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Last Updated: Monday, 3 April 2006, 09:51 GMT 10:51 UK
Crime-fighting in the shadows

By Mark Easton
BBC home editor

At the top of the new Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) are a former spymaster and a top police officer.

Sir Stephen Lander used to run MI5. Bill Hughes led the National Crime Squad. Now these two men command a 400m organisation which is neither police force nor security service.

But the hope is that together they can make a big impact on the people traffickers, drug smugglers and financial racketeers who, it is estimated, cost the UK more than 8bn a year.

Soca - dubbed the UK's FBI - will bring together the combined resources and expertise of four existing agencies: about 1,200 staff come from Customs, 2,100 from the now-disbanded National Crime Squad and National Criminal Intelligence Service, and 100 from the Immigration Service.

Global

Soca takes a global view of its role - from source to street in the case of drugs or people trafficking.

So it has agents deployed among the opium poppy fields of southern Afghanistan as well as on the streets of towns in the United Kingdom.

Handcuffs
Soca agents are not police officers or customs or immigration officers, but could enjoy the powers of all three
Recently, Soca allowed the drug dealers in one Lancashire town "to run for a time" - the idea was to see how far the drugs trade penetrated.

The town, with a population of about 50,000, was found to have 50 quite distinct drug gangs.

Success will not be measured, though, by how many dealers are convicted or how many drugs are seized.

As Mr Hughes points out: "Something like 7bn is spent on the street on drugs each year and at the moment police recover only about 100m.

"As soon as one dealer is jailed another takes their place. That approach doesn't work."

Reducing harm

So Soca will judge itself on how well it "reduces harm", but how will that be measured?

Sir Stephen suggests it might be "by a reduction in acquisitive crime or the number of problem drug users in treatment".

The agency will use any legal weapon at its disposal, not just the criminal justice system, to undermine the syndicates that bring so much misery to UK streets.

Soca will work closely with other agencies around the world to disrupt or destroy parts of the illegal networks. It is a "what works" philosophy.

In one European country where corruption is rife, Soca agents operate with the blessing of a trusted government minister but without the knowledge of the law enforcement agencies.

New powers

The agency will also inform the public and institutions on how they can be alert to and help defeat the crime bosses.

For instance, householders might be told how to spot an illegal narcotics laboratory; water companies might be asked to look for unusually high levels of drug traces in effluent; banks might be warned about the latest financial scams; employers might be offered advice on how to help defeat people traffickers.

Seized cash
Soca can inspect convicts' financial affairs and seize money and assets
Soca will exploit new powers including "Queen's Evidence", by which prosecutors will be able to strike deals with suspects, offering immunity from prosecution or sentence reductions in return for co-operation.

New financial powers mean Soca can inspect the financial affairs of those convicted of offences and, if appropriate, use the Proceeds of Crime Act to seize money or assets obtained from the profits of crime.

Soca agents are not police officers or customs or immigration officers, but when trained could enjoy the powers of all three.

However, it is unlikely the general public will ever knowingly see one. This is an agency which does its work in the shadows.

Its headquarters and 40 regional offices are unmarked. The hope is, though, that the results of its work will be noticed by everyone.


SEE ALSO:
Soca gears up to follow the money
30 Mar 06 |  Business
Organised crime bill at-a-glance
24 Nov 04 |  UK Politics


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