Crime Assets Recovery Agency '£14m in debt'

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Indy Politics

A "toothless" body set up to seize the ill-gotten assets of organised criminals is recovering around £14 million a year less than it costs to run, according to a new report.

Tory MP Grant Shapps said the Assets Recovery Agency budget had risen last year to nearly £20 million but it was not matching that with confiscated cash and property.

The report by Mr Shapps, a Conservative Party vice-chairman, is based on official answers to Parliamentary questions which he said showed the body "simply isn't working".

The Government had failed to give the crime-fighting organisation enough powers, he said, and new human rights legislation had also stymied its work.

According to the report, the ARA realised £4.1 million in 2004/5 and £4.3 million in 2005/6, when it had a budget of £18 million and £19.8 million.

It was responsible for just 3.4% of the proceeds of crime recovered by law enforcement agencies in the first nine months of the last financial year, the data suggested.

In the report, Mr Shapps dismissed Government arguments that £68.5 million of assets "frozen" by the Agency and a number of on-going investigations proved it was working.

"Applying a freezing order is one thing - selling off the proceeds of crime for the benefit of the public is quite another," he said.

Commenting on the report, Mr Shapps added: "What we have is an Assets Recovery Agency announced with a fanfare of publicity by the Prime Minister, yet the reality is that it's costing us £18 million to run, whilst it's only recovering £4 million each year.

"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.

"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."

Mr Shapps claimed today that Prime Minister Tony Blair had pledged the agency would collect £80 million by this year, when he set it up in a "blaze of publicity" in 2003.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "This is a classic Blair idea which actually in detail doesn't work."

Jane Earl, director of the Assets Recovery Agency, said Mr Shapps' figures were "not entirely" right.

She accepted that it had only recovered £4 million, but the £80 million target had been for the assets recovery community as a whole.

"What we've been doing is taking new legislation in difficult areas and we've been taking those cases through the courts," she said.

"Mr Shapps is entirely right that we have a large amount of money under restraint, frozen, something over £100 million in our lifetime.

"That's not money that has gone away that we are not pursuing, that's all money which is being litigated through the courts as we speak.

"The cases that put money into the so-called tinbox last year were really the ones that came in in the very early stages of our lifetime.

"We think that the time taken to get a case from being referred to us from law enforcement agency to completion is longer than we expected, it's longer than we hoped for, and I have to say to you and everyone else that we're sorry that's the case."

Ms Earl added: "It's important too that we are clear that we understand this is a long haul and the important thing for ... the taxpayers who fund us is that they know we are not giving up on it.

"We are continuing to litigate extensively, we are fighting off every legal challenge that is put to us and so far I am delighted to say we have won all of those, but they do take time in the normal civil legal system."