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Assets Recovery Agency

Volume 403: debated on Wednesday 9 April 2003

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What assessment he has made of the likely impact of the Assets Recovery Agency in Northern Ireland. [107069]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Mr. Desmond Browne)

The Assets Recovery Agency came into operation on 24 February, in both Belfast and London. The formidable powers of the agency to recover criminal assets will help to reduce crime and disrupt criminal enterprises. That will help to alleviate the impact of crime on communities in Northern Ireland as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply, but will the agency be able finally to expose many of those in Northern Ireland who use the term "paramilitary" as a cover for what they really are—vicious criminal activists?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. The selection of cases to be pursued by the agency is entirely a matter for its director, supported by the assistant director for Northern Ireland, who must act in accordance with their statutory duty to use their powers in a way that they consider will best reduce crime in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom. The reality is that, in Northern Ireland, a significant proportion of organised crime is related to paramilitary organisations. In fact, it is estimated that about half the organised crime networks are linked to paramilitarism. I would, of course, expect the agency's annual plan to take that into account.

Can the Minister tell the House what discussions he has had with the Assets Recovery Agency on bringing its important activities within the remit of the new chief inspector of criminal justice, with which he is very familiar?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her specific question. I have not as yet had the opportunity to have discussions with the assistant director for Northern Ireland, or the director, in relation to that matter, but I will be in touch with the hon. Lady when I do.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the concern expressed by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee as regards the manning of the Assets Recovery Agency, so I am delighted to hear that we are making progress on its activities. Will he continue to monitor the situation to ensure that the organisation is effective and look at the success of southern Ireland's assets recovery agency?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that the success of the Criminal Assets Bureau in Dublin greatly assisted the development of the policy relating to the Assets Recovery Agency. I can reassure him, and the other members of the Select Committee, that they need have no concerns on resources. The agency is adequately funded, and the initial budget for the United Kingdom for this financial year is £13 million. Of course, that and other matters will be kept under review. There are about 90 staff, including the Belfast branch, and the number is likely to grow in respect of case load and success. The Assets Recovery Agency will play a full part in Northern Ireland in the work of the organised crime taskforce, which has had significant success and is chaired by my hon. Friend the Minister of State.

Does the Minister agree that, even if the peace process makes great strides forward this week, which we all hope, there will still be an enduring threat from organised crime? We want an end not only to terrorism, but to the racketeering that has been so hideously linked with it.

Of course, I agree with the hon. Gentleman's assertion. If his question is about whether we will ensure that the Assets Recovery Agency and the organised crime taskforce target those very circumstances, he has my assurance.