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The UK government’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) recognised serious and organised crime as a Tier-2 national security threat and stated that tackling the most harmful groups was a priority.
The SDSR represented, for those at the forefront of tackling the problem, timely recognition that ‘organised crime activity poses a significant and persistent threat to the UK public and economy’ and one which, according to a 2013 Home Office estimate, costs the UK an estimated £24 billion per annum.
The hope proffered by linking the organised crime threat (and the 50,000 individuals assessed to be linked to organised crime groups in the UK) to the wider national security architecture was that this would finally provoke some ‘big thinking’ in government circles about the priority given to this threat.
Law enforcement agencies hoped that the government would consider relative resourcing levels between this and other strategic security threats and hold others to account about how the resources of the wider defence and security architecture could be brought to bear against what was previously viewed solely as a law enforcement responsibility.
Fighting serious and organised crime was long viewed as the ‘poor cousin’ of counterterrorism policing. However, many of those charged with tackling these crimes had repeatedly argued that, while the impact of terrorist incidents was undoubtedly catastrophic, in pure numerical terms more people in the UK were directly affected by organised crime than by terrorism, whether through drug-fuelled street crime, organised acquisitive crime (such as car thefts) or cyber-enabled mass fraud.
Whether this argument holds water remains debatable, however, if, as the SDSR 2010 predicted, it was likely that the threat from organised crime was likely to increase over the following five years, then it seemed logical to assume a debate on resourcing was in order.
This optimism was felt perhaps even more acutely by those charged with hitting organised crime groups (OCGs) where it hurt most – in the pocket.
While the evangelists within the law enforcement community had long recognised the integral role of financial investigation and asset confiscation powers in undermining the OCG business model, these tools were (and arguably still are) too often viewed by even those at senior ranks as a pedestrian specialism best left to ‘the guys in the corner with the calculators’.
The commitment in the SDSR 2010 to ‘create a body with a specific function to fight economic crime’ (now embodied in the National Crime Agency’s Economic Crime Command) and to ‘increase the effectiveness of our asset recovery mechanisms’, appeared to finally put at least some of the legislative tools available in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (POCA) at the centre (or at least not on the sidelines) of the approach to tackling serious and organised crime.
The government’s subsequent subject-specific policy response to this threat, in the form of the Serious and Organised Crime Strategy 2013, which mirrored the ‘CONTEST’ model trialled and implemented in the counterterrorism world, noted that ‘most organised crime aims to make money which then needs to be moved and laundered to hide its origins’.
It therefore included the tackling of criminal finances as a core part of the response alongside more ‘traditional’ tools of arrest and commodity seizure and promised to ‘attack criminal finances by making it harder to move, hide and use the proceeds of crime’.
This was a promise reiterated in the subsequent SDSR 2015 and given particular focus in the government’s ‘Action Plan for anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist finance’ (the ‘AML Action Plan’) in 2016.
This series of strategic offerings recognise what to many in the counter-criminal finances community, is self-evident – that money is the lifeblood of organised crime, acting both as its recruitment agent and allowing reinvestment into future criminality; a cycle which the powers enshrined in POCA seek to break.
The UK government can, in some respects, be commended for putting a sustained strategic spotlight on this maxim to win over the operational naysayers and for its candour in openly stating in the action plan that ‘the size of the UK’s financial and professional services sector, our open economy, and the attractiveness of the London property market to overseas investors makes the UK unusually exposed to international money laundering risks’.
But talk, as they say, is cheap. What matters is action. Delivering against a constantly evolving target set has its challenges and none the more so in an age of austerity that saw a reduction in the local policing budget of 20%, the removal of ring-fenced funding for the Regional Asset Recovery Units and the launch of a National Crime Agency, with an arguably wider mandate than its predecessor, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, but with the same budget.
RUSI’s Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies will be researching how the law enforcement landscape is evolving to meet this challenge and assessing the extent to which the established strategic model for tackling the finances of organised crime needs to be revisited.
This analysis will be presented in a series of papers examining key themes, such as financial investigation, intelligence and asset confiscation, with the aim of informing the criminal finances elements of any future refresh of the Serious and Organised Crime Strategy.
In short, is the government’s strategic output worth the paper it is painstakingly written on or does it need to be rewritten to reflect operational realities?
Banner image: A debate is needed if Organised Crime Groups are to be hit where it hurts them most - their pockets. Courtesy of Lensicle/Wikimedia.