THE REGION'S criminals will be hit in their pockets - or anywhere else they keep their illegal assets - following the introduction of a new squad designed to tackle organised criminality.

The North West Regional Asset Recovery Team is a multi-agency team formed to provide a focused response to asset recovery by supporting investigations that target criminals who are engaged in drug-related, serious, or organised crime that crosses force borders. It aims to confiscate as large a proportion as possible of the 25 billion pounds generated each year by the criminal economy.

Empowered by the provisions of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, the North West RART is one of five teams now established throughout England and Wales. Others are based in the Midlands, the North East, Wales, and London.

Staff from Customs and Excise, the Asset Recovery Agency, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the Crown Prosecution Service, and the Inland Revenue have joined forces with Lancashire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, and North Wales constabularies. The teams include analysts, financial investigators, and clerical staff.

Based in Lancashire, the team is headed by Detective Chief Inspector Mike Kellett. His deputy is Customs and Excise senior investigator Cliff Allen. Lancashire's Assistant Chief Constable Julia Hodson chairs the team's management board/steering group.

Nationally, the five RARTs are being funded by the Home Office to the end of 2006 to the tune of 36m - with the North West's allocation amounting to almost 11m.

Each will work closely with asset recovery teams from all the agencies - in Lancashire's case this includes Major Crime Unit, Force Intelligence Unit, and divisional financial investigators. They will also have strong links with the national Asset Recovery Agency in London and Belfast.

Said DCI Kellett: "A lot of our officers are very experienced in this field. Training can take up to a year and we intend to establish a centre of excellence in asset recovery. We are here to help and advise all our partner agencies."

He emphasised the need for the RART to be contacted as early as possible to allow investigations to be proactive. Offenders' assets are often dispersed or deeply hidden, making them much more difficult to recover.

The Act also allows police to take civil proceedings to trace and recover proceeds of crime without the need for a conviction in a criminal court. In certain circumstances specific offences don't even have to be identified.

"It is now up to the individual to prove that the asset or cash has been legally acquired - the onus has now shifted to them," added Mr Kellett.

"The objective of the RARTs and the ARA is to send out a clear message that crime does not pay and to prevent criminals from funding further criminality. It will remove negative role models from communities and decrease the risk of instability in financial markets. This is certainly a growth area for law enforcement and one which can do severe damage to career criminals."

Since POCA 2002 came into force just over 12 months ago Lancashire has made 20 cash seizures totalling more than 500,000 putting the Constabulary in the top five of the country's most successful forces.

The Constabulary has obtained five restraint orders relating to assets valued in excess of 530,000, well ahead of most other Crown Prosecution Service areas of similar geographic size and population.

Home Office Minister Caroline Flint formally launched the five RARTs at the headquarters of the Asset Recovery Agency in London on Tuesday, 24 February.

The RART concept was piloted last year in the West Midlands area (West Midlands, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, West Mercia constabularies supported by Customs and Excise, NCIS, and the National Crime Squad.)