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Figures from the British government’s annual report published earlier this week on its strategy for tackling serious and organised crime paint a miserable picture.
Budget cuts to the Home Office have continued to exact a significant toll while experienced law enforcement practitioners continue to leave in droves – many for better paid jobs in the financial services sector – one unintended consequence of government making financial crime a necessary priority in their strategy.
As the report highlights organised crime is growing. At the end of last year UK law enforcement estimated there were 5,800 organised crime groups – comprising some 40,600 individuals. This is an increase of three hundred organised crime groups and 3,500 people on the year before. Better data and a more comprehensive intelligence picture are only part of the answer to why the numbers have grown. Politicians have asked law enforcement to focus more on criminal activities such as child sexual exploitation and modern slavery.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) estimates that there are as many as 50,000 people in the UK involved in the downloading and viewing of indecent images online. The Director General of the NCA has suggested that the British public cannot expect every person viewing indecent images to enter the criminal justice system – not least because of the sheer scale of the problem. The NCA received 12,505 referrals from the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (based in Washington DC) in its first 12 months, compared to 9,855 in 2012, an increase of almost 27 per cent.
Tackling modern slavery is another area that the Home Secretary has identified as requiring more effort. The Home Office’s Chief Scientific Adviser estimates that there may have been as many as 13,000 potential victims of modern slavery in the UK in 2013. Most will rely on the services of organised criminal groups at some point in their journey to the UK.
This is the modern face of organised crime in the UK: diverse, sophisticated, networked and largely invisible to the general public. The internet, low-cost transport and international supply chains have made it easier and less risky than ever before to do business.
The report highlights one positive trend: the decline in illegal drug use over the last decade. Today it is estimated that approximately 9 per cent of adults take an illicit drug in the UK each year. That said the emerging trends in illegal drugs identified in the annual report remain a concern: As we have previously predicted the supply of heroin from Afghanistan is likely to increase over the next few years. The amount of cocaine reaching UK streets meanwhile remains high. The number of new psychoactive substances has risen too.
The annual report shows that in its first 12 months the NCA and partner agencies had an impact, with 2,048 people in the UK and 1,181 overseas arrested for organised crime related activity in the UK. 415 individual were convicted. As part of their operations the NCA seized over 200 tonnes of illegal drugs and more than 700 firearms (including 165 guns). There are approximately 7,000 organised criminals in prison (about 40 per cent of known serious and organised crime groups have at least one member incarcerated in prison).
Global Threat, National Borders
Serious and organised crime involves the movement of people, goods and money across the UK’s border, with criminals exploiting any potential vulnerability. Maintaining an appropriate presence at all of the 140 sea- and airports across the UK and overseas where the Border Force operates remains a significant challenge for the agency. The scale and volume of the traffic passing through the UK’s biggest airports (London Heathrow, London Gatwick and Manchester) and sea ports (Felixstowe, Southampton and the Thames Estuary) makes policing these facilities extremely difficult and resource-intensive.
Given limited resources, the UK’s Border Force must prioritise the most high-risk ports of entry, based on periodic risk assessments, leading to inevitable vulnerabilities at ports and along routes that are less well-established and less well-monitored. The Border Force seized 3.2 tonnes of Class A drugs and 319 million cigarettes at the border in 2013/14. And while 319 million cigarettes may sound like a large amount – it is tiny when you compare it to the 4 billion illicit cigarettes smuggles into the UK annually.
Private courier services are one example, as are private charter flights and unmanned general aviation terminals. According to the Home Office report ‘approximately 70 million couriered parcels and 7 million sea containers enter the UK each year’. The Border Force is struggling to keep up with the volumes of parcels coming into the country, sustain its high seizure rates, and elicit the support of other law enforcement agencies to provide follow-up investigations
This first annual report of the Government’s efforts on organised crime offers a bleak assessment of the threat from organised crime. The conclusion could not be clearer: political will only gets you so far. To disrupt organised crime it is not a question of following the money but finding the money to fund law enforcement agencies in the first place.