Forfeiture of certain personal (or moveable) property

Criminal Finances Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 17th November 2016.

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Photo of Richard Arkless Richard Arkless Scottish National Party, Dumfries and Galloway 2:00 pm, 17th November 2016

I beg to move amendment 58, in clause 12, page 40, line 1, and end insert—

“(g) betting slips;

(h) casino chips.”

This amendment includes betting materials that can be used to store the proceeds of criminal activity.

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government new clause 10.

Photo of Richard Arkless Richard Arkless Scottish National Party, Dumfries and Galloway

Amendment 58 would extend the definition of “listed asset” in proposed new section 303B of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to include betting slips and casino chips. The Minister helpfully acknowledged on Second Reading that he would consider tabling an amendment to deal with those two means of retaining value, and I understand that new clause 10 has been tabled in that regard.

Although I fully commend the spirit of new clause 10, it will achieve that change not by adding to the definition of listed asset but by expanding the definition of cash to include gaming vouchers and fixed-value casino tokens. On the latter, we are in agreement: in effect, the new clause does what it says on the tin. It will extend the meaning of cash and therefore make fixed-value casino tokens catchable. Our concern is that “gaming voucher” is specifically defined in new clause 10 as

“a voucher in physical form issued by a gaming machine”.

We do not believe that that covers betting slips. Therefore, although we welcome the tone and construct of new clause 10, we feel that there is one means of retaining value that it does not cover, and that is covered in amendment 58.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway for his amendment, which was set out in the Scottish National party’s manifesto for this year’s Scottish Parliament elections. The Government take this issue seriously, as do the Scottish National party and the Scottish Government.

As we have heard, to avoid detection, criminals use a range of means to transfer value among themselves. Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors—particularly those operating in Scotland—have made us aware of criminals’ use of gaming vouchers and casino chips to do that. There has been media coverage of drug dealers using fixed odds betting terminals to convert cash obtained from street drug dealing into vouchers issued by those machines. Those vouchers can either be converted into cash at the bookmaker, thus laundering the funds, or transferred to another person to pay the drug dealer’s debts.

The Proceeds of Crime Act contains provisions that enable law enforcement agencies to seize cash, but those provisions do not extend to the type of criminal tactic that I have just described, so clauses 12 and 13 seek to allow those agencies to freeze, seize and seek forfeiture of illicit funds held in bank accounts and other forms of criminal property used to transfer value. It has always been the Government’s intention to include gambling vouchers and casino chips in those provisions, as I made clear on Second Reading. When the Bill was introduced, we were still looking at the best way of achieving that in legislation, but I tabled new clause 10 on Monday—I apologise for doing so at the beginning of the Committee stage and not giving hon. Members more time to look at it—which will add gambling vouchers and casino chips to the definition of cash in the Proceeds of Crime Act and allow law enforcement agencies to seize those items on the same basis as they can seize cash, where their individual or aggregate value is more than £1,000.

Officers will have to demonstrate to a court that they have reasonable grounds for suspecting that vouchers or casino chips are either proceeds of crime or intended for use in unlawful conduct. That is an important safeguard that we apply to all forms of seizure. Law enforcement agencies will need to show why they seek the detention of the property, and will be able to seek administrative forfeiture of vouchers or tokens, or the agreement of a court. In all cases, an individual who believes that such vouchers or tokens are theirs legitimately will be able to challenge their detention or forfeiture.

I turn to the hon. Gentleman’s point and why we have used the term “gaming vouchers” rather than “betting slips”. In discussions with law enforcement agencies, we have identified that there is a major concern about the laundering of proceeds of crime through machines that provide a guaranteed return if they are played in a certain way. Those machines produce pay-out vouchers with a value that can then be cashed in. Betting slips, such as those used for horse racing, are used for betting with no guaranteed return and, therefore, are much more risky for use in money laundering.

However, once the points had been raised by the hon. Gentleman, I asked officials to examine whether there is potential to extend the Bill to ensure that we cover betting slips as well. As someone who likes the horses and knows his way round a losing—rather than a winning —bet, I understand that the ability to exploit that type of bet could potentially lead to such money laundering.

Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The Minister may be aware that I am the Chair of the all-party group on FOBTs. I have grave concerns about bookmakers not reporting unusual and excessive activity on B2 machines by people who would not normally have that kind of disposable income. Is the Minister satisfied that leaving it up to the betting industry to self-report is adequate?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

If memory serves me right, the Gambling Commission has the power to carry out a range of investigations and to impose conditions on bookmakers. I hear the hon. Lady’s point loud and clear. I have the same concern in my part of the world in the north-west about whether bookmakers are properly regulated and carrying out their obligation to report suspicious bets, as they currently do under the law. That is more a question of whether we are doing enough to enforce the law. Existing laws are quite strong, though some bookies’ shops—I suspect, as she does—have a way to go. If criminals know that we can seize their FOBT print-outs, they might be less likely to stick their money in the FOBT in the first place. We have put provisions in the Bill because they are pretty canny. When POCA came in in 2002, they realised that we could seize cash, so off they went. They are pretty good at moving the cash. No doubt, one day we will be back again, maybe saying that they have used telephone cards or whatever, and we will have to adapt the legislation in time.

The Government’s amendment chooses to put the provision into POCA, as opposed to the route chosen by the Scottish Nationalist party, because we believe that these items are better placed in cash provisions, because they have no real use other than to be turned into cash. The listed items of moveable property have an intrinsic use as well as being a store of value, and they need to be dealt with under the provisions that we have introduced into the Bill.

The listed items of moveable property clause also contains detailed provision about dealing with non-severable property and competing joint-owner claims that are not relevant to gambling vouchers. As I said, we are considering this as part of the Treasury’s review of regulation under the change to the fourth anti-money laundering directive when it comes to self-reporting of suspicious activity and fixed odds betting. That is under review by the Treasury as well, so I hope everyone will get their collar felt if they do not comply with one directive or another.

I hope hon. Members will agree that that would achieve the results they were after and, accordingly, I invite them to withdraw their amendment.

Photo of Richard Arkless Richard Arkless Scottish National Party, Dumfries and Galloway

I thank the Minister for his comments and it is clear that extending the definition of cash, as the Government intends in the Bill, achieves the same outcome as we desired in extending the list of assets. I accept the Minister’s point that those assets have an intrinsic value, and perhaps the other ones are best suited to the extension of the definition of cash.

On the basis of the Minister’s commitment to examine the specific issue of betting slips and if we can agree that the evidence suggests that they are a moveable item that can store value that could be easily used by criminals, I am sure—given his tone—that we could discuss that further down the line. Given that assurance and the long list of things that we will consider as the Bill passes through its stages, I will take the Minister at his word. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

As a former Member of the Scottish Parliament, I might be accused of favouring one part of the United Kingdom over another with all the concessions.

Photo of Richard Arkless Richard Arkless Scottish National Party, Dumfries and Galloway

Given the Minister’s time in Scotland, he might want to refer to my party as the Scottish National party, not the Scottish Nationalist party.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

Well, I will not say what we used to call it when I was in the Scottish Parliament. We will call it the SNP. I never say “separatists”, obviously.

Clause 12 will create new powers to seize and forfeit moveable items of property where they are suspected to be the proceeds of crime. Criminals launder the proceeds of their crimes to benefit from their criminal activity and carry it on. They are resourceful in using any mechanism to hold and move illicit funds, and we need to ensure that we are able to respond to that threat. Criminals hold the proceeds of crime in a variety of forms, which act as a store of value and a means through which such value can be transferred. Some, such as cash, gold and diamonds, can be easily moved or concealed. In some cases, these items can be readily sold for cash or dissipated through other means.

We want to take action to prevent criminals from transferring their illicit funds however they choose to do it, and the clause should be seen as part of a framework for seizing such assets, alongside the existing cash seizure provisions in the Proceeds of Crime Act and the new provisions in clause 13 for the freezing and forfeiture of funds held in bank accounts.

The cash seizure and administrative forfeiture procedures in POCA were designed to prevent cash from being moved or dissipated in the time that it would take to seek a restraint order. Cash seizure is widely used, both inland and at the UK border. The existing legislation does not allow law enforcement agencies to take the same action in the case of other highly mobile stores of value. Evidence suggests that those items are being used to move value both domestically and across international borders.

The clause will give law enforcement agencies new powers to seize and forfeit certain listed items, such as precious metals and stones, where they have reasonable grounds to suspect that those items are the proceeds of crime or are intended for use in unlawful conduct. The clause will strengthen law enforcement agencies’ ability to disrupt criminal funding by preventing value from being transferred and enable the recovery of criminal property.

The Bill sets out the list of items that can be seized by agencies. The list has been drawn from discussions with law enforcement agencies and from reviewing the approach taken by other states. We have set the minimum value level for the seizure of listed items at £1,000, which is the same as for cash. There will be no upper limit, again mirroring the existing cash provisions. We have set no higher limit, as we believe there are potential circumstances where the value of the item is likely to be significant, and law enforcement agencies need the power to seize the item if there is reasonable suspicion that it is the proceeds of crime. There is evidence of that, particularly in relation to works of art being used to store illicit value and then transferred internationally. Some Members might have heard last week that a French impressionist painting was discovered in a mafia house. Should we discover one of those in the United Kingdom, I do not think we would like to cap what we could seize. I want to be clear that we do not intend that this power should be used indiscriminately. That is why the power can be used only in respect of certain listed items and is subject to oversight by a court.

We have also introduced two additional safeguards. First, within six hours of the seizure, a senior officer must review the seizure and authorise the continued detention. Secondly, we are not, in these cases, permitting administrative forfeiture. That procedure is available in the existing cash forfeiture system and allows a law enforcement agency to forfeit cash without obtaining a court order, in circumstances where the owner does not object. Due to the possibility of greater complexity of the cases, such as property being jointly owned and difficult to sever, administrative forfeiture is not appropriate. We want to ensure that law enforcement agencies have the powers they need to seize such items. At present, there is a short list, but we intend that it will be amended over time to reflect changes in criminal behaviour.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Crime and Prevention)

Amendment 58 looks quite attractive. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway and I served together on the Select Committee on Justice and went to America. I was quite tempted by his amendment, but I am now reassured by the Minister that Government new clause 10 addresses those concerns. It is added to the list for the ever longer meeting they will have.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Crime and Prevention)

Can I come too? Okay. One point occurs to me—to dispel any suspicions of HMRC regulating the art market, how will those paintings be valued? I imagine it is the best of three, with experts, but I wonder how that will be enforced.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

I am not an art historian or expert. We would probably get Philip Mould from the television to come along. In reality, like with everything else, there is probably a proper valuation process held and items are disposed of that way. If they wanted my services, I would be useless.

Order. To help the hon. Lady, I think she will find that, in the evidence produced on Tuesday, one of the witnesses from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs said that they recovered assets and then called in experts who valued them.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Crime and Prevention)

Thank you, Sir Alan. I guess there is a serious point behind this: sometimes it is unclear who is the prime enforcer. We want some reassurance, which I am sure will come, that structures are in place, but we are big fans of the clause on the whole.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 12 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13