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15 Oct 2013

The National Crime Agency: re-arranging the deckchairs?

Regulatory litigation alert

The National Crime Agency (the "NCA") is open for business. On 7 October 2013 it superseded the Serious Organised Crime Agency ("SOCA") as the UK's elite policing agency, assuming its predecessor's role in combatting serious and organised crime. This includes economic crime, covering fraud, intellectual property crime, identity crime and counterfeit currency.

The message from the Government and the NCA has been typically bullish, epitomised by the new Director General Keith Bristow's proclamation that "there will be no one beyond the reach of law enforcement or beyond the reach of the NCA."

But we have been here before. Indeed, the NCA represents the third major overhaul of organised crime policing since Tony Blair swept to power in 1997. The National Crime Squad was formed in 1998 to compliment the operations of the National Crime Intelligence Service. Both bodies were merged in 2006 to create SOCA, an organisation which Mr. Blair confidently expressed would "make life hell" for the country's most sophisticated criminals.

It did not quite work out that way. SOCA was throughout its lifetime the subject of considerable criticism. This centred on the paucity of clear results – both in terms of a lack of significant prosecutions and a perceived failure by SOCA adequately to apply itself to the recovery of criminal assets.

So how does the NCA propose to avoid history repeating itself? The NCA boasts a number of new features – we highlight two examples below.
(a) First, speaking about the NCA's launch, Home Secretary Theresa May stated "For the first time we now have a single national agency harnessing intelligence to relentlessly disrupt organised criminals at home and abroad with its own warranted officers, and the power to lead officers from other law enforcement agencies in co-ordinating that activity."

Peeling away the rhetoric, the Home Secretary's comments highlight two important differences to SOCA. The NCA will have its own officers and will also have the power to compel police forces in England, Scotland and Wales to provide assistance and carry out policing operations.

If these powers can be harnessed effectively, and deployed efficiently, they mark a potentially important addition to the NCA's arsenal. Co-ordination is key if any law enforcement agency wishes to execute an effective investigation and bring a successful prosecution. The power to compel assistance across police forces may prove to be a significant step to that end. 

(b) Second, the NCA has recognised that serious and organised crime gangs are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their use of technology to perpetrate crime. In order to address the shortage of technical skills within its organisation, the NCA is on a recruitment drive for volunteers from the private sector. These industry experts, of whom 10 have already been recruited, will comprise accountants, computer experts and lawyers tasked with assisting the agency in tackling its toughest cases.

Labour has raised questions about the basis for taking on volunteers and the level of expertise within the NCA. These issues will of course need to be addressed. In principle, however, the involvement of expert private sector practitioners could well be an effective means to strengthen the NCA's investigative resolve and augment the agency's pool of knowledge and experience. 

That said, the chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, has said that the push for volunteers is likely a reflection on the Government's budget cuts: "This is symptomatic of what is happening across the force…We have lost around 14,000 police officers; it's a 'more for less' culture…you have to ask where it will stop."

The NCA's big play in harnessing private sector expertise has not, therefore, been universally welcomed.

Echoing Mr. Williams' concerns, Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, has said that the organisations which have been amalgamated into the NCA had a combined budget of £812 million. The NCA will, in comparison, only have £473.9 million next year.

Many a Government's good intentions have foundered on the rocks of parsimony. Indeed, next to a lack of political will a lack of funding is the most effective kiss of death to a policy or programme. It remains to be seen whether the NCA will be adequately resourced to pose a credible threat to the UK's worst criminals.


Tony Woodcock

Tony Woodcock

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