In the Media

Super-Asbos plan to deal with organised crime

PUBLISHED July 18, 2006

New "super-Asbos" are to be introduced by the home secretary, John Reid, as part of a wide-ranging package of new police powers to disrupt the activities of organised crime.

The serious crime prevention orders will be used against individuals and organisations believed to be involved in drug and people trafficking, money laundering and other forms of organised crime where there is insufficient evidence to justify a criminal prosecution.

The package proposed yesterday also includes sweeping powers to share personal data across the public and private sector for crime prevention purposes, including "fishing expeditions" to identify suspicious individuals. Ministers believe that the data sharing powers are needed because law enforcement agencies have suffered from excessive caution in their approach to the privacy safeguards in the Data Protection Act on these questions.

The home secretary is also considering new offences of encouraging or assisting a criminal act even though the actual crime may never have taken place.

The demand for wider powers to tackle organised crime follows the establishment in April of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, which identified more than 1,000 individuals in networks involved with people and drug trafficking, money laundering and financial fraud. It also follows the patchy record of the Assets Recovery Agency in seizing the property of suspected serious gangsters who prove beyond prosecution.

A Home Office minister, Vernon Coaker, said the organised crime prevention orders - Ocpos - would be used in the run-up to prosecution for major gangsters but could be used as an alternative to the courts for minor criminals who are on the fringes and cannot be pursued at a complex organised-crime trial.

The civil orders would be issued only after a high court hearing, with the balance of probabilities as the standard of proof, and could not contain punitive elements without breaching human rights. Instead, conditions would be imposed to prevent crimes being committed, with up to five years' imprisonment available to the courts if the orders are breached.

Mr Coaker said Ocpo conditions could include travel restrictions, limiting phone use to a prescribed list of numbers, and restrictions on financial dealings, such as requiring the use only of specified credit cards and bank accounts, and restrictions on the amount of cash carried.

The orders could also be used against organisations and include compulsory powers to buy businesses or property where that was deemed necessary to prevent organised crime.

A wide range of powers may also include specifying how an enterprise carries out its business, and may require the removal of certain directors, or even impose a court-appointed administrator to run the business. The aim would be to remove the criminal infiltration of a particular organisation where the prosecution of individuals simply leads to their replacement.

A Home Office consultation document outlining the new powers said the data sharing powers were needed because such collaboration was rarely even attempted. Home Office ministers suggest that data sharing would be helpful in investigating fraud, including the use of the national insurance numbers of those who have died. But the consultation paper goes further and suggests that what it calls "mining to identify suspicious profiles" should be allowed. This uses computer software to identify suspicious patterns of activity which might not be spotted when the data is looked at individually.

"Many public bodies fear that this sort of exercise will be seen as a fishing expedition. Some believe the Data Protection Act requires reasonable suspicion of crime on a case by case basis for every bit of data matching ... We question this analysis, however, and believe a robust case can be made for data mining," says the consultation paper.

It is expected that consultation will end in October and many of the measures will be included in flagship legislation this autumn to redeem Tony Blair's promise to "rebalance the criminal justice system".

The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Nick Clegg, derided the use of "super-Asbos" to target high-end criminals. "The government is now suggesting using a system designed to deal with young tearaways to tackle international criminal rackets run by the Tony Sopranos of this world," he said. "At first glance this looks like the worst kind of half-baked gimmick based on a lazy view that the only way to fight crime is to circumvent the criminal justice system