Angela Smith illustrates the contradiction running through the Coalition’s plans for a National Crime Agency
With the Lords Committee stage of the Crime and Courts Bill Committee now under way, it has become increasingly clear that despite the Coalition government announcing its intention for a National Crime Agency (NCA) two years ago, much of the detail isn’t available as Ministers have yet to work it out.
Labour of course wants the NCA to be successful in tackling some of the most serious crimes in the country. But to set the body up as a new entity requires a ‘Framework Document’ setting out how the NCA will operate, how it will exercise its functions and how it will be administered. In other words what it does and how it does it.
So it seems incredible for those of us trying to make sense of the government’s intentions that this document isn’t available and won’t be for some time – probably not until after Committee stage and following the summer recess. This is a frankly shoddy way for Ministers to try and deliver a supposed flagship piece of legislation.
Despite banging on about operational independence for the police, the Home Secretary will have increased power over the NCA. It is appropriate that the Secretary of State should set the Strategic Priorities and that the Director General as the head of the NCA should have regard to these priorities when carrying out his work. But despite ministerial explanations, it remains unclear why, when publishing an Annual Plan of how they will give effect to the priorities, the Director General first needs the Home Secretary’s permission. (The very same person they are dependent on for their continued employment.)
However, the biggest headache for the NCA is likely to be its budget, and the ability to effectively carry out its functions within the constraints of the money provided. The government has designated around £400m which is roughly the total funding of the precursor organisations that make up the NCA – but their budgets have already been stripped to the bone through efficiency savings and cuts in the current spending review. The National Police Improvement Agency for example, has already made ‘savings’ of £100m, including reducing its staff from 2200 to 1400. Indeed, Ministers also want the NCA to take on additional functions, including additional responsibilities on child protection, which while sensible must also come with funding guarantees.
Recognising these problems, Labour has sought to amend the Bill to ensure the Home Secretary is responsible for providing adequate resources, only for the government to reject this approach. The fear now is that if the NCA is unable to fulfil its aims, Ministers will try to shift the blame onto the Director General, just like they shifted the blame for policing cuts onto Chief Constables.
There is of course a strong rationale for bringing together agencies that seek to tackle the most serious, organised and complex of crimes. But unless the government can provide clarity around how this will work and reassurances that funding will adequate for the task, many doubts will remain as well a sense that Ministers want power over policing without the responsibility.
Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is a Shadow Home Office Minister in the Lords