Lord: 'British FBI' will be private Home Office police

Infosecurity 2006: SOCA will be outside the remit of the Police Act 1997, greatly increasing its potential powers, critics have warned

The powers and scope of the newly formed Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) are far too broad, a leading parliamentary figure said on Tuesday.

Merlin, Lord Erroll, said that SOCA's powers would be greatly increased by the organisation being outside the remit of the Police Act 1997. This legislation formerly regulated the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the National Crime Squad, which have now formed SOCA.

"It's a private police force of the Home Office, not under the Police Act. It will be an internal police force with greater powers, comparable to the powers of border police," said Erroll, who also gave the opening address at the Infosecurity trade show in London.

SOCA will not be directly accountable to the public, instead being accountable to the department of state, according to Erroll. SOCA has combined the National Crime Squad, the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit, and elements of the UK Immigration service. It began operating on 1 April this year.

Philip Virgo, general secretary of Eurim, also expressed concern about the possible scope of SOCA's powers.

"There are a lot of issues here with democratic accountability, and those issues have got to be addressed in a democratic society," said Virgo.

Lord Erroll also said that although today's SOCA will be imbued with traditional police values, he was very concerned that in 30 years time that may get lost in "a more arrogant ethic".

Although SOCA was represented at the Infosecurity show, the organisation was unable to comment on Erroll's criticism. Industry liaison officer Tony Neate told ZDNet UK that SOCA was only able to respond through its centralised communications channel.

The government has said that SOCA should play a vital role in combating the most serious organised criminals, but there are concerns that e-crime may not get much of its attention. Earlier this month, Cambridge University security expert Richard Clayton warned that there is a danger that neither SOCA nor local police forces will treat cybercrime as a priority.

But Mark Murtagh, European technical director for Websense, also said earlier this month that SOCA is likely to help reduce cybercrime, especially for offences which cross national borders.