Opinion

Later this month, the Government will publish a consultation white paper on tackling organised crime in the UK. It is widely expected that the main pillar of this new approach will be the establishment of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca).

At the press conference to launch this initiative, Tony Blair stated: “We’re not going to beat organised crime if we simply work in the way we worked five or 20 years ago. We need to have one focal point instead of different agencies that will come together for certain operations but aren’t working in a coordinated way.”

The proposal is that Soca will take over the work of the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), the National Crime Squad (NCS), the investigative division of the Immigration Service and Customs and Excise’s investigative division responsible for drug trafficking and confiscation. The inference appears to be that it is the poor relationships between these agencies that have hampered the effective investigation and prosecution of organised criminals.

But have we not been here before? In April 1998, Tony Blair established the National Crime Squad, saying: “If the response to serious and organised crime is to be sharpened and made more effective, the present structure… needs to be replaced by a more nationally coordinated structure.”

Since then, the NCS, with the aid of intelligence from the NCIS, has been responsible for the arrest of more than 5,000 criminals, the confiscation since January 2001 of £40m of criminal assets and the seizure of drugs worth more than £1bn. The majority of these cases have involved organised gangs engaged in drug trafficking and people smuggling. The NCS has been effective at detaining the traffickers and the smugglers, but what of the godfathers? These superficially respectable bosses often remain aloof from the sort of activities that investigations conducted by the above agencies engage in.

There is one area of criminal activity that does not appear to be a priority for Soca and it is an area where individuals are most vulnerable. This is financial crime: serious fraud, money laundering, VAT fraud and cheating the Inland Revenue. These are the offences committed by those at the top when attempting to receive and conceal the proceeds of their crimes. They are currently investigated by the various regional police fraud squads, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), certain investigative arms of Customs and Excise and the Special Compliance Office at the Inland Revenue, and there is no aim to change the way these agencies interrelate or bring them under the Soca umbrella.

Placing the drug trafficking and confiscation arms of Customs and Excise within Soca will hopefully improve the profile of a section of Customs that has been under very close scrutiny in recent years, following a number of high-profile case-handling difficulties. However, is it far from clear why the other investigative arms of Customs that deal with very complicated cases of VAT fraud and money laundering have been excluded. It is also unclear which work the newly independent prosecuting office at Customs will be responsible for, as the Crown Prosecution Service will most likely be the prosecuting agency for Soca cases.

Investigating organised financial crime is difficult, as was illustrated by the collapse in July 2003 of Operation Cotton, an investigation lasting 10 years and costing £25m into allegations of professional money laundering. However, with the implementation of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, the Government has a new weapon to use in the prosecution of gangland bosses and their professional advisers. The opportunity is there for this weapon to be used to great effect, but only if it is in the right hands.

Much of the intelligence relating to money laundering that currently goes to the Economic Crime Branch at the NCIS by way of suspicious transaction disclosures will in 2006 go to Soca. It is unclear how Soca will deal with this information, but a sensible proposal would be to create a money laundering task force within Soca, staffed by officers from the financial investigations unit of the Metropolitan Police and other regional units.

It is also far from clear how Soca will liaise with the SFO or the Inland Revenue, but at the very least there will need to be clear memoranda of understanding and gateway provisions for the free flow of information.