Crash of Stormont blocks legislation to seize criminal assets in North
Thousands of businesses being extorted by paramilitaries, says senior PSNI officer
From left, Anthony Harbinson, head of the OCTF in Northern Ireland, and Det Supt Bobby Singleton, PSNI. Photograph: Michael Cooper/ PA Wire
The absence of a Northern Executive is preventing the implementation of legislation that would allow the assets of criminals operating in Northern Ireland to be seized, a member of the North’s Organised Crime Task Force (OCTF) has disclosed.
Twelve months ago legislation was introduced in England and Wales whereby unexplained assets of £50,000 and more from suspected criminals could be seized, explained Anthony Harbinson, who is head of the OCTF in Northern Ireland.
But because Stormont has not been fully functioning since January last year that legislation can not be put into operation in Northern Ireland.
Assets of more than £50,000 can be seized if criminals cannot explain how they acquired these suspected proceeds of crime
Legislation already is in place which allowed the OCTF recover £1.9 million of criminal assets last year. But here the burden was on the OCTF to prove that these assets were obtained by criminal means.
However, under the unexplained wealth order of the criminal finances legislation, assets of more than £50,000 can be seized if criminals cannot explain how they acquired these suspected proceeds of crime.
Mr Harbinson, when launching the 2017-2018 report of the OCTF, said such legislation would be “an important tool in the arsenal” to tackle Northern Ireland’s 100 organised crime gangs.
He hoped the Northern Executive would be restored so that the legislation could be applied in Northern Ireland. “I would encourage everyone to get back into government as soon as possible,” he said.
The OCTF comprises various bodies such as the North’s department of justice, the PSNI, the British National Crime Agency, the British Home Office, and revenue and customs.
PSNI Det Supt Bobby Singleton said of the 100 organised criminal gangs operating in the North, some 25 had republican and loyalist paramilitary backgrounds.
He said that extortion by paramilitary gangs was an extensive and under-reported problem. The number of business people and others forced to pay extortion could “stretch into the thousands”, he said at an OCTF press conference at Stormont.
'Totally illegal taxation'
Working class loyalist and republican areas were particularly hard hit by the extortionists. “Those operating in working class communities across the country are struggling to make ends meet and having to pay this totally illegal taxation to paramilitary thugs,” said Det Supt Singleton.
Mr Harbinson, who is the department of justice’s director of safer communities, commended the work of the OCTF. “The operational successes speak for themselves: 183 organised crime groups dismantled, frustrated, or disrupted; almost 7,000 separate drugs seizures; 36 potential victims of modern slavery recovered from exploitation; and almost £2 million of criminal assets recovered from convicted offenders and reinvested for the benefit of local communities,” he said.
“Significant progress is also being made in protecting individuals and businesses against cyber crime.
“Ultimately, to end the harm that is caused by organised crime and paramilitarism we need a whole-societal response,” said Mr Harbinson. “I call on everyone to play their role in making Northern Ireland a safe place where we respect the law and each other by reporting crime and suspicious activity to the police.”