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Agency 'to target brutal crime'

BBC | April 3 2006

Tony Blair says a new force will tackle the "brutal and sophisticated" criminal gangs of the 21st Century.

The Serious Organised Crime Agency, dubbed Britain's FBI, will bring together more than 4,000 police, customs and immigration experts.

Soca "law enforcement officers", with new multiple powers, will target international drug and people traffickers and fraudsters.

They would make life "hell" for criminal "Mr Bigs", Mr Blair said.

"The level of sophistication, the level, frankly, of brutality with which many of these gangs operate today means that we have to do it differently," Mr Blair said at the Downing Street launch.

The agency would shift power from criminal to victims, he said.

Mr Blair pledged to monitor the agency's progress and, if necessary, introduce further powers.

"I want to make it quite clear that if, on the basis of the work we now do, we find we need to go further, we will go further.

"There is absolutely nothing, in my view, that should come before the basic liberties of people in this country to be freed from the tyranny of this type of organised crime."

It was time to "stop trying to fight 21st Century crime by early 20th Century methods," he added.

Partnerships 'crucial'

Those methods, Mr Blair said, included "four important new powers":

Queen's evidence: Prosecutors to offer statutory deals - immunity or reduced sentences - where, previously, deals were only informal

Financial reporting orders: Courts can make orders, of up to 20 years, forcing criminals to provide bank statements to ensure they have no crime-related earnings

Disclosure notices - Courts can force suspects to answer questions or provide documents or face imprisonment or fines. Limits the right to silence

Law enforcement officers: Creation of new officers with multiple powers

Soca director general Bill Hughes said partnership with other organisations, both in the private and public sector, was "crucial".

"There's no point in letting people be victims of crime when they could be avoided and it's no good letting them have information which could help us... if we're not able to get hold of it."

International agencies

Soca amalgamates the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), and investigators from Customs and the Home Office's Immigration Service.

Its chairman, Sir Stephen Lander, once led MI5, the UK's internal security agency.

The new agency will use international agencies to identify links between illegal gangs in the UK and abroad.

Although it is now officially going "live", Soca has been operating as a shadow body for the past year.

Michael Levi, a professor of criminology at Cardiff University, told BBC News the creation of Soca had become necessary because of the rise in "international crimes" including people-trafficking and drug-smuggling.

"Britain, along with Belgium and Germany has about the most decentralised system in the EU and so this represents a top-slicing of the policing function," he said.

Nick Herbert, Conservative spokesman on police reform, welcomed the launch but told BBC News that "national policing" should not be introduced at the expense of community policing.

"If we are going to create national agencies to fight national crime, which I think will command broad public support, it is important that locally police forces remain accountable and in touch with their local communities."

And Drugscope chief executive Martin Barnes told BBC News that, while disrupting "high level markets" was a good move, "low level dealers" must also be targeted.

"We welcome the launch today but time will tell how effective it is in terms of affecting the price and availability of drugs on the street," he said.


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