The well informed, or well briefed or leaked to, David Leppard in the Sunday Times has a story about Serious Organised Crime investigations, which does not bother to mention the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA)
The Sunday Times January 07, 2007
TAX inspectors are to be given new powers allowing them to tap taxpayers' telephones and plant bugs inside their homes and offices.
HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) says its inspectors need such covert surveillance to tackle the growing threat from organised and white-collar crime.
SOCA started to be set up two and a half years ago, and became fully operational in April 2006. It specifically combined the investigative branch of what was then Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, with the National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service, and is supposed to be targeting Serious Organised crime, including money laundering etc.
It has all the possible powers of secret surveillance of every sort permitted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 e.g. intrusive planting of electronic bugging devices in premises (which may involve actually breaking into them in secret), tracking devices in vehicles, interception of phone calls, emails, internet access, letter and parcel post, communications traffic data etc, as well as powers of search, arrest, and even financial assets seizure via the Assets Recovery Agency.
What possible excuse is there for the renamed, merged Her Majesty's Customs and Revenue, to demand such powers for tax inspectors, under the pretext of tackling "organised crime gangs" ?
HMRC should be supplying SOCA with any necessary tax records, after appropriate permission has been sought and authorised, and they should leave the investigation of such gangs to SOCA, who are probably also investigating the very same people for drugs smuggling or human trafficking crimes etc.
If HMRC and SOCA are not working together efficiently, then senior heads need to roll.
If the tax evasion investigation is not serious enough to justify the involvement of SOCA, then it is not serious enough to justify intrusive surveillance and electronic or postal interception either.
Under RIPA section 81 General interpretation, the tests are:
(a) that the offence or one of the offences that is or would be constituted by the conduct is an offence for which a person who has attained the age of twenty-one and has no previous convictions could reasonably be expected to be sentenced to imprisonment for a term of three years or more;
(b) that the conduct involves the use of violence, results in substantial financial gain or is conduct by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose.
A spokesman for HMRC said giving tax inspectors the power to tap phones and plant bugs was a rational move after the merger of Customs and the Inland Revenue in 2005.
The union of the two organisations followed a series of bungled investigations in which Customs and Excise officers were accused in court of lying and corruption.
The spokesman said the former Customs and Excise agency had retained its powers to conduct so-called "intrusive surveillance" after the merger and it made sense to extend them to the Inland Revenue part of the new organisation.
"Some of the perpetrators can be caught using existing powers. But if criminals are to be caught and prosecuted, access is needed occasionally and under appropriate safeguards to more intrusive techniques. These powers would only apply to the most serious criminal offences."
He cited the example of organised crime gangs seeking to defraud the tax credit system,
Given that in the Tax Credits scandal, there was corruption of civil servants within the Inland Revenue and the Department for Work and Pensions, it is utterly inappropriate for HM Revenue and Customs to be investigating themselves.
Surely any such investigation in the future should be handled by SOCA ?
Is it really conceivable that such organised gangs would not also be engaged in other criminal activities within the remit of SOCA ?
Gordon Brown could eliminate any such crime in the future, by simplifying the horrendously complicated bureaucratic red tape of such schemes as Tax Credits, which he has inflicted on the public and on his low level civil servants.
while any warrants for phone taps would have to be signed by a minister or a senior government official.
Surely HMRC are not proposing that they be given such interception powers without, the signature of the Home Secretary or, exceptionally and temporarily, a senior official, under RIPA ? That would be more power than the Police, SOCA, MI5, MI6, GCHQ or the Military ! Or is this just an ambiguously worded paragraph ?
The move will be seen as further evidence of a more aggressive approach towards tax evaders. Last year, it emerged that tax inspectors would be given powers to make arrests and take fingerprints without police officers being present.
Where are they going to store these fingerprints ? On the Police National Computer ? Or are they going to create their own parallel system, at vast expense ?
What happens when some of these tax evading gangs are found to be armed with guns or knives ? Will the tax inspectors demand to have their own firearms units ?
Why not just get the Police to arrest people, if and when sufficient evidence has been obtained ?
Is SOCA really not tackling organised crime gangs, like they are meant to be doing , or is this bureaucratic empire building by the Revenue and the Treasury ?
Should this alleged extension of HMRC and therefore Treasury powers also be viewed in the context of the recent grab of almost unlimited financial snooping powers by Gordon Brown's Treasury, supposedly to counteract "terrorist finance" ?
It is not unusual in a Police State, for different branches of Government to create their own "loyal" teams of investigators, snoopers, informers and spies etc., who often devote a large part of their time to snooping on rival agencies and political allies or rivals.
Is this the totalitarian path down which Gordon Brown is heading ?