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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 March 2006, 23:01 GMT 00:01 UK
Soca gears up to follow the money
By Jeremy Scott-Joynt
BBC News business reporter

No-one knows exactly how much economic crime costs the UK each year.

Will Soca make a difference to white-collar crime?

Some figures go as high as 20bn, although recorded crime - albeit at record levels - is about 1bn a year.

Whatever the exact figure, it can break companies, destroy jobs, and ruin lives. Its profits can feed back into organised crime by underwriting drug running and people trafficking.

And the financial burden is borne by every person in the country.

Sounds like just the job for a national law enforcement agency tasked with finding creative new ways to tackle serious and organised crime.

Off the agenda

Not so fast.

When the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) was first announced early in 2004, its priorities were widely perceived to be rather different.

Top of the list were drugs and people smuggling. The money laundering which resulted was also a target.

But other financial crimes were largely off the agenda.

Now, however, all that has changed. Although large-scale corporate fraud remains the responsibility of the Serious Fraud Office, economic crime is now seen as much more important.

For one thing, there is a consensus among experts that fraud and other forms of economic wrongdoing are, more and more, a key element in the activities of organised crime.

The multi-million pound attacks on the government's tax credit system are just the most obvious example of this trend, which has seen organised crime identify fraud as a low-risk, high-reward opportunity.

But the biggest shift is the way that getting money back from criminals - asset recovery - is now a top priority.

All change

There are two key reasons for this new emphasis.

Firstly, there is the lingering effect of the Proceeds of Crime Act of 2002, which made it much easier for UK law enforcement agencies to seize back criminal profits.

But secondly, there is the sea-change within Soca, which opens for business on Monday.

Soca's follow-the-money techniques are rather more advanced

BBC News has spoken to people with a first-hand view of Soca's development, and they are sure the new agency - while an amalgamation of the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), and investigators from Customs and the Home Office's Immigration Service - will be a new beast.

For one thing, senior staff are being drawn from across the law enforcement community and beyond.

Its chairman, Sir Stephen Lander, used to lead MI5, the UK's internal security agency.

Its director general, Bill Hughes, comes from the top job at the National Crime Squad, while several deputy directors come from the private sector.

And the man in charge of looking for creative ways of dealing with financial crime and asset recovery, director of intervention Paul Evans, is a 20-year veteran of special forces and the Secret Intelligence Service - colloquially known as MI6.

'Paradigm shift'

For people with such covert backgrounds, it may seem surprising that openness is a key part of the new policies.

Soca's whole approach is a paradigm shift
UK accountant

But insiders say that reaching out beyond the law enforcement community to the private sector is a central plank of Soca's plans - in general, and for financial crime in particular.

For a long time, there has been tension between financial services businesses and law enforcement over the question of suspicious activity reports (SARs), the warnings which are meant to be submitted whenever a transactions smells a little bit funny.

But NCIS, which has been charged with handling them, has twice in the past three years found itself at the sharp end of critical official reports which - in essence - accuse the agency of messing up the SARs regime.

NCIS, they said, was taking information in but failing either to give feedback on whether SARs were being submitted correctly - or, more seriously, getting the resulting intelligence to the agencies who could best use it.

Now, however, Paul Evans is known to have promised the financial services sector that the old dysfunctional days are over.

Instead, as part of a wide-ranging SARs review, Soca looks set to establish a committee of private-sector executives who undergo the same security vetting as Soca staff.

That way they can be kept informed of just what kind of information the organisation needs.

It's so big that you don't have to argue about the metrics
Paul Evans, Soca

This, according to one private sector figure who has followed the talks closely, is "a paradigm shift".

"The whole vibe has turned on its head," he says.

Follow the money

The prospect now is that - if things go according to plan - Soca will look to trusted private sector players to supplement its limited resources in investigating financial crime.

Not that it is underplaying its own ambitions.

The agency is hiring financial investigators by the dozen - "God's chosen race", as Paul Evans called them in a rare recent public appearance - to staff a dedicated "proceeds of crime division", from both within and outside the law enforcement community.

The aim will be to track criminals' financial activities - whether money laundering or fraudulent dealings - both to provide intelligence and freeze the assets as soon as an arrest happens.

But there is enough work for everyone, inside and outside the agency.

As Mr Evans put it, the process of working out what criminal activities had done the most harm had produced what he called - somewhat euphemistically - a series of "'Goodness Me!' moments".

Seized cash
Cash seizures are only the tip of the economic crime iceberg

The realisation of just how expensive, and how damaging, financial crime proved to be had furnished him with several such experiences.

"It's so big," he said, "that you don't have to argue about the metrics."

Proof of the pudding...

But even if Soca has the best of intentions, it is still going to take time to work through the new methods - and to determine whether they really are having the desired impact, on financial crime and organised crime as a whole.

Although everyone transferring from the precursor agencies has chosen to do so - no-one has simply been drafted - knitting four very different cultures together is acknowledged by insiders to be a tall order.

Relationships with existing police forces could also prove prickly, especially when they themselves are facing an amalgamation process about which many senior officers are dubious at best.

But those responsible for setting Soca up are sure of one thing: there is an opportunity to learn lessons, both positive and negative, and make a fresh start.

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