Taking on its first case on October 7th, British law enforcement got a boost when the National Crime Agency (NCA) officially started operations last month.
The NCA is essentially a new agency to tackle organised crime- but with a wider set of powers and roles. It will be much tougher on finding criminals and tackling serious and organised crime, with the new agency being more centralised than its predecessor, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), and will take the lead role in investigations. The NCA will operate by being able to coordinate command and control investigations with local and regional police forces and agencies, utilising and sharing their intelligence, information and assets, as well as bringing in centralised and national resources and intelligence for specific investigations.
Reflecting modern threats and criminal activity, the NCA will take on varied roles and responsibilities, some from other agencies. A key area will be organised crime, where it will take over from SOCA. Additionally, its other major ‘command’ will take over most aspects of border policing. Other areas brought under NCA control include child protection and exploitation, and it will head up the new national cyber-crime units and initiatives.
More tellingly, economic crime will also be tackled by the NCA. A 2012 City of London Police study put the cost of economic crime to the UK at £73bn, and rising. As such, it is no wonder that many financial professionals and experts have agreed to be volunteers for the new agency, and many financial institutions have agreed to offer financial and economic advice to it.
The new agency will also be more transparent and very visible; press releases show heavily armed NCA officers wearing conspicuously labelled NCA windbreakers taking down criminals in training exercises. In an interview to The Independent, the new NCA Director General Keith Bristow illustrated the tough approach of the NCA; “we want the criminals to know who we are because we want them to fear our attention.” The former Chief Constable of Warwickshire Police went on to say that “our top priority is continuously to disrupt those criminal groups by bringing them to justice, taking their assets off them, using every lawful and ethical technique that we have available to make their criminal lifestyles as difficult as possible.”
On the NCA’s ability to order other law enforcement agencies to do its bidding, the career policemen was in line with the politicians. Home Secretary Theresa May stated in her House of Commons speech launching the NCA that having such authority to “undertake tasking and coordination, ensuring appropriate action is taken to put a stop to the activities of organised crime groups” enabled the agency “to directly task where there are disputes about the nature of approach or ownership.”
“NCA officers will be able to draw on a wide range of powers, including those of a police constable, immigration or customs powers… This will mean that NCA officers – unlike anybody else – will be able to deploy powers and techniques that go beyond the powers of a police officer.” Effectively, Ms May announced the formation of a visible, tougher and all controlling UK- style FBI.
Previous governments have similarly tried to tackle the growing problem of organised crime. The NCA’s predecessor was launched in 2006 by Tony Blair. Under the initial leadership of former MI5 Director General Sir Stephen Lander, it was set up to tackle head on the threat of organised crime. With a team of over 4,000 experts drawn from the various law enforcement and intelligence fields, it was set up to target groups such as drug smugglers, people traffickers, fraudsters, and related organised crime groups. It was welcomed as a centralised law enforcement agency, as opposed to all the regional police forces and agencies.
SOCA was given wide powers, in order to make things extremely difficult for organised crime leaders. To that end, the agency was given a greater intelligence gathering role, taking on roles and services formerly provided by the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), intelligence roles from HM Customs & Excise and the Immigration Service. It was to be, the Labour government claimed- Britain’s FBI.
Several years later, and after several scandals, its perceived lack of tangible success in arresting organised crime leaders, and the recent resignation of director Sir Ian Andrews over a conflict of interest, SOCA has gone the way of its predecessors. In its place is SOCA Mark 2.
Will the NCA be a new, tough and flexible law enforcement agency, as its masters make it out to be? Or is the NCA merely an exercise in rebranding, giving a new name, budget, and slightly differently worded job description to a very similar agency, as many commentators feel?
Crime bosses in jail, organised crime gangs thwarted, cyber-attacks stopped, illicit materials seized at borders and similar results will show whether the NCA will be as robust as its proponents claim, or as far reaching and powerful. Only time will tell as to whether the new agency will result in arrests, reduction of organised crime, and less drugs on the street. A few years of operations and involvement in fighting crime will show whether the National Crime Agency will be a welcome addition to the UK law enforcement community, or whether it will merely be the same presence at the table.
Crime and criminals have recently become more advanced, technologically savvy, and have adapted their methods have adapted their methods to 21st century technology. In response, whether it is a new agency, new resources, better use of cyberspace and international policing agencies, law and enforcement had to be modernised and updated. Rebranding or not, a centralised agency focussing its resources to modern criminal trends and activities is very necessary. Even if the NCA is the same as SOCA, the perception amongst the public and criminals is that of a tough, new agency. Such a perception can be invaluable, and actually be an effective deterrent of some organised crime without the NCA actually having to do much.
The one definite is that politics never changes. When SOCA was announced, Conservative shadow ministers were critical and sceptical. Following the Home Secretary’s announcement, shadow Home Office minister Yvette Cooper said of the new agency that “for the renamed national crime agency to be successful, it needs steady leadership, clarity and the resources to deliver. In the end reorganisation is no substitute for police officers on the ground doing the job,” before questioning the finances of introducing a new agency when police numbers and funding were being cut, and Police & Crime Commissioners (the Coalition’s other flagship law and order policy) were being introduced. Furthermore, in her tough stance on crime and law and order, Theresa May is very similar in her approach to her Labour predecessors under Tony Blair. In Whitehall, the governments may change, but the politics don’t, and neither do the policies.
It remains to be seen as to whether the National Crime Agency will be a welcome change that will result in disruption to organised crime, or will merely be a rebranded SOCA. Either way, an attempt at a change in law enforcement tactics can only be welcomed.