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All-seeing, all-knowing: the proposal for a National Crime Agency in the UK

The UK government has announced plans to establish a National Crime Agency, intended to a provide a "multi-agency national response" to a number of issues - organised crime, border security, economic crime, and the exploitation of children. Widely reported in the press as an "FBI-style" agency, the NCA is deemed necessary for a number of reasons. The primary motivation seem to be that "cutting crime is the sole objective that the government has set for the police", but the current response to organised crime is "patchy and fragmented". [1]

With this in mind, the plan is for the efforts of UK's multitude of law enforcement agencies and a number of other government departments to be subjected to greater central coordination in the name of "a national operational agenda for fighting serious and complex crime and organised criminality". Those agencies and departments to be involved make up an extensive list: English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish police forces; the UK Border Agency; HM Revenue & Customs; the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; the Department for Transport; the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; the Department forWork and Pensions; the Ministry of Defence; the Ministry of Justice; the Office of Fair Trading; the Financial Services Authority; the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency; Police and Crime Commissioners (who will be locally-elected if the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill passes into law); the Maritime and Coastguard Agency; the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau; the Attorney General's Office.

Consultation, information sharing and intelligence gathering is intended to lead to "a comprehensive picture of the threats, harm and risks to the UK from organised criminals". This in turn will allow the NCA to set "the overall operational agenda for tackling serious and organised criminality." The proposals would provide the NCA with both operational and analytical powers.

Proposed operational powers
The centrepiece of the Home Office proposals, and that most widely-reported in the media, is that:

Subject to training, NCA officers [will] be given the powers of a police constable, customs and immigration powers. This… will mean that NCA officers are able to deploy techniques which are not available to the police.

It seems that remnants of pre-coalition Conservative plans for a national dedicated border police force [2] have managed to work their way into a niche within the NCA. The 'hybrid' officers that are proposed by the plan for the NCA would have access to the UK Border Agency's "ships, aircraft surveillance capacity and drug and people detection technology".

These, and other officers employed by the NCA, would be permitted to undertake "specialist investigations and operations". This would include permission to engage in "lawful interception of communications, providing specialist firearms, kidnap and extortion services". These activities are currently under the remit of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), which it is proposed to be disbanded and absorbed into the NCA.

Alongside dealing with organised crime and border security, NCA officers will be given the task of dealing with cyber crime and child protection. With regard to cyber crime, the agency will "have its own investigative capacity and will also help local forces develop their own capability to deal with this threat". Child protection issues will be covered through the NCA absorbing the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), a proposition for which the government has faced criticism, with CEOP's former head claiming such a move would "undermine attempts to keep children safe from paedophiles and other abusers on the internet". [3]

The NCA would be provided with its own intelligence-gathering capabilities. More specifically, it will be permitted to:

Collect and analyse intelligence lawfully obtained by its own capabilities and by its security, intelligence, law enforcement and other partners.

Intelligence and information will also be gathered from other government departments and agencies, including:

Police forces and partners agencies (including intelligence from overseas, that held in the UK about people coming into and leaving the country, opportunities for working with the National Offender Management Service) using appropriate information sharing and joint working protocols.

The vast swathes of information and intelligence that would be processed and analysed by the NCA are intended to allow it to undertake its analytical functions.

Proposed analytical powers
If established, it is intended that the NCA will:

Assess intelligence at a strategic level to provide an authoritative picture of the national crime threats to the UK, spot future trends and provide an authoritative picture of the national crime threats to the UK, spot future trends and better inform planning decisions and policy-making.

This will then be used:

At a tactical level to coordinate, prioritise and ensure better targeting of operational activity against organised criminals.

This will be done through the use of "21st century technology" in order to "match the threat posed by criminals who seek constantly to evade detection".

Centralisation and localism
One of the Conservative Party's proposed plans - to create directly elected 'Police and Crime Commissioners' for different regions and cities - has run into trouble, with the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill [4] facing significant opposition and a vast number of amendments as it passes through the legislature. There is a significant tension between the plans for the NCA and the planned creation of Police and Crime Commissioners, the election of whom is intended to:

Put power back into the hands of local communities… [Commissioners] will deliver on local priorities for cutting crime.

This runs counter to the proposals for the NCA, which is supposed to ensure that local forces undertake particular responses to a centrally-established 'threat assessment'. This is not, however, an easy undertaking. A recent report produced by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary noted that despite significant efforts to ensure otherwise, there are still a wide number of inconsistencies between different police forces' approach to public order situations. [5]

It is also proposed that the head of the NCA will be accountable only to the Home Secretary, although it will have "strong and accountable relationships with the police and other law enforcement agencies". A centralisation of authority would therefore be combined with a centralisation of planning.

The scope of NCA powers
The proposals state that the NCA will be focussed on dealing with organised crime, border security, "other serious and complex crimes, including economic crime, cyber crime and child exploitation". However, it is also put forth that the NCA "may lead the national response to other criminality and house other functions", as long as a number of conditions are met. Firstly, funding has to be available, the "other criminality" has to have "the potential for significant harm" and cross "a number of geographical areas; and/or requires specialist capability". There is thus significant scope for the expansion of the NCA's focus, depending on how such terminology is interpreted.

"An operational reality"
It seems unlikely that the proposals - when fleshed out into legislative form - will make it onto the statute books unchanged. The NCA seems to represent another attempt by another government to introduce an agency that will have all-seeing, all-knowing powers, gained through "multi-agency working" and the gathering of intelligence from all manner of sources. Such proposals rarely work in practice; it is noteworthy that the NCA is being proposed partially to serve as a replacement for SOCA - another agency for which politicians had grand visions. Legislation to establish the NCA will be put forward early in 2012 which will no doubt be the subject of much debate, although it should be noted that by then a "shadow NCA" will have already been established, in order to "ensure a smooth transition".

[1] Home Office: 'The National Crime Agency, A plan for the creation of a national crime-fighting capability', June 2011.
[2] Conservatives,
'Where we stand - Immigration'
[3] Deboraha McAleese, ''Children at risk' if agency merger goes ahead', The Belfast Telegraph, 9 June 2011,
[4] Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill
[5] HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, 'Policing Public Order', February 2011, p.7-8

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