The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, has been accused of deliberately covering up figures for the rise in counterfeit currency.
Mr Howard's embarrassment at the scale of the increase - exacerbated by the growing use of coloured photocopiers and printing techniques - has been compounded by cutbacks in the number of police officers dedicated to tackling dud cash.
While, the Independent has learned, the US Government is responding to the problem by launching a new $100 bill, complete with state-of-the-art anti-forgery devices, a Labour MP has accused the Home Office of moving in the opposite direction. The US note, to be announced at the end of this month, is the first to be introduced by the US for many years.
Since 1991, said a spokesman for the National Criminal Intelligence Service, there has been a 254 per cent increase in the number of reported cases of fake currency in Britain. Last year, NCIS was notified of 187,588 incidences of forged money either being found by police or being handed in by the public.
But since 1992, the number of national officers allocated to combating the crime has dropped from 12 to eight and their boss at NCIS also has responsibility for drugs and organised crime. Those moves have coincided with the decision to remove the national unit away from Scotland Yard to NCIS. Apart from the eight at NCIS, the only other police officers dealing with counterfeit money are members of regional crime squads and local forces who absorb it into their other duties.
Dale Campbell-Savours, the Labour MP for Workington, has made a study of the crime. He understood the true growth in cases of forged money was "20 times higher" than NCIS's 254 per cent and has written an urgent letter to Mr Howard asking for the true picture to be given and for an explanation of the rationale behind the cuts.
The published figure, maintained the MP, was "being deliberately under- stated for reasons of confidence in the economy".
It was madness, said Mr Campbell-Savours, for the Government to be reducing the police officers involved. "These cuts that have been made are quite silly, quite unnecessary. There should be more people investigating and co-ordinating between authorities. Eight is far too few for such a huge problem."
Bill Tupman, Director of the Centre for Police and Criminal Justice Studies at Exeter University, said that on a recent study tour around Europe, all police forces spoke of their difficulty in keeping forged notes in check. Even the Irish authorities were trying to stem the flood. "If someone is forging Ipounds 10 notes that shows what a big business it has become," he said.
It also meant, added Mr Tupman, that if the problem was bad in Ireland it was worse in Britain where sterling is more in demand internationally. "In Eastern Europe, people are desperate for hard currency. They do not care if it is real or not since holding it is often illegal anyway."
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