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Seized money: Northern Ireland

Criminal Finances Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 17th November 2016.

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

With this it will be convenient to consider clauses 23 to 28 stand part.

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

Clauses 22 to 28 contain a number of minor and technical amendments that will strengthen the operational impact of POCA powers. The clauses clarify and simplify the use of powers intended to recover criminal assets, and I will very briefly expand on those particular provisions.

Clause 26 makes technical amendments to the process that accredited financial investigators follow when seeking approval to use certain POCA search and seizure powers. Accredited financial investigators are not warranted officers, but may be employed by a police force or another public body. They have access to a wide range of powers under POCA, including certain search and seizure powers. They have access to search and seizure powers to seize property that may be subject to a future confiscation order. In order to use those powers, an accredited financial investigator has to seek the prior approval of either a justice of the peace or a senior officer. Currently, POCA only allows a civilian AFI to seek the approval from a senior AFI, as opposed to a senior police officer. This is not always practical from an operational point of view and creates an additional layer of bureaucracy. This measure allows civilian accredited financial investigators to seek authorisation from a police colleague who is at least the rank of inspector and therefore of equivalent seniority, thereby creating additional flexibility.

Clause 27 provides that an investigator has full access to investigation powers in section 22 revisits. Section 22 of the Proceeds of Crime Act allows an investigation to revisit any confiscation order so that any money acquired by a defendant in the future may be confiscated and satisfy a previous order. Currently, it is open to question whether an investigator’s ability to identify money made by the defendant using the investigatory powers in POCA—for example, by monitoring bank accounts, searching property or requiring the production of evidence —is available for investigations linked to revisits. Clause 27 strengthens investigative powers, making confiscation revisits more effective and helping to make best use of the resources being put into revisiting confiscation orders.

The remaining clauses clarify process and definitions to allow for the more effective recovery of criminal assets. Although minor and technical, these amendments are important measures that allow for the proper functioning of POCA. I hope that the clauses will stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan, and to make my first speech before this illustrious and most distinguished Committee. I have a few queries for the Minister on these important clauses. Part of the concern about POCA in the past has been that it has not always worked quite as well as it should have; it has a slightly chequered history when it comes to making sure that the proceeds of crime are, in fact, captured for the state.

First, looking at the miscellaneous provisions relating to Scotland, we are told that clause 23 is intended to replicate in Scotland the effects of section 67 for England and Wales, and section 215 for Northern Ireland, with certain modifications. It provides for the High Court of Justiciary or the sheriff, as the case may be, to order that any realisable property in the form of money held in a bank or building society account is paid to the appropriate clerk of court in satisfaction of all or part of the confiscation order. It would be helpful if the Minister could say why exactly those provisions are needed and how they will ensure that POCA works more efficiently. I am sure that will be a matter of concern to the spokesman for the Scottish nationalist party [Hon. Members: “Scottish National party.”] Oh, Scottish National party—or is it the Scottish neverendum party? I get confused, but I have a one in three chance of being right on one of them. That deals with the concern that I had on Scotland.

We are discussing clauses 23 to 28, are we not? Clause 24 deals with recovery orders related to heritable property. The proposed measure is to remove existing jurisdictional and procedural barriers that can delay the recovery of the possession of heritable property. For those who are not fully up to speed on what heritable property is, and for the benefit of colleagues and Members of the Committee, it is a house, flat, commercial premises and like real estate. I would ask why there were jurisdictional and procedural barriers in the first place and how they would be dealt with by this provision. The clause also says that, where a recovery order is granted, the property automatically vests in the trustee for civil recovery and the previous owner-occupier loses his or her title, since the owner-occupier of the property is subject to the recovery order and has no right or title to occupy the property. The appropriate way to recover possession in those circumstances is by warrant for ejection.

I want to check that there will not be any delay in getting such a warrant and that the procedural aspects are considered likely to work efficiently and swiftly. I also want to ask what the situation would be if there are any sitting tenants in the heritable property to which a recovery order applies. Would such sitting tenants be ejected or would they be able to see out the length of their tenancy?

A house might be owned by a crook who might have let that house to some innocent people, members of the hard-working classes of modern Britain, who suddenly find that their home is seized because that crook is brought to book. They do not want to be ejected and thrown out on to the street, where it is cold and dark as the seasons change against us. I hope we can understand what will happen to sitting tenants in such a case because that is extremely important. I see that the hon. Member for Scunthorpe is following with interest and is concerned about the matter. It would no doubt be heritable property 95% made with English steel from the great steelworks in his illustrious constituency.

Clause 25 deals with money received by administrators. We are told that this is a technical amendment to paragraph 6 of schedule 3 of POCA, which deals with money received by an administrator in Scotland. That is obviously a matter of great concern to my hon. Friend from the Scottish nationalist party. It is to provide a definition of “bank” following the repeal of the provisions of the Banking Act 1987, which previously provided the definition. I want to understand why it is so important to provide a definition of bank in such circumstances and why that is not already covered by legislation. That is a minor technical point. Is it truly necessary or does it make a substantive difference?

Clause 26 concerns accredited financial investigators, or AFIs as they are described. We are told it concerns the search and seizure powers in England and Wales: sections 47A to 47S of POCA provided those powers in England and Wales to prevent the dissipation of realisable property that may be used to satisfy a future confiscation order. Clause 26 amends section 47G to allow civilian AFIs in a police force to obtain approval to use search and seizure powers from a senior police officer or inspector. Will senior police officers have sufficient oversight of such civilian AFIs so that they will not be able—“to go out of control” is the wrong term—to overstep the mark? It is important that civilians act in line with the level of instruction provided by a senior police officer. It would be helpful if the Minister could set out how that might be okay and how it might work in practice. The explanatory note says:

“Such approval may be sought in cases where seeking the appropriate approval of a justice of the peace is not practicable.”

It would be helpful if the Minister could explain why that is and what sorts of cases might not be as practicable as others.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins Conservative, Louth and Horncastle 2:45 pm, 17th November 2016

Does my hon. Friend welcome, as I do, the fact that the Government are enabling civilians to help warranted officers in such important investigations? Civilians can bring skills from the private sector of which a warranted officer might not yet have experience. It is a useful tool in the armoury of law enforcement agencies to be able to draw on the wealth of experience in the private sector, as well as relying on the significant experience of warranted officers.

Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

I thank my hon. Friend for more than fully answering my question. She has saved the Minister the trouble of having to respond to my query. She makes a powerful point. It is important that we have such expertise, understanding and skills and that the forces of law and order are able to draw on civilian skills that may not exist directly under the employ of officers of the Crown. That is extremely helpful, and I thank her very much.

Minister, having caught such a rare fish, I presume you want to deal with it now rather than later.

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

I am touched by the love of Scotland expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover—although his constituency is closer to France than Scotland. I might be able to help him on some of his technical questions.

My hon. Friend’s first question was about why the miscellaneous provisions relate to Scotland, how they are processed and why they are different. Sections 67 and 215 of the 2002 Act provide that a magistrates court can require a bank or building society to pay a sum of up to £5,000 if it fails to comply with an order. However, there is no precedent for such a provision in Scottish law. Also, the equivalent orders in Scotland will apply to law enforcement authorities, as well as to banks and building societies. It was therefore considered more appropriate for any, hopefully rare, wilful non-compliance with an order in Scotland to be dealt with as contempt of court.

Clause 24 addresses recovery orders relating to heritable property. Although it is Scottish Ministers, as the enforcement authority, who apply for a recovery order, once granted it is for the trustee for civil recovery to recover possession of any heritable property to which the recovery order applies. That is because the effect of a recovery order is to vest the property in the trustee for civil recovery. Under existing law, however, a trustee for civil recovery is unable to seek recovery of possessions directly in the Court of Session so must raise a separate action in a lower court, namely the appropriate sheriff court. That can lead to defenders rehashing arguments that were unsuccessful before the Court of Session and incurring costs for those days, which ultimately compromises the amount recovered. Such delays also permit those involved in criminality to continue occupying a property despite the Court of Session having determined that the property was obtained through unlawful conduct and should therefore be recovered.

My hon. Friend is rightly concerned about sitting tenants whose house is owned by a crook and who suddenly find that it is forfeited or frozen. The primary policy obligation is the effective recovery of the proceeds of crime, which is generally best served by recovering the heritable property concerned and selling it so that proceeds from the sale can be added to the public purse. A primary function of the trustee for civil recovery is to realise the value of the property for the benefit of the enforcement authority, which, in Scotland, is the Scottish Ministers. It was never intended that the trustee should take on the functions of a landlord in relation to any sitting tenants.

However, we are considering introducing amendments to other legislation in consequence of the clause, as was well pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover, with a view to ensuring that any legitimate tenant receives fair notice that a recovery order is being sought in respect of the property concerned and that, if granted, they will have to vacate the property within a certain period of time, and that adequate support is put in place to safeguard against homelessness.

Let me move on to the fourth point, relating to the definition of “bank”—I remember this being a particularly gripping part of the Bill when I was reviewing the legislation. The Banking Act 1987 provided a definition of a bank; these amendments simply update the definition to ensure that it is current, as the Banking Act has been repealed.

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

I am reassured to hear that tenants’ rights, which are often under-regulated in this country, will be dealt with in the legislation.

I have a question about clause 26, which is on accredited financial investigators. We have had those in this country since 2009. Even though I do not have the exact figures—my iPad is not getting wi-fi—there is evidence that we have not hung on to all of them. People have been trained as specialist investigators out of the public purse. We live in an age where we should justify every pound of public money, and we seem to have lost those people to the private sector. A lot of them have been poached.

Photo of Charlie Elphicke Charlie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

This was exactly my concern as I studied the Bill in great detail. However, I feel that my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle, who is extraordinarily able and learned in these matters, answered that question by saying that one should be able to draw on skills across the whole nation by contracting them in. I thought that was quite a powerful point.

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

It was a powerful point. As I was going to say if the hon. Gentleman had allowed me to finish the sentence I had embarked on, this issue will be addressed at the end in one of our new clauses. Perhaps we could build in some way of, if not exactly giving them golden handcuffs, then retaining them or even getting the cost of the training repaid, whatever that is. We see the same happening across other sectors. We hear of junior doctors being lost to Australia. It would be a tragedy if we trained these people up and then off they went, poached by the private sector. We have heard of examples where they have gone to the gambling industry, which my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East has experience of in her role on the all-party group on fixed odds betting terminals. I flag that issue up now, but we will come back to it later in a new clause.

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

I have heard the hon. Lady’s sentiment. We will discuss the new clause later. I understand the point that we invest in people and we as the taxpayer should extract that investment back. We will no doubt discuss that further.

On the final concern raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover about the governance of accredited financial investigators, the use of the power in the clause is covered by a code of practice that will be amended. That mirrors the application processes elsewhere in POCA whereby civilians authorise applications. I am happy to provide those codes of practice for my hon. Friend to look at.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 22 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 23 to 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 28