Volunteers top most wanted list for 'Britain's FBI' as National Crime Agency is launched

Britain's elite new police force launches today with appeal for private sector to fill its skills gap

Crime Correspondent

Britain’s new elite police agency is to sign up a force of unpaid bankers, accountants and computer experts to help tackle the country’s most serious criminals.

The private-sector recruitment drive is a central part of the National Crime Agency’s strategy to disrupt gangs involved in drug trafficking, gun smuggling, child abuse, corruption, fraud and cyber crime.

The agency begins its work today with a pledge to target 37,000 criminals linked to 5,500 gangs. It replaces the discredited Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) – often dubbed Britain’s FBI – which was criticised for its failure to put enough “Mr Bigs” behind bars and for not doing enough to claw back their criminal assets.

Critics questioned whether the new agency – which has few legal powers that were not granted to Soca – would be effective, with Labour saying yesterday that the NCA was merely a “rebranding” exercise. The plan to recruit industry experts to address a shortage of technical skills indicates the nature of emerging threats from organised crime and the sophisticated technology which allows them to be successful.

The agency has already recruited 10 volunteers, so-called “NCA Specials”, and is now looking for accountants, computer experts and lawyers to help it locate hidden criminal assets, the organisation’s director-general Keith Bristow said. The estimated cost of fraud from organised gangs has reached nearly £9bn a year.

Criminals with specific skills and who have served their sentences will not be allowed to volunteer and all those who are accepted will be vetted, Mr Bristow said. “We have people queuing up at the door… we are finding no shortage of people wanting to join us, but we have to be highly selective.”

Labour said on Sunday that it would be asking questions in Parliament about the basis for taking on the volunteers and the level of expertise within the NCA. “The Government is not yet prepared to tackle the challenges of the 21st century,” David Hanson, the shadow policing minister, said.

Steve Williams, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said the push for volunteers was likely a reflection of the Government’s budget cuts. “This is symptomatic of what is happening across the service,” he said. “We have lost around 14,000 police officers; it’s a ‘more for less’ culture [and] you have to ask where it will stop.”

Mr Bristow said that the NCA would be an “open, transparent and accountable” organisation but would not comply with freedom-of-information requests, unlike police forces. Labour has called for private sector involvement in policing to be subject to such scrutiny. “We rely on relationships with overseas law enforcement to assist in what we do,” Mr Bristow said. “We’re also going to increasingly rely on the relationship with the private sector. There’s a very real danger that being required to operate in line with freedom of information could fracture some of those relationships.”

The NCA is the third major overhaul of organised-crime policing since 1997 and represents a change in approach to tackling the most serious criminals. Tony Blair vowed to “make life hell” for criminals when he set up Soca in 2006, which brought together police, intelligence agencies, customs and immigration. But the agency was riven with in-fighting, according to former members.

The new organisation will take on many Soca staff but the police-led service is designed to be more visible than its predecessor and has a wider remit to tackle organised crime with a £463m budget. It will keep staff in 120 countries including Pakistan.

Witness protection has UK-wide remit

The first UK-wide witness protection scheme is to be launched today to help secure convictions and care for vulnerable witnesses. More than 3,000 people whose lives are at risk will get protection under the UK Protected Persons Service, said Helen Grant, the victims minister.

“People who put their lives at risk to bring dangerous criminals to justice are the unsung heroes of society. They deserve our thanks and protection. That’s why the UK Protected Persons Service is so important,” Ms Grant said.

Last year, just over a quarter of prosecutions that collapsed, did so because a witness or victim was reluctant to give evidence.

In 2009/10, 18 per cent of court witnesses said they or their family felt intimidated, and 40 per cent said they were worried about coming into contact with the defendant and their supporters.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea