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UK: The National Crime Agency and the new strategy for fighting serious and organised crime

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A new dawn in the fight against crime or just another re-branding exercise?

On 7 October 2013, the Government launched the UK’s answer to the FBI, the National Crime Agency (“NCA”). Theresa May, the Home Secretary, promised that the NCA will “relentlessly pursue” those responsible for serious crime. The NCA will cover economic crime, border policing, child protection, organised crime and cyber crime.

In addition to the launch of the new agency, the Government also launched its Serious and Organised Crime Strategy. The new strategy was somewhat overlooked in the fanfare surrounding the NCA, but it contains many important and potentially far-reaching proposals.

The proposals aim to significantly overhaul the UK’s approach to dealing with bribery and corruption and will introduce new systems for reporting corruption. Under the proposals, the NCA will lead and coordinate the investigation of corruption in the UK whilst the Serious Fraud Office (“SFO”) will remain the lead agency for complex cases of bribery and corruption and for enforcing the Bribery Act in respect of overseas corruption. As such, the Serious and Organised Crime Strategy will not impact on the enforcement of the UK Bribery Act.

The strategy proposals include plans to freeze the assets of criminals at an earlier stage, ensure criminal assets cannot be hidden by spouses and increase prison sentences for those criminals who fail to pay confiscation orders. It also sets out proposals to improve the way in which bribery and corruption is dealt with at both a policy and operational level. The proposal is to give the Home Office a new lead role in coordinating all domestic bribery and corruption policy, whilst working closely with the Cabinet Office and DFID to align this with work on overseas corruption. The NCA will have ultimate responsibility in assessing bribery and corruption committed by those involved in organised crime. It will also support investigations into corruption within law enforcement agencies and the prison service. It will be the Economic Crime Command within the NCA who will either take action or coordinate the response to bribery and corruption where organised criminals are involved.

Another of the potentially significant strategy proposals seeks to incentivise whistle blowers, including through the provision of financial rewards for whistle blowers in cases of fraud, bribery and corruption. This imports a concept which has been used in recent years in the US. The Government will also examine what lessons can be drawn from the US legislation which allows private citizens to sue, on the Government’s behalf, companies and individuals that were defrauding the Government; in the US, the False Claims Act.

Theresa May stated that the combination of the new strategy and the NCA will provide “a wholly new approach to the fight against organised crime”. The NCA replaces the Serious and Organised Crime Agency and is designed to bring together various agencies to ensure a more co-ordinated approach to fighting certain types of crime. The agency will look at the big picture of organised crime; how it operates and impacts on the UK and how it can be disrupted. It will not deal with terrorism related matters which will remain the remit of Scotland Yard. It will also only have a very limited role in Northern Ireland. The NCA will have specific powers to task regional police forces to act on its behalf, a power that seems somewhat at odds with the recent drive for greater local accountability in policing. The NCA will work closely with its counterparts overseas and 120 staff will be posted in overseas roles to improve its intelligence function and ability to fight crime across borders. One of the biggest changes will be that the NCA will be visible, badging its offices as the NCA. We will also see some of the 4,500 police officers working for it emblazoned with the “NCA”  badge during police operations.

It all sounds extremely positive; apart from the issue of resourcing. If this agency is to be a significant improvement from previous efforts, one would expect to see a budget to match such aspirations. Keith Vaz, Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee pointed out that “The organisations going into the NCA have a combined budget of £812m, yet the new agency will only have £473.9m next year”. The sceptics among us may see this as just another austerity measure, with a new badge to hide a massive budget cut. The new serious and organised crime strategy does include additional funding for regional police organised crime units but this may not be enough to cover the short fall. Can the NCA be effective on a limited budget? The SFO, which has also suffered budget cuts over the last few years, has in the eyes of the public at large and the media, be seen as a struggling organisation. Will the same be said of the NCA in the years to come?

The NCA, with its limited budget, will have much to prove in the years ahead. Arguably of more interest is the serious and organised crime strategy which could see greater focus on tackling bribery and corruption both domestically and internationally and the potential incentivising of whistleblowers.