The clause introduces a new provision into the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Criminals need to launder the proceeds of their crimes to carry on their criminal activity. As I outlined on clause 12, we need to ensure that we are able to respond to that threat.
POCA already contains provisions for the seizure of cash, but we do not have an equivalent power to take quick and effective action against funds held in bank accounts, and criminals know that. Given the use made by criminals of the banking system, we need to plug that gap. At present, it is difficult for law enforcement agencies to take action against many such accounts because their values are below the limits for civil recovery. The clause will allow the police or the National Crime Agency to seek the freezing and forfeiture of those funds.
The clause will give law enforcement agencies new powers to freeze and forfeit funds held in bank and building society accounts. The measure will have two significant effects. First, it will be easier and quicker for law enforcement agencies to seize the illicit funds held by criminals who abuse the banking system to store and transfer the proceeds of their crime. Secondly, it will also make it clear to criminals that we can take immediate and effective action against their abuse of the financial system.
The provisions we are putting in place will support the forfeiture of funds in bank accounts that have been suspended by the banks when they have serious concerns regarding the use of the accounts. The banks welcome the certainty that will bring. The provision will of course be accompanied by appropriate safeguards. An account cannot be frozen unless there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the funds in it are the proceeds of crime or will be used to fund criminal activity. The freezing of an account will be overseen by a court, which will be able to make an exclusion to allow the account to be used to support a person’s reasonable living expenses or to continue to run a legitimate business.
Forfeiture can be undertaken administratively by the law enforcement agency exercising the provision in uncontested cases. When the forfeiture application is contested, the matter will be decided by the court. The funds in the account will not be transferred to the law enforcement agency account until the forfeiture order is made. I hope that sufficiently reassures the Committee about the need for the power and how it will be used.
It sounds like there will be sufficient judicial oversight in this space. We know that a lack of bank regulation previously led to some nasty incidents in our history, so we support the clause.