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December was busy for policymakers in the criminal finances arena. The month saw the announcement of a new National Economic Crime Centre and working group on seizing criminal assets and the launch of the UK’s Anti-Corruption Strategy, a key component of which was a commitment to ‘strengthen the ability of the UK authorities to investigate and prosecute grand corruption and return assets’.
This comes hot on the heels of the inaugural meeting of the Global Forum on Asset Recovery (GFAR) – a practical forum co-hosted in Washington by the UK and US governments, which seeks to progress live cases relating to assets stolen from four priority countries (Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Tunisia and Ukraine). All these initiatives offer signs of strong political commitment to seizing and retrieving globally fluid criminal proceeds.
The proceeds of grand corruption have an uncanny way of ending up in the southeast’s buoyant property markets
Yet, what is the problem that these initiatives are trying to solve? As noted by Home Secretary Amber Rudd in November 2016, ‘in an increasingly competitive international marketplace, the UK cannot afford to be seen as a haven for dirty money’.
However, despite decades of effort, the finances of global organised crime continue to make their way through London’s financial centre, and the proceeds of grand corruption have an uncanny way of ending up in the southeast’s buoyant property markets.
Case studies of these issues are abundant, not least in Transparency International UK’s (TIUK) recent report on the strengths and weaknesses of the UK’s asset confiscation regime, launched to coincide with the GFAR.
The author shares TIUK’s concerns that this political and legislative landscape is not backed up by the necessary resources to translate this into action
As the TIUK report rightly points out, initiatives, such as those launched in December, demonstrate the political will of the UK to confiscate criminal proceeds. Legislative changes, such as the adoption of Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWOs), also create the conditions for a greater response to tackling the UK’s unfortunate reputation as a haven for criminal income , including the proceeds of corruption.
However, the author shares TIUK’s concerns that this political and legislative landscape is not backed up by the necessary resources to translate this into action; political window dressing, global talking shops and arguably draconian statute remain meaningless unless backed up by demonstrable results.
While some investment has been allocated to specifically tackling the proceeds of corruption, through the Department for International Development-funded International Corruption Unit in the National Crime Agency, this has not been met with a meaningful investment in law enforcement resources to recover the proceeds of other crimes.
This despite an increased political spotlight on the issue of asset confiscation in recent years from Parliament, the National Audit Office and civil society. In fact, rather than increasing, asset-recovery rates have remained flat.
So, why the difficulty in translating high-level political commitments in this arena into results? The answer can, as is so often the case, be tracked back to a lack of joined-up policy making.
There is institutional inertia in many police forces in adopting asset-confiscation powers as a mainstream policing tool
First, no amount of political will can overcome the swingeing cuts to the UK policing budget since 2010, which has reduced the resilience of forces across the board, including on asset confiscation. Despite promises of action, recent initiatives remain inauspiciously light on detail regarding resources.
Second, the change in the profile of policing priorities in recent years from acquisitive and profit-driven crime towards more societal ones, such as child sexual exploitation and sexual violence, means that, for better or worse, the portfolio of police cases has less recoverable proceeds attached to it than previously.
Third, the potential of specialist asset confiscation powers, available under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA), such as non-conviction based ‘civil recovery’ powers, has not been realised, despite being on the statute books for fifteen years. These were created for the express purpose of tackling the criminal ‘Mr Bigs’ who evade conviction, but have sadly failed to realise this potential.
However, the author’s work in this field would suggest a fourth less tangible factor – that of institutional inertia in many police forces in adopting asset-confiscation powers as a mainstream policing tool.
This is itself, in part, a symptom of a lack of understanding on the part of both policymakers and police of the non-financial impacts of asset confiscation work, whether that be the impact on recidivism, community perceptions or criminal incentives.
How should the UK start to overcome these issues and improve its record? The answers lie not in the recent slew of initiatives and not in more statute, but in the following actions:
- Break down the policymaking silos between criminal finances initiatives and wider policing policy (or least plan for and articulate their impact).
- Ensure that political commitments to improve asset recovery rates do not fall victim to wider budgetary cuts, through better use of ring-fencing.
- Consider, more fully, ways in which the private sector can be engaged to ‘industrialise’ the use of asset confiscation powers, especially under-utilised non-conviction based powers, whether through resources, expertise or both.
- And finally, and perhaps most importantly, move the discussion of the wider worth of asset confiscation from the anecdotal to the factual, by gathering a body of evidence to prove the case.
Only by putting reasonable effort into solving these issues can the Home Office hope to translate the political promises of 2017 into meaningful action to confiscate criminal assets in 2018.
Banner image: The Metropolitan Police's new headquarters on Victoria Embankment, in Westminster, with New Scotland Yard’s iconic rotating sign.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.