Removing the proceeds of crime is a powerful tool when it comes to disrupting the activities of organised crime groups, Naomi Long has said.
The Justice Minister was speaking as she begins the process of bringing Northern Ireland into line with legislative provisions elsewhere. Four Northern Ireland codes of practice issued under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA) were before the Assembly for approval. POCA is a UK wide Act designed to provide law enforcement with tools to recover the proceeds of crime and deny criminals the opportunity to accumulate assets secured by illegal means.
Naomi Long said: “We know that criminals are motivated by greed and personal gain. As I have said before, criminal gangs abuse and exploit others at will, profiteering from communities and contributing nothing but misery and fear. The luxurious lifestyles they lead are often at the expense of the some of the most vulnerable in our society.
“Removing the profits from their criminal activity reduces incentives and has a disruptive effect on the cycle that sustains serious and organised crime. In turn, this reduces the harm to communities. These new codes of practice under POCA are an important step in ensuring that law enforcement will have access to a wider range of powers and will be an integral part of the overall response to organised criminality in all its forms.
“Organised crime does not operate in a vacuum. Its detrimental impact can be seen and felt within our communities, where it causes real harm. It also diverts money away from the public services that we need and use on a day to day basis. Removing the proceeds of crime is an important part of the criminal justice response which relies on partnership working at a strategic and operational level.”
POCA contains a wide range of provisions which deal with, amongst other things: cash seizure and forfeiture; asset freezing; the disclosure of information by financial institutions during the investigations; and requirements on professionals within regulated industries to submit suspicious activity reports.
The POCA regime was further enhanced by the Criminal Finances Act 2017. That Act added to the list of tools for operational agencies to use when investigating proceeds of crime. This included the ability to revisit confiscation orders and the introduction of new Account Freezing and Forfeiture powers, new Listed Asset Forfeiture powers and new Unexplained Wealth Order provisions.
These POCA powers were not commenced in Northern Ireland due to the Assembly’s dissolution in January 2017. However work has been continuing to introduce these measures in Northern Ireland.
Naomi Long added: “Organised crime is completely and utterly unacceptable, and we must do all we can to prevent it, to pursue offenders and to protect individuals, communities and business in Northern Ireland from its impact. I am committed to tackling organised criminality in all its forms, alongside partners in the Organised Crime Task Force. I want to send a clear message that crime does not pay, it is not low risk and high profit, criminals are not beyond the law and their ill-gotten gains are not beyond reach.”
It is anticipated that the three revised codes and one new code will coincide with the planned commencement of the Criminal Finances Act provisions in Northern Ireland at the end of June. A range of preparatory work is also underway to follow commencement, this includes new arrangements for court rules as well as training for investigators in the operation of the new provisions.