in relation to trafficking for sexual exploitation, in section 60A of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. I am not aware of any practical problems with the unjust use of that power. The test is an objective one: if a reasonable person ought to have known, the test is met. The ordinary meaning in English is often used in law as well.

Given that clarification, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The purpose of the amendment was to test and to put on the record the Minister’s understanding. I am grateful for her explanation, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.