Government plans 'tougher approach to organised crime'

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The Independent Online

The Government today promised a "much tougher approach to organised crime" as it outlined a new strategy to tackle drug gangs and fraudsters.

It wants to combine existing agencies to create an "over-arching" body in a bid to save money, at the same time as police forces face a wave of spending cuts.

The Organised Crime Strategy is intended to ensure there is a co-ordinated national approach to the issue across government, law enforcement and the security and intelligence agencies.

It costs the UK between £20 billion and £40 billion each year to tackle organised crime, and ministers say the strategy is designed to reduce those costs.

The National Crime Agency, due to be rolled out in 2013, will replace the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop), as well as housing the national cyber crime unit and covering border policing and economic crime.

Home Office minister James Brokenshire said: "Organised crime is a serious problem in this country."

He said the impact of criminal activity can be seen on the country's streets through drug dealing, people are targeted with online fraud, and the effects can be felt internationally.

"That's why we want to stem the flow of organised criminality, to be able to strengthen the law enforcement response and also safeguard people as well," he said.

"This is a big problem, that's why we need an over-arching strategy.

"It's the first time the Government has published a strategy of this kind to ensure that we're joining up our resources, getting our focus, getting the information there, and by doing so, better targeting those who are seeking to exploit people in this country."

The Home Office said last year that law enforcement agencies recovered, froze or returned over £1 billion worth of criminal assets.

Of that, £161 million of ill-gotten gains were seized, while assets of £831 million were denied to criminals, and victims of crime were given back a total of £49 million.

The Government believes around 38,000 people are involved in organised crime in the UK, as part of 6,000 criminal gangs.

It said about half of of those are involved in drugs, while gangsters also use human trafficking, fraud and money laundering.

Mr Brokenshire said he wants to crack down on the "dodgy accountants and bent lawyers" who make it easier for criminals to ply their trade and look into "front companies" by working with the tax authorities and insolvency authorities.

At a time when Government departments are cutting their spending, the National Crime Agency is designed to save money, the minister said.

"At the moment the Border Agency, the Serious Organised Crime Agency and Revenue and Customs are spending as much as £829 million each year dealing with organised crime," said Mr Brokenshire.

"We believe that would be more effective if we join together, if we actually coordinate this more effectively.

"It's not about looking at spending more money, but spending money more efficiently."

Criminals are increasingly keeping their cash and assets far away from British shores in a bid to hide their bounty from the country's law enforcement agencies.

Mr Brokenshire refused to go into detail about which nations the Government was most concerned about, but he said it is seeking to improve its coordination with international partners.

He said: "What this strategy seeks to do is draw the Government together, recognising that there's more that we can do overseas as well, through overseas aid through our diplomatic links, by cooperating with our partners, as well as actually taking this all the way down to the street, to what or police teams on the ground are dealing with, things like drugs.

"It's about ensuring we are tasking things more effectively, that we're understanding the problem more significantly, and by so doing bearing down on those criminals, ensuring that their assets are taken, that they're denied the proceeds of their ill-gotten gains.

"Therefore showing that the UK is taking a much tougher approach to organised crime."

The top job at the NCA is yet to be filled, and the Government has faced potential embarrassment after it extended the application period following an apparent lack of interest.

Following the resignation of Sir Paul Stevenson as Met Commissioner and John Yates as Assistant Commissioner in the wake of the phone hacking scandal that rocked the force, police chiefs are in the spotlight.

But Mr Brokenshire shook off suggestions that senior officers would shy away from the jobs of NCA chief and head of the Met.

He said: "I think that the head of the Metropolitan Police and the head of the National Crime Agency are really significant and really important jobs in policing, and how we change the landscape of policing in years ahead.

"We are confident that senior chief constables will be applying for these roles.

"That's why we're extending the period for the National Crime Agency because it's likely that it will be a similar pool of people who are applying for those jobs.

"We're confident we will get really high quality people for what are high quality jobs, and therefore ensuring that we've got the leadership at the top to take issues forward."