Crime profits agency under fire

The government agency set up to target criminals’ profits has come under fire today after it was revealed it costs four times as much to run as it has seized.

The assets recovery agency (ARA) was set up three years ago by Tony Blair to make sure “crime doesn’t pay”, by stepping up the confiscation of ill-gotten gains.

But a report by Conservative MP Grant Shapps today reveals that last year it cost £17.8 million to run, but only seized £4.1 million. This year, the agency’s budget is £19.8 million, but it has only recovered £4.3 million so far.

This is far short of the ARA’s target to seize assets of at least the value of its budget, and while the amount of money confiscated by UK law enforcement agencies last year totalled £82.6 million, the agency was responsible for just £2.7 million of this.

However, the government has pointed out that £68.45 million worth of assets are currently subject to freezing laws, but the agency is fighting legal challenges over its right to recover the assets.

Under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, the merits of a case are decided on the balance of probabilities, a less stringent test than the ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ used in criminal cases.

Mr Shapps claims that people are challenging this lesser test in the courts under the Human Rights Act – which is why so many of the ARA’s attempts to seize assets are being held up.

“A combination of human rights legislation and the failure of the government to give the assets recovery agency adequate teeth means that the agency is costing us four times as much to run than it recovers,” the MP said.

“It’s a classic Blair big idea, which simply isn’t working in reality. This report puts further pressure on the government to get a grip of its law and order policies and give the assets recovery agency the ability to hit criminals where it hurts.”

Jane Earl, the director of the agency, said she was “disappointed” that many of the cases had not come been resolved “as quickly as we had first hoped”, but said the ARA was in it for the “long haul”.

She added: “Our disruption activity, where we have exceeded our targets, is playing a big part in making the general landscape much more difficult for criminals to operate in.”

In an article for The Express in February 2003, Mr Blair wrote that the new ARA would “hit [criminals] hard where it hurts most – in their pockets”.

He wrote: “We are going to seize their yachts, their cars, their homes and their cash wherever and whenever we find their ill-gotten gains. In short, we are going to ensure they no longer profit from their life of crime.”