'British FBI' to tackle organised crime

Government reveals biggest changes in UK policing for 40 years
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Indy Politics

A nationwide FBI-style agency to tackle organised crime gangs was unveiled by the Government today.

The UK-wide Serious Organised Crime Agency will combat the new wave of crime bosses engaged in drug trafficking, people smuggling, fraud and money laundering.

An elite squad of specialist investigators will replace the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad and take over the investigative functions of the Home Office and Customs and Excise.

A team will now be set up to appoint a chairman and director-general for the agency. And a comprehensive new strategy with tough new laws to target organised crime will also be announced shortly.

Announcing the new agency, Home Secretary David Blunkett said: "Organised criminals make their millions from human misery - trafficking in drugs and people, engaging in fraud and extortion. They control criminal empires that reach from the other side of the world to the dealer on the street corner.

"They believe they are beyond the reach of justice and out of our sights. That is not the case - no-one should be untraceable and no-one should be untouchable. This new agency will focus on tracking them down."

The Government will change the law as soon as possible to bring in the new centrally-funded agency in the biggest police shake-up since 1964, when the boundaries of the existing 43 forces in England and Wales were set.

There were reports at the weekend that the former New York police chief Bill Bratton could be named as head of the new organisation. Mr Blunkett is an admirer of Mr Bratton's zero tolerance tactics which saw crime in New York City fall by more than a third.

The Home Secretary announced plans last year which would allow foreigners to become chief constables for the first time, and has already put ex-Boston police chief Paul Evans at the helm of the Home Office's Police Standards Unit.

The new force will feature not just police officers but a range of specialist civilian investigators such as accountants, financial experts and computer boffins. It remained unclear how much involvement the spy agencies MI5 and GCHQ would have in the new set-up.

The moves come after criticism of Customs and Excise over a number of botched trials involving drug traffickers and fraudsters.

NCIS currently has 1,200 staff and an annual budget of £93 million to prepare intelligence on organised crime, which is then passed to the 43 forces in England and Wales. NCS has 1,330 detectives, 420 support staff and an annual budget of £130 million. It carries out its own investigations on serious organised crime, spending three-quarters of its resources targeting drug traffickers.

Customs and Excise boasts a £1 billion annual budget and has 1,850 officers in several different arms addressing fraud, drug trafficking and other cross-border crime.

In November, Mr Blunkett outlined parallel proposals to create "lead" forces among the existing 43 to improve the way serious crimes such as murder and Internet paedophilia are investigated.

For the first time, the Home Office also mooted the merger of some of the smaller police forces.

A document suggested the "time was right" to consider whether the 43-force structure was still "the right one for today's policing needs".

Officials proposed creating larger, "strategic" forces which were big enough to absorb the demands of large, long-running investigations without damaging day-to-day community crimefighting.

Organised crime is worth up to £40 billion a year, according to Government figures. That is more than three times the entire GDP of Luxembourg. UK crack and heroin markets are worth an estimated £3 billion a year.

Fresh concerns have also been raised over illegal immigrants after the deaths of 19 Chinese cockle-pickers in Morecambe Bay. Some 70 per cent of illegal immigrants enter the EU with the help of organised crime groups, with an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants entering the EU every year.

The Association of Chief Police Officers has welcomed the new force but warned it would have to avoid the FBI's reputation for aloofness and trampling on the turf of local law enforcers.

Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, who heads Scotland Yard's Specialist Crime Directorate responsible for tackling serious and organised crime in London, said: "London's communities are blighted by organised criminal networks, which have a national and international dimension.

"We will work with the agency to ensure there is a faster and more flexible approach to dealing with this menace. It is important that the agency does not work in isolation of the communities and it is our view that the Met's Specialist Crime Directorate will be able to bridge the gap between the new agency and the very diverse communities living in London.

"We have a good working relationship with many of the other law enforcement agencies and in particular we have developed strong partnerships to tackle serious and organised crime.

"These include Operation Maxim, which was set up by the Met, Immigration Service, Passport Agency and Customs in response to organised immigration crime, and Operation Payback, a joint initiative with Customs to recover cash and assets from some of London's most serious criminals - and Operation Middlemarket which is being set up in partnership with Customs to crack down on drug dealers.

"In addition, we regularly participate in proactive operations with the National Crime Squad and we were very pleased that the National Criminal Intelligence Service had relocated its London office at New Scotland Yard."

Chris Fox, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: "The new agency will provide significant opportunities to fight crime, nationally and internationally, which we know has such a harmful impact on all our communities.

"We are pleased that the proposed new agency will bring about a totally new partnership of equals, to combine intelligence collection and operations to maintain the national and international focus required to combat increasingly well-resourced and financed criminal organisations.

"We note the opportunity to enhance border security and welcome any changes in protocol that will make this more of a reality. This again is a significant issue in our communities."

Tony Blair and Mr Blunkett today inspected one of the key weapons at the disposal of the new agency.

The HM Customs Cutter, the 140ft HMCC Searcher, is one of three vessels in its class which patrol the coastlines of the UK in search of smugglers.

Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett met Commander Chris Mace and were then given a demonstration of a rigid hull inflatable boat being launched from the aft deck. The 22ft inflatable is used mainly to board vessels which are suspected of carrying contraband, drugs or illegal immigrants.

The vessel, built in Holland in 2001, was berthed in the Pool of London, in the shadow of Tower Bridge.