Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Second Report


The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Report: -



1. The nature of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland is changing. An unfortunate consequence of the peace process is that paramilitaries appear to be turning, increasingly, to organised crime to prolong their organisations' existence and influence within the community. Money is a source of power, whether it is used to finance terror campaigns, or to provide an individual with an illegitimate income. We decided in July 2001 that the financing of terrorism in Northern Ireland should be our first major inquiry of this Parliament. We began a programme of informal briefings and formal evidence in December 2001, and hope to report our conclusions to the House after the Easter Recess.

2. Through the current Proceeds of Crime Bill the Government is seeking to establish a new Assets Recovery Agency. The new Agency will combat the threat to society from paramilitary, organised crime and other serious crime in Northern Ireland, England and Wales, by the confiscation of criminal assets.[1]

3. We have recently returned from a visit to the Republic of Ireland, which has had a similar agency - known as the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) - in operation since 1996. Its staff include officers of the police force An Garda Síochána, Customs officers, tax inspectors, social security officials, professional lawyers and forensic accountants.

4. In the past five years the Bureau has been very successful. It has recovered IR£21 million of assets through proceeds of crime actions; has made additional social welfare savings of IR£1.25 million; and to date has collected IR£28 million out of a total IR£56 million demanded as tax payable on criminal assets. It sets a high standard for the Assets Recovery Agency to aim for. We were told that, in addition to the material successes of the CAB, there were significant intangible benefits from the Bureau's work in the psychological effect of such actions on criminals who had previously considered themselves invulnerable.

5. While we shall report our findings more fully when we have completed our programme of evidence, we believe that there is one particular issue which we should draw to the attention of the House before it completes consideration of the Proceeds of Crime Bill, and which we are also anxious should be before the House of Lords when it comes to consider the Bill.

6. The Republic of Ireland's Criminal Assets Bureau deals with sophisticated and dangerous criminals, some of whom have paramilitary connections. In a number of cases these individuals, prior to the establishment of the Bureau, had evaded the law enforcement agencies by verbal and physical intimidation of both witnesses and officials. We were told that on occasion extreme violence had been used. Officers working for the Bureau are dealing with cases which it would frequently be difficult to pursue through other means without exposing staff to considerable personal risk.

7. The CAB is able to pursue these individuals both safely and effectively because its civilian personnel are protected by statutory anonymity. The Criminal Assets Bureau Act 1996 provides for officials to be vouched for by a member of the Garda rather than disclosing any warrant of appointment while engaged in a search or other activities; for the identity of the official to be disclosed only to the judge during court proceedings; and for the name of the Bureau to be substituted for the individual officer's name in certain correspondence.[2] Disclosure of the identity of members, or former members, of staff, or of their families, is punishable by up to three years' imprisonment.[3]

8. During our visit to the Republic of Ireland both officials of the CAB and of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform stressed the importance of this protection for staff. It does not appear from the face of the Proceeds of Crime Bill that similar protection is being provided for staff of the Assets Recovery Agency, although the nature of its work will be the same. We urge the Government to consider the case for amendment of the Proceeds of Crime Bill, to provide statutory anonymity for staff of the new Assets Recovery Agency, and for staff with analogous responsibilities in Scotland.

1   Some of the powers to be granted to the Director of the Assets Recovery Agency in Northern Ireland, England and Wales will be exercised in Scotland by the Scottish Ministers. Back

2   Criminal Assets Bureau Act 1996 s10 Back

3   Criminal Assets Bureau Act 1996 s11 Back

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Prepared 14 February 2002