Does crime pay?
When the Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) was set up three years ago to track down and seize the proceeds of crime, it was inundated with almost three times the number of cases it had expected.
This plethora of possible targets ought to have enabled the agency to help the Prime Minister to fulfil his ambition of doubling the unlawful assets recovered every year. Tony Blair hoped that this would be ploughed back into policing. Yet so far, a body that costs about £18 million a year to run has delivered nothing approaching that figure. It recovered assets of about £4.1 million in 2004-05 and around £4.3 million in 2005-06.
Parliament, in its zeal to outwit wrongdoers, may also have overreached. The ARA can apply to the civil courts to freeze assets even if the police have insufficient evidence to secure a criminal conviction. If a crime is suspected, and no legitimate explanation can be given about how the owner amassed his or her assets, they can be removed. This creates both practical and ethical difficulties. Suspects whose assets are frozen can delay proceedings for months while they try to mount a defence on legal aid. And there must be real questions about a law that abandons the presumption of innocence in the minority of cases that deal with individuals who have not yet been convicted.
So another one of Tony's totalitarian knee jerk schemes is an expensive flop - what a surprise! Is there anything this Government has set up that is competently run.