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Last Updated:  Monday, 24 February, 2003, 00:55 GMT
Agency to target gangsters' wealth
Handcuffed criminal and money
It is hoped 60m a year will be seized
Britain's richest criminals are to be hit in the pocket by a new government organisation which begins work on Monday.

The Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) will be able to confiscate money, houses, cars and anything else owned by major gangsters, even if they have not been convicted of offences.

It will also be used to seize the earnings of paramilitary groups.

If the ARA can convince a court that someone is enjoying a lifestyle which they cannot possibly have earned legally, a judge can order their possessions to be confiscated and sold.

If all else fails it can insist that dubious wealth is taxed.

Drug dealers

Police admit that many underworld figures have been able to make themselves untouchable by employing others to do their dirty work.

But they have already identified at least five people who will now be targeted by the ARA.

They are worth a total of more than 200m and include one man worth at least 100m.

Most of those on the list make their money from drugs.

'Very important'

ARA head Jane Earl told BBC News Online the body would be a valuable weapon in the fight against crime.

She said: "While criminal prosecutions - getting these people locked up - are very important, there are other ways to disrupt their activities."

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But its ability to target the assets of those who have not been convicted of a crime overturns the traditional 'innocent until proven guilty' test and has worried civil liberties campaigners.

Gareth Crossman, head of policy at Liberty, said: "We are fundamentally opposed to the civil recovery system.

"While we accept that the government intention to disable the criminal economy is a valid one, and do not object to the principle of asset recovery through the criminal courts, these changes undermine the presumption of innocence."

Frozen assets

The agency was set up under the Proceeds of Crime Act, which came into force at the beginning of this year.

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Police and customs officers have since been seizing on average 1m a week of criminals' money.

It is based on the Irish Republic's Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB), which was set up following the 1996 murder of journalist Veronica Guerin.

It has since frozen assets worth 33m and collected 27.6m in taxes from criminals.

The ARA hopes to double the amount confiscated from British criminals to 60m.

After visiting Ireland's CAB as it sold off a criminal's block of flats, UK Home Office minister Bob Ainsworth said: "We can't just go after the criminals themselves, we've got to try to dismantle the gang.

"An important part is taking away their ability to commit further crime with the wealth they have acquired."



LINKS TO MORE UK STORIES


 

SEE ALSO:
Who might be targeted?
24 Feb 03 |  UK
Chasing criminals' money
25 Jul 02 |  UK News
Paramilitaries reap 18m from rackets
02 Jul 02 |  Northern Ireland
New clampdown on crime proceeds
23 May 02 |  Northern Ireland


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