Soca is the great game in town

By Jeffrey Robinson, author of ‘The Sink: how banks, lawyers and accountants finance terrorism and crime’ (THE TIMES, 03/04/06):

WHEN TONY BLAIR cuts the ribbon and declares the Serious Organised Crime Agency open for business today, British law enforcement will finally enter the 21st century.

A radical change has been overdue since the 1990s when organised criminal groups began increasingly to target Britain. Despite the presence of South American cocaine cartels, Nigerian fraud enterprises, Russian crime gangs, Turkish heroin traders and Asian and Balkan immigrant smugglers, more than half of local police forces told the Home Office, when asked for their plans to deal with the threat, that international organised crime was not a problem they saw. These forces were ignoring the fact that organised crime is global in nature, but decidedly local in impact.

Until now the fight against these criminals has been spread too thin, across too many agencies. A new approach was first discussed in May 2003. A confidential Home Office report noted: “The state of intelligence on serious and organised criminality in the UK is bad . . . Some of these [weaknesses] are attributable to the intelligence community itself.” The report also suggested: “Investigating agencies are performing woefully in tapping the intelligence knowledge of thousands of officers in the field.”

As a result the Government decided to merge the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, drug investigators from Revenue and Customs and investigators from the Immigration Service into one intelligence-driven, law-enforcement agency. Oddly named the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) — can organised crime be unserious? — it is designed to target drug traffickers, people-smugglers and money-launderers, in addition to emerging crimes such as gun crime, and high-tech and paedophile offences.

It has been handed an arsenal of new weapons, one of which is American-style plea bargaining. It is baffling that it has taken Britain this long to figure out that most crooks will readily exchange guilty pleas for shorter sentences. When you look at complex fraud cases in the United States, you see that nearly 95 per cent of them never go to trial because the bad guys “plead out”.

However, the Americanisation of British law enforcement only goes so far, and the police running the new agency get nervous when their agency is dubbed “the British FBI”. That is understandable, given the FBI’s ability to irritate its allies. The bureau’s attitude is: my bat, my ball, my rules, my game, my press headlines. But Soca is planning to keep a low media profile and to work hard to form partnerships with local law enforcement. It insists that, if local police get the glory and Soca doesn’t, that will be fine. Except, in practice, it never is, because glory translates into budgets. The more crooks you put away this year, the more money you can demand for next year.

Just as the bad guys have formed joint ventures, Soca is developing closer ties with police forces around the world and seeking stronger relationships with the business world. That, too, is long overdue. Banks, for instance, are required to file reports on suspicious cash transactions as part of the battle against money-laundering. It is a costly, time-consuming activity, for which the banks have got precious little in return. But Parliament has authorised the agency to share whatever intelligence it wants with whomever it wants and Soca is intent on making intelligence a two-way street.After years of police agencies telling businesses that what the police know is none of their business, Soca is now saying: “You need to know more and we’re going to tell you.”

It is a sea-change which will take a long time for the intelligence types in this new force to digest. Experience suggests that, at least in the beginning, they will fight it because intelligence types are notoriously proprietary when it comes to what they know, and only comfortable when intelligence is moving in one direction — into the black hole that they have dug, never to emerge again.

That attitude becomes particularly significant when you realise that Soca is being overseen by a spy. Sir Stephen Lander, the former head of MI5, is chairman of its executive committee. People who know him well say that there is no one better when it comes to understanding how government really works. Accordingly, they add, Sir Stephen has no time for the Home Office or for the mandarins. If both are true, then he is definitely the right man to keep the bureaucrats away from Soca, use his skills to bring more money into the agency and, most importantly, protect its officers from on-high.

The day-to-day running of the agency falls to Bill Hughes, former head of the National Crime Squad and a copper determined to run it as a law-enforcement agency; you know, to find and arrest bad guys. The worst outcome would be that Sir Stephen and his spook mates revert to type and wrest control away from Hughes and the cops.

On paper, Soca is the right concept for the time. So if Sir Stephen can keep the Government, mandarins and spooks away, and let Mr Hughes and the rest of the police do what they do best — which is to be policemen — then the creation of this agency will be the most important step in the fight against gangsters since Robert Peel issued “bobbies” with truncheons and handcuffs.