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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 January 2007, 18:19 GMT
Targeting 'Mr Bigs' of serious crime
By Danny Shaw
BBC home affairs correspondent

Perhaps they're not untouchable - but they are very hard to reach.

Hard-to-reach gang leaders will be targeted

They are the serious criminals leading the gangs responsible for drug dealing, human trafficking and fraud.

They don't get their hands dirty selling crack, cocaine or heroin on street corners or driving the lorries bringing in illegal immigrants.

But they give out the orders and rake in the proceeds of the illicit activities, remaining at arms length from the crimes, thus evading prosecution.

They're the ones the Home Office is after. The roots of the crime tree, rather than the twigs at the top.

Achieving successful prosecutions against these "Mr Bigs" is a long haul.

Evidence they've made phone calls or emailed associates won't be enough to guarantee a conviction. Nor will a large stash of cash underneath the sofa, a flash car, a yacht or even a villa in Marbella.

It may point to their involvement but what's needed in a criminal trial is 99.9% proof.

That will arrive only if an insider gives information to police or if extensive surveillance of a suspect reveals something incriminating. And that's time consuming, expensive and extremely complicated.

Travel restrictions

So ministers are now trying another tack - disruption - to make life so difficult for the individuals suspected of criminality that they can't operate their illegal enterprises.

To do that, an order from the High Court will be obtained restricting their travel, communications and business dealings.

The measure is similar to an Asbo but may prove to be harder to enforce

The High Court will grant the request if it's satisfied that the individual is involved in criminality on the balance of probabilities - 51% proof.

The measure is similar to an Asbo but may prove to be harder to enforce.

The suspects to be targeted will probably be able to instruct the best lawyers around and they'll rake over the details of the legislation and the court orders looking for loopholes.

They'll be able to make representations to the High Court and take their case to the Court of Appeal if they lose.

False passports

Don't rule out further appeals to the House of Lords and the European Courts, either, to query important legal principles.

Even if the courts come down against them and impose an order, it still has to be enforced, without the use of electronic tags - the government has ruled that out.

Bear in mind, these people can probably get hold of a false passport at a snap of their fingers.

Of course, as more orders are made the room for legal argument may diminish while the prospect of a five-year prison term for breaching an order will make some suspects toe the line.

But history suggests that applying civil powers to tackle organised crime is fraught with problems - look how hard it's been for the Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) to confiscate illegal earnings and property from suspects.

It's an irony that may not be lost on those responsible for tackling organised crime that the Bill proposing serious crime prevention orders also paves the way for the abolition of the ARA - its functions to be taken over by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca).

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