The NCA’s Nina Cope tells Tamsin Rutter about the agency’s aim to break down barriers, and help cement its reputation at the “pinnacle of law enforcement”
The National Crime Agency’s second-in-command does not underestimate the criminals operating on the serious and organised crime scene. Deputy director general Nina Cope describes them as “clever, they’re chronic, they’re relentless in their approach”. Recent NCA cases include dark web drug dealers, a European slavery network, and the academic Matthew Falder who blackmailed hundreds of people into sending him depraved images online.
And yet, compared with the likes of counter-terrorism, the fight against serious and organised crime seems to have a relatively low profile. The agency takes the lead on tackling human trafficking, child sexual abuse, illegal trade in weapons and drugs, cyber-crime and economic crime, all of which criss-cross regional and international borders. “It’s a much broader threat and highly differentiated, and that can be much harder for people to kind of grab and understand,” Cope explains.
The NCA, a non-ministerial department, has stepped up is work on awareness-raising, alerting people to the harm these hidden threats can cause to communities, and to their personal responsibilities. The example Cope gives is the use of cheap car washes – “actually, that might be modern slavery, that’s connected to serious and organised crime”.
Ahead of next year’s spending review, the agency has also started making noise about what director general Lynne Owens described to the Times as “the massively disproportionate” levels of funding available to tackling serious crime, compared to funding for tackling terrorism. The NCA’s core budget is £435m a year, while counter-terrorism efforts get billions. The agency, Cope says, wants to see the funding system overhauled, with some of the ring-fencing that “drives more siloed behaviour” lifted to support “a more system-wide response”.
“We would not for one moment suggest counter-terrorism should not have the money it needs to keep the country safe,” she says. But it’s important, she adds, that the UK “doesn’t become a place where [serious and organised crime is] easy to execute, or attractive, because that would really undermine the UK as a safe place to be, and a safe place to invest”.
A whole system response
Within Whitehall, the NCA obviously has the strongest ties to the Home Office, but it also works closely with the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Home Office is soon to publish a refreshed serious and organised crime strategy, which Cope says will probably focus more on prevention. “I think that would be engaging other government departments to think about what role they can play in managing serious and organised crime,” she says.
Within law enforcement, the NCA’s goal is to break down institutional barriers: to assess what capabilities are needed in the system as a whole and decide who is best placed to lead on them. “We’ve been trying to join that system up, so what we don’t have is 43 police forces all building capability or ignoring it – which is the really big issue – or ROCUs [regional organised crime units] doing things differently and then us trying to duplicate at the national level,” says Cope.
At a local level the sector needs, for example, “people who can go out on the ground and pick up a computer for evidential purposes and offer crime prevention advice”, Cope continues. It also needs regional cyber-crime experts, because the NCA only has the capacity to tackle the highest risk attacks. But some crime can only be tackled at a national level. Take the Matthew Falder case: an online offender, with victims across the UK and overseas, it would have been extremely difficult for local forces or regional units to go after him alone.
Attracting the right people
Facilitating this kind of collaboration is not always easy, particularly when chief constables and elected police and crime commissioners have local priorities and concerns. But Cope is used to managing major change programmes: she led on the Met’s first round of savings, and then joined HS2 to help build the organisation from scratch.
She was appointed the NCA’s first deputy director general for capabilities in 2017 and a big part of Cope’s job is to assess the changing nature of serious and organised crime, so the NCA can equip itself accordingly. “We can see that more and more threat is going online,” she says. “We have more encryption that we need to manage… serious and organised crime offenders are smart, they’re well organised. It’s global, so we have an international footprint.”
“It would be really great if people could see a way of navigating their careers with us. Given the breadth of roles that are available, I really want that to happen for people.”
Responding to these challenges is not just about “technology and bits of kit”, she adds, it’s about building the right skills and the right teams, and developing an agile and responsive organisation that can “pool skills from across different areas” and attract the right people.
One area where the NCA needs more of the right people – “alongside everyone else”, Cope says – is big data. “We lead on the investigative response to cyber, so that means we need people who are comfortable working with information, data and analytics in that environment.”
The organisation has also struggled to compete in the jobs market for investigators, intelligence officers and other skilled roles. “We say we are at the pinnacle of law enforcement,” Cope says – they take on the criminals who operate at the high end of high risk. “Yet what we found was that some of our key people were paid very differently to people working in regional organised crime units or forces.” The 2017 Civil Service People Survey registered a drop in morale and motivation at the agency, with satisfaction with pay and benefits at 14%, second to the bottom in a ranking of all government bodies.
To tackle some of the problems in recruitment and retention – staff turnover was 8.4% in 2016/17 according to the NCA’s pay review body – the agency agreed a pay deal with government earlier this year. Staff will receive an average 3% rise, paid for by redirecting savings from the transformation programme. As part of the offer, the agency introduced a “spot rate system”, which means staff will see their pay increase as they develop competencies within a role. This change was a prime example of the Treasury’s pledge to increase pay in exchange for improvements in productivity; those who opt on to the system must agree to a contractual change, moving from a 37-hour to a 40-hour week.
This change has had its critics, including the chair of the NCA Remuneration Review Body David Lebrecht, who said he was “not aware of any other part of the public sector, including the police, where this is normal practice” and warned it was “likely to cause discontent within the workforce”.
But Cope is adamant that it was a “really important part of our overall deal”. It will allow staff who were already doing a lot of overtime to consolidate that pay and have it as part of their pension, and help the agency to get a tighter grip on its outgoings, she explains. “As always with pay deals you go into negotiation and some people like it and some people don’t,” she says, but she adds that a “significant proportion” of staff in the agency have had a “significant uplift” in pay both in the 2017/18 financial year and in 2018/19.
Part of the problem on pay has been that the NCA, which was only created in 2013, is an amalgamation of several law enforcement bodies that preceded it. It took on responsibilities and staff, who were subject to varying pay arrangements, from the now-dissolved Serious and Organised Crime Agency, National Policing Improvement Agency and UK Border Agency. There are around 4,400 staff in the agency, with backgrounds in customs, policing, the civil service, intelligence and more.
Cope says this diversity of skills and experience is vital to the department. “But with that also comes a bit of a challenge, which is how do you galvanize this into one mission?” she adds.
The NCA is developing a “people programme” to do just that. It’s the strand of its transformation programme that focuses on staff issues: according to feedback, employees have been particularly unhappy about pay, the way change is managed, and learning and development. Cope is redesigning the agency – bringing in changes to its operating model and improving “enabling services”, for example – and she wants to make sure she brings the staff along with her. “Historically [the agency has] talked about change, and now we’ve got a real opportunity to drive some of the changes forward,” she says.
One key element will be to build on the opportunities and possible career pathways available to people at the agency. “It would be really great if people could see a way of navigating their careers with us,” Cope says. “Given the breadth of roles that are available, I really want that to happen for people.”