3 December 2009 Edition
No return to political policing
Is SOCA a front for MI5?
BY LAURA FRIEL
IT’S a familiar story. They arrive at dawn to kick in your door while the media provides the kind of political cover that avoids public disquiet. Facts are distorted, lies told and then the circus moves on, for everyone but those who have been targeted. Their lives and livelihoods are disrupted, their reputations smeared and prospects darkened. As one raiding officer from the Serious Organised Crime Agency candidly told Seán Hughes last month: “It’s payback time.”
Seán Hughes is a highly-respected republican from south Armagh and as a member of Sinn Féin has been at the fore in calling for people to support the Peace Process. Significantly, Seán has also been an active advocate for the transformation of policing and transfer of powers.
Two weeks ago, his home was raided by officers from the London-based Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). SOCA had obtained a High Court order to freeze Seán’s bank accounts, the accounts of six family members and four others. As a result, Seán Hughes, a sheep and cattle farmer, and other members of his extended family now face financial ruin. Not because anyone has been found guilty of any crime, let alone serious organised crime, but simply because SOCA has decided to cut off all financial access, whether personal or business. SOCA is unlike other kinds of enforcement agencies in at least two significant ways. Firstly, it relies on hearsay rather than evidence; and, for those it targets, the presumption of innocence is removed.
Without access to funding, Seán cannot buy feed for his livestock. His brothers, both local contractors, now have no means to pay the wages of those they employ. Even the family’s 76-year-old mother has had her life savings frozen. “I’ve a wife and four children and I don’t know how we’re going to survive,” said Seán.
SOCA claimed their actions against Seán Hughes were based upon suspected tax evasion, benefit fraud and inaccurate information used to secure a mortgage. And yet, curiously, none of the agencies directly involved – Social Security, Inland Revenue or any mortgage company – has taken any action or raised any concern about alleged irregularities. Furthermore, the PSNI has more than adequate powers and personnel to investigate any such allegations in the normal way.
Clearly questions need be asked as to why an organisation established under the auspices of tackling global criminal conspiracies, organised drug, sex and people trafficking appears so intent upon destroying the reputation and livelihood of a south Armagh farmer who has been accused of relatively minor offences.
The Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) was established in April 2006 following legislation enacted in the British parliament the previous year. SOCA emerged out of a number of draconian measures enacted in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. The act also included restrictions on the right to protest as well as changes to rules governing powers of arrest and use of search warrants.
SOCA is funded by the British Home Office but is described as independent. Its founding head was former MI5 chief Stephen Lander, recently replaced by a top Ministry of Defence civil servant, Ian Andrews. SOCA has been described as an “intelligence agency” which has a role of “reducing harm”, not specifically the arrest and conviction of offenders.
According to their own website, SOCA officers are empowered to perform a number of surveillance roles traditionally associated with British Military Intelligence. In other words, SOCA is primarily a covert organisation, probably running agents and involved in dirty tricks and black propaganda. Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd recently described SOCA as a front for MI5.
SOCA emerged as an amalgamation of various British state agencies with investigative and intelligence-gathering remits. These include Britain’s National Crime Squad, National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit as well as the investigative and intelligence-gathering sections of Revenue and Customs and the Immigration Service. In the North of Ireland, the discredited Assets Recovery Agency merged with SOCA in 2007.
But the emergence of SOCA is not simply about the rationalisation of existing investigative and intelligence-gathering bodies. It’s about transforming the legal framework within which these and other activities take place.
SOCA’s jurisdiction includes England, Wales, Scotland and the North of Ireland but its chain of command can differ. Significantly, in the North of Ireland, SOCA requires permission from the British Secretary of State for some of its activities.
Recruited mostly, but not exclusively, from within the police, they do not have powers of arrest or the right to carry and deploy firearms, except when they want to.
In this curious arrangement, SOCA can designate powers usually associated with other agencies to specific officers for specific operations. In other words, SOCA has been crafted to slip in and out of the shadows, shape-shifting as they and their political masters feel fit. It is difficult to see how such an arrangement squares with the normal obligations of democracy and accountability.
While designated to carry out specific tasks, the officers involved are not specifically accountable to any of the mechanisms usually associated with the performance of such tasks.
Armed SOCA officers involved in an incident using firearms are supposed to shout a warning before opening fire. The warning they shout is: “Stop, armed police!” Senior members of the police in Britain have questioned the validity of armed actions being carried out in the name of the police while at the same time the police have no jurisdiction whatsoever over those actions or the persons carrying them out.
Alan Gordon, vice-chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, described it as “bizarre that the 700 or so police officers that have transferred across to SOCA have lost their police status and are now not regarded as police”. But the issue is not really one of loss of status so much as the avoidance of accountability. This concern is multiplied when that pattern of migration is applied to the Six Counties, since we know that human rights abusers in the RUC who moved into the PSNI, have fled because of their discontent with policing change and/or investigations into their political policing activities.
Not only do the police have no jurisdiction but nor do all the mechanisms created to monitor police actions.
The transformation of policing in the North of Ireland has been identified as a key element in the kind of progressive social change necessary to secure the Peace Process. The Patten Report placed democratic accountability at the heart of that policing project.
It has been widely acknowledged that the existence of ‘a force within a force’ – historically the primacy of Special Branch and the interference of MI5 – was a key element in the past dysfunction of policing in the North of Ireland. The establishment of ‘free-standing’ units like SOCA, not ‘a force within’ but ‘a force outside’ the structures of accountable policing are reminiscent of discredited police formations of the past. Crucially, such an organisation falls outside agreed policing structures.
But Irish republicans aren’t the only people to be expressing concerns about SOCA; there is growing disquiet within Britain too. Three years after its establishment, even some of SOCA’s most ardent advocates have been voicing disappointment.
Critics from the political Right have cited the cost, around £1.2 billion, to taxpayers within the last three years, a figure hard to justify in terms of SOCA’s performance to date. Questions have also been raised about SOCA’s record in intercepting illegal drugs smuggling and there has been no evaluation of the effectiveness or otherwise of SOCA in deterring sex and people trafficking.
Other critics have cited the lack of transparency and accountability.
Last month, the influential British House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee admitted that no one knew what SOCA was doing or not doing and called for “some measurable targets” and the creation of a “special police authority specifically to oversee its work”.
Growing criticism is believed to have led to the sudden removal of Stephen Lander earlier this year.
The recent action taken against Seán Hughes and his family illustrates the dangers of any collapse back into political policing, with its old Special Branch and British Military Intelligence anti-republican agenda.
Commenting on the actions of SOCA, Seán Hughes said he believed “the entire charade” had been “orchestrated by the securocrats for no other reason than to distract attention away from the DUP’s refusal to sign up to the transfer of policing and justice powers”.