Blink and You Missed It: The UK Government’s New Organised Crime Strategy

A new approach? Image: IRStone / Adobe Stock

A new strategy to tackle serious and organised crime was quietly published last week. What does it tell us about the current government’s approach to this expanding national security threat?

Following months of calls from think tanks and the opposition, the UK government published a new Serious and Organised Crime Strategy last week, on 13 December. One could be forgiven for missing it: no formal launch event, ministerial speech, media coverage, or other song and dance accompanied the strategy’s publication.

It was instead detailed on a single GOV.UK news page, with the lack of engagement a far cry from previous iterations. For its part, the 2018 strategy was launched in style at the top of the Shard by then Minister for Security and Economic Crime Ben Wallace. Alongside Wallace, speeches marked the event by then Director-General of the National Crime Agency (NCA) Lynne Owens and Chair of UK Finance Bob Wigley. Further back, Theresa May launched the 2013 strategy on the day of the launch of the NCA itself, with extensive media coverage.

The lack of engagement around the 2023 strategy’s launch is striking. While in 2018, observers noted a ‘newfound confidence and ambition for the UK’s response to serious and organised crime’, the manner of the new strategy’s launch does not easily instil similar sentiments. It is designed to guide the UK’s approach to an expanding threat out to 2028, but the lack of activity calls into question most immediately the energy that exists to take the strategy forward.

A Changing Threat Landscape

It is of course positive that a new strategy now exists. It was clear that that the previous strategy was outdated, no longer adapted to the contemporary threat landscape five years on. Notably, the 2018 strategy was formulated prior to the rapid rise in small boat crossings, with numbers arriving by small boat increasing from 299 in 2018 to 45,774 in 2022. Other marked shifts in the threat in the intervening period had rendered a new strategic approach necessary.

Yet in outlining plans to reduce serious and organised crime, it is unclear how far the new strategy depicts the true scale of the threat – or the extent of the challenge facing us. For the first time in five years, the document features a new figure for the cost of serious and organised crime to the UK – at least £47 billion annually.

Closer examination, however, shows that it is not a new estimate. Instead, a footnote clarifies that this number is an adjustment for inflation of the £37 billion annual cost to the UK calculated back in FY2015–16. Beyond inflating this using November 2023 HMT GDP Deflator, no attempt appears to have been made to reassess the baseline figure of seven-plus years prior. More recent estimations for drugs and child sexual abuse are explicitly omitted from consideration due to methodological differences.

How far £37 billion (acknowledged as an underestimate at the time) plus inflation reflects the current cost of serious and organised crime to the UK is unclear, particularly considering that growth in the threat has been reported in every annual NCA assessment since 2018.

Most recently, the 2023 National Strategic Assessment judged the threat to have continued to grow in the previous year. Increases were seen in six areas: organised immigration crime; drugs; fraud; modern slavery and human trafficking; money laundering; and organised acquisitive crime. It is surprising that attempts to quantify this sustained growth do not appear to have been made in formulating the new strategy.

Farewell to the 4Ps

In terms of the strategic approach outlined, the ‘mission’ of the strategy is to ‘reduce serious and organised crime in the UK’. This wording could reasonably be taken as covering only crime committed domestically – even though a significant volume of crime targeting UK citizens is committed from abroad.

The strategy goes on, however, to clarify its focus on the overseas dimension of serious and organised crime. While it states that ‘action in this country is the first priority’, two other ‘lines of action’ cover the ‘UK border’ and ‘international’. The international line of action comprises ‘intelligence-led, upstream disruption, cutting off supply at source and reducing the incentives for criminals based overseas to target the UK’. Yet, notably, this section is less than half the length of the nine pages on action in country, with action at the border occupying less space still.

Following these three components are two ‘enabling’ lines of action. These include a fourth line on technology and capabilities, and a fifth on a multi-agency response. Together, these five lines of action are described as comprising an ‘end-to-end response’ to disrupting and dismantling organised crime groups operating in and against the UK.

The structure of the strategy thus represents a significant departure from the ‘Pursue’, ‘Prevent’, ‘Protect’ and ‘Prepare’ basis of its predecessors. While the 2013 strategy established the 4P delivery framework in the serious and organised crime space (adopted from counter terrorism), the 2018 document maintained it. The latter did so recognising this to provide ‘a coherent approach for all partners involved in countering serious and organised crime’.

The new strategy does not comment on the reasons for departing from the 4P framework. It also does not explain explicitly how the new five-part framework offers a more appropriate and effective approach in today’s context. On this point, is worth noting that the word ‘prepare’ does not feature in the new strategy. Whether this is by design is not discussed. (As an aside, the 4P framework continues to be used in the Counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST) 2023.)

In terms of content, there is a focus on expansion of existing initiatives. This includes, for example, the rolling out of the ‘clear, hold, build’ policing tactic to every force area in England and Wales. While noting the record investment made in the NCA in 2023–24, funding is outlined in a range of areas. The strategy details commitments to allocate a further £24 million to the Modern Slavery Fund, and a further £5 million to police to respond to organised immigration crime (including the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s Modern Slavery and Organised Immigration Crime Unit).

A question to be answered, however, is how the ambitions outlined in the strategy sit alongside the Chancellor’s announcement in the Autumn Statement that the target for government departments will be to cut 66,000 jobs by the end of the next Spending Review in March 2025.

A Partnership-Based Approach?

A final comment concerns the nature of the multi-agency response outlined in the fifth line of action. While the strategy discusses how different parts of the public sector (and to an extent private sector) should work together, the third sector is mentioned only in briefest passing.

With the publication of the new document, the government has set out its strategic approach to tackling the threat posed by serious and organised crime

This is in contrast to previous iterations. The 2018 strategy outlined plans to ‘harness the expertise of the academic sector’ and ‘increase the body of evidence available to us through enhanced engagement with the private sector, civil society, NGOs, think-tanks and other relevant development and academic partners’. The 2013 strategy, before this, positioned itself as ‘the product of extensive consultation’, not only with public sector bodies, but also with the private sector and academia.

It is unclear whether a similarly wide-reaching partnership-based approach has informed the 2023 strategy. What is clear is that limited emphasis is placed on this in the government’s strategic plan for the next five years. Perhaps reflective of this, updated research priorities have not been published alongside the new strategy. This would appear a missed opportunity to enhance collaboration among experts across sectors working to address ongoing gaps in the evidence base (work recognised as essential by the NCA, for example, per its Annual Plan 2023-24).

In sum, with the publication of the new document, the government has set out its strategic approach to tackling the threat posed by serious and organised crime. In doing so, some clear blue water may be starting to emerge between this and the likely approach of the opposition.

In a speech this month, Shadow Security Minister Dan Jarvis noted that ‘a new Serious and Organised Crime Strategy will be part of Labour’s plans for government’. As part of this, his stated focus was on ‘taking, and keeping, the fight upstream, overseas and online’. He also stressed the work still needed ‘to create a single, joined up, approach … that endures for years to come’, while querying whether ‘the right structures are in place across Whitehall to counter state-sponsored, and non-state-sponsored, serious organised crime’.

While the Shadow Security Minister was clear on the need for a strategy, the truth is that we have yet to see Labour’s approach in full and will not do so until the party publishes its manifesto. Although we currently lack specifics on a Labour government’s intended strategic approach, however, the dividing lines between what the Conservatives have produced and what Labour has said on serious and organised crime may be starting to become more visible.

The document published last week is welcome as an up-to-date articulation of the government’s strategic approach, but whether it is everything the country needs to tackle a rapidly evolving, technologically advanced threat – which will continue to shift and adapt – remains to be seen.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Cathy Haenlein

Director of Organised Crime and Policing Studies

Organised Crime and Policing

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