Police budgets in the UK have been cut by almost a fifth over the last decade. These cuts to resources have led to 45,000 fewer police officers and support staff. This has also, according to the Ministry of Justice, led to the number of people punished for crimes hitting a record low.
Less widely reported, however, is the fact that this has dovetailed with police forces “self-funding” through the seizing of cash and assets; often from law-abiding people, many of whom are never even charged (let alone convicted) of any offence and many of whom are immigrants.
This self-funding comes in the form of the Home Office’s “Asset Recovery Incentivisation Scheme,” a model that effectively incentivises police to grab cash, rather than solve crimes. The police force in question then gets a cut of the cash forfeited.
This “commission-based policing” is at record levels - and it is dangerous. If officers are paid in the same way as a door-to-door salesman, you might expect exaggeration or the twisting of the facts to get a “sale.” I have seen this from police all too often.
London’s Metropolitan Police have stated that they use money seized to “fund and support financial investigation posts within the Metropolitan Police Service Business Groups.” Budget cuts (of which the police are victims) have essentially forced them to operate in this way. An officer speculatively seizes some cash, which his department gets to keep a percentage of, which is then used to recruit more cash grabbers (94% is spent this way). The recruitment process is relatively easy: any officer can attend a one-day course and become approved to seize your money.
The relatively new “McMafia” laws actually keep the bar - for the amount of money that can be seized, as well as the evidence required - worryingly low through Account Freezing Orders, or AFOs. All an officer needs to do is demonstrate “reasonable grounds for suspicion” and, often in your absence and without you having the opportunity to defend yourself, you can be effectively bankrupted. This applies to amounts as low as £1,000 - hardly McMafia territory. The way these laws have been branded and communicated by the authorities means there is the potential for bias against foreigners who have any significant financial means. In the popular imagination, “McMafia” is synonymous with suspicious foreigners - and it is much the same in the minds of many police officers, in my experience, even if the foreigners are quite clearly law-abiding.
Senior officers have been very vocal about the impact of funding cuts. It seems that they now have no choice but to self-fund, without being dependent on what the Treasury hands out to them. This sets a dangerous precedent. A transparent democracy depends on a degree of centralised governance, where authority and financing flows downwards from elected representatives - not outwards to little-known, self-funding police divisions.
There are parallel financial investigation police departments emerging that are well-funded and well-staffed. But you will never see them if you are mugged, burgled or raped. Their primary purpose is to grab the money and run. Some might say that the government appears more concerned with funding than they are with public safety, and that police forces are now incentivised to target individuals with the most assets (regardless of criminality), rather than focus on securing justice for victims for crime. Victims who are targeted by perpetrators who do not have much cash to seize, are therefore not a tempting prospect for cash-strapped police forces.
Although the police have made progress since the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry found them to be institutionally racist 30 years ago, some minorities, including EU citizens, feel that there are still echoes of the past in how these powers are applied to immigrants. In one high profile case, a Russian-born entrepreneur with EU citizenship was forced to abandon his planned life in the UK when the police seized all his UK assets, after a fraudster used an account on his online finance platform to defraud an individual of £750. In court, Merseyside Police reportedly described him as a “mysterious Russian” despite his business at the time being a licensed financial business and a sponsor of Liverpool FC.
Challenging these AFOs is time-consuming and costly, incentivising police forces to target those who are less likely to stay and fight them and more likely to simply give up and go home. Targets have even recently included overseas students, who have met the “reasonable grounds for suspicion” by receiving cash transfers from their relatives back home - something to be expected if a foreign student’s family is wealthy enough to afford a £38,000 a year British education.
Often, there is very little investigation associated with the money grab, but even where there is, it can lead to lives being disrupted for far too long. Often an innocent person will spend up to two years with their bank account frozen and struggle to pay not only their legal fees but everyday living expenses. Many are never even charged with an offence.
By the time the process is over, their business, life and reputation will have been destroyed, and if they are not British, their immigration status or life plan may be permanently disrupted.
We all want a properly-funded police force that can apply the law thoroughly and consistently, regardless of someone’s background. As long as that funding comes, not from central government but from incentives to target the life savings of foreigners, too many innocent people will be caught in the crossfire. And the first casualty will be the presumption of innocence.
- Abbas Nawrozzadeh is a criminal defence and investigations solicitor
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