Jail looms for advisers who turn a blind eye to crime
The Home Office plans to create an offence of 'participation in an organised crime group' that will mean practitioners who turn a blind eye on criminal activity from which they profit could face up to five years in jail.
The serious crime bill proposal, set to be mentioned in today's Queen's Speech, sets out sanctions for the new criminal offence, which covers professional advisers such as accountants and lawyers.
In addition to a maximum of five years in prison for involvement in organised crime, they could be subject to further civil measures to deter them from returning to the same activities.
The law will bring in tougher asset seizure powers to let police and the National Crime Agency (NCA) confiscate assets and close loopholes more quickly.
The Home Office said the new powers were specifically aimed at organised crime groups and their professional and non-professional associates.
"These associates can currently adopt a ‘no questions asked’ approach and then claim in court they were unaware of the precise nature of the criminality they were involved in," according to a Home Office statement.
In addition, it will be used to target those in charge of criminal networks.
Under proposals, some of the changes will include:
- Increasing prison sentences for failing to pay confiscation orders
- Ending automatic early release if criminals fail to cooperate with authorities to repay orders over £10m
- Requiring judges to consider attaching overseas travel bans to confiscation orders and restraint orders
- Ensuring criminal assets cannot be hidden with spouses, associates or other third parties by establishing the defendant’s interest in property earlier in confiscation proceedings
- Enabling assets to be frozen more quickly and earlier in investigations
- Reducing the maximum time to pay confiscation orders that the courts can give offenders from 12 to six months
- Prioritising payments from the defendant to the Victim and Witness General Fund, which funds services to victims of crime, over amounts owed to the government
- Ensuring individuals who abscond before being convicted in their absence are subject to confiscation
Minister for modern slavery and organised crime Karen Bradley said the new offence sends out a clear message to corrupt individuals.
“Nobody is above the law. But for too long corrupt lawyers, accountants and other professionals have tried to evade justice by hiding behind a veneer of respectability," she said, "If you are helping to oil the wheels of organised crime, you will be prosecuted and face being jailed.”
Head of Company Law at the ICAEW Felicity Banks said that the measures have ICAEW's support. “As existing anti-money laundering legislation makes it clear that concealing or facilitating the acquisition, retention, use or control of criminal property is an offence, it is important that any new legislation in this area clarifies – rather than blurs the lines – of what is acceptable behaviour," she said.
“Anybody can call themselves an accountant, but where they are not members of a professional body there are limited ways of ensuring that they act legally or ethically. ICAEW and its members are required to act in accordance with our Code of Ethics, which is drawn up with a public interest mandate, and which has a very clear stance on what behaviour is acceptable."
Since 2010, more than £746m of criminal assets have been seized, in addition to over £2.5bn of criminal assets being frozen and £93m being returned to victims.
However, £1.48bn is currently outstanding in unpaid confiscation orders.
The single biggest unpaid confiscation order is over £57m including interest. It was granted in 2007 and is being enforced by the Serious Fraud Office. The oldest outstanding confiscation order is for £330,000 and dates back to 1988.
The Home Office said the bill would be legislated when parliamentary time allows.
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