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National Crime Agency: Fraud and Economic Crime

Volume 832: debated on Monday 11 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what is the total number of National Crime Agency staff dedicated to the prevention or investigation of (1) fraud, and (2) economic crime.

My Lords, due to operational sensitivity and flexible deployment of resources in response to demand, it is not possible to provide a precise figure of staff allocated to a particular type of criminality. However, the NCA’s National Economic Crime Centre, the NECC, leads the response to economic crime, including fraud. As of 1 August 2023, the headcount for the NECC, which brings together law enforcement agencies, government departments, regulatory bodies and the private sector, was 123.5 full-time equivalent. Many other teams across the NCA also contribute to the investigation of economic crime, in addition to the NECC.

My Lords, the only way to assess the adequacy or otherwise of resources devoted to battling fraud, which was assessed last year to cost this country £219 billion, and economic crime—I understand that the Government’s own assessment is that this costs the country between £300 billion and £350 billion—is to look at the results. Will the Minister tell the House how many investigations the NCA has conducted in each of, or even one of, the last three years? How many cases of fraudsters targeting the UK from abroad have resulted in any criminal justice outcome and how many in any form of disruptive action? If he cannot do that, can he tell us how many investigations the Government expect it to conduct this year?

Significant resources are being allocated to the NECC to improve its investigatory capabilities. It will end up with an additional 400 new officers dedicated to tackling fraud; some of those will go to the NCA, some to the City of London Police and some to regional and organised crime units. They will be recruited by March 2025. There are also 475 new highly trained financial crime investigators, partly funded by the economic crime levy, who will also be spread across intelligence, enforcement and asset recovery at key agencies. I will not speculate as to their likely success, but I certainly hope they have some.

My Lords, has the time not come to simplify the investigation of fraud? As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, suggested, the crimes are massive and the response is weak, even with the investment the Government are about to make. The problem with local forces investigating is that violence always trumps theft, so resources are devoted more to violence. At the moment, the complex nature of the crime—crypto, cross-jurisdictional, online—is complicated further by a 43-force response, regional units, NCA, SFO; I could go on. Surely the time has come to have one force dedicated to prevention, detection and the recovery of assets.

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that the City of London Police partially fulfils that function. It prioritised investigators to the City of London as part of its recent increase in the numbers of police. Angela McLaren, the commissioner there, has a strong background in economic crime and its investigation, and the City of London Police runs an economic crime academy. The noble Lord makes an interesting point about having just one agency, but that agency is the National Economic Crime Centre, which co-ordinates all the various activities across the various police forces, including regional organised crime units.

My Lords, given that the UK cyber industry plays a critical role in supporting law enforcement to tackle cyber-enabled fraud, when will the Government reform the Computer Misuse Act so that the cyber industry does not face legal jeopardy for protecting our citizens and businesses online? Is it not high time that the Home Office came to a conclusion on its review?

My Lords, I cannot speculate on that Act but the anti-fraud champion, Anthony Browne MP, has been having some close engagement with industry. An online sector charter—which I appreciate is not entirely the same thing but is certainly related—is due to be published in the autumn, so we should watch and wait for that.

My Lords, Hourglass, the charity particularly concerned with abuse of older people, has drawn attention to the problems of economic crime and financial abuse that affect many older people. Is this being taken forward by the agency as an area that it needs to give more attention to?

The noble Lord makes an extremely good point that we should not forget the victims of economic crime. I want to make two points here. First, the fraud strategy looks at three aspects of this crime: pursuing the individuals doing it, empowering people to avoid it—which takes in the victims the noble Lord describes—and preventing the scams and whatnot taking place in the first instance. Secondly, as the noble Lord will be aware, Action Fraud is being redesigned, which will help. Already, anybody who reports to Action Fraud where vulnerabilities are detected will receive a bespoke counselling service after they have engaged with it.

My Lords, the Minister will know well that one of the themes that emerged during our debates on the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill was the inequality of bargaining power that often existed between the agencies that have to pursue fraudsters and those fraudsters, who were often heavily lawyered-up to enable them to resist any applications. One of the initiatives brought forward by this Government under the Criminal Finances Act was unexplained wealth orders. Can the Minister explain why they have been used on so few occasions? Is it because of lack of resources? Is it because of the risk on costs? What other explanation is there for such a powerful potential weapon not being utilised?

The noble Lord will be aware, from other conversations that we have been having around the various aspects of the Bill that will go through the House this afternoon, that the agencies tell us they are appropriately resourced. I cannot account for the small number of UWOs that have been issued, but I will continue to keep it under review and report to the noble Lord.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Browne made a really good point about the number of people investigating fraud, because people generally feel that fraud is given a very low priority. The Government themselves have said that in recruiting people there is a particular need to understand that the type of person with the sorts of skills that need to be recruited may be different from the normal crime-fighting model that we have. They have also said that they are taking steps to address that, particularly in respect of cybercrime. Can the Minister update us on what the Government are doing to recruit people with the necessary skills in this area?

The noble Lord makes a good point, and I think he is aware of my opinions on this subject. Clearly, it is a difficult area for the entire economy—not just the agencies responsible for fighting crime but those who are involved in the online world where, of course, much of this crime takes place. I have referred to the large number of new officers being recruited; as far as I understand it, they are on track to be recruited according to the timescales that have been set out. I cannot really comment any more on the recruitment process itself, but I will certainly ask the question and come back to the noble Lord.

My Lords, what steps will the Government take to introduce a safer ageing strategy for older people to protect them against economic crime and fraud?

I just referred to the fraud strategy that was published in May this year, a sizeable part of which is about empowering people to avoid being defrauded in the first place. I recommend that the noble Baroness refers back to that; of course, I would be happy to discuss it further in future debates.

My Lords, would the National Crime Agency not be in a stronger position today had it not appointed as its director-general of operations Mr Steve Rodhouse, who is currently suspended from his normal duties while he is investigated for gross misconduct as head of the infamous Operation Midland, through which our former colleagues Lord Bramall, Lord Brittan and others were hounded mercilessly over allegations made by a fantasist? Is it not shocking that, so far, of all those found culpable by Sir Richard Henriques after his independent inquiry seven years ago, Mr Rodhouse alone has been the subject of a disciplinary process?

My noble friend asks a good question. It is one that I am unable to answer; I cannot speculate as to whether it would have had that much operational impact on the National Crime Agency. I go back to the point I made earlier: the NCA is well resourced and its budget has increased year on year since 2019. I do not believe that it should have had any impact, but my noble friend is entitled to his point of view.

My Lords, can the Minister say something about why and how the Government protect those who engage in economic crime and fraud? Let me refer to an example. The Bank of Credit and Commerce International was closed in July 1991 after the biggest banking fraud of the 20th century. To this day, there has been no independent investigation. Through litigation against the Treasury, I obtained one document, codenamed the Sandstorm report, which shows that the Government are protecting al-Qaeda, arms and drug smugglers, murderers and others who committed fraud through that bank. I invite the Minister to place a copy of the Sandstorm report in the Library of the House and, if he will not, to explain what is so secret that it cannot be made public.

I will not place a copy of that report in the Library. I am afraid that I am not qualified to speak on events from 32 years ago.