Ever since its inception in 2011 there has been debate about the efficacy of the National Crime Agency (NCA) taking over counter-terrorism operations from the Met police. Now, the Home Affairs Select Committee has recommended that the transfer of these duties begin immediately with a view to the NCA assuming full counter-terrorism responsibility by 2018. The main argument for such a move appears to be a worry about the ability of the Met police to cope with its current responsibilities – the report comes after a series of high-profile scandals including the shooting of Mark Duggan and the escape of terror suspect Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed. Indeed the Committee noted explicitly that the action to shift counter-terrorism duties should be taken ‘in order to allow the Met to focus on the basics of policing London’. However, for all this talk of Met failures, nobody appears to be focusing on the NCA and asking whether it is, in fact, capable of coping any better than the police when it comes to foiling terrorist plots against the UK.
The British FBI
The NCA was created in October 2013 and currently includes four main pillars: Border Policing, Economic Crime, Organised Crime and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP). NCA officers are ‘triple warranted’ – holding the powers and privileges of a constable, a customs officer, and an immigration officer. Although much of this work was already being done by its predecessor, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), the crucial difference is that the NCA’s director-general, Keith Bristow, is able to insist that chief constables do as he asks. Such power over local policing has led to the NCA being dubbed ‘the British FBI’ (a name no doubt encouraged by images of officers in black bomber jackets with ‘NCA’ emblazoned on the back). However, although it has only been in existence for 8 months there have already been questions asked of the agency – not least over the issue of secrecy. Despite Bristow’s apparent desire for the public to understand the work of his organisation, there have been accusations that it operated as a ‘secret police’ when it refused to confirm it had arrested Patrick Rock, one of David Cameron’s advisers. Such action appears in stark contrast to the growing emphasis in the UK on the need for transparency and public oversight of our intelligence agencies.
In 2011 the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) appeared sceptical of the motives behind transferring counter-terrorism responsibility from the Met, arguing that:
“there seems to be very little in terms of strategic thinking behind the Committee’s recommendation of stripping the Met of its national primacy for terrorism investigations. Indeed, such a conclusion springs from a critical judgement of the Met’s performance in the phone-hacking scandal, rather than from an objective assessment of its CT [counter-terrorism] track record so far.”
RUSI also addressed the issue of the NCA being a national organisation versus the locality of the Met. Although the London-based Counter Terrorism Command (SO15) retains a central coordinating and support function, it works closely with regional counter-terrorism hubs – a ‘flexible’ structure, ‘developed as a network rather than as a rigid hierarchical infrastructure’. Thus, although there may be room for improvement, the Met has ‘proven structures and processes’ already in place for combating terrorist activity. Furthermore, while the police and MI5 work well together on counter-terrorism (one retaining the lead for intelligence gathering and analysis, and the other for arrests and prosecutions), there is a fear that these proposals to expand the NCA’s remit might create friction between the two agencies.
An important issue that is not made clear in the Committee report is whether the NCA is to receive further resources to perform this new role of countering terrorist activity. The agency’s creation in 2013 was already in part a money-saving act; the organisations that were subsumed by the NCA had a combined budget of £812m, while the NCA only has £473.9m. The agency currently employs around 4,000 staff; compare this to the Met’s approximate 45,000 officers, police staff and PCSOs and serious questions arise as to the NCA’s physical ability to take on the mammoth task of counter-terrorism.
One of the biggest fears about transferring counter-terrorism responsibility to the NCA is that it will cause it to lose focus on that which it was actually set up to do – namely fight serious organised crime. As this article points out, when it comes to organised crime a certain amount is tolerated simply because it is almost impossible to stamp out altogether. Public contact with, and understanding of, organised crime is generally limited. Terrorism, however, is a zero sum game. When the consequences of a counter-terrorism failure could be potentially catastrophic, it is inevitable that this will take precedence over drug trafficking, for example. In a situation where the NCA has a limited budget and resources, this could result in a significant decrease in the tackling of serious crime. In 2012 the Joint Committee on Human Rights expressed its concern over what impact it would have on the UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) and CEOP should the NCA be given counter-terrorism responsibilities, questioning the UK’s future ability to fulfil its European obligations in this regard.
Indeed, the fact that the NCA hasn’t been in existence for very long makes it hard to judge how the organisation would cope when it comes to balancing its current duties with new responsibilities. The agency has had some press-worthy success of late, including football match fixing and large drug seizures, but it is still too early to scrutinise how it is doing when it comes to its other, less high-profile, areas of activity. Since the justification for removing counter-terrorism from the Met is because it is affecting their ability to focus on their other tasks, surely it needs to be recognised that the NCA could fall foul of the same problem. Moreover, the fact that the agency is still relatively new raises the question of how it is settling into its already enhanced role, what turbulence its staff must have faced in the adjustments to their work, and whether it is right to therefore hoist further responsibility onto its shoulders at this time.
Altogether the report by the Home Affairs Select Committee has in fact raised more questions than it has answered. The Committee’s focus is on how the Met is failing when surely the more important question is whether the NCA is able to succeed. To place the protection of the UK from terrorist attack in the hands of an agency that is not wholly up to the job (be that due to staffing, resources or anything else) would be akin to criminal negligence on the part of MPs. Rather than being so quick to condemn the Met then, it would behove the government to think more carefully about whether the NCA could do any better.