Today’s announcement on a proposed new National Crime Agency (NCA) is a key
element in the government’s ambitious police reform agenda. Recent political attention has focused on changes to police pay and conditions and budget reductions, but the structural
reforms that Theresa May and Nick Herbert are pursuing matter more in the long-term. And before it is dismissed as another attempt to create a “British FBI”, the background and
rationale for the NCA is worth exploring.
The NCA is much more than a rebranding of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) – the troubled organisation set up by Charles Clarke. Instead it is one part of a major recalibration
of our policing arrangements, the other being elected Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs). Both should be seen together as a joint attempt to resolve an ongoing national/local tension in
British policing over accountability and where responsibility should rest. Nick Herbert has spoken about the policing
paradox that until now has meant that too much of the local was monopolised by the Home Office, but the national was neglected even as the problem of serious crime grew.
The first step was to get the Home Office out of local policing, and the devolution of oversight to elected PCCs from May next year will be the first time a major public service has been under
direct democratic governance and it is the best expression – along with new city mayors – of the coalition’s localism agenda. But the Home Office’s devolution agenda
cannot succeed without a stronger national capability as well – in that sense the creation of PCCs and the NCA are two sides of the same coin.
The new national agency is not a betrayal of localism policies but their natural corollary. Because PCCs will mean individual forces report less to the centre, the Home Office should be free
to focus on what it has neglected – namely the national dimension and the growing threat of serious and organised crime. Herbert recently acknowledged that the record in tackling the ‘untouchables’ is patchy
at best, and others have suggested that perhaps only one in ten feel the force of the law. Most crime is local but crime that cause the most harm – drugs, child exploitation, people
trafficking and firearms – has national reach and often international origins and finance. The annual cost of this crime is estimated to be upwards of £20bn.
The risk with devolving more responsibility to police forces is that it could end up reinforcing the 43 police force fiefdoms, with police leaders able to ignore threats that emerged
elsewhere. To avoid that, and because three quarters of the estimated 38,000 organised criminals work across police force boundaries, policing requires a stronger national capability to
coordinate a cross-force, cross-border response. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson argued along these lines last year when he said that the scale of the organised crime
threat required an agency with tasking powers to coordinate policing at all levels.
This was never realised with SOCA, which was not properly accountable and got distracted with overseas interdiction and intelligence gathering without being able to demonstrate tangible results for
the huge sums it spent. It was also not a frontline operational agency with a domestic footprint that could leverage the capacity of existing forces so they could close the “Level
2” crime gap. Many senior officers mocked SOCA in private.
In its place, the NCA will have more powers and a wider remit than SOCA. Critically, the head of the NCA will be a senior chief constable who will have powers to task police forces and deploy
NCA officers and assets throughout the country. For the first time, the national agency will be backed in law by a new ‘Strategic Policing Requirement’ which will insist that
forces share intelligence and resources. The ‘Golden Thread’ of policing – fighting crime from street to border – will remain intact, but local forces will now share
some of the responsibility with a dedicated agency that has the capability and reach that they do not. The policing of child exploitation – embodied in CEOP – will fall under the
NCA’s remit (it is already under SOCA’s command), and the NCA will also have lead responsibility for economic crime and a dedicated border command.
A beefed-up national policing agency is the next chapter of the police reform story but it is also a reflection of the fact that serious cross-border crime is likely to become more prevalent in
future and national jurisdictions need specialist agencies that can coordinate and respond with a capability to match the threat. The Dutch for example are also moving in this direction with
their own police reforms. If the NCA provides the operational step-change in performance that is valued by the wider policing family then in time the case could be stronger for granting it
additional responsibilities that for historic reasons reside elsewhere, like the police’s counter-terrorism responsibilities which are now owned by the Metropolitan Police.
With a wider remit and more powers, the NCA should avoid the fate of its predecessor agency, but to succeed it will still need to attract high-calibre recruits, earn the respect of specialist
officers in local forces, and avoid the competitive animosity that characterises the relationship between the FBI and local law enforcement in the United States. If the NCA can do that, then
it will finally resolve the national/local paradox that has beset British policing for years and begin to make the lives of organized criminals a lot more unpleasant.
Blair Gibbs is the head of Crime & Justice at Policy Exchange