By Kirsty Walker
Town hall officials will be given draconian new ‘Al Capone’ powers to search homes, seize cash, freeze bank accounts and confiscate property.
The powers are currently used by the police to deprive crime barons of their luxury lifestyles by seizing their assets.
But from next week, they will be extended to local authorities, quangos and agencies – such as the Royal Mail and Transport for London.
The radical extension of this powers will be forced through using a Statutory Instrument – a little known piece of legislation which does not require parliamentary approval.
The measures were last night criticised by police chiefs, politicians, civil rights campaigners and legal experts.
They warned that the tough new powers will be abused by bureaucrats to pursue individuals for minor offences such as failure to pay a parking ticket, falling into arrears with council tax or fare dodging.
In 2003, law enforcement agencies were given wide-ranging confiscation powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act to seize cash and property from drug dealers, people traffickers and money launderers.
They are branded the ‘Al Capone’ powers after the American crime baron who was jailed in 1931 for income tax evasion – after the authorities failed to pin down racketeering charges on him.
Councils, quangos and agencies are already able to use these powers. But they currently have to seek authorisation from the police. From next week, they will be able to act independently.
A Home Office spokesman said that the extension of the powers would provide a boost in the fight against crime and would free up the police.
She insisted that the Accredited Financial Investigators are properly trained and monitored by the National Policing Improvement Agency quango.
The spokesman added that the investigators will only be able to use the new powers in relation to criminal activity.
However, Shadow Communities Secretary Caroline Spelman warned: ‘We have already seen how surveillance laws designed to tackle terror and serious crime have been routinely abused and over-used by town hall officials.
‘I fear these new powers to inspect financial records and seize assets will also end up being misused and will divert resources to minor breaches like being late in paying a parking fine.’
Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation, warned that the ‘intrusive powers’ should be kept in the hands of law enforcement agencies.
He said: ‘The Proceeds of Crime Act is a very powerful tool in the hands of police and police-related agencies and it shouldn’t be treated lightly.
‘There is a behind-the-scenes creep of powers occurring here and I think the public will be very surprised.
‘They would want such very intrusive powers to be kept in the hands of warranted officers and other law enforcement bodies which are vetted to a very high standard rather than given to local councils.’
Dylan Sharpe, Campaign Director of Big Brother Watch, said: ‘There is no doubt that in very serious cases, the ability to seize assets and freeze bank accounts is an invaluable tool.
‘But when local authorities are given access to these heavily intrusive and far-reaching powers, they invariably end up using them for the wrong reasons.
‘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.’
He added: ‘Most people will never have heard of these Accredited Financial Investigators until they return from their shopping and find them on their doorsteps.’
Andrew Bodnar, a specialist in asset recovery law at the Matrix Chambers, said: ‘The extension of these powers should be monitored very closely.
‘The spectre of counter-terrorism powers being used to monitor people’s bin- filling habits, or what school they’re trying to send their children to, should be cautionary.
‘Having these Al Capone powers in the back pocket is very valuable for a senior prosecutor but in the hands of someone less experienced and less skilled… there is the potential for charges to be brought which are intended to maximise confiscation recovery rather than reflect the level of criminality concerned.’
A Home Office spokesman said that the powers could be used to target benefit cheats, but she denied that they would be used to target people for failing to pay parking fines.
She said: ‘We are determined to ensure criminals do not profit by breaking the law. Seizing ill-gotten gains is a key part of the fight against criminals — whether it is from small-time offences or organised crime.
‘Accredited Financial Investigators have played an integral role in the recovery of criminal assets since the Proceeds of Crime Act was introduced in 2003, they are fully trained and their powers carefully controlled in law.
‘By giving them some new powers we are extending the fight against crime and freeing up valuable police time.’