Shark hunters heading south

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THE head of a specialist crime team which targets loan sharks in the North East says it will be “business as usual” despite staff moving to a new national office in the Midlands.

The North East Illegal Money Lending Team has identified hundreds of victims and clawed back thousands of pounds in assets from dodgy business bosses across Sunderland and County Durham since it was launched four years ago.

However, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recently announced the project would be “restructured” in a bid to save money.

Regional teams – including the one covering the North East – will be “scaled down” with the expansion of a Birmingham base to cover the whole of England.

Jacqui Kennedy, director of the team, has defended the move and said it would not result in a reduced service.

She said: “There will be changes, but they will in no way affect the standard of the service we provide. As far as our work in the North East is concerned, it will be business as usual for us.”

The enforcement side of the team will operate from Birmingham, although members will move on a temporary basis to other areas once an illegal lender is identified, while a “local presence” will be maintained.

“The financial investigation officers that are based in the North East will remain there,” said Ms Kennedy.

“There will still be a permanent presence in the region. The team here has been successful and what we want to do now is build on that success.”

However, the move has been criticised as a “short-sighted decision” and “backward step” which could lead to an increase in illegal lending.

Kevin Rowan, regional secretary of the Northern TUC, said: “At a time when the region is facing 50,000 job losses and pay freezes, there is a far greater risk people will turn to disreputable lenders.”

An estimated 300 illegal money lenders operate in the region.

A spokeswoman for the union Unison said: “The removal of a dedicated team from the region will be nothing short of a disaster.

“The loss of the team could potentially lead to resurgence in criminal targeting of the poor, needy and vulnerable in a region that is a well known hotspot for loan sharks.”

Last year, Tyne and Wear Trading Standards Joint Committee wrote to Business Secretary Vince Cable championing its work, while County Durham’s chiefs have also voiced support.

The team, which included serving and former police officers and financial experts, believes it could continue its work even with reduced funding from Government.

Kevin Dodds, chairman of the joint committee, told Dr Cable Wearside had been one of the area identified as having a problem with illegal lenders.

He said: “The work of the team has confirmed there is a substantial number of loan sharks operating on may of the estates in the areas.”

Owen Cleugh, Durham County Council’s economic wellbeing manager, said: “The Illegal Money Lending Team has produced some fantastic results in County Durham.

“It has been particularly successful in targeting lower level local lenders, those identified as having the most impact in our communities and has, no doubt, prevented a significant number of vulnerable people falling victim to loan sharks. It would be disappointing if we were to lose their dedicated regional presence.”

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l Text ‘loan shark + your message’ to 60003

l E-mail reportaloanshark@stoploansharks.gov.uk

l Log-on to www.direct.gov.uk/stoploansharks