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Assets Recovery Agency

Volume 407: debated on Wednesday 25 June 2003

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If he will make a statement on the work of the Assets Recovery Agency. [120566]

I have been informed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Office that the Northern Ireland branch of the Assets Recovery Agency has six cases that are currently under active investigation. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the agency has been granted investigative orders, including search warrants, by the High Court in two cases on 13 June and 23 June. Indeed, search warrants were executed yesterday at three premises in County Down by Assets Recovery Agency staff, with the support and assistance of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

I welcome the progress that the Minister reports. May I underline how important it is that the agency produces results, in particular with regard to the leading godfathers of paramilitarism and racketeering, because they are largely the same? I do not need to go into names, but the agency needs to target very quickly leading paramilitaries who we know control the major rackets. I hope that the agency will go after them and not just go around gathering up smaller fish.

On accountability, because the body does not exercise police powers, it is not subject to inspection by Her Majesty's inspectorate. Will it come under the purview of the inspectorate of criminal justice? In that respect, we welcome the appointment of Lord Clyde as inspector. Will he have a supervisory role, because it would be wrong if that body turned out to be the only element in the broad spectrum of criminal justice that is not subject to an inspection arrangement?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's words about the good work that the agency has undertaken in Northern Ireland. However, on accountability, the Northern Ireland branch of the Assets Recovery Agency is part of a UK-wide agency. Along with other partners of the Organised Crime Task Force, its accountability is often to Ministers and other Departments outwith Northern Ireland Office responsibilities. In this case, I believe that the current accountability arrangements are appropriate.

May I assure the Minister that support for the Assets Recovery Agency comes not just from the small parties in Northern Ireland, but from Northern Ireland's largest political party as well?

Is the Minister aware of the concern that the bulk of the cases considered by the Assets Recovery Agency involve loyalist paramilitaries, whereas the largest amount of money has been obtained by republican paramilitaries? Is there any step she can take to ensure that there is a proper pursuit of republican paramilitaries? Does she think that the Assets Recovery Agency could give any assistance to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) to recover some of his recent lost assets?

I am grateful to receive support for the Assets Recovery Agency, from whatever quarter it comes. On the selection of cases, it is important to remember that that is pursued by the agency and it is entirely for its director, supported by the assistant director of Northern Ireland, to determine. She must act in accordance with her statutory duty to use her powers in the way that she considers best calculated to reduce crime. However, we know of the clear links that exist between paramilitary organisations and organised criminal networks in Northern Ireland. We are very conscious of those links and pursue all organised criminals, whatever their political persuasion or complexion.

In the context of assets recovery, is there not a danger that the IRA will not disarm, not because it still believes that it can bomb its way to a united Ireland, but because it needs its arms to sustain the menace of its criminal activities?

That does not apply just to the Provisional IRA, but to all paramilitary organisations that we have established are clearly engaged, or associated with, organised criminals who operate not simply within localities in Northern Ireland, but with organised criminal networks across the UK, Europe and the world. We must oppose those groups. The hon. Gentleman is right that they use their ill-gotten gains for the pursuit of terrorism. It is precisely because of that link, and the Government's recognition of it, that we established the Organised Crime Task Force in the first place.