Clause 9 inserts in part 7 of POCA a scheme for the extension of the suspicious activity report moratorium period beyond 31 days. As the action plan for anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist finance sets out, the Government see a more robust law enforcement response as central to tackling money laundering. It might help if I briefly explain how the suspicious activity report regime works.
Where a company in the regulated sector—a bank, an accountancy firm or a legal firm—suspects that they may commit a money laundering offence, they are obliged to submit a suspicious activity report to the National Crime Agency seeking consent to proceed. The National Crime Agency then has a seven-day period to determine whether it is necessary to refuse consent to the company to proceed with the transaction. If consent is refused, the 31-day moratorium period begins. During the moratorium period, law enforcement agencies need to gather the necessary evidence to instigate civil recovery proceedings or a criminal investigation in relation to the money-laundering activity. However, money-laundering investigations can be multi-layered and complex. Money launderers obfuscate the financial trail to distance proceeds from their criminal source; funds are often moved overseas.
New section 336A of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 states that the court may not grant a further extension of the moratorium period if the effect would be to extend the period of more than 186 days in total, beginning with the day after the end of the initial 31-day moratorium period. The amendment makes that clear. Amendment 15 replicates in Scotland what clause 28(2) already does for England and Wales. Amendments 52, 53, and 56 are consequential to that.
The criminal’s property, referred to in POCA as “free property”, which may be in the form of cash, is available for consideration in confiscation unless it is already subject to a forfeiture or deprivation order. When a court considers making a confiscation order under POCA, it must not take into account certain types of property when calculating the amount of the order. This is to ensure fairness to the defendant and prevent the double counting of assets.
Clause 28 amends POCA to clarify the situation in relation to cash that has been seized and is being detained pending the decision of a forfeiture application. Cash that is detained in anticipation of the forfeiture application being made is already excluded, so this is an extension of the existing principle in section 82 of POCA. The amendment extends that to Scotland. We hope to be making an equivalent amendment in respect of Northern Ireland in due course—we are awaiting their formal agreement.
Amendments 50 and 51 will correct an error in clauses 37 and 38, which incorrectly refer to England when they should refer to England and Wales. That is merely to ensure that the text of the Bill reflects the intent of the policy, which is for the measure to extend to England and Wales. Amendment 55 will correct another typographical error.
It sounds as if the amendments are tidying up some sloppy mistakes. On the whole, however, I know that the SARs extension to the moratorium period was very much welcomed by the witnesses we heard from. I have seen that some law firms do not like the policy, but I think it is a good idea. The previous period of 31 days was not long enough. Does the Minister have an inkling of how many times the maximum would be used—I think it is 200 days?
It is something like 186 days plus the 30 days, so if we add it all together it is more than 210. It gets stretched out a lot. Is that likely to be used very sparingly? There are people on the other side who think it is too long.
The timescale is really just a reflection of what the investigatory agencies have said to us: that some of these cases are very complex. Some of the ways in which people hide their wealth—they sometimes freeze it themselves—and who they are mean that the process will take time. We want to ensure that our agencies have time to investigate, rather than being under the sort of pressure where effectively they run out of time. Those people exploit that. That is the reason for the longer period. Hopefully it will not be used, but the very fact that it is there will give power to the elbow of the agencies trying to do the job.
I thank the Minister for his response. We support the proposal, but we have a concern, which will come up in a new clause at the end, about the architecture of crime fighting. There could be better resource for all the different agencies that will be looking at these issues and particularly for the ELMER IT system. It was envisaged that that system would deal with 20,000 SARs a year, but the figure is 380,000 at the moment and will probably rise even higher after the Bill is passed. That does not relate to the clause, but I wanted to sound a word of caution.
The amendments will remove references to Scottish Ministers from the list of persons who may make applications to the sheriff for extending the moratorium period and for making a further information order under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 or the Terrorism Act 2000. In our ongoing dialogue with the Scottish Government and with law enforcement partners, we have clarified that Scottish Ministers do not require those powers. In Scotland, they would be used by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, the National Crime Agency, the police and HMRC in respect of the moratorium period and by the procurator fiscal, the police and the NCA in respect of further information orders. We are acting on the advice of the Scottish Government, with whom we have consulted extensively in the development of the Bill and will continue to do so. We are making these amendments to ensure that the new measure will work effectively in Scotland.
Clause 9 inserts in part 7 of POCA a scheme for extending the suspicious activity report moratorium period beyond 31 days. As the action plan for anti-money laundering set out, the Government see a more robust law enforcement response as central to tackling money laundering. I have already explained the SARs regime, so we do not need to hear about that again.
As the national risk assessment set out, the UK is vulnerable to abuse by professional enablers from the legal, accountancy and finance sectors. The level of expertise involved can make it difficult to progress a money laundering investigation substantially in only 31 days. That is particularly the case when the law enforcement agency needs to obtain evidence from overseas authorities, which is another reason for an extension for a further length of time—the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton asked why it needed to be so long—or to undertake complex asset-tracing inquiries. Accordingly, the moratorium period may be lifted and funds dissipated before the investigation has progressed sufficiently to determine whether civil or criminal proceedings should be undertaken.
We need to provide law enforcement agencies with an appropriate amount of time to undertake investigations. This clause provides for the extension of the moratorium period by a court for periods of up to 31 days. That can be repeated up to a total of 186 days from the end of the initial 31-day moratorium period. The hon. Lady is better at adding up than me, so she produced the right figure. Providing an extension of the moratorium period enables law enforcement officers to continue investigating particularly complex transactions, such as those involving overseas grand corruption or other serious crime. The clause ensures that proceeds of crime are not dissipated when there is a suspicion that money laundering activity has taken place and when the law enforcement agency has not had the opportunity to complete its inquiries.
The Government recognise that there may be concerns about the length of time for which an individual’s property could be withheld from them. The clause does not allow unlimited extension of the moratorium period. The court must approve the application to extend the moratorium period each time an extension is sought. Law enforcement agencies must demonstrate to the court that it is reasonable in all circumstances for the moratorium period to be extended. They must satisfy the court that the investigation is being carried out diligently and expeditiously and that further time is required to progress the investigation.
An application to extend the moratorium period will be made to the Crown court, which provides a senior level of judicial authorisation. The owner of the property will be able to make representations in person before the court and is provided with the opportunity to appeal the decision to extend the moratorium period. An application may be made only by a senior officer who has a remit to undertake financial investigation. A senior officer is at the police rank of inspector or equivalent.
Money laundering is an enabler of serious and organised crime. The clause will help to stop criminals profiting from their criminal behaviour. It gives our law enforcement agencies the time to progress critical investigations into money laundering where they have genuine reasons for being unable to progress their investigation substantially in 31 days.
The Minister has put it very well. All the witnesses stated that 31 days was not enough. Here we have appropriate checks and balances. A legal procedure is gone through to extend the period; it cannot be open-ended; and appeals procedures are built in. The Minister also praised my maths, which never happens normally—I am a qualitative person usually—so for that reason as well as all the other reasons, we will not stand in the way of the clause.