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A new nationwide police agency, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) has been created in Britain.

The creation of a new “British FBI” to combat organised crime, with informants being offered reduced sentences to snitch on their gangland bosses, was given unanimous support in the Commons today – despite a controversial raft of new powers.

The home secretary, David Blunkett, told MPs he was in favour of allowing intercept material – bugged phone calls and emails – to be used as evidence, pending a review which would report back in June.

And he would also, for the first time, force professionals such as lawyers and solicitors to cooperate with police enquiries into organised crime, even if it meant betraying client confidentiality.

And thus people will simply stop asking for legal opinions just in case their shyster runs off to the police in order to cover their rear ends and thereby ensuring a steadily increasing climate of fear, distrust and uncertainty. The Blair-Blunkett government are nothing less that populist authoritarians.

4 comments to UK FBI

  • Guy Herbert

    Curiously it took till today to publish the White Paper on the Home Office website, though the hard copy was formally published yesterday. It is potentially a very dangerous document, not least because it is a very vague one–rather vaguer than used to be tolerable in a Green Paper–and because it is filled with advocacy for more state powers, rather than concrete disinterested proposals.

    A British RICO Act is rejected at least partly on the ground that requirement for a triggering substantive offense is too high.

    The idea of dropping mens rea for accessorial liability and conspiracy charges is floated. This is certainly counterintuitive, at least.

    The paper complains that: “If the conspiritors themselves or those who aid them [interesting segue – GH] are not willing to talk, the burden of proof is entirely on the investigators to find the necessary evidence.” It wants answering police questions to be compulsory. No Fifth Amendment protection in Blunkettland.
    (There is a Freudian typo on p44, referring to the “Regulation of Investigatory Forces Act 2000”. The Home Office talks about powers; it thinks of using force.)

    There are hints that wiretap evidence will be allowed–which is fine—but in a way that doesn’t allow the means and circumstances of collection to be scrutinised by the court–which isn’t: it would mean secret evidence in ordinary criminal trials.

    But it isn’t just new powers. It is also a declaration of intent to use existing ones in a more severe way: most of which can be done without any new legislation. For instance, the intent is now to use “anti-money-laundering” powers to seize cash sums above £5,000. Which would require all those estate agents, banks, car dealers, etc… to report receipts (and perhaps withdrawals) of £5,000 or more in cash or risk their own livelihoods.

    Should we be comforted to know, too, that there will be increased emphasis on seizing the property (“now prove everything you own is yours!”) of those held to have “criminal lifestyles” under laws just in force and of as yet uncertain application? Even the mediaeval sumptuary offenses required a conviction in order to punish you for wearing ermine or silk inappropriate to your station in life. And AFAIK it wasn’t a felony, so you didn’t forfeit all your goods.

  • Educate an ignorant American here…wouldn’t a UK variant of the FBI create some degree of redundancy with regard to the operations of MI-5?

  • Guy Herbert

    Alan: ‘A British FBI’ is only a soundbite aimed at a public raised on the X-Files. The closest point of comparison (we can presume, since the White Paper, so-called, is silent on the subject) may be that SOCA will have a nationwide jurisdiction, which historically British police forces have not had. (Until recently that is: the Ministry of Defence police, and some others, are now effectively national.) It will be interesting to see how this includes Scotland, which has a separate legal system.

    The FBI combines several roles that used to be largely separate in Britain. Counterespionage which belonged to the Security Service (“MI5”) which until 1989 officially didn’t exist. Handling political crime and terrorism (and actually arresting spies fingered by the non-existent security services), was the role of Special Branch, a parallel organisation within the ordinary police forces. Crime across jurisdictional borders was the business of the ordinary police, which is a simpler matter of police liaison in Britain since the same legal writ covers the whole of England and Wales, and the police aare organised on the same basis everywhere even if individual constabulary patches are limited. In addition there are a number of specialised divisions of the Metropolitan Police [in London] that farm out expertise. And we have had for a while an organisation called the National Criminal Intelligence Service, which runs a lot of computers and experts and collates data for the police, but probably not Special Branch, and certainly not the Security Service.

    In recent years there has been a big expansion in the Security Service’s remit. The political violence in Northern Ireland was treated as their territory for various reasons, so there had become a role in relation to Irish-related terrorism, and like semi-external threats to the country. Once it was public, however, the Security Service had the political clout to expand. The end of the Cold War left lots of anti-Soviet experts with nothing to do–was the excuse–so the empire was extended to assisting police and customs by using intelligence methods against organised crime and drug smuggling. (Interestingly there has been no particular leap in prosecutions since. Parkinson’s Law.)

    So one could see SOCA as a piece of institutional shuffling. Now the security service has a real job again, those ghostly resposibilities it has snaffled must be farmed out again.

    There’s nothing for a civil libertarian to object to in improving the organisation of the police. The problem is that every reorganisation seems to be accompanied by new powers, and new criminal offences, while removing safeguards against their abuse by organisations increasingly detached from civilian life.

  • Guy Herbert

    Perhaps a further note is needed for American readers.

    When Perry writes that SOCA “has been created”, he does not mean it is yet in existence, nor that the relevant legislation has been passed. All that’s happened is the Home Office, a department of government, has announced that legislation will happen and is making the usual show of consultation about it.

    SOCA will open its doors in 2006, in all likelihood. In practice Parliament will have very little control of the relevant changes in the law.