‘Britain’s FBI’, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) – which combines former MI5 and MI6 spies with former ‘specialists’ from the police, customs and immigration services – is today being officially launched by prime minister Blair.
It will have an annual budget of £400 million.
The new elite and secretive national agency is headed by former MI5 chief Sir Stephen Lander and is staffed by a number of former MI5 and MI6 agents, alongside former police and immigration officers, all with powers of arrest.
SOCA is billed as aimed at targeting the heads of major criminal organisations, including drug-smuggling rings, people-traffickers and fraudsters.
However, the agency will also have responsibility for counter-terrorism and has wide-ranging powers that can be used against any citizen.
It starts work today with an estimated number of between 4,000 and 5,000 employees who will not be police officers, although they will have the power of arrest.
They will be authorised to use existing and new legal powers.
Soca amalgamates the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), and investigators from Customs and the Home Office’s Immigration Service.
The new body will use international agencies to identify links between ‘illegal gangs’ in the UK and abroad.
The new agency comes into force as the government moves to streamline and merge police forces.
Welcoming both developments, Ken Jones, chairman of the Association of Police Officers, said police forces had to restructure to ‘support Soca and tackle criminality at that gap between the national and international, and that which happens in localities’.
The agency will encourage ‘supergrasses’ with sentence reductions, and will be able to compel witnesses to answer questions and produce documents of ‘substantial value’ to an investigation.
Failing to comply with a ‘disclosure notice’ will be an offence.
New specialist prosecutors based within the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the Customs Prosecution Office (RCPO), will assist Soca in areas such as extradition, obtaining evidence from abroad, recovering criminals’ assets and witness protection.
In January, Director of Public Prosecutions Ken Macdonald QC said prosecutors should abandon ‘timidity’ and ‘wield any new weapon’ available.