Serious crime agency criticised over costs

The agency in charge of recovering the proceeds of crime was criticised by MPs yesterday after it emerged £1 was seized from gangs for every £15 in its budget.

The Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) was heralded as "Britain's FBI" when it was launched three years ago in a blaze of publicity. It has since recovered £78m from crime bosses, while costing taxpayers £1.2bn. Soca's chairman Sir Stephen Lander, and its director general Bill Hughes, defended its performance when they appeared before the Home Affairs Committee yesterday.

The Labour MP David Winnick said the agency had been "a disappointment" and had failed to deliver results. The committee heard accusations that the agency employed too many senior managers after it emerged it had a total of 30 deputy directors. Reports had said it was riven with internal conflict and it faced a review of its work by No 10.

Sir Stephen, who retires later this summer, accepted Soca had "teething troubles" but said he would give it a score of eight out of 10 for its performance this year. He told the committee that anti-drug operations had stemmed the supply of cocaine, causing the street price of illegal drugs to rise to an all-time high. Crime bosses were moving away from cocaine because it was no longer profitable, he said.

"Cocaine has never been more expensive in this country. What we know from our intelligence operations is there are shortages of cocaine across Europe," said Sir Stephen. But this claim was rejected by Sebastian Saville, the chief executive of the drugs charity Release, who told the committee that cocaine was "as available" as ever.

"The apparent increase in price correlates exactly to the decrease in the value of the pound," he said. "The reason Soca have said that it has gone up is not to do with their interdiction of cocaine, it is more to do with currency."

Sir Stephen said Soca operations had stopped criminals using £460m in addition to the money seized by the agency. Mr Hughes said seizing assets was not the "be all and end all" of the agency's work. And he said Soca was regarded as a world leader in its work tackling organised crime.