Forget the boss’ salary, the new National Crime Agency faces greater challenges

The National Crime Agency faces a crisis of identity unless its priorities are defined

The National Crime Agency faces a crisis of identity unless its priorities are defined

The launch of the much vaunted National Crime Agency has run into trouble this week ahead as politicians squabble over the symbolic wage for the top boss. It turns out that the front runners for the post – including Assistant Commissioner Dick, the officer in charge of the operation which saw Jean Charles De Mendez killed – currently earn more than the £140,000 salary.

Political considerations

In 2010 the Coalition government aimed to make political capital about how many senior public servants earn more than the prime minister. While this had the desired effect of stirring up the desired fury against public sector overspending it has now left the Home Office in a difficult position.

The offer of £140,000 sits on the politically acceptable side of the prime minister’s £142,500 but is now making candidate selection a very public headache for Theresa May.

“Britain’s FBI”

The National Crime Agency has been heralded across the press as “Britain’s FBI”, replacing the Serious and Organised Crime Agency which was deemed to be too pre-occupied with intelligence gathering.

The NCA is billed as the robust new generation of national policing, swallowing up the well performing Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP). Attempts to incorporate the serious fraud office and elements of the FSA’s remit under this new banner have proved trickier for the home office, with both organisations fighting for their independence.

Lack of direction

Those of us with long memories will remember the introduction of SOCA in 2005 with the unanimous heralding across the press indulged by the government of the introduction of “Britain’s FBI”. This replacement of the National Crime Squad was billed as a more robust and independent organisation dedicated to tracking down high priority offenders on a national level.

Yet it quickly failed to live up to expectations, the blame game for why is naturally divisive. Most can agree that it was not helped by the fact that very few experienced police officers joined SOCA as their pensions were much better with their forces. Instead its ranks were filled out with mostly customs and excise officers with less experience and training to deal with the kind of complex criminal networks SOCA was intended for.

Those with even longer memories may remember the 1998 introduction of “Britain’s FBI” the National Crime Squad, or even “Britain’s FBI” the National Criminal Intelligence Service in 1992.

‘Fourth Time Lucky’

So it may be fourth time lucky for “Britain’s FBI”, though little has changed in the remit of this new agency compared to its predecessors to suggest it will. One question no one seems to have asked is “what are these organisations for?”. The simple answer is “to get those criminals who slip through the net by operating at a national level”. However this contention is ropey at best.

Most modern crime networks work out of large cities, the simple dynamics of supply and demand makes it is rare to find heroin cartels in an area such as Bury St Edmunds. Instead the cities of London, Manchester and Birmingham all serve as focal points for the kind of organised webs of criminality the NCA and its predecessors are tasked to shut down.

Yet in these cities lie often dedicated police forces or example the Met or Greater Manchester Police. The massive policing structures already exist and have been challenging these networks for years, with local knowledge and internal intelligence networks.

While certainly not perfect these police forces do little worse than the dedicated national agencies. The problem with these local investigations is not a lack of will or raw policing rather a lack of finesse at gathering, interpreting and acting upon intelligence with a poor grasp of the legal framework required to secure convictions.

Another waste of time?

Time will tell what the NCA’s role will be, though currently it seems the Home Office is content to create another body, armed with barely-cogent aims to take policing ‘territory’ from local forces, siphoning off investigative responsibility. Rather than work as a team complementing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, dividing responsibility of investigation will just produce the same mediocre results at greater cost and bureaucracy.

Local police have grassroots intelligence, local knowledge and experienced officers at their disposal. A well funded NCA could provide invaluable experience, intelligence capacity and focus. We will not know for a year or two whether this materialises or whether the NCA will become another SOCA and fall victim to its own confused goals and tangible results driven political culture.

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