The Big Cat Pounces: An Interview with Bill Hughes, Director General, SOCA

Launched in April 2006, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) is an 'intelligence-led agency' designed to tackle Class-A drugs, organised immigration crime, fraud against individuals and the private sector, high-tech crime, counterfeiting, firearms, serious robbery and recovery of the proceeds of crime. An executive non-departmental public body, SOCA is sponsored by, but operationally independent from, the Home Office.

'Keep Calm and Carry On', the iconic British poster of the Second World War, hangs next to the office of Bill Hughes, the Director General, in a discreet Whitehall building. Such reassurance was probably needed more in the early days as SOCA fought battles on all fronts, its problems magnified by a baying press pack that sensed blood.

Incidents such as the loss of a USB data stick in 2006 containing details of a counter-narcotics operation did not help SOCA's cause, but the inherited data-handling policies of precursor organisations were directly to blame. 'SOCA has introduced its own clearly defined data handling and security policies,' says Hughes and the organisation is fully compliant with the recent Hannigan Review on data breaches.

Hughes, along with recently retired Chairman Sir Stephen Landers, has sculpted SOCA into an agency that reduces 'harm' from serious organised crime. After serving a full term as head of the Security Service, MI5, Sir Stephen retired as Chairman of SOCA this summer. Sir Ian Andrews took over and brings a wealth of experience from his time as the second most senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Creating Partnerships with Teeth

Creating partnerships, in the UK and externally, is crucial to lopping off the tentacles of organised crime. An example of such success is the conviction of Curtis 'Cocky' Warren, a notorious Merseyside criminal, mention of which brings a wry grin of contentment to Hughes. After serving time in the Netherlands for a drugs smuggling conviction and for kicking an inmate to death, Warren conspired with associates to import £1 million onto the island of Jersey. After being arrested in 2007 for conspiracy to smuggle drugs, he was finally found guilty in October 2009 and was sentenced to thirteen years in December. This conviction would have been impossible without assistance from the Dutch, Belgian and French authorities, who all contributed to the evidence base used in court.

Reflecting on SOCA's strategy, Hughes argued that 'first, we're not interested necessarily in the type of crime but the criminal; second we're looking at lifetime offender management [given recidivism rates of organised criminals] designed to reduce the harm rather than increase the statistical numbers.' Warren's substantial existing funds are currently being targeted by Hughes's officers.

Future SOCA Budgets

Given the current recession and the tight restraints on spending, the SOCA budget for 2010-11 is likely to be shrunk from its current level of £430 million. Highlighting SOCA's effectiveness in saving public money, however, Hughes cites the interruption of a tax fraud which saved Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) between £500 million and £600 million. SOCA is streamlining too, scaling back the estate it inherited and building 'new hub constructions' to cut back on staff travel costs.

Hughes also flags SOCA's effectiveness in investigating firearms crimes:

We've been focused on the serious contract killer end of the business while working with our intelligence assessments to try and help forces deal with other firearms issues.

Hughes notes that SOCA has seized 730 'contract killer type' firearms this year, adding that SOCA prevented thirty-five Category A murders in its first year of business, saving in purely financial terms an average of £3.5 million per murder case that did not have to be investigated. With the largest number of armed officers in the UK, SOCA has been working with officers from the Metropolitan Police Service attached to Operation Trident and the Flying Squad in operations such as combating middle-market drug dealers.

Since the abolition of the Regional Crime Squads in the 1990s, no law enforcement agency was specifically charged with tackling middle-market crime. To fill this gap, SOCA and partners from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), police forces, United Kingdom Borders Agency (UKBA) and HMRC formed the Organised Crime Partnership Board (OCPB) in 2008, which Hughes describes as a 'fundamental change'. Chaired by Martin Baker, the ACPO lead on serious and organised crime and the Chief Constable of Dorset, the OCPB will also take in contributions where appropriate from other government departments, such as the Foreign Office.

Feeding OCPB work are the nine Regional Intelligence Units (RIU) in which SOCA has over forty officers embedded. SOCA is introducing an 'industrial process' - what Hughes calls a 'high volume operating model' - which will list thousands of suspected organised criminals to be targeted.
Countering High-Tech Fraud
According to Hughes, the recession is causing a spike in cash-in-transit robberies and an increased frequency of fraud in its various guises. The use of the Internet in these frauds is increasing rapidly.

SOCA responds to this threat by using technology to target e-crime and to infiltrate online organised crime groups to discredit criminal members. With the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), SOCA broke the 'Dark Market' organisation which sold 'skimmed' credit card details. SOCA is also assisting online gaming companies which have been subjected to attempted extortion by Eastern European criminals threatening Directed Denial of Service botnet attacks. SOCA is also working with PayPal and Western Union to prevent money laundering. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre that polices the Internet, affiliated to SOCA, will soon become fully independent.

Perpetrators of e-crime, says Hughes, are becoming more diverse, originating in Russia, Eastern Europe, China, and South America. The groups tend to have portfolios of activities and links to other organised crime groups. At the international level, SOCA works closely with several countries and also has a 'strategic alliance' with its 'five eyes' (the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) national counterparts. Co-operation is successfully built up with the French Office Central pour la Répression de l'Immigration irrégulière et de l'emploi d'Étrangers Sans Titre (OCRIEST), which is part of the Direction Centrale de la police aux Frontières. A joint intelligence cell comprising OCRIEST, UKBA and Kent Police was opened on 27 October 2009 at Folkestone.

International Linkages

With responsibility for extradition, SOCA is building on established co-operation with Spain's Guardia Civil and Police Nacional, and its liaison officers have helped to arrest over sixty British criminals. The Iberian Peninsula is also an entry point to Europe for cocaine; the Lisbon-based Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre (MAOC) brings together Portugal, Spain, the UK, Ireland, France, the Netherlands and Italy with SOCA, Europol and the US Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) to interdict the trade in illegal commodities. With MAOC co-ordination, the Royal Navy's HMS Iron Duke seized 5.5 tonnes of cocaine in September 2009 off the coast of Columbia. One drug dealer was recently extradited by SOCA from Columbia using an Air France flight, an apparent first.

Despite the prominence of Russian organised crime groups '[SOCA] had to withdraw our liaison officer from Moscow ... after the Litvinenko affair which has made it difficult to work with our usual colleagues, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD)'. However, SOCA does co-operate with the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) in countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Hughes praises Russian competence in counter-narcotics but questioned their infrastructure and expressed concerns about operating in former Soviet republics given their endemic corruption.

Iran is another country important to SOCA's remit, but due to recent unrest, SOCA had to withdraw from Tehran. 'I would like to work more closely with the Iranian authorities but it is difficult,' says Hughes, who points out that the country is an important transit point for heroin being smuggled from Afghanistan to the West; a smuggling pipeline which causes severe harm in Iran too.

China looms large for SOCA, particularly in terms of e-crime, people trafficking and the smuggling of Vietnamese migrants into the UK to assist in cannabis cultivation. Counterfeit goods, not just DVDs and cigarettes but also aircraft spare parts, are a problem too.

'We've been developing a working relationship with the Ministry for Public Security in China for the last few years.' SOCA has liaison officers in Beijing, Guangzhou and a 'very good working relationship' with Hong Kong. A Chinese law enforcement officer is on secondment to SOCA.

Of the approximately 140 officers deployed abroad, Afghanistan is SOCA's greatest commitment and Columbia second. In addition to working with UK and local Afghan partners, SOCA co-operates closely with the US, notably with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the FBI and implements the 'nexus approach' of counter-narcotics, counter-insurgency and anti-corruption work undertaken at the same time.

Hughes stresses that the Afghans have 'to put their house in order', but relates the case of a top Afghan drugs smuggler currently serving time in an Afghan prison and the support provided to developing Afghan Special Forces capability to successfully target heroin laboratories. SOCA has also penetrated the hawala money transfer system to disrupt money laundering. Both it and the DEA work together in the London-based Joint Narcotics Analysis Centre to this effect.

Alongside traditional heroin supply routes, transit via East Africa to West Africa and then into Southern Europe is a new threat. SOCA has worked with French, German and US partners to disrupt cocaine traffic through West Africa. On people trafficking, SOCA is working with the French in Toulon and the Libyans. Hughes is aware of 'nexus points' that traffickers move people through, like Moscow. He added that the National Human Trafficking Centre in Sheffield is to be incorporated into SOCA following a police request.

Intelligence-Led Operations

Since intelligence underpins SOCA's successes, Sir Ian and Hughes aim to further integrate SOCA into the traditional UK intelligence community. According to Hughes, SOCA should be a full-time member of the Joint Intelligence Committee; such an outcome may come from any future government defence and security review given the impact of organised crime on national security.
SOCA has seconded to the security service and elsewhere, and works on counter-terrorism directly with its Terrorist Finance Unit, which data mines 'suspicious activity reports' to generate intelligence products for SOCA's partners. 'We've [also] been operating very effectively with SIS [the Secret Intelligence Service] overseas and with GCHQ.'

As regards signals intelligence, SOCA has in-house capability to conduct 'properly warranted' telephone interception for the police forces of England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland forces conduct their own). Other agencies also assist SOCA, which is in favour of the government's proposed Interception Modernisation Programme. Beyond technical means, SOCA is a keen to utilise the skills of personnel with a well-developed human intelligence capability, and covert human intelligence sources.

Sharing intelligence will be improved as SOCA replaces legacy IT systems. Two procurement projects are underway: SOCA 2010 is the foundation upon which a second project, the Information Management Programme, will operate. 'This will give us a significant step up in intelligence analysis and assessment. Not just for us but for our partners in all agencies and in the private sector,' states Hughes.

Lowering the Demand for Drugs

Prevention of drug demand is also important to SOCA, which works with DrugScope and the UK Drug Policy Commission. Cocaine purity on the street is between 5 and 10 per cent due to dilution with bulking agents by unscrupulous dealers, says Hughes. In addition, binge drinking combined with cocaine consumption may be a greater threat to health than previously recognised, due to cocaethylene production in the user's body that damages the heart, according to an article in the Observer in November 2009.

In Parliament, the Home Affairs Committee is to report on the issues associated with cocaine use and possibly on SOCA as well, though Hughes is keen that the committee fully understands the agency's work and visits it. 'SOCA's methodology of disruption rather than purely prosecution does not fit easily with traditional public and political expectations of what equals success in law enforcement,' says Hughes. SOCA's approach to prosecute where possible, to disrupt and to make crime harder to commit 'was endorsed in the Government's "Extending Our Reach" review recently'.

After long service, Hughes will retire in August 2010 to learn to fly. After this time the agency will have come a long way from its inception under Blair's government. However, the challenges ahead are great for this relatively new agency. Not only does it need to help those within Whitehall and beyond to understand their modus operandi and to state its successes more loudly, but Hughes's successor will have to make the case for extending both SOCA's operational and financial stability into the coming years.

Grant McDonald
Freelance Journalist

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