Has the Government Forgotten about Serious and Organised Crime?

Direction uncertain: Home Secretary Suella Braverman speaks to senior police officers during a visit to the City of London Police on 17 July 2023. Image: PA Images / Alamy

The threat from serious and organised crime is increasing year on year, yet an up-to-date articulation of the government’s strategic approach is missing in action.

Five years ago, in November 2018, the UK’s newly published Serious and Organised Crime Strategy pledged to leave ‘no safe space’ for serious and organised criminals to operate. Promising a whole-system approach, the strategy was the first to set out how the UK would ‘mobilise the full force of the state, aligning our collective efforts to … disrupt serious and organised criminals’ as ‘one cohesive system’.

Launching the strategy at the top of The Shard, then Minister for Security and Economic Crime Ben Wallace pledged to ‘turn up the heat’ on those responsible. He did so citing the £37-billion estimated cost to society. In his own words, ‘Many serious and organised criminals think they are above the law. They think they can defy the British state. … This strategy is determined to challenge that assertion.’

Five years on, it is not immediately clear what the government has achieved per the strategy, beyond describing the challenging circumstances facing the UK. As the home secretary announced last week in a speech on counterterrorism: ‘the threats we face – terrorism, state threats, serious and organised crime – are becoming increasingly blurred and will often overlap. We must use all the tools at our disposal.’

This description of the threat was echoed by the new director-general of the National Crime Agency (NCA) at the launch of the Agency’s National Strategic Assessment 2023 last week. Graeme Biggar described the blurring of the lines between a series of complex threats, while highlighting that serious and organised crime impacting the UK has continued to grow. This is not a one-off increase: growth in serious and organised crime has been reported in every annual NCA assessment since the 2018 Strategy’s publication.

The National Strategic Assessment describes the changing security environment in stark terms. It shows how far offenders have proven able to exploit instability caused by the war in Ukraine, cost-of-living pressures and ongoing technological advances to aid their operations. Post-Brexit, post-pandemic, key changes continue to be witnessed as criminals consolidate new operating models and patterns of victimisation. Set against this background, the National Strategic Assessment flags increases in six areas: organised immigration crime; drugs; fraud; modern slavery and human trafficking; money laundering; and organised acquisitive crime.

In terms of drugs, record highs in seizures are reported in 2022, while recent waste water analysis suggests that cocaine use has increased by 25% over the past year in some areas. On organised immigration crime, a record 45,755 individuals arrived by small boat in 2022, a 60% increase on 2021. In parallel, numbers of potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking identified via the National Referral Mechanism also rose: in 2022, 7,936 referrals were made for exploitation taking place solely in the UK – a 10% increase on 2021.

The threat from fraud has also grown: as the most common crime experienced in England and Wales, this accounted for 41% of all crime experienced by adults in the year to September 2022. On money laundering, there is ‘likely’ to have been an increase in the threat, with £12 billion in criminal cash now assessed to be generated in the UK annually. In terms of organised acquisitive crime, a 19% increase in vehicle theft was recorded in 2022 compared with 2021, with cost-of-living rises driving growth across this area. And while threats such as child sexual abuse are assessed to have remained stable, offending rates remain high: an estimated 680,000–830,000 UK-based adult offenders are assessed to pose a risk to children – around 10 times the country’s prison population.

Don’t Hold Your Breath

Five years on, and five home secretaries later, the government’s strategy on serious and organised crime is no longer easy to discern. In the recent Integrated Review Refresh, for example, the focus on serious and organised crime was largely limited to the most politically salient issue: criminality associated with small-boat arrivals. Beyond cyber and economic crime, serious and organised crime-related content focused almost entirely on this issue, including notification of a doubling of funding for the NCA’s efforts to tackle organised criminality behind small boats. On other key aspects of the threat, the document is largely silent: on drugs, it is limited to a single mention of the fact that the government continues to implement the 10-Year Drugs Plan (without comment on its record to date).

While in 2018 some observers noted a ‘newfound confidence and ambition for the UK’s response to serious and organised crime’, many today fear the absence of a clear vision across the government’s approach

Crucially, however, the Integrated Review Refresh points to the forthcoming publication of an updated Serious and Organised Crime Strategy in 2023. But it is already July, and while the prime minister could be forced to reshuffle his Cabinet in the wake of three by-elections, the general view among political commentators is that a reshuffle in September is more likely. Might this include the home secretary and what would this mean for a serious and organised crime strategy? And what might such a strategy focus on?

Compare this uncertainty with the situation five years ago. In the months running up to the formulation of the Serious and Organised Crime Strategy 2018, the views of academic, charity and private-sector partners were actively sought. The Home Office also published a set of research priorities to ‘allow … anyone considering research in this area to focus their work’ accordingly. Fast forward to today and there is little evidence of such a partnership-based approach to the refresh of the government’s strategy. There has been little outreach to garner the views of researchers, analysts and experts. This appears a prominent omission – the government has repeatedly acknowledged these partners’ critical role, stressing the need for ‘enhanced engagement’ with these stakeholders. In terms of research priorities, since those set out for April 2018–March 2021, no updated requirements appear to have been published. Nor is it clear if there is an intention to do so alongside an updated strategy.

What Action Has Been Taken?

Overall, the picture emerging in 2023 appears one of uncertain future strategic direction. While in 2018 some observers noted a ‘newfound confidence and ambition for the UK’s response to serious and organised crime’, many today fear the absence of a clear vision across the government’s approach.

Against this backdrop, it is useful to look at some of the actions taken in the intervening five years to consider key aspects of the progress made to date.

Action following the government strategy appears to have focused on degrading the most harmful criminal actors, including targeting influential ‘enablers’ and their finances through the denial of criminal assets from those involved in drug trafficking. Beyond this, in an effort to address illicit finance underpinning wider forms of high-level serious and organised criminality, the government has delivered a set of practical actions under the first Economic Crime Plan (2019–2022). These actions include ongoing efforts to develop the National Economic Crime Centre ‘as a genuine public-private hub for combatting serious and organised economic crime’. Among others, they also include efforts to improve support to victims of fraud via Economic Crime Victim Care Units.

Internationally, investment has been made in expanding the global reach of the UK’s efforts to tackle serious and organised crime. This includes the establishment of SOCnet – an overseas network of organised crime and illicit finance policy officers working from embassies and high commissions in over 100 countries. Alongside this has come a more recent expansion in the NCA International Liaison Officer network and the launch of the Joint International Crime Centre in April. This new unit aims to enhance the UK’s capabilities in relation to international law-enforcement cooperation.

The government has also continued to invest in strengthening specialist online capabilities across law enforcement. This includes investment in the NCA’s National Cyber Crime Unit and the development of Regional Cyber Crime Units across the Regional Organised Crime Unit network. Working with the NCA, both at home and abroad, these regional units have worked with the aim not only to investigate but also to prevent the most serious cyber offending.

Meanwhile, a key moment in the response saw the appointment of a new director-general of the NCA in August 2022. On Biggar’s appointment, then Home Secretary Priti Patel again stressed the need to ‘go … after the criminals who profit from human misery, abuse our children and citizens and show no regard for our borders and laws’. In working to do so, in an increasingly challenging operating environment, Biggar argued that ‘the Agency must focus upstream, overseas and online’ – a shift hailed as essential to address a ‘chronic, corrosive and complex’ modern-day threat.

Beyond a statement of what has been achieved, an updated Strategy must articulate a compelling and ambitious vision for the UK’s response to serious and organised crime

But this activity masks a wider malaise in government. Structural changes across key parts of the Home Office have reportedly complicated joint working with counterparts across the system. Staff in Whitehall departments lament a lack of mechanisms for prioritisation pending the updated strategy, with the current strategic approach followed by different parts of the system not always easily discernible.

Think Big or Go Home

What would then make sense for an updated strategy to prioritise? First and foremost, such a document must respond to the growing sophistication, global reach and digitally enabled activity of today’s offenders.

To do so, it should reinforce and consolidate the earlier focus on disrupting and dismantling the business models of the highest-harm criminals. This includes those at the highest levels of the criminal chain and, crucially, those enabling their activities. Here, focus should lie on the role of corrupt insiders, providers of criminal communications platforms and access to financial assets that allow offenders to enjoy criminal profits. A strengthened machinery to tackle illicit finance must form a central, fully integrated plank in the wider response.

Beyond this, the strategy should be oriented towards the international component of most serious and organised crime threats to the UK. In line with this, greater focus and resources should be committed to action against this overseas dimension (with the potential of under-explored measures such as targeted financial sanctions considered). Indeed, given the cross-border nature of the threat, how the strategy balances domestic and overseas commitments will be crucial. It should be considered carefully whether activity targeted within the UK itself should automatically be assigned highest priority.

With ever-more crime occurring on the internet, the strategy should further centre on responding to the ongoing shift online. Among other measures, this should involve enhanced engagement with the private sector and efforts to tackle the evolving challenges facing law enforcement. In parallel, the strategy must adequately address criminal use of evolving technologies such as 3D printing, metaverse technology, and the use of hyper-realistic imagery created by AI in child sexual abuse offending. It should do so mindful that ongoing technological advances will continue to transform the dynamics of serious and organised crime over the life of the strategy and beyond.

Underpinning all of this, renewed commitment is needed to ensure that the single cohesive approach long advocated is strengthened and translated into action. A new strategy must look again at coordination across local to regional, national and international levels. This will involve reinvigorated work to clearly define who does what, the support provided to fulfil those expectations, and to track shifting demand across the system.

Coordination should extend beyond government. There is much to be gained, for example, from the formalisation of a collaborative network of experts working in and beyond government – with targeted academic research able to provide a more nuanced understanding of the threat and insights capable of improving the wider response.

Across the system, more broadly, greater focus is needed on governance and oversight of the strategy’s implementation. This should include stronger emphasis on assessing how the government is performing across priority areas. To achieve this, the right tools and metrics must be developed to measure activity and effectiveness against the threat as it impacts the UK in 2023 and beyond.

Overall, an updated Strategy must provide clear direction, means for prioritisation, sufficient detail and clarity on roles and responsibilities across the system. Beyond a statement of what has been achieved, it must articulate a compelling and ambitious vision for the UK’s response to serious and organised crime. Time is running out for the government.

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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