Q&A: National Crime Agency

The UK has launched a new National Crime Agency. What is it and what does it do?

What is the NCA?

The National Crime Agency is a new body that will be at the centre of the UK's efforts against organised crime and other major offending that cuts across regional and international borders.

The agency will be responsible for tackling major organised crime, such as drug and people trafficking, and complex international fraud, including cyber-crime.

The NCA has more than 4,000 officers and will work with each of the regional police forces in the UK and similar organisations abroad.

How is it different from the ordinary police?

Each police force in the UK has territorial responsibility for its particular area. Crimes that are carried out across more than one county or area usually involve officers from both areas. The NCA has a strategic role in which it will attempt to look at the bigger picture of organised crime in the UK, how it operates and how it can be disrupted.

Why do you need a separate agency?

The days of organised crime being about major bank robberies have long gone. Modern organised crime is complex and cuts across international borders. Gangs tend to be linked to other gangs - and they are often very flexible in how and where they commit their offences. Local police forces are designed to be focused at the local picture. The theory is that the National Crime Agency can bring together the intelligence from at home and abroad to understand the international nature of how all these groups work - and then find ways to stop them.

How big is organised crime?

The NCA says that there are some 37,000 people in 5,500 groups that are involved in organised crime that has an impact on the UK. Almost £9bn a year is lost to the country through organised fraud. Half of the gangs operating directly in the UK are involved in drugs.

Is this the first such agency in the UK?

No. The NCA is the third in 15 years. In 1998, the then-government merged six regional teams, run by local forces, into a single National Crime Squad based in London. In 2006 that was scrapped and replaced by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) which had an expanded role. The NCA is now replacing Soca.

How is the NCA different to Soca?

The NCA's role is larger than Soca's because it has more areas of responsibility. The new agency has four "commands": organised crime, economic crime, borders, and the formerly separate Ceop - the agency that covers child exploitation and online protection.

Officers come from three backgrounds - policing, customs and immigration security - and they can have powers across all these areas.

The organisation has a director general, Keith Bristow, but he will to all intents and purposes have the powers of a chief constable. This is important for his relationship with other forces because the NCA can instruct police and other agencies to carry out specific tasks or operations - a power that Soca lacked.

The NCA has also taken on a range of functions from a different national agency that has been scrapped as part of the government's changes to policing. These include a specialist database relating to injuries and unusual weapons, expert research on potential serial killers, and the National Missing Persons Bureau.

But unlike some of its international counterparts such as the FBI, the NCA does not have responsibility for combating terrorism. That remains in Scotland Yard where the Metropolitan Police oversees a number of regional teams comprising police and MI5 officers.

How does the NCA relate to police in Scotland and Northern Ireland?

The NCA has the same powers in Scotland as it does in England and Wales. But in Northern Ireland this is extremely complicated.

Under the 1998 agreement that led to a political settlement and power-sharing in Northern Ireland, policing was subjected to a far higher degree of community oversight and monitoring than in other parts of the UK. The chief constable and officers are responsible to the Policing Board.

The NCA answers directly to the Home Secretary, meaning there can be no local oversight or control - and nationalist parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly said that it could operate as a parallel but unaccountable police force. So as things stand, the NCA will carry out its border and customs functions in Northern Ireland - but not its other crime-fighting roles.

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