The agency set up as “Britain’s answer to the FBI” has admitted to a big drop in the value of assets seized from criminal gangs last year, raising new doubts about whether it is failing in its mission to tackle the £20bn black economy.

The Serious Organised Crime Agency, which has a £476m yearly budget, said in its annual report that it denied crime bosses access to £143m in the year to April through restraint orders, confiscation orders and civil court recovery. That was 20 per cent lower than the previous year.

It also disclosed that cash seizures fell from £9.2m to just £5.1m.

The report comes at a difficult time for the agency, which has failed to convince many in Whitehall of its merits in the fight against the UK’s estimated 6,000 criminal gangs.

Seizing assets is seen as the best way to combat organised crime because gangsters are thought to be more worried about their wealth than prison terms.

There was speculation before the election that a Conservative government would scrap Soca. However, the new Home Office team appeared to have granted it a stay of execution after deciding to merge it with a new border police force.

On Tuesday, Nick Herbert, the policing minister, said Soca’s role would be considered as part of a root-and-branch review. “We want a refocused approach to ensure police forces and agencies are equipped to fight serious and organised crime at all levels,” he said.

One asset recovery specialist said some ministers had hoped to target criminal proceeds to boost the government’s coffers, so Soca’s performance would be “a disappointment”.

About half of the assets taken from crime gangs are redistributed to police and other law enforcement agencies.

Police commanders have long bemoaned the fact that Britain is losing the fight against criminal gangs. Sir Paul Stephenson, head of Scotland Yard, said recently that “our progress in tackling organised crime has simply not been good enough”, though he stressed he was talking about the police rather than Soca. He made the point that money seized from gangsters was a tiny fraction of the £40bn economic cost of organised crime.

Soca defended its performance on Tuesday, as “12-month snapshots can vary hugely because of the length of time of litigation. Property value can also be subject to changing market and economic conditions”.

Scotland Yard estimates there are nearly 500 crime gangs in the UK with assets above £1m and 68 with assets of £10m or more.

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