The original act was designed to seize the profits of crime from major criminals and organised crime syndicates. The purpose was to ensure that those involved in nefarious activities were unable to enjoy a luxury lifestyle off the back of their illegal earnings and ill-gotten gains. Last week, Prosecutors obtained a confiscation order for £750,000 against Sean Lynch a career criminal and drug dealer who was jailed for 18 years in 2008. Lynch has assets including a property in Surrey, two homes in Spain and a collection of luxury cars, including a Ferrari, Aston Martin and Rolls Royce. The Proceeds of Crime Act was created to specifically target criminals such as Lynch and to send the message that crime does not pay.
Currently, orders are granted by the courts and acted upon by Police. Under the new system, workers and Investigators will be able to seize assets worth more than £1000 without having to wait for a court order to determine their origin, thus allowing the presumption that all assets have been obtained via crime. They will also be able to carry out property searches under the authority of a search warrant and completely independently of any police involvement.
The Police Federation have indicated their concern over the move with Chairman Paul McKeever in The Times saying:
"There is a behind the scenes creep of power occurring here and I think the public will be very surprised. They would want such intrusive powers to be kept in the hands of warranted officers and other law enforcement bodies which are vetted to a very high standard rather than given to local councils."Despite the reassurances of a strict code of conduct, there is a fear among legal experts that the powers will be abused by local authorities, who will misuse the Act to search and enter homes. Comparisons have been drawn with counter terrorist legislation being used as enforcement in non-terrorist activity and particularly with the use of surveillance.
As we are fast approaching a general election, the wisdom of pushing through legislation such as this must be questioned. Enhancing the power of the state is always unpopular, civil liberties are still high on the agenda after SOCPA and ID cards and there has been a Government climb-down in both of those cases.
The list of organisations that will be given these enhanced powers also includes Royal Mail, who could seize the assets of an employee involved in mail fraud and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority who might seize assets from someone profiting from the underpayment of wages. There is surely far too much scope here and powers such as these are better kept within the confines of law enforcement. One only has to consider the Child Support Agency and the effect of incorrect orders being made against innocent men. In some cases, mistakes took years to sort out, with deductions being made from salaries despite the CSA being advised of their error. The powers of the Proceeds of Crime Act are being handed out too widely and allows an open goal for those who already accuse this Government of operating an oppressive state and eroding civil liberties.
But, maybe there is one area where the devolution of such powers would be a good idea... If Sir Thomas Legg was included in that list, I'm sure there would be fewer objections. Outside the cosy walls of the Palace of Westminster anyway!