In Perspective: The UK's Newest Crime Agency


SOCASOCA’s emblem depicts a powerful puma with sharp teeth and claws leaping over and across the globe, alluding to its international reach and potent range of powers and tools for combating serious transnational organised crime. The young agency has had to deal with many obstacles since its formation on 1 April 2006. There have been the practical, resourcing and organisational difficulties that all new agencies face – especially one that started as a multi-agency merger – but the level of official criticism and negative press it has received has been especially harsh. Initial hype about ‘Britain’s FBI’ may have set expectations of what SOCA would be able to deliver too high for the short term, but birth pangs should not be regarded as evidence of a still-born agency. Rather, we should rely less on alarmist assessments based on short-term flux and oscillation, focus instead on the increasing momentum of positive achievements that SOCA has accumulated and take a more reasonable longer-term view in assessing overall success or failure.

Objectives and Capabilities

More than a year before its launch the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith pushed the new agency forward as a key part of the government’s strategy to clamp down on organised crime and ‘make the UK one of the least attractive locations in the world for organised crime to operate’. At the helm as chairman was Sir Stephen Lander, a former director general of MI5 with the responsibility for forming SOCA’s overall approach. SOCA was to be concerned with Level 3 crime, as defined by the National Intelligence Model (NIM) as ‘Serious and Organised Crime – usually operating on a national and international scale, requiring identification by proactive means and response primarily through targeting operations by dedicated units and a preventative response on a national basis’.[1] SOCA’s prey was to be the UK’s top career criminals, the ‘Mr Big’ individuals at the peak of the criminal hierarchy, who amass great wealth through serious and sophisticated organised crime activities worth millions of pounds, many of which are linked with global crime networks. These individuals would be pursued with the aid of specialist prosecutors working closely with SOCA from the Customs Prosecution Office (RCPO) and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to recover assets, use extradition, gain evidence from abroad and protect witnesses.

SOCA itself was a merger of several organisations, consisting of the National Crime Squad (NCS), the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) and the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit (NHTCU), the HM Revenues and Customs (HMRC) sections dealing with intelligence and investigations into drug trafficking and the Immigration Service’s responsibilities for organised immigration crime. Officers can be given the powers of a police, immigration or customs officer if required to ensure that there is the correct combination of powers to investigate, disrupt and prevent organised crime. SOCA also has its own dedicated armed surveillance section, used when making dangerous arrests of potentially violent and armed suspects.

The agency is split into four main directorates that cover the scope of SOCA’s activity: Intervention, Enforcement, Intelligence and Corporate Services. Those in Intervention are concerned with preventing and disrupting criminal activities in the UK and abroad in order to constrain opportunities for organised crime. Those in Enforcement investigate, gather evidence and arrest criminals through intelligence-led operations in close collaboration with other agencies. The Intelligence directorate manages SOCA’s records and information, including information-sharing with other agencies, and looks after the agency’s collection capabilities: the covert collection of intelligence by technical means and human intelligence. It also has a Science and Technology section whose role is to keep SOCA apace with cutting edge techniques, systems and equipment, as well as providing forensic services and support.

Teething Problems

Even prior to SOCA’s official existence there were concerns about its ability to fulfil its objectives and about various aspects of its jurisdiction. For example, the disbanding of the NHTCU, which had built a respected reputation for dealing with e-crime, caused major concern, despite assurances that its absorption into SOCA would result only in cosmetic change. The Police Central e-crime Unit (PCeU) has since been formed to fill this gap, though it is woefully underfunded, with a budget of £7 million allocated annually compared to the £25 million that the NHTCU received.

In January 2007 the Telegraph ran the headline that SOCA was ‘paralysed by bureaucracy’, and reported low morale, lack of direction and low retention rates.[2] At the heart of the reported discontent was the claim that enforcement activity was lacking and that intelligence was not being utilised to develop investigations. An anonymous officer summed up the mood, stating that ‘I am achieving next to nothing in my job ... Since SOCA started, I haven’t taken on any new investigations and haven’t been asked to develop any intelligence to move into an investigation.’ He also complained of top-heavy management denying freedom to exercise discretion in decision-making and added that ‘in my section of the organisation, morale is probably the lowest I have ever known it, and it is low because people are under-utilised’.

In May 2008 another scathing article in The Times claimed that SOCA was failing in the task it was created for by bringing to justice only a handful of the criminals that it had been pursuing.[3] Amongst the issues raised was the claim that a flawed strategy and poor intelligence had hampered performance from the offset and that it was refocusing on a new and far larger group of criminal organisations and individuals than previously. A top-heavy management structure was once again highlighted, as well as ‘rival fiefdoms’, an unsuitable IT system for the agency’s requirements, and officers ‘leaving in droves’ complaining that there was a lack of enforcement activity in the agency, leaving clever but inexperienced analysts behind. SOCA responded by pointing out that the majority of the officers leaving were retiring. Shadow Home Secretary David Davis also took the opportunity to attack: ‘It is alarming to hear reports that, two years after its creation, so many problems appear to be afflicting SOCA’ and that ‘Labour still appears unable to get a grip on [serious organised crime]’. Alison Saunders, head of the CPO Organised Crime Division defended SOCA however, explaining that expectations had been too high from the beginning and noting her team’s conviction rate of more than 90 per cent in SOCA cases, with an increasing caseload:

If you are going to be an intelligence-led organisation – which I believe is the way forward for fighting organised crime – you have to take time to get the intelligence right. I think they are now getting it right. The picture we see now is much more joined up and much more effective.

 2009 has been another hard year in the press and governmental spotlight, not least because of Sir Stephen Lander’s replacement as SOCA’s chief by Sir Ian Andrews in April, an MoD civil servant with over thirty years’ experience and a sound track record. The Guardian covered a government’s strategy unit review that focused on SOCA’s work after HM Inspectorate of Constabulary produced a report that identified many more organised crime gangs in the UK than had been previously thought and raised concerns about performance against them.[4] It also quoted police sources as saying that there was a ‘gaping hole’ in the country’s ability to tackle organised crime because SOCA was too focused on gathering intelligence and that ‘most police forces have neither the resources nor the experience to tackle serious organised crime effectively’. SOCA’s annual budget is about £400 million, a very modest sum compared with approximately £2.5 billion a year spent on counter-terrorism.

Keeping Perspective

It is important to take criticism into careful account, no matter how one-sided. Painful truths may need acknowledgement and lessons to be learned. What has been missing however is attention to the tremendous achievements that an agency less than four years old with extremely challenging objectives and a constricted budget has achieved. According to SOCA’s latest annual report, work is now carried out in forty-nine UK locations and forty-two countries overseas, with almost 70 per cent of staff deployed on criminal and civil justice casework, covert technical surveillance and human source collection and assisting others at home and around the world.[5] In e-crime, significant success was achieved when major online criminal forums dedicated to stealing and selling personal information including payment card and online banking data were closed down, with follow up work across Europe, Turkey and the US resulting in nearly sixty arrests. The maritime drugs enforcement centre – the Maritime Analysis and Operation Centre-Narcotics (MAOC-N) – is an equal partnership between Great Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands under the directorship of a senior SOCA officer. Since its inception in 2007, it has intercepted about 40 tonnes of cocaine and made numerous arrests. SOCA has put boots on the ground in Afghanistan as well to target heroin at the source, leading to the arrests and convictions of key criminal network members. There have been many other successes in areas such as people trafficking, with the arrest of eighteen individuals involved in the trade receiving a total of 145 years in jail.

 The variety of opportunities and roles within the agency are a key attraction and could turn SOCA into an employer of choice in years to come. An officer could find themselves doing anything from conducting complex investigations, outsmarting IT fraudsters or securing the confiscation of criminal wealth; to conducting armed raids, maritime drug busting, or even running human intelligence sources in Afghanistan. However, Rome was not built in a day. It would be far more constructive to refocus expectations for the realisation of overall success from four years to a more realistic fourteen years at the very least. SOCA needs increased government support, money and understanding about the challenges of making such a complex organisational undertaking work. The histories of such well-established agencies as the FBI, the CIA, MI5 and the now one hundred year-old SIS are chequered by ups and downs – SOCA’s story will be no different as it joins them.

Dan Medina

 

NOTES

[1] National Criminal Intelligence Service, ‘The National Intelligence Model’, 2000.
[2] Laura Clout, ‘Soca is “paralysed by bureaucracy”’, Daily Telegraph, 24 January 2007.
[3] Sean O’Neill, ‘Soca abandons hunt for crime lords’, The Times, 13 May 2008.
[4] Sandra Laville, ‘Gordon Brown steps in as agency fails to tackle organised crime gangs’, Guardian, 27 April 2009.
[5] Serious Organised Crime Agency, Annual Report 2008/09, 2009.

 

 

 




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