The Proceeds of Crime Act - brought in to target organised criminals could be used against housing benefit fraudsters and other less serious offenders.The Police Federation has expressed concern that "intrusive powers" are to be given to people who are not police. But the Home Office said seizing "ill-gotten gains" was a key part of the fight against all kinds of crime. The move, which is being pushed through next week by Home Secretary Alan Johnson, is set out in a Statutory Instrument, which means it will not be debated by MPs. Paul McKeever, of the Police Federation, told The Times: "The Proceeds of Crime Act is a very powerful tool in the hands of the police and police-related agencies and it shouldn't be treated lightly."Search warrants
He added that there was a "behind-the-scenes creep of powers occurring" and the the public would "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".
Under the move Accredited Financial Investigators, which include customs officers, Department of Work and Pensions investigators, trading standards and other local authority workers, are to be given the power to seize assets worth more than £1,000 ahead of a court ruling on their origin and to execute search warrants. At the moment, these powers are executed on the investigators' behalf by police officers.The Home Office said the powers will be used against people who have benefited significantly from criminal behaviour and that investigators using them are subject to a code of conduct. A spokeswoman said the powers would not be used against people in arrears on their council tax or parking fines, as has been reported. 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."
But the Conservatives attacked the move - saying it could be abused by local authorities. Shadow communities secretary Caroline Spelman said: "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."
When the Proceeds of Crime Act was introduced it was meant to be used to deprive major organised criminals of their lavish lifestyles. The then home secretary David Blunkett said it would target "the homes, yachts, mansions and luxury cars of the crime barons". But Mr Blunkett said earlier this year that the law had been "deeply disappointing" after a BBC Panorama documentary revealed how major drug dealers and money launderers were making a mockery of it. Using the Freedom of Information Act, Panorama found that in the last three years the Scottish unit responsible for criminal confiscation has frozen £60m of assets - but has only succeeded in taking back £6m of that total. In the UK as a whole, £137m was recovered last year. The act has increasingly been used by police to seize the assets of minor offenders.