Serious Organised Crime and Britain’s Forthcoming Integrated Review

Main Image Credit Courtesy of Drug Enforcement Agency.

The British government should raise the national security threat from serious and organised crime to Tier One status.

Serious and organised crime (SOC) is the most significant national security threat faced by the UK; it persistently erodes our economy and communities and affects more UK citizens, more often, than any other threat, impacting on public services, businesses, institutions, national reputation and infrastructure.

A Persistent Threat

The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) aimed ‘to reduce substantially the level of serious and organised crime affecting the UK and our interests’. It has not succeeded in that ambition. In assessing the threats to national security, Britain’s National Security Council ranks the threats based on likelihood and impact. To date the threat from SOC has been a Tier Two threat. However, it is evident that the SOC threat is increasing in scale and complexity. The National Crime Agency (NCA) attributes a large portion of this to advances in technology, but also to instability caused by international conflict which is being exploited by organised crime groups (OCGs) who can identify and target victims and find new markets to make money.

The SDSR 2015 estimated the cost of SOC to the UK be £24 billion. The latest figure, even at a conservative estimate indicates this figure has risen to £37 billion. Whilst the figure can be partly explained by changes in methodology to produce more robust estimates the rising cost of SOC is set to continue as more people, especially children and young persons, become involved.

A Global Threat

Serious organised crime, corruption and kleptocracy also challenge the UK’s overseas policy and development objectives. It hinders our ability to help the world’s poorest people and it is an obstacle in efforts to reduce poverty and promote global prosperity. In fragile states, most notably post-conflict settings, drugs, weapons trafficking and illicit economies become entrenched and thrive as conflict ceases. This is important because the saturation of domestic drug markets and the exploitation of vulnerable populations are linked to the rise in the estimated global illicit manufacture of cocaine, reaching an all-time high of almost 2,000 tons in 2017, an increase of 25% on the previous year. Colombia accounts for 70% of the world’s cocaine production, rapidly increasing its cultivation before the government’s peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The movement of new OCGs into the space the FARC once occupied in the global cocaine trade and a halt in aerial fumigation programmes have both contributed to this rise.

The NCA estimates that in the UK in 2018 there were 37,317 people with links to 4,542 OCGs. This figure is likely to be a conservative estimate. Similarly, Europol gives an indication of the global nature of SOC highlighting that in the EU in 2017, 5,000 international OCGs were under investigation, comprising 180 different nationalities. In terms of the cost to the UK, the estimated figure of £37 billion per annum most likely represents a significant underestimate of the true value, particularly in areas such as fraud.

OCGs are amongst the most resilient adversaries the UK faces, quick to exploit opportunities on a transnational scale. Across the threat landscape OCGs use several cross-cutting enablers, such as the use of technology, especially encryption to commit and hide crimes or the perpetrators’ identity. Criminals adapt quickly to advances in technology, incorporating the benefits into their business enterprises such as online trade and encrypted communications to organise and distribute controlled drugs, move their criminal finances and hack into personal as well as business and national infrastructure from anywhere in the world.

OCGs also exploit the UK border to facilitate the movement of illicit goods and people across national boundaries. They corrupt public and private sector workers and routinely attempt to infiltrate law enforcement to avoid detection, compromise prosecutions, and identify sources of information.

The Impact

SOC directly impacts on the everyday lives of citizens in the UK, most noticeably through drugs and associated violence, firearms and acquisitive crime. The illicit drug market is a growing threat to the health, safety and security of the UK’s citizens. The use of crack cocaine and heroin has increased, together with an improved street level purity, bringing with it increases in homicide and knife and gun crime. Heroin and crack cocaine users commit around 45% of all theft offences in England and in Wales.

The impacts of ‘county lines’ crack cocaine and heroin drug distribution networks are felt in 88% of all police forces in England and Wales, causing significant harm, in addition to the violence through the exploitation of young and vulnerable people. Law enforcement activity targeting the drugs threat accounts for the largest proportion of their time and criminal justice SOC outcomes. However, the growing availability of all types of controlled drugs indicates the likelihood of a burgeoning threat to the UK, that will continue to have a negative impact on our communities and vulnerable populations, especially children.

Serious organised crime also causes harm to the UK’s economy and institutions through money laundering, fraud, international bribery, corruption and sanctions evasion, and cybercrime. The scale of money laundering impacting the UK is estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of pounds per annum in terms of the cash value of the transactions and represents a significant reputational risk to the integrity of the UK’s financial sector, essential for global trade and the UK’s prosperity. Fraud is the most common recorded crime and is estimated to cost £190 billion per year. It accounts for one-third of all reported crimes, but the true extent is believed to be underreported and represents a threat that is increasing.

The exact scale of bribery and corruption is difficult to assess but it is feared that the UK’s exit from the EU could have a negative impact on the incidence of bribery and corruption as UK companies potentially come into greater contact with corrupt markets. Sanctions contravention undermines the integrity of our financial system and it is argued contributes to the funding of terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Suspected breaches of financial sanctions have been reported at a value of £1.35 billion per annum. Cyberattacks damage the economy, and cyber security breaches are both costly and disruptive for businesses, with 43% of all UK businesses identifying at least one cyber security breach or attack in 2017.

The use of criminal actors as proxies for hostile states, has blurred the distinction between crime and state conflict, making an already complex situation more difficult to tackle. Russian-language OCGs are behind financial Trojans that present the biggest cybercrime threat to the UK. For example, a Russian national who ran Evil Corp, described as the world’s most harmful cybercrime group, created and deployed malware that led to financial losses of hundreds of millions of pounds in the UK alone.  

It is evident that in the years since the 2015 SDSR SOC represents a growing, not diminishing, threat to public safety and national security. The integrated review needs to recognise these key threats and address them where the SDSR 2015 failed in its objective.  A clear message from government on its intention would be to recognise that SOC is a Tier One threat. The extra resources and refocused attention this would entail are not only required to confront the threat but essential to fill any void in the UK’s security arrangements with the rest of Europe post-Brexit. The likelihood of the threat increasing is real and a failure to recognise its impact would likely lead to the further exploitation of vulnerable children and adults, more damaged and fractured communities and increased harm to our economy and institutions, affecting the UK’s prosperity and international reputation. 

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


Keith Ditcham

Senior Research Fellow

Organised Crime and Policing

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