'Only a fraction' of confiscation orders debt likely to be recovered
Criminals owe the taxpayer nearly £2 billion - but only a tenth of the sum is ever likely to be recovered, official figures have revealed.
The total outstanding debt from confiscation orders - a key route for stripping offenders of the proceeds of crime - was £1.9bn in March.
This was a jump of almost £300m since September when the sum stood at £1.61bn.
Data published by the Home Office shows £190m of the debt is deemed by authorities as "realistically collectable".
The number of confiscation orders imposed has fallen, from 6,392 in 2012/13 to 5,839 in 2015/16.
Confiscation orders are issued by courts against convicted offenders and can be applied to any offence resulting in financial gain, with the amount based on "criminal benefit". This is defined either in terms of a specific crime, or based on a judgment that the offender has lived a criminal lifestyle.
The regime has previously come under fire and a report by spending watchdogs published in March found "fundamental weaknesses" remain in the system for seizing criminals' assets.
Mark Sedwill, permanent secretary at the Home Office, provided updated data to the Public Accounts Committee.
His written evidence said: "While the number of confiscation orders imposed in 2015-16 is much the same as in the previous year, the amount recovered has increased by a further 13% to £175m."
Appearing before the committee on Tuesday, Mr Sedwill said the overall debt is made up of three components - historic and new orders, as well as cumulative interest.
"Quite a lot of this number ...goes back to a period when large numbers of confiscation orders were imposed where I think the realistically collectible amount would have been even lower," he said.
The amount recovered is "high at the low end of orders" at around the £1,000 level and "low at the high end", the committee heard.
Mr Sedwill's written evidence said the Government's conclusion was that progress against strengthening the overall system is on track, but recognised that gaps remain, particularly in tackling "high-end" financial crime.
During Tuesday's session, he was questioned about the message sent by collecting only a "tiny proportion" of the total imposed through confiscation orders.
The senior civil servant said the amount collected has "increased significantly" and insisted the system is improving.
Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders told the committee her organisation deals with "high end" cases.
She admitted: "Some of this will never be recoverable because it is hidden assets. We are looking to find them but sometimes we can't find them. Some of them are assets that are hidden abroad."
She said the CPS's enforcement figures have increased by just under 12%, adding: "I'm quite encouraged by the progress we've made so far. It's nowhere near where we want to be but there is more we can do."
Mick Creedon, chief constable of Derbyshire Police and national lead officer for serious and organised crime, said research suggests that prison is seen as an "occupational hazard" by organised criminals.
He said: "What they hate is their assets being attacked."
Mr Creedon said there "is an argument you can put across that crime does pay", but he added: "I don't think it does."