HL Deb 09 February 2004 vol 656 cc38-41WS
The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

Since 1997 crime in England and Wales has fallen by a quarter. The chances of being a victim of crime are now at their lowest for over 20 years. At the same time, we continue to face a major challenge from organised crime which costs the country billions of pounds in lost revenue, facilitates 70 per cent of all illegal immigration to the European Union and can cause local communities huge damage, for example through its link with local drugs markets and all the problems of addiction and crime that go with them. The UK crack and heroin markets alone are estimated to be worth £3 billion per year.

Organised criminals are willing to resort to extreme violence, intimidation and corruption to protect their illegal businesses. They often display detailed awareness of law enforcement methods and take sophisticated counter measures including counter surveillance techniques and elaborate money laundering arrangements. Through their involvement in people trafficking, organised criminals exploit the vulnerable and deal in human misery as appears to be the case in the tragic events at Morecambe Bay at the end of last week. They use every legal device available to them to evade prosecution when they are arrested.

Responsibility for tackling organised crime has until now been spread across a range of different agencies. Each of them has been highly effective in their own area of specialism—and we pay tribute to the outstanding work they and their staff have undertaken to date—but each must also work within its own priorities and departmental structures. This can make co-ordination difficult and has led to blurred lines of accountability in some key areas like drugs and fraud and to a lack of critical mass in some important skill areas like those required to tackle financial and other economic crime.

In response to these issues, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced last July that the government would be reviewing the structures of our national law enforcement agencies responsible for investigating serious organised crime.

Over the past six months we have undertaken detailed consultations with all those involved in fighting organised crime, including the police service and all of the relevant national agencies and regulators. The clear view from almost all we consulted was that the present arrangements were not satisfactory and that there was a strong case for rationalising existing structures.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has therefore today announced the next step in this process. Drawing on the lessons from this consultation we intend to bring together in a single national agency—the Serious Organised Crime Agency— which will report to the Home Secretary, the responsibilities which currently fall to the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the National Crime Squad, the Home Office's responsibilities for organised immigration crime and the investigation and intelligence responsibilities of HM Customs and Excise in tackling serious drug trafficking and recovering related criminal assets. The agency will also bring a new focus to bear on dealing with the problem of financial crime.

The creation of the new agency is a key part of a wider series of changes including new powers available to tackle organised crime. We will set out the detail of all these changes in a Statement to the House when we publish a policy paper within the next few weeks.

The new agency will have as its core objective reducing the harm caused to the UK and its citizens by organised crime including the trafficking of drugs and people. It will have the capabilities to make a real difference through enhanced intelligence, financial investigation skills, economic analysis and better and more sophisticated use of technology. It will develop a comprehensive strategy for reducing the harm caused by organised crime and will be much more than the sum of its parts, drawing on best practice and skills from all the existing agencies to focus on those criminals and criminal markets causing us the most harm. It will work very closely with the revenue departments which will continue to be responsible for tackling revenue and tax fraud.

It will build on the determination, professionalism and success of the existing agencies and their staff and will be approaching 5,000 strong.

The new agency will work closely with police forces, regulators and others throughout the UK. Its focus will be on crime that crosses national and international frontiers. But, where a request is made, or where it is otherwise agreed, it will also have a key role in supporting individual police forces in tackling crime that crosses police force boundaries. It will provide intelligence from criminal activity to the wider law enforcement community, drawing on the intelligence they themselves provide in developing a firm understanding and strategy.

The agency will have a UK-wide remit. However, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency and the Police Service of Northern Ireland will continue to exercise the functions they currently undertake in partnership with existing UK agencies.

Specialist prosecutors answerable to my noble friend the Attorney-General will co-operate closely with officers of the new agency and work alongside them wherever this makes good operational sense. They will be available whenever required to provide comprehensive, practical and specialist advice to help to shape investigations and develop strong and well presented cases for prosecution. The specialist prosecutors will stay with each case from the outset of investigations right through to the point of sentence.

The arrangements for the agency's governance will be crucial. A Home Office-led task force, including representatives of those who will form part of the new organisation, will consult stakeholders on this and report back by the end of this month enabling me to give further details to the House in the Statement to which I have already referred. The agency will need high powered and dynamic leadership to ensure that it becomes a world leader in its field, so we are today appointing an executive search agency to help us recruit a chairman and director general, with a view to having them in place by the early summer.

Until their appointment, representatives of all the agencies concerned will be driving forward the transition process, under Home Office chairmanship, to enable the agency to get off to a rapid and effective start.

We shall take the earliest opportunity to seek Parliament's approval for the legislation needed to establish the Serious Organised Crime Agency but will seek as far as possible to anticipate the benefits of these changes through closer joint working and operations, training and secondments so that this transitional phase enhances rather than disrupts this critical work.

Those who seek to damage our country and undermine our way of life through organised crime will continue to grow in expertise and sophistication. We must more than match them and ensure that the skills and insights we have developed in different areas are shared. These proposals will enable us to respond to these challenges effectively in the years ahead.