It has been announced with great fanfare that the National Crime Agency is to swing into action in 2013. But what will it mean for the investigation of economic crime? And will it lead to any changes in the way prosecutions are brought?
There cannot be any doubt that the arrival of the National Crime Agency (NCA) is a major event. Home Secretary Theresa May has called it a landmark moment in British law enforcement. The NCA will oversee economic crime, as well as organised crime, border policing and child exploitation. To say it will have a lot on its plate is a major understatement. It is being created to police four of the biggest, most high-profile areas of crime in the UK and will also house an intelligence hub that will gather, store, process and analyse mountains of operational intelligence. Fraud alone is estimated to cost the UK £73 billion each year, which gives you an indication of the scale of the economic crime quarter of the NCA’s workload.
If all goes to plan, the NCA will be fully operational by December this year. Its supporters point to the value of having a single national intelligence snapshot of organised criminals, a national co-ordinated response to various threats and an organisation capable of working with a variety of law enforcement partners. The emphasis seems to be on the NCA building two-way relationships with police forces, law enforcement agencies and other partners who have knowledge that could be of use in the aforementioned four crime areas that the NCA will focus on. The intelligence hub and a national cyber crime centre – that will provide expertise, support, intelligence and guidance to police forces and the NCA – are expected to boost serious crime investigation in the UK.
Keith Bristow, who has been appointed as first NCA Director General, has spoken in the strongest terms of bringing people to justice and of disrupting their behaviour and taking their assets off them. As solicitors specialising in economic crime, Rahman Ravelli awaits with interest to see how the NCA works with existing organisations that operate in this field. It is known that the functions of SOCA (the Serious Organised Crime Agency) are being merged with the NCA. The emphasis is being put on less fragmentation between and within crime-fighting organisations. This is based on the argument that a more “joined up’’ approach will enable specialist agencies to take on more and larger cases; with the NCA providing the extra support they may need. Much of the thinking behind the NCA is based on the strong links between the four sectors of crime that it will investigate. In making the link between economic crime and organised crime, NCA believes it can make best use of co-ordinated resources to ensure all relevant agencies work with it rather than to their own agenda. The Serious Fraud Office (SFO), Financial Services Authority (FSA), Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau of the City of London Police will all work alongside the NCA.
What has not really been explained, however, is what difference there will be on a day-to-day basis. So far, the talk and the briefing documents have centred on the reasons for the NCA: why it is needed, why it will be better than what has gone before, who it will work with. There has been little information published openly about exactly how everyone will work together and with this impressive new organisation. Such a point is an important one. In creating the NCA, there has been an admission that organisations have often worked in isolation rather than in tandem, which has not always been the most productive approach. The NCA is supposed to be about strong, two-way links between it and other law enforcement agencies but there has been little explanation beyond such phrases. In such relationships, the devil is very often in the detail. For example, the SFO works in a different way to many other agencies in economic crime. So will it have to tailor its working methods to dovetail with what the NCA will be trying to achieve? Or will it be able to carry on working in the same manner that it does currently? And, if the latter is the case, then what exactly is the point in creating the NCA, after all?
The NCA is a grand-sounding step into the future. It is the government’s attempt to grasp the nettle presented by some of the most serious criminal issues affecting the UK.
Keith Bristow is making rousing statements about its intentions and its goals. It looks like plenty of resources are to be poured into it to make it an effective weapon in the government’s on-going battle against serious crime. But while December 2013 may seem a long time in the future, in reality it is only 12 short months for the government and all other interested parties to put into place everything that needs to be absolutely spot-on before the NCA opens for business.
If the NCA is set up, funded and aligned with its partners in the right way, it could well become a major winner in the war in crime. But if it arrives having not been fully thought out, unsure of its standing among its partners and with the partners themselves not clear of their responsibilities, it could lead to even greater fragmentation of the government’s approach to tackling crime.
At present, the NCA is a plan for a bold, all-encompassing attempt to lay waste to the serious criminal activity that exists in the UK. Between now and December, that blueprint has to be taken off the printed page and made a reality. Get it right and the rewards will follow. Get it wrong and it has to all go back to the drawing board.