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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 November, 2004, 14:38 GMT
Crime fighting for the 21st century

By Daniel Sandford
BBC Home Affairs correspondent

An elite new organised crime agency to tackle "big business" crime such as drug trafficking is being set up. How will it work?

The Home Office estimates that organised crime costs the UK 40bn a year.

That is equivalent to the Gross Domestic Product of New Zealand.

Criminals these days are a great deal more sophisticated than the infamous highwayman Dick Turpin, or even the Great Train Robbers of the 1960s.

Drugs haul found in a suitcase by Customs
If it all sounds a bit like the American FBI, then the comparison is a fair one, but not completely accurate

Ministers are convinced that in order to tackle the sophistication of the modern-day organised crime syndicates a radical solution is needed.

Criminals launder money using up-to-date banking systems.

They trade pornographic images in increasingly technologically-clever ways.

They use highly-developed international networks to move guns, drugs and illegal immigrants.

To beat that level of sophistication the new Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) will employ financial and computer experts amongst its 4,500 to 5,000 staff.

It will endeavour to be at the cutting edge of surveillance and investigation technology. In-house lawyers will work alongside agents to untangle the complex paper-trails.

If it all sounds a bit like the American FBI, then the comparison is a fair one, but not completely accurate.

Concerns

Special Agents in the US have a unique status in Federal law which agents from Soca will not have.

Soca agents will be civilian staff who will have the powers to arrest and carry out their own investigations.

The FBI also handles terrorism and murder when it chooses to. Their British counterparts will not.

Unsurprisingly some police officers - and staff in Customs & Excise and the Immigration Service - are worried about the new agency.

Jan Berry, the national chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents rank and file officers, said: "Elitism has no place in British policing."

"I am worried that we will see a skills loss across the 43 police forces in England and Wales, with the cream of the crop being taken to fill places in this new agency.

"We must not get carried away with the glamorised movie image of an FBI offering a total solution to crime - the reality is often quite different. "

The key to the success of Soca will be its ability to interface with the existing police forces in the UK.

Police and prosecutors will be given extra powers to assist Soca agents - such as requiring offenders to provide details of their finances for up to 20 years.

There will also be reduced sentences for offenders who plead guilty and assist the prosecution with information.

Communication

Communication will also be very important. Relevant intelligence will have to be passed backwards and forwards between agents and police officers.

The last thing anyone wants is for an operation to be undermined by a local force arresting a suspect who has been under Soca surveillance for weeks.

Or for Soca to come charging in and ruin community relations that a local force spent years trying to improve.

Details of the new agency were unveiled in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill on 24 November 2004.

If it is passed, Soca will be up and running by April 2006.




SEE ALSO:
New powers to tackle crime gangs
24 Nov 04 |  Politics
UK's FBI-style agency chief named
13 Aug 04 |  Politics
Blunkett unveils FBI-style police
29 Mar 04 |  Politics
Britain studies US crime fighting
07 Jul 03 |  Politics


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