The Home Affairs Select Committee has been critical of the sum of criminal assets the National Crime Agency has been able to recoup in the last year.
The National Crime Agency became operational in October 2013 and replaced the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) with powers to reclaim assets from criminals.
The National Crime Agency was established and heralded as the UK equivalent to the FBI; however it has yet to demonstrate any justification for the comparison. The Committee drew additional attention to the National Crime Agency’s slow response to a large number of child abuse cases inherited from the now defunct Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which include 2,000 names sent by the Toronto Police in July 2012.
The main contention raised by the Committee was the £22.5 million seized in criminal assets, a sum they believe to be too small to justify its £500,000,000 budget.
The Committee Chairman Keith Vaz had the following to say:
“The NCA has been a success and has proved to be more responsive and more active than its predecessor, SOCA, but it is not yet the FBI equivalent that it was hailed to be. Its reputation has been damaged by the unacceptably slow response to the backlog of child abuse cases sent to it by the Toronto police … Its current asset recovery is not of a sufficient volume when set against its half a billion pound budget.”
Despite the Committee’s lamentations as to their empty coffers, the National Crime Agency did outperform its predecessor; SOCA. In SOCA’s final year of operation it managed to seize £14.9 million, therefore the National Crime Agency has done rather well by comparison.
The issue appears to be the cost at which that has come. One must therefore question the purpose of the seizure of criminal assets; if the money spent is in the expectation that it would be significantly, or at least modestly reimbursed by reclaiming the ill-gotten gains of the criminal classes, then I believe that there is little point to the exercise, as the cost will always inevitably far outweigh the capital gains.
Conversely, if the purpose is to enforce a mantra that crime does not pay; that even if imprisoned, the perpetrator will not be able to justify the time spent incarcerated with thoughts of the financial benefits waiting upon release; then is how much it costs to enforce a valid factor?
The answer is one which is embedded within fiscal responsibility, in spite of any lofty idealistic ambitions. A budget of half a billion pounds is by no means insignificant, and in the current austerity driven political climate a return of some sort should be expected as justification. However, the overriding principle must be that no one should benefit financially from criminal activity. Care should also be given to ensure that the seizure of assets does not become a toothless threat when it may serve as an effective form of punishment against those inspired by greed.
In reality I fear it is neither consideration which prompts the criticism from the Home Affairs Select Committee and attention from politicians in general. If one was to look at it through the eyes of a politician, the seizure of criminal assets is as close to the perfect punishment as possible. It strips the criminal of wealth and returns it to the public purse; if done efficiently it may be more cost effective than imprisonment; a tangible return exists, and a definite outcome; and one can appear to be tough on crime without calling for draconian sentences. No wonder politicians are upset that they have only seen a return of £22.5 million.
There is however, better news on the horizon; a new information sharing agreement has been reached with the 10 largest British banks which will see them provide the National Crime Agency with the account information of those suspected of money laundering and other serious crimes. Such a move may well greatly increase the amount of money recovered in the next 12 months.