Sir Stephen Lander: 'It's certainly difficult to bring criminals to book. We have to think of new ways of skinning a cat'

Chairman of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency
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The Independent Online

As a former head of MI5, Sir Stephen Lander is used to maintaining a low profile. The Cambridge-educated spy master is well known within the diplomatic and policing community, but anonymous as far as the public are concerned.

But in his new role as the chief strategist and chairman of what is being touted as Britain's answer to the FBI, known at the moment as the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca), that is about to change.

For one thing he will have to get used to on-the-record interviews with journalists.

So how is he enjoying his new found notoriety? Seated in Soca's new offices across the square from the Houses of Parliament he has to think for a while. He replies hesitantly: "Do I like it? Not entirely, I'm getting used to it. It's all right. It's OK. I don't mind. It's part of the job, I knew it would be." He continued: "I'm coping. The difference from before [as head of MI5] is that I wasn't visible on the telly."

Sir Stephen, 57, has a tough job on his hands. The various agencies that tackle organised crime are considered to be having a mixed success. The Government believes a new approach - and hence a new organisation - is needed to combat the burgeoning threats that criminals with millions of pounds of resources pose. Soca is due to begin work in April next year and will have a force of about 5,000 officers, replacing the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service and investigation teams at HM Customs and Excise and the Immigration Service.

One criticism of the new agency has been that it is merely an expensive publicity stunt and will carry on the existing investigations using the same people but under a different logo. Sir Stephen is not of that view and believes a new line of attack is needed.

He said: "We are not winning. Drugs or people-smuggling, or new frauds made possible by the internet - some we are holding our own just, but we are not clearly rowing back the problems.

He added: "I don't think the UK has failed, it has been comparatively successful. But nobody would claim we are on top of these problems - any of these problems at all.

"And that is at the heart of why the Government has created this new agency and why we are going to have a different approach. It is because we are not tackling the problem with what we have at the moment. Let's not pretend that this is going to be a cup of tea - it is going to be jolly difficult."

To help with this new strategy, the Home Office is giving Soca some new powers including compelling people such as accountants to provide information, wider-ranging search warrants, new protection for witnesses, powers to stop convicted criminals hiding and using their cash, the use of plea bargaining and discounts for turning Queen's evidence.

Sir Stephen is particularly keen on the tactic of pursuing the assets of big-time criminals - using the recently created Asset Recovery Agency - which he believes in many cases is more effective than trying to hit a criminal enterprise or supply route. Organised crime is estimated to have a £15bn a year turnover. Part of the reason for targeting the assets of drug barons is the failure of law enforcers to have any significant impact on the supply and availability of drugs in this country.

The Soca chairman acknowledged as much when asked why prices had stayed at a similar level for the past 15 years. "If the price hasn't changed it means we have just cut the margins slightly for the dealer, we haven't impacted on the harm at all. There is good historical evidence of that happening in a recent year where very large quantities of class A drugs were seized in this country and the price on the streets didn't change, and the people on the streets doing the dealing got replaced very quickly."

The tactic of going after the money rather than always trying to get a conviction is partly due to the difficulty of bringing a top-level criminal to trial.

Sir Stephen said: "It is certainly difficult to get criminals to book unless they have caught people red-handed."

He continued: "I think it will make us think of other ways of skinning the cat, as it were. So if we can't prosecute we might invite the Asset Recovery Agency to try the civil courts to get the assets. We have to think of other ways of making the business less profitable."

The importance that ministers, particularly the Home Secretary, place on the creation of Soca is revealed by the priority given to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill that creates the agency. The Bill is one of the few pieces of legislation that looks likely to get through before the general election. Later this week, it is expected to go to committee, when any amendments are tabled. It should become law before Easter.

The priorities that are adopted by Britain's elite crime fighting force will be partly based upon the number of column inches newspapers give to different types of organised criminality, Sir Stephen disclosed.

Researchers at the Home Office have looked at about 30 newspapers, divided equally among broadsheet and compact newspapers, the tabloids, and the regional press, over the past five years. They have calculated which organised crime issues are the most pressing by measuring the column inches and number of stories devoted to each subject. Organised immigration crime came first, followed by drugs.

Sir Stephen explained: "The brainboxes in the Home Office have been putting together a sort of harm model.

"The model basically articulates the harm that is caused to the UK under a number of headings - the rewards taken and made by the criminal; the social and economical harm to the UK; the institutional harm - corruption for example and illegal immigration - and tries to put a cost [on them].

"It also brings into play judgements about the degree of public concern and they have a proxy for this, which is the amount of column inches in the press. Which is not quite right, but is probably as good as you will get. It is pretty rough and ready but it is asking the right questions. It is asking not, what is the incidence of something, but what is its impact.

"One of the priorities of the harm model is a better understanding of the problems."

He continued: "The first of the cracks of the methodology suggests that we need to do more on people-smuggling and people-trafficking."

So does this mean that because newspapers are obsessed with immigration issues that Soca will be giving people smugglers and traffickers more attention than it would otherwise? Sir Stephen replied: "Illegal immigration stories in the media are much the most frequent - they reflect a newspaper's policy line on a subject and they also reflect genuine anxiety.

"People-smuggling has been growing across Europe and the UK is seen as very attractive location. The best estimates are that 95 per cent of the illegal immigrants who get here are paying someone to facilitate them, so it is a real money earner. It is a lower risk than drugs. It does have an impact that has been growing over the past 10 years."

He did, however, concede: "There is certainly a level of hype in some of the media coverage but nevertheless there is substantial money made at the expense of the UK and taken out of communities from poor countries."

Ministers will set the overall priorities of Soca, which in turn draw on the "harm model".

But is it right that politicians should have such an influence in the way crime is tackled - why not leave it to the professionals? He argued: "You can't disentangle the political imperatives. If ministers want to have something slightly more important than something else then that is their political judgement.

"They run the country, I don't - it's their judgement that counts. It is a real problem [illegal immigration] - this has weight this problem, the degree of weight you attach to responding to this has to have an element of political judgement about it."

"For a national agency, of course it is going to be political, what else is it going to be?"

He stressed, however, that the operational decisions on specific targets and cases would be made by Soca. Sir Stephen will be able to draw on his experience of fighting the IRA and spies during his 27 years at the Security Service, which he headed from 1996 to 2002.

Asked what were the biggest differences in dealing with the IRA and the organisation's current priority, al-Qa'ida, he replied: "Scale and the difficulty of identification. The IRA were mostly, although not exclusively, the Irish and we have been working collectively on the Irish problem for 30 years. Broadly, we have a good idea of the problem.

"Al-Qa'ida and the linked groups are much more difficult because of their differing nationalities. You have to work hard to get to the first base, which is who is who. We are on the first phase - identifying who is who."

And on the question of whether Britain is going to suffer a direct attack by al-Qa'ida? "I think it is jolly likely there will be a successful attack at some stage. The fact there has not been one yet is not because people have not tried - it's that they have not been successful.

"I think that sometimes the media forgets that the fact there has not been an attack is the result of success."

Back to the issue of his new agency, or more accurately the acronym - Soca. The title has caused much mirth among law enforcers, particularly Americans ones, who think is sounds like a sports outfit.

Sir Stephen also has reservations, and strongly hinted that it was going to be changed

"It would not be where I would have started ... .it's not a particularly euphonious or comfortable name."

THE CV

* Born 1947

* 1966: history degree at Queens' College, Cambridge.

* 1975: recruited by MI5. Work includes countering Soviet espionage and "domestic subversion".

* 1996: appointed director general of the Security Service (MI5) to succeed Dame Stella Rimington.

* 2002: retired as head of MI5 and later becomes an independent commissioner of the Law Society.

* 2004: appointedchairman of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, with a salary of £120,000.

* Married with a daughter.

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