By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain launched a new crime-fighting agency on Monday and unveiled a revamped strategy to combat serious organized crime, which it says costs the country 24 billion pounds ($38.6 billion) and represents a threat to national security.
At the heart of what the government vowed would be a tougher new approach is the National Crime Agency (NCA), dubbed Britain's version of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) by media, which will focus on organized, economic and cyber crime, border policing and child sex abuse.
NCA Director General Keith Bristow has also promised a new relationship with the private sector to combat white-collar crime, actively seeking bankers to work as unpaid "specials".
"I think that in the past organized crime hasn't been given sufficient focus," Home Secretary (interior minister) Theresa May told reporters. "Organized crime is changing, it's becoming more diverse, it's becoming international, it's more online. As crime changes, we need to change our response too."
The new strategy will adopt the four strands used in Britain's counter-terrorism approach - pursue, prevent, prepare and protect. May said the aim was not just more prosecutions but "the relentless disruption" of criminal gangs.
"Organized crime is a national security threat," she said.
The NCA takes on many of the duties of its widely criticized predecessor, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) which Prime Minister David Cameron's government decided to replace shortly after coming to power in 2010.
However the opposition Labour Party said the NCA was just a re-branding exercise which disguised cuts to policing budgets.
"The new organization is not strong enough to deal with the exponential growth of economic and online crime," said Labour's policing spokesman David Hanson.
Bristow, however, said his new agency would transform the police approach to organized crime, and he also promised to work to better understand areas such as fraud that remain under-reported and under-recorded.
"Banks, for instance, are aware of fraud ... and for a variety of reasons may or may nor report that to law enforcement," he told reporters at a briefing ahead of the agency's launch.
The agency will also recruit NCA "specials" - similar to special constables who act as volunteer police officers - with skills in areas such as finance and accountancy to help uncover how some criminals hide their assets.
"We will want people, for instance, who understand banking," said Bristow, adding there had been "people queuing up outside the door" to offer their services.
The NCA, which will have more than 4,000 officers, will have the first national intelligence hub, a national unit to tackle cyber crime, and will take the lead in coordinating the police response to cross-border drugs gangs, complex international fraud, and online child sex abusers.
The aim is to make better use of the resources in the existing 44 local forces in England, Wales and Scotland, and other niche law enforcement agencies, to prioritize the most serious criminals and gangs.
The NCA estimates there are some 37,000 individuals spread across 5,500 groups involved in organized crime in Britain, with as many as 22 percent of these thought to be foreign nationals.
"There will be no one beyond the reach of law enforcement or beyond the reach of the NCA," said Bristow, a former police chief constable based in central England.
Unlike the FBI, however, the NCA will not be involved in national security or counter-terrorism, although that might change in the future once it is established.
However, Bristow played down suggestions the agency could take over the work of the Serious Fraud Office, which has come in for much criticism following massive blunders in some high-profile cases.
(Editing by Jon Boyle)