As reported by The Times yesterday in great detail, and by several other newspapers today, Home Secretary Alan Johnson has extended the Proceeds of Crime Act, granting councils, quangos and government agencies the powers to search homes, seize cash, freeze bank accounts and confiscate property.
Under the move, Accredited Financial Investigators, which include customs officers, Department of Work and Pensions investigators, trading standards and other local authority workers, will be given 'Al Capone' powers (i.e. those intended for organised criminals and drug barons) to seize assets worth more than £1,000 ahead of a court ruling on their origin and to execute search warrants.
At the moment, these powers are executed on the investigators' behalf by police officers.
There is no doubt that in very serious cases, the ability to seize assets and freeze bank accounts is an invaluable tool. But as we have seen with the Regulatory Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) and the use of powers of entry; when local authorities are given access to these heavily intrusive and far-reaching powers, they invariably end up using them for the wrong reasons.
By giving the power to local authorities and taking them away from the Police, the British public are losing their lines of redress – the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the strong emphasis on community policing. Most people will never have heard of these Accredited Financial Investigators until they return from their shopping and find them standing on their doorstep.
Even more worryingly, this is yet another example of the Government sneaking very serious, Big Brother legislation in through the backdoor using a Statutory Instrument.
When we are talking about giving local authorities the ability to search through private belongings and bank accounts, these measures really ought to receive the full-scrutiny afforded by Parliament.
By Dylan Sharpe