Confiscation orders for criminals' assets only used in fraction of cases
Criminals are only pursued for the rewards of their illegal activities in a fraction of cases, a report by a spending watchdog indicates.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said there are "fundamental weaknesses" in the system for seizing offenders' assets.
Figures show that confiscation orders - the main route for stripping perpetrators of the proceeds of crime - are used for less than 1% of all convicted offences.
It also emerged that authorities only expect to collect an eighth of the £1.6 billion owed by criminals to taxpayers under existing orders.
The regime has come under fire previously and the latest assessment concluded that five out of six recommendations issued in 2014 by the Commons Public Accounts Committee have not been met.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: "This is a disappointing result."
Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the committee, said the Home Office and partner bodies have "serious questions to answer".
She said: "The findings of this report fly in the face of the old adage that crime doesn't pay. Depressingly little progress has been made since we last looked at this two years ago."
Confiscation orders are issued by courts against convicted offenders and can be applied to any offence resulting in financial gain.
The amount is based on "criminal benefit", which is defined either in terms of a specific crime, or based on a judgment that the offender has lived a criminal lifestyle.
In the last financial year 5,924 orders were imposed, a 7% fall compared with two years earlier, the NAO report said, while the number of criminal convictions also dropped by 6% over the same period to 640,000.
Not all of the cases will have involved financial gain.
The number of orders imposed "remains a tiny fraction of total crimes", the NAO said. It previously calculated that the amount confiscated in 2012/13 amounted to an estimated 26p in every £100 of criminal gains generated.
There have been declines in confiscation orders across all main types of offences. For example, the number handed down for drug-related money laundering offences dropped by 47%.
Figures show the total value of orders imposed was £247.3 million in 2014/15 - a fall of 11% compared with two years earlier, while there are now 6% fewer accredited confiscators.
The NAO suggested "competing priorities" have affected efforts to increase the use of confiscation orders following a "shift in focus" across law enforcement towards crimes such as extremism and child abuse.
Law enforcement agencies have increased the use of alternative means of asset recovery since 2013 although not to the extent of the fall in the use of confiscation orders over the same period, the report said.
Existing confiscation debt has risen to £1.61 billion, with much of the amount relating to orders that are at least five years old. Only £203 million (12%) of the total was deemed "realistically collectable" as of last summer.
One of the main reasons so much is "uncollectable" is that many offenders have successfully hidden assets, according to the report. Another factor cited was the setting of order amounts which are, in the event, "unrealistically high".
Criminal justice bodies were found to have improved their performance in enforcing orders, collecting a total of £155 million in 2014/15 - an increase of more than 16% compared with 2012/13 and the highest sum to date. The enforcement rate against all orders rose from 41% to 45%.
The Home Office has strengthened the sanctions regime for non-payers of confiscation orders, the NAO added.
A Home Office spokesman said: "The UK Government seized almost a billion pounds from criminals between April 2010 and March 2015, and hundreds of millions more has been frozen and put beyond the reach of these offenders.
"We have delivered significant reforms to achieve this; establishing new asset confiscation enforcement teams, introducing longer prison sentences for those who don't repay their orders and creating Crown Prosecution Service advisers to tackle criminal proceeds hidden abroad.
"Confiscation orders, the narrow focus of this study by the NAO, are just one of many important operational techniques used by enforcement and prosecution agencies to tackle the proceeds of crime. The Government will continue to work with our operational partners to make the UK a harder place to move, hide and use the proceeds of crime."