Does the National Crime Agency have the budget to justify its headline-grabbing remit?

The National Crime Agency (NCA) came into force last Monday, heralded by strong rhetoric from government. Home secretary Theresa May asserted that the NCA will ‘relentlessly pursue’ those responsible for serious crime, with the NCA covering economic crime, border policing, child protection and cyber crime. The launch of the NCA coincided with that of the government’s serious and organised crime strategy; a ‘two-tier’ plan that May stated would provide ‘a wholly new approach to the fight against organised crime’.

The NCA replaces the Serious 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 affects the UK; and how it can be disrupted. It will not deal with terrorism-related matters, which remain the remit of Scotland Yard.

The NCA will have specific powers to task regional police forces to act on its behalf, a power that seems at odds with the drive for greater local accountability in policing. It 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 very positive; apart from the issue of resourcing. Keith Vaz, chair 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. Is this 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 shortfall. Can the NCA be effective on a limited budget? The Serious Fraud Office, which has also suffered cuts, is seen by many as a struggling organisation. Will the same come to be said of the NCA?

The serious and organised crime strategy includes plans to: freeze the assets of criminals at an earlier stage; ensure criminal assets cannot be hidden by spouses; and increase prison sentences for criminals who fail to pay confiscation orders. It also sets out proposals to improve the way in which bribery and corruption are dealt with.

The proposal is to give the Home Office a new lead role in co-ordinating all domestic bribery and corruption policy, while working closely with the Cabinet Office and the Department for International Development 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.  

Economic Crime Command within the NCA will either take action or co-ordinate the response to bribery and corruption where organised criminals are involved. This means it will work with agencies like the SFO, which retains responsibility for investigating serious and more complex cases. The SFO will also retain responsibility for enforcing the Bribery Act 2010 in respect of overseas bribery and corruption by businesses who have links to or are based within the UK. Another proposal seeks to incentivise whistleblowers.

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

Neill Blundell is a partner and head of fraud and investigations group at Eversheds