Straw wants to strip crime gangs of £650m a year

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The Independent Online

Up to £650m a year could be confiscated from suspected crime bosses and drug barons under proposals for laws to tackle gangsters who manage to evade criminal prosecution.

Up to £650m a year could be confiscated from suspected crime bosses and drug barons under proposals for laws to tackle gangsters who manage to evade criminal prosecution.

A new crime agency will be set up by 2003 to investigate suspected criminals and confiscate assets including cars, houses and cash. It could also force serious offenders to pay tax on money and goods they have obtained illegally.

Under the Home Office plans, alleged criminals would be stripped of their wealth without ever having been convicted of an offence. A High Court hearing would only have to decide if cash was from criminal activity according to the civil burden of proof - on the balance of probabilities - rather than the more strict criminal requirement, which says the evidence must prove it beyond reasonable doubt. If alleged criminals refuse to give evidence the court is expected to take their silence as evidence of guilt.

Intelligence agencies estimate the agency could confiscate from £440m to £650m a year from the leading criminals. Thirty-nine of the most successful crime bosses, many now living semi-legitimate lifestyles, are estimated to have an annual turnover of £220m, which could be recovered.

The new measures, similar to schemes run in the United States and the Republic of Ireland, are aimed at senior underworld figures, gangs and criminal families who have escaped prosecution.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, said the fact the Proceeds of Crime Bill would target lawbreakers' wallets rather than their liberty should not be seen as a failure of the police and courts to secure convictions. "It's a recognition of reality," he said. "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."

A draft Bill published yesterday will set up a Criminal Assets Recovery Agency (Cara). It will give new powers to civilian investigators to trace assets and examine bank accounts. The director of Cara will be able to calculate a tax bill for crime barons, including corporate tax, inheritance tax, income tax and capital gains tax, and force them to pay national insurance contributions. Banks, lawyers and financial advisers who refuse to disclose details of money laundering will face up to five years in jail.

Perry Nove, the Commissioner of the City of London police, and a representative of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: "Depriving crime barons of profits and assets will prevent future criminality."

Civil rights groups are opposed to many of the proposals. John Wadham, director of Liberty, said they "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," he said.

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