National Crime Agency block burdens PSNI says David Ford

David Ford David Ford said he believes blocking the legislation is a mistake

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The fact a new UK-wide policing agency has only limited powers in Northern Ireland, places an extra burden on the PSNI, the justice minister has said.

The National Crime Agency (NCA), which comes into operation on Monday, will not operate in Northern Ireland in the same way as the rest of the UK.

Sinn Féin and the SDLP blocked a move to give it powers to carry out police operations and recruit agents.

Justice Minister David Ford said blocking the legislation was a mistake.

"I haven't lost hope that we will get full political agreement, that we will be able to see the NCA operational and discussions are ongoing to see if we can get that political agreement," Mr Ford said.

"In the meantime, the key problem is that in certain issues like child exploitation, like human trafficking, like serious organised crime which is operating in the devolved area, there will be no powers for the NCA and this will place an additional burden on the PSNI."

NCA powers in Northern Ireland

The NCA has the same powers in Scotland as it does in England and Wales. But in Northern Ireland this is extremely complicated.

Under the 1998 agreement that led to a political settlement and power-sharing in Northern Ireland, policing was subjected to a far higher degree of community oversight and monitoring than in other parts of the UK. The chief constable and officers are responsible to the Policing Board.

The NCA answers directly to the home secretary, meaning there can be no local oversight or control - and nationalist parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly said that it could operate as a parallel but unaccountable police force.

So as things stand, the NCA will carry out its border and customs functions in Northern Ireland - but not its other crime-fighting roles.

Mr Ford said the PSNI was already facing pressure with the threat from dissident republicans and loyalist street violence.

"In the face of that the police do not need extra burdens placed on them when there's a fully equipped national agency able to carry out those duties," he said.

"I visited the Serious Organised Crime Agency last week and I know that some of their staff have already been diverted in support of operations in England and Wales because in effect there's less for them to do because the PSNI is having to take over issues here."

Phil Gormley, deputy director of the National Crime Agency, said it was a disappointment that it would not have the same powers in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK.

"We're determined to do all that we can within the limitations placed upon us to better protect the people of Northern Ireland and cut serious and organised crime," he said.

"It is a disappointment on a professional level that we don't have the powers of constable and can't operate in quite the same way that we can in the rest of the UK.

"The principal difference is that the NCA officers won't have the powers of the constable and through that will have limited ability to deploy asset recovery powers. We will still have the ability to cover reserved and accepted matters including customs, immigration and national security."

SDLP justice spokesman Alban Maginness said they were working to find a way where the NCA's operations would come under the jurisdiction of the PSNI chief constable.

"We fought long and hard to create the PSNI and we should not undermine its authority or that of the chief constable," he said.

"Given our history - the meddling and malign interference of British intelligence agencies in the past, particularly in relation to the RUC - it is little wonder that we have grave reservations.

"The NCA would want to run their own agents in Northern Ireland and conduct their own covert surveillance operations - we do not want that to happen."

Targeting gangs

The NCA will target crime gangs across local, national and international borders.

Its head is Keith Bristow.

He will be directly accountable to Home Secretary Theresa May for the agency's actions - not to the chief constable of the PSNI, the Policing Board or the Police Ombudsman.

Many of the policing powers being given to the NCA have been devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly; therefore it has to agree to give Westminster authority to exercise those powers.

These include NCA officers being given:

- the powers of a police constable in Northern Ireland;

- the authority to carry out searches and make arrests;

- the ability to conduct surveillance operations;

- the ability to recruit and run informers and agents.

The agency would also be responsible for recovering assets from criminals.

However, Sinn Féin and the SDLP have refused to support the move - which means the powers will not be extended to Northern Ireland.

The police are understood to share the justice minister's concerns about the potential implications of the decision.

The PSNI has repeatedly warned that Northern Ireland is increasingly being targeted by international crime gangs operating on a global scale. They believe that cooperation with the NCA is essential.

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