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Monday, 5 March, 2001, 18:12 GMT
Straw targets crime chiefs
Jack Straw
Jack Straw: Wants to ensure crime does not pay
New powers allowing police to seize cash and property they believe are the proceeds of criminal activity have been unveiled by Home Secretary Jack Straw.

The aim of the proposals, which are centred on a new asset-seizure agency, is to target crime barons who may otherwise remain outside the reach of the criminal courts.

We are seeking to modernise arrangements so we can better get at these people

Jack Straw
Civil rights campaigners are concerned the draft Proceeds of Crime Bill could threaten the tradition that people are innocent until proven guilty.

But Mr Straw says the Bill is only using the law in a "fair but imaginative way".

The new proposals will also allow the authorities to seize assets earlier in a criminal investigation and use tax bills to target criminals if the other sanctions fail.

As he announced a consultation process for the Bill on Monday, Mr Straw insisted the proposed laws should not be seen as a failure of the police and courts to secure convictions.

"It's not an admission of failure, it's a recognition of reality," he said.

Modernisation drive

"We are seeking to modernise arrangements so we can better get at these people.

"They amass substantial wealth from their criminal activities and retreat more and more from a working engagement in crime. At the same time it's pretty obvious they are living well above any lawful means."

Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, welcomed the chance to consider reforming the law.

But he warned: "Civil forfeiture can not be used to side step normal criminal procedures."

Under the government plans the Criminal Assets Recovery Agency (CARA) will have responsibility for tracking down criminals' assets and taking away their money.

It is being set up after police identified 39 alleged crime bosses who have assets of more than 200m between them.

UK's poor record

Mr Straw said he was also concerned to improve the UK's record in comparison to other countries.

In 1996 British authorities seized $22 in criminal assets per $1m of gross domestic product yet in the US they managed $99 and in the Republic of Ireland $230.

The home secretary said the bill would end the "artificial distinction" between drug assets and gains from other types of crime.

The authorities are already able to target the assets of convicted drugs barons.

They will also now be able to use the tax system to land suspects with huge demands for payment when other efforts to investigate and seize the proceeds of crime fail.

Earlier action

Other new powers include the ability to freeze assets as soon as investigators begin examining a suspect's affairs.

At the moment police can only do this as a charge is about to be brought, giving them time to hide money and cover their tracks.

Mr Straw insisted the proposals were not about the threshold of proof used in courts but allowing the community to take back money secured through crime.

Under proposals outlined in a government white paper last June, it would be up to suspects to prove they earned their cash and property legally.

Civil rights concerns

While unveiling that document, Mr Straw said the new laws would not allow police to go on "fishing expeditions" against anyone whose conspicuous wealth could not immediately be explained.

However, Liberty and other civil rights groups are vehemently opposed to its introduction in England and Wales.

Liberty director John Wadham said at the time: "These proposals undermine the presumption of innocence.

"They will create a system in which accusations by the police will be enough to force people to disclose all their private financial affairs."

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See also:

21 Nov 00 | Northern Ireland
Plans for new powers over crime proceeds
23 Nov 99 | UK Politics
Taking crime barons to cleaners
20 Oct 00 | Scotland
Pledge on criminal assets crackdown
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