Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill has defended the government’s progress in chasing down the proceeds of crime, after a report by the National Audit Office highlighted ongoing concerns with the confiscation orders system.
Confiscation orders are the main way authorities seek to deprive criminals of the gains of their crimes. But a 2014 report by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee found that the government was collecting just 26 pence in every £100 of criminal proceeds generated in that year, and urged better working between the investigation, prosecution and enforcement agencies involved in order to strengthen the regime.
The NAO carried out a check-up on the government’s progress earlier this year. It found that £155m had been collected by agencies through enforcing orders in 2014-15, a £22m rise in two years. However, the total outstanding debt has also swelled, with £1.9bn now outstanding, according to the latest Home Office figures, up from £1.46bn in 2013.
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The spending watchdog’s report said while some improvements had been made to governance and accountability — including through the introduction of a new, multi-agency Criminal Finances Improvement Plan — the system “has not been transformed” and the bodies involved “have only fully addressed” one of the recommendations made by MPs.
Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill appeared before PAC for a second time this week, after an earlier session on confiscation orders was adjourned after MPs became frustrated at the answers given by officials. Conservative MP Stephen Phillips pressed Sedwill on why only a “tiny proportion” of the confiscation order that courts were imposing were being enforced and asked whether it sent out the wrong message to criminals.
The Home Office perm sec said much of the £1.9bn in uncollected debt was “historic”, and the legacy of previous, targets-driven approach where orders had been imposed even though the prospect of collection was “very low”.
The £1.9bn also includes cumulative interest on uncollected debts — which currently stands at a rate of 8% — as well as newly imposed orders, he said. Sedwill pointed out that the the enforcement rate for orders had increased “significantly”, with the amount collected by government also going up since PAC's report.
“If you are a criminal and you realise that actually, the prospect of collecting confiscation orders has gone up by 16% in the first year since the report and 13% in the second, [you will see that] the system is improving,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mick Creedon, the Derbyshire police chief who acts as the national lead officer for serious and organised crime, said there was “no question” that the previous system of targets for imposing confiscation orders had led to “inflated” estimates of what could be realistically recovered.
“Local Criminal Justice Boards were asked to hit targets,” he said. “They were given targets and they were always stretch targets on the basis of last year’s performance. So if for example a region got lucky and got a £1.5m order, their target for next year would be inflated — not according to the level of population or resource — but on the basis of last year’s orders. The value targets were undoubtedly inflated and we’re paying the price for that and the interest rates.”
He added: “I think the reality is we’re chasing a debt here which is growing by 8% a year, some of it completely unenforceable. And I think the time is probably right to concentrate on the actual, and make sure we’re better at just doing that. Because this is an albatross that will never go away, as it wasn’t ten years ago.”
Sedwill also acknowledged that improving the enforcement rate for higher-value confiscation orders — worth over £1m — remained a “significant challenge”. According to the NAO, 22% of those higher-value orders are now enforced, up from 18% in 2012/13. Sedwill said that progress was “welcome” but “nowhere near where we’d like it to be”.
“Confiscation orders should be a tool that bites most effectively at the most serious criminals,” he said. And that’s the area the government’s focused on tackling.”
Alison Saunders, who heads the Crown Prosecution Service — which goes after the higher-value cases — meanwhile said a new national service dealing with enforcement and restraint had been set up since PAC’s report, which had helped to contribute to a 12% rise in CPS’s enforcement rate. But she acknowledged that much of the debt would “never be recoverable” because organised criminals went to great lengths to hide assets.
PAC's fresh assessment of the system is expected to be published later this year.