The SOCA Weapon – the British government’s number one future tool against popular protest

December 18, 2008

A protester being hauled away under SOCPA legislation

A protester being hauled away under SOCPA legislation

Most people don’t know much about the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which is understandable, as that is exactly the way SOCA likes things to be. Set up in 2005 as part of the Serious Organised Crime and Policing Act (2005), which also sought to criminalize the ongoing protest of Brian Haw outside the Houses of Parliament, SOCA has been dubbed “Britain’s FBI” and is a major development in the machinery of law and order in the United Kingdom.

Despite this, the agency has received very little scrutiny. Yet SOCA has enormous powers, which have been granted surreptitiously, beyond the reach of democratic deliberation and debate. As SOCPA states, the SOCA has the power to “institute criminal proceedings in England and Wales or Northern Ireland” but also, to “enter into other arrangements for co-operating with bodies or persons (in the United Kingdom or elsewhere) which it considers appropriate in connection with the exercise of any of SOCA’s functions.”

Those functions are listed in sections 2 and 3 of SOCPA, which confine its remit to “preventing and detecting serious organised crime,” which is perhaps uncontroversial, as well as “contributing to the reduction of such crime in other ways and to the mitigation of its consequences.” If this is limited to organised crime, including fraud, trafficking etc.. then the agency could be seen as a positive development. After all, the Serious Fraud Office has long been criticized for failing to prosecute fraudsters efficiently, and police forces in the UK might benefit from a broader “strategic” directing agency.

Be that as it may, the key point is that SOCPA does not limit the agency’s functions to those areas. On the contrary, Section 5 of the legislation states that “Despite the references to serious organised crime in section 2(1), SOCA may carry on activities in relation to other crime if they are carried on for the purposes of any of the functions conferred on SOCA by section 2 or 3” while “SOCA may furnish such assistance as it considers appropriate in response to requests made by any government or other body exercising functions of a public nature in any country or territory outside the United Kingdom.”

These clauses give the agency enormous latitude to launch investigations and prosecutions. Activists, refugees, suspected terrorists – all could be brought under the agency’s microscope.

Moreover, SOCA is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (2001). According to Whatdotheyknow.com, only “environmental information relevant to the functions of the Security Services, which does not adversely affect national security can be requested.”

SOCA’s officers are subject only to a “code of practice” issued by the Home Secretary, as well as its board of commissioners, but the agency itself is responsible for writing its annual reports. The code of practice, which informs the behavior of officers (presumably) has to be presented before Parliament, but it does not have to be presented whole, or in any meaningful form.

SOCPA stipulates that the code of practice can be excised of all elements that “would be against the interests of national security” or “could prejudice the prevention or detection of crime or the apprehension or prosecution of offenders” or “could jeopardise the safety of any person” – making it easy to leave out whatever details the minister desires. The same strictures apply to any report that the Home Secretary is pressurised into asking SOCA to produce, if a scandal develops.

SOCA officers can also take on the powers of immigration officers, or police constables – but they do not have to inform you of this if challenged. On this point SOCPA is particularly weasel-like. Section 50 states that a SOCA officer “must produce evidence of his designation to the other person if requested to do so.” But the next clause totally invalidates that rule, stating that “A failure to comply with subsection (1) does not make the exercise of the power invalid.”

It’s a recipe for unaccountable, cowboy policing.

Although reports since SOCA’s inception have pointed to infighting, gross inefficiency and underfunding, the organisation continues to expand, and its powers have not diminished.

The latest news is that SOCA will be spending some £500 million on an IT system, a huge amount of money in a developing economic crisis.

This money, like SOCA’s powers can be used in the future to profile, surveil, intimidate and prosecute activists – be they trad unionists, animal rights campaigners, climate change protesters, peace protesters or civil liberties advocates.

The ability of SOCA officers to be designated as immigration officers opens the way to massive intimidation of migrants. A (more) right-wing government could certainly use the agency for such purposes.

At the moment, SOCA likes to trumpet its successes. These don’t stretch to catching underworld bosses, who pull the strings in the drug trade, sex slavery and other illicit rackets.

As the Times reported in May 2008, efforts to prosecute criminal bosses were reeled in this year after the SOCA failed to prosecute “more than a handful” of those on a 130-strong hitlist.

Successes have involved working across borders to break a sex slavery operation based in Pembrokeshire, Wales. There have been large drug busts, and cyber-operations against malware, but the structures of organised crime, directed from the top, have barely been touched.

In the future, there will be no safeguards against SOCA turning its powerful gaze on an organized citizenry, if it does not already do so. After all, SOCPA, its parent legislation, was drafted in part to deal with recalcitrant anti-war protesters. It allowed the government to set up an unprecedented “exclusion zone” around Parliament, preventing the gathering of the people in front of the home of their masters.

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