Northern Ireland

Crime agency block 'will hamper policing'

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Media captionAssistant Chief Constable Drew Harris said there were problems with the legislation

The battle against serious crime will be hampered in Northern Ireland because a new policing agency will not be fully operational, the PSNI has said.

Sinn Féin and the SDLP blocked a move to give the National Crime Agency (NCA) the powers to carry out police operations and recruit agents.

The NI justice minister said blocking the law was a mistake.

Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris said Northern Ireland had been "cut off" from the NCA's expertise.

The NCA, known as the British FBI, will target crime gangs across local, national and international borders.

It is taking over from the Serious and Organised Crime Agency.

The NCA 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.

ACC Harris told the BBC's Nolan Show the new agency would have restricted powers in Northern Ireland.

"It means important pieces of the legislation, around the sharing of information and evidence, have not been enacted," he said.

"The focus... is going to be on GB, we are very much looking for the crumbs from the table.

"Without a legislative framework within which we can operate and also that Northern Ireland is part of the NCA performance matrix, then it will be difficult for us to make our case for NCA-type resources.

"Secondly, we have lost from October all powers in relation to civil recovery of criminal assets and that's a major problem as well."

He described Northern Ireland as "poor cousins to the rest of GB in terms of what the NCA can do."

"Human trafficking, drugs trafficking - all of these criminal gangs have an international flavour and we're concerned what relationship is going to be going forward.

"We constantly think we are going to have to be really pushing hard to get Northern Ireland's voice heard in London to get assistance for the PSNI."

Image caption Keith Bristow is head of the UK National Crime Agency

However, Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein said the NCA was refusing to be accountable via the mechanisms set up under the Good Friday Agreement.

He said it amounted to "another police force".

"Legislatively they are not accountable and they should be accountable," he said.

But Tom Elliott of the UUP warned of grave consequences that a failure to have a fully operational agency in Northern Ireland would have on the fight against crime.

He said it could leave Northern Ireland as the "back door" for criminals.

"By not having the NCA it is going to be quite clear that we are not going to have the most effective and most appropriate measures to deal with that," he said.

"This is a completely unacceptable situation and I would urge Sinn Fein and the SDLP to reassess their position in opposing the legislation to allow for this vital crime fighting organisation to be fully operational in Northern Ireland.''

Jim Gamble, a former head of the RUC's Special Branch, said accountability was "critical".

"It is a key issue if you are going to have public confidence. We cannot afford to have the Policing Board sidelined or blindsided to what is going on," he said.

Mr Gamble, who is also the former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection agency, said: "You cannot create two-tier policing.

"You cannot have one set of rules for the PSNI and one set of rules for the NCA. That doesn't make sense operationally or politically."

He added: "People are either badly informed or being mischievious because we are scaremongering and we're exploiting people's fears."

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