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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 February 2007, 12:40 GMT
Report attacks crime assets body
Money
The Assets Recovery Agency has been widely criticised
An agency established to seize the proceeds of organised crime has been heavily criticised in a damning report.

The Assets Recovery Agency(ARA) has cost 65m since its launch in 2003 but has seized just 23m from crooks, a National Audit Office (NAO) study said.

Four police forces had not referred a single case to the ARA, while just 52 of the 700 case files passed to it were investigated, the report said.

Plans to close the body were announced in January.

It will instead be merged with the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), with government sources insisting that while the ARA will cease to exist in name, its work and investigations will continue.

It wouldn't be surprising if some criminals were to develop a 'they can't catch up with me' mentality
Edward Leigh
Chairman
Commons' Public Accounts Committee

'Slow progress'

Based in London and Belfast, the ARA was launched by then home secretary David Blunkett with the claim that "we are hitting organised criminals where it really hurts - in their pockets".

However, the report said that in some cases, the ARA spent more pursuing the assets than the assets were actually worth.

And if it did not improve its performance, there was a risk it would not be self-financing by 2009/10, NAO chief Sir John Bourn said.

The NAO highlighted poor case management, high staff turnover and slow progress on cases. It also criticised the lack of a feasibility study into the ARA before it was set up.

After the report was published, Commons' Public Accounts Committee chairman Edward Leigh said: "The criminal fraternity must be lying back on their sun loungers laughing into their champagne glasses at the mess those trying to catch up with them are in.

"It wouldn't be surprising if some criminals were to develop a 'they can't catch up with me' mentality."

'Significant achievements'

Last week, ARA director Jane Earl said the organisation's work had been hampered by flaws - including laws preventing staff from chasing assets owned for more than 12 years.

She said certain criminals "made much of their criminal proceeds back in the 1980s and they are clearly outside the grasp of the law".

Ms Earl went on: "There are key people who we could never go after simply because of the limitation period."

She said that the ARA had lived up to "very high expectations" in some respects, but it could never have gone after more established criminals, as had been expected.

The Home Office said that the ARA had some "significant achievements" in terms of freezing the assets of suspects and disrupting criminal activity.

Its reorganisation within SOCA would ensure that the ARA's expertise in "stripping criminals of their ill-gotten gains and tackling organised crime" would be utilised, a spokeswoman added.


SEE ALSO
Agency seizes property worth 12m
18 Jan 07 |  Northern Ireland
Government reprieve for Mr Big?
13 Feb 07 |  File on 4
Assets recovery agency abolished
10 Jan 07 |  Northern Ireland

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