In the Media

A British FBI won't make us any safer

PUBLISHED May 28, 2012

It didn't attract much attention at the time; but the Crime and Courts Bill quietly introduced into Parliament a few weeks ago foreshadows a seismic change in British policing. It will remove one of the fundamental principles that has long underpinned the system - the "unassailable local accountability" of the chief constable and (when they are elected later this year) of Police and Crime Commissioners.

The legislation establishes a new National Crime Agency (NCA) and gives its director-general the power to "direct" other chief officers and their resources. Keith Bristow, who is to be the first head of the NCA, will become, de facto, the most senior and powerful policeman in Britain. But he will report directly to the Home Secretary, which sits oddly with the Government's expressed desire to increase local accountability through the new commissioners. The NCA is destined to become the truly national crime-fighting body that the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which it supplants, promised to be but never was. More alarmingly, the Bill would enable the NCA - inevitably dubbed Britain's FBI - to be given a counter-terrorism role, which at the moment is the responsibility of the Metropolitan Police and the national counter-terrorist network working alongside MI5. Stripping the police of this function is a risky step and needs to be thought through carefully.

There are, to be fair, some attractions to this idea since it addresses long-held concerns that the current system relies on co-operation and collaboration, rather than direction and control.

In my former role as the UK lead for counter-terrorism, I had no powers to direct resources beyond the Met. Instead, I relied upon well-rehearsed protocols, under which chief constables deferred to me when required. This system, which is highly regarded around the world, has served UK policing well and will continue to do so throughout the Olympic Games. And yet the new Bill could change all that - and not for the better.

Placing counter-terrorism with the NCA may offer clarity of command and the flexibility to move resources, but it fails to take into account the complexities of the task and ignores the critical importance of local policing to fighting terrorism at every level. If, for instance, an atrocity like the Mumbai massacre should occur in Britain today, or if an attack was imminent, a seamless operation would kick in - developed by the counter-terrorism network, but delivered by mainstream policing. Hiving off one part of the strategy to another agency risks divorcing the key response elements from each other.

Doubtless, supporters of this change will argue that once the new system settles down everyone will co-operate. Maybe they will. But the nearest comparable model to what is proposed is in America - with the FBI and the New York Police Department - and that relationship has never been easy. Giving the NCA counter-terrorism functions in the UK would create another layer in the intelligence machinery, a factor that is likely to add to the risk, rather than reduce it.

Furthermore, the idea that putting serious crime and counter-terrorism into the same policing pot in the hope that the response to both will improve is fanciful. The UK has to tolerate a certain level of serious crime because it is recognised that the police must focus their efforts where there is most harm. By contrast, we adopt a zero-tolerance approach to terrorism. In a single agency there can only be one winner in a competition for resources for tackling terrorism and a serious crime. In other words, the very problem the NCA has been set up to deal with - combating serious crime - may lose focus and resources in the face of the terrorist threat.

It is also a fallacy to think that the Met and other forces will no longer deploy their own staff to counter-terrorism duties if the lead is transferred. In New York, the police still have 1,000 officers on counter-terrorism duty, even though the FBI has the lead role. In the UK, these officers will then probably have to be funded from London's own budget, rather than, as now, paid for centrally. They are likely to be taken from the ranks of those currently engaged in the fight against serious crime.

What happens with any major reorganisation is that people, particularly those in senior positions, focus on the change, rather than the job in hand. And while that should not be used as an excuse never to make reforms, it is particularly risky in this area. The idea that you can simply "plug and play" the current network and its personnel into a new agency is utterly misconceived.

Police officers, particularly those in the latter stages of their service (as many in the current counter-terrorism network are), are notoriously reluctant to step into the unknown where pay and pensions are concerned.

Large numbers will want to stay put, rather than join the NCA. This will leave the new agency with a dearth of experience while at the same time producing a financial headache for chief constables who will have to pay the salaries of those staff who choose to remain from their own budget rather than, as now, by the Home Office.

So the key question to ask about this possible reform is: will it make the UK any safer? And if there is any doubt about the answer, then it will be a brave Home Secretary who breaks up something that fundamentally does not need fixing.

John Yates was assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and UK lead for counter-terrorism