Home Secretary's speech at the Serious Organised Crime Exchange

We have dramatically reformed our approach to serious and organised crime but we still face big challenges

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Theresa May MP

Thank you. I am delighted to be able to be here at this first Serious and Organised Crime Exchange. It is good to see so many senior officers from across the policing world brought together to talk about how best we can combat this threat.

Last June I gave a speech at the Royal United Services Institute about the Government’s approach to serious and organised crime. I said then that for too long the damage caused by organised crime had gone ignored, the threat had gone unchallenged, and the nature of what we are talking about had been barely understood. I said organised crime was not necessarily what people think it is, and that our response had to be different. And that when I became Home Secretary nearly five years ago it was clear not only that we had to step up the fight, but that we needed to consider serious and organised crime a national security threat.

Everyone in this room today will know the immense damage caused by serious and organised crime. You see it day in and day out in your work. You know that organised crime is not just some far-removed, abstract, victimless threat – but that it reaches deep into our communities, shattering lives, ruining businesses, corrupting society, corroding communities and spreading fear and misery.

The victims are not just a theoretical concept, but real people, who suffer real consequences and real harm. They are the family who have their home burgled and their belongings trashed by someone addicted to drugs. The internet user who has their personal details harvested and sold onto criminal markets and money silently emptied from their bank account. They are people who find their insurance premiums inflated because of fraud. The pensioner conned into handing over their life savings as part of some elaborate scam. The person who buys goods such as alcohol or medicines and discovers they are dangerous fakes.

Often the victims are the most vulnerable. Men and women traded as modern day slaves and forced into a horrendous existence of rape, abuse, and physical and mental torture. And they are the children systematically exploited by criminals online or young girls passed from abuser to abuser by organised gangs to be sexually exploited for profit.

Serious and organised crime affects all of us. Its victims do not exist in a vacuum, they live in our towns, villages and cities. And the more we understand about organised crime, the more we learn about its nature, the more we see how crimes that might otherwise be considered isolated are part of an overall picture involving networks of people and organised criminal activity.

Because if organised crime often hurts vulnerable and ordinary people the most, the costs and impacts are on a national and international scale.

Organised crime threatens our ability to protect our borders. It damages the security, legitimacy and reputation of our financial markets and institutions, and most disturbingly – in some communities – organised criminals act as alternative providers of justice, security, housing and income. Internationally organised crime undermines countries strategically important to our security and our efforts to tackle the drugs trade and terrorism.

And the figures are stark. At the end of 2014, law enforcement agencies in this country estimated that there are around 5,800 organised crime groups impacting on the UK involving some 40,000 people. Organised crime is thought to cost the UK at least £24 billion a year. The cost from organised fraud is thought to be around £9 billion. And the social and economic costs of illegal drug supply are estimated to be £10.7 billion a year in England and Wales, with over half of that attributed to drug related acquisitive crime.

That’s why – as I made clear last June – when you add it all up, when you consider the total cost to society, when you realise the huge numbers of victims who suffer from organised crime, we should be in no doubt that serious and organised crime is a very real threat to our national security.

We have established policing frameworks and structures that work

I began my speech by talking about how urgently we needed a new approach to serious and organised crime in 2010.

But when we entered office, what was equally apparent, was the glaring need for wide-ranging and comprehensive police reform.

Nearly five years later we have established a framework of institutions and processes that work to ensure accountability, operational integrity and transparency.

I have abolished the hopelessly ineffective and inadequate institutions we inherited and abandoned the centralised approach. I have dispensed with national targets, and stripped away reams and reams of burdensome bureaucracy.

I have introduced police and crime commissioners, crime maps and beat meetings, beefed up the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and made Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary properly independent. The new College of Policing is driving up professional standards, developing training and establishing an evidence base for what works, and direct entry and Police Now are opening up policing to the best and brightest recruits.

And we have achieved all this while bearing down on budgets – central government funding for the police has fallen by 20% in real terms, saving £1.2 billion of taxpayers’ money.

The Home Office no longer believes it runs policing. Operational control is back squarely where it belongs – with chief constables.

Today the police are able to get on with doing what they do best – fighting crime. We have freed up to 4.5 million hours of police time – the equivalent of 2,100 full-time police officers. Not only has the frontline service been protected, but the proportion of frontline officers has gone up – from 89% to 91% today, according to the most recently published statistics.

And crime is falling. Crime is down by more than a fifth since 2010, according to the independent Crime Survey for England and Wales.

But our reforms did not stop there because just as the need for coherent structures and systems in wider policing was overwhelmingly clear in 2010, so too was the need for a much stronger and more effective framework for tackling serious and organised crime. Because the lack of response to that threat – in both policy terms and operational terms – was startling. In particular, there was a complete disconnect between what the police do on a day to day basis, and our response to serious and organised crime.

So what we needed above all was a powerful crime-fighting body with the powers and the reach to lead an effective operational response.

So I abolished the Serious Organised Crime Agency and replaced it with the National Crime Agency – an organisation with the powers and the mandate to task and coordinate law enforcement assets across the UK. Its commands – Border Policing, Organised Crime, Economic Crime and Child Exploitation and Online Protection – provide greater focus on the challenges we face. These commands are supported by the National Intelligence Hub – which sits at the NCA’s heart – and a body of investigators with the skills and capabilities to work flexibly across a range of threats, including the National Cyber Crime Unit.

I know some of you here work at the NCA, and others work with its officers on a daily basis. I think this event provides an excellent opportunity for the NCA and police forces to forge ever closer ties. As I have just said, I am clear that our ability to fight serious and organised crime – and to provide a cohesive response across police boundaries – partly lies in such relationships.

That’s why we introduced a Strategic Policing Requirement. And it’s why over the last two years we have invested £70 million in developing and upgrading Regional Organised Crime Units. I am glad to see so many ROCUs represented here today. You provide vital capabilities at the regional level, including cyber, surveillance and asset recovery, which ensure that local operations do not founder against the challenges presented by large and complex organised crime groups. You gather, analyse and disseminate intelligence; provide for the protection of vulnerable people including witnesses and in some cases take on organised crime groups yourselves. And you also act as the glue between the NCA and local forces through regional and local tasking groups.

Thanks to such collaborative efforts the NCA has made an impressive start. In its first year of operation it has helped achieve almost 1000 disruptions against serious and organised criminals and their groups, securing the arrest of 2048 people in the UK, 1181 arrests overseas, and 415 convictions. Its activity has led to over 210 tonnes of drugs and over 700 firearms – including 165 guns – being seized, £22 million worth of assets being recovered, and over 1300 children safeguarded or protected.

You don’t have to take my word for the NCA’s good work. Last year, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary carried out its first inspection of the NCA since it was launched. It found that while the NCA had inherited particular weaknesses, significant work was underway to address these and overall the NCA had made a strong start. And the Home Affairs Select Committee agrees, as was demonstrated in its report last month on what it termed the new “architecture” of policing.

So the NCA is up and running. It is leading our operational response. But if we are truly committed to tackling organised criminals, we need to work together, and ensure better information sharing. The point here is that in order to target and disrupt criminal activity, we need to come at it from every possible angle. We need everyone to play their part including government departments such as HMRC and Immigration Enforcement, agencies, regulators, local authorities, the voluntary sector and the private sector.

Serious and organised crime strategy

So on the same day as the NCA was launched, we published the Serious and Organised Crime Strategy. It details the action we expect from across government departments and other partners and is modeled on our successful counter-terrorism framework – pursue, prevent, prepare and protect.
I want to say something here about the work we are doing to build a partnership between private sector companies and our law enforcement agencies to disrupt the means by which organised criminals conduct their criminal enterprises. Last year, along with Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England and John Griffith-Jones, the Chairman of the Financial Conduct Authority, I hosted a very helpful meeting with chief executives from the financial services sector. We have repeated that recently. The result of that meeting was the new Financial Sector Forum which is co-chaired by the Home Office, the NCA and the British Bankers Association. Through better information sharing businesses can understand the threats they face and take protective action, and law enforcement can draw on the huge amount of information held by the financial sector to assist it in tracking down those who move illicit money.

The Forum has met three times, and already we are seeing positive changes to our relationship and the potential impact we can have by working together. Thanks to the Forum we recently set up the Joint Money Laundering Intelligence Taskforce – a 12 month pilot project developed by the Home Office, the NCA, British Bankers’ Association, the City of London Police, and other financial institutions. It is aiming to improve intelligence sharing arrangements in the fight against money laundering and other criminal activity.

The scale and complexity of serious and organised crime makes such partnerships vital, not just nationally, but locally too. Those who live and work in areas affected by organised crime are best placed to understand local dynamics. So locally based, multi-agency partnerships are important for ensuring action is properly targeted.

We must also hit organised criminals where it hurts most – by denying them access to ill-gotten gains. So the Serious Crime Act 2015 – which was enacted earlier this month – strengthens our ability to go after the proceeds of crime by closing loopholes used by criminals to get around confiscation orders. Among other measures it ensures criminal assets can be frozen earlier on in an investigation, helps prevent defendants hiding money with spouses and other associates, and it substantially increases the time in prison faced by those criminals who default on the payment of higher value confiscation orders – so as to deter offenders from choosing to serve time in custody rather than paying up.

The Serious Crime Act will also help the NCA and the police go after corrupt associates who have previously managed to evade the law. It creates a new offence of participation in an organised crime group, so that we can pursue those who knowingly provide services to organised criminals but turn a blind eye to the criminal activities they profit from.

Under this Government we have recovered more assets than ever before. Since 2010, £891 million worth of criminal assets has been seized from offenders, £110 million has been returned to victims, and hundreds of millions more has been frozen and so put beyond the reach of criminals.

We have a good story to tell. We have overhauled our policy and operational response. We have put in place the frameworks and structures which ensure we can go after organised criminals more effectively than ever before. But we must go further.

The need for police reform does not stop here

I have been clear that the need for police reform does not stop with this Parliament. Whatever the outcome of the election in May, the pressures on funding will continue, and police spending will have to fall again – as even Labour have admitted. But just as spending cuts under this Government have been a catalyst for transformation and change, so they should be in the next.

I know some argue that austerity should mean fewer forces and local force mergers. I have made clear my concerns about that previously. But a more sophisticated debate should look not at structures, but where police capabilities sit at different levels, and in different organisations.

The police, alongside the NCA, are already leading important work in this regard, looking at how we can improve the way operational capabilities and resources are shared across counter-terrorism and organised crime investigations. I know that Sir Peter Fahy will be talking about this later on today, and I hope that we will see good progress in this area soon.

We have already established a coherent system of specialist capabilities at a regional level – through the ROCU network. And as forces improve efficiency and focus on local priorities, we must build on the ROCU network and local collaboration to consolidate our response to serious and organised crime.
This financial year we provided £1.5 million for Asset Confiscation Enforcement teams to be created in each region, and since their formation they have been critical to recovering over £5 million of criminal money – meaning they have more than paid for themselves. This shows how effectively ROCUs can help enhance our capabilities at a regional level.

ROCUs have now successfully completed their two-year capability upgrade programme, and I want to see them continue to provide forces with greater resilience to meet new and evolving threats. That’s why today I can announce the Government’s continued support for ROCUs, and funding of £20 million for 2015/16 for their core capabilities, including Regional Asset Recovery Teams. We are removing the ring-fence placed on RARTs’ funding, and so giving chief constables and police and crime commissioners greater flexibility over allocating their money according to the priorities in their region. I hope shortly to announce additional funding for the Regional Organised Crime Unit’s Cyber Crime and Asset Confiscation Enforcement Teams for next year.

ROCUs like all areas of policing must deliver for local taxpayers, and police and crime commissioners are best placed to ensure their work is delivered in line with the needs of constituents, and properly responds to local and regional threats.

The continued financial support by the Government and the increased freedom to spend money where it counts should prompt ROCUs to assess the impact that they are having on serious and organised crime, and for police and crime commissioners to hold them to account. More sophisticated performance data will allow operational commanders to identify the most effective disruption techniques, to share this knowledge with local forces and the NCA, and make better informed judgements about the use of resources.

The challenges ahead

The regional capabilities provided by ROCUs ensure we are better placed to deal with complex, harmful crime. But there are big challenges ahead. You have discussed two of those this morning – modern slavery and child sexual exploitation.

We know that the appalling crime of modern slavery is taking place across the UK today. Last year, new research carried out by the Home Office estimated that in 2013, the number of potential victims in the UK was between 10,000 –13,000. We know that this number not only represents victims trafficked into the UK, but British adults and children too. The National Crime Agency estimates that in 2013, the UK was the third most common country of origin of identified victims.

We have introduced a Modern Slavery Bill – the first of its kind in Europe – published a comprehensive cross-Government strategy, and I have appointed Kevin Hyland – the former head of the Met’s Human Trafficking Unit – as the UK’s first ever independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. These measures will help in our fight against modern slavery. But we know that behind much of the modern day slave trade are organised criminals, who make profit out of human misery, and we must do all that we can to pursue, convict and imprison traffickers and slave drivers.

We are also only just uncovering the horrific scale of child sexual abuse which has been taking place – a scale that is very difficult to grasp. There have been deeply shocking revelations of child sexual abuse not just in the past, but happening today. There have been revelations of organised and persistent abuse in our towns and cities. There have been allegations about abuse in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and elsewhere, and reports in which public organisations, the police and other agencies have failed utterly in their duty to protect vulnerable children, and help bring perpetrators to justice.

I have said before that what we have seen is just the tip of the iceberg and that it is likely child sexual abuse runs through the fabric of our society. That is why I have established the Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry and why I have decided to make child sexual abuse a national threat. By including it in the Strategic Policing Requirement, I want to ensure that forces prioritise work to safeguard vulnerable children in the same way they approach a national emergency.

There are also challenges regarding our capabilities. We know that the internet is not only changing the way we communicate, but the threat from terrorism and serious and organised crime. This is particularly true of the proliferation and exchange of indecent images of children, and other forms of child sexual exploitation. In December, at the WeProtect Summit in London, the Government announced additional measures to strengthen our response to online child sexual exploitation. And as the Government set out in our Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation report, the range of techniques and resources which are deployed to tackle organised child sexual exploitation should be at the same level as for other forms of organised crime.

But cyber crime is not limited to such exploitation, and traditional crimes such as theft, harassment and fraud are now being perpetrated online. We have taken significant steps to counter fraud online, and disrupt sophisticated cyber enabled attacks against people and businesses.

We also acted quickly to prevent vital capabilities from being eroded through the introduction of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014, and strengthened capabilities through the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.

But huge gaps remain and they are widening. I remain passionately convinced that if we are going to lead the fight back against those involved in child exploitation and abuse, if we are going to protect national security, if we are to tackle serious and organised crime and, above all, if we are going to prevent important capabilities from being degraded, then we need to address these gaps, as set out in the Government’s Draft Communications Data Bill published in 2012. It is an issue that we will have to return to in the next Parliament, but I am certainly determined to ensure that our law enforcement and security agencies have the tools and capabilities they need to investigate crime and keep the public safe.


But let us be clear. We are now better placed now than ever before to drive our collective and relentless response against organised criminals.

Five years ago there were no police and crime commissioners, no College of Policing, no NCA, no network of ROCUs, and we didn’t have a strategy in place.

We have established coherent and effective framework. There is still a long way to go. But we are in a good position. And I want to see us turn that into ever greater success. I want to see ever greater numbers of organised crime groups broken up, drug rings smashed, and those once deemed “untouchable” brought to justice. And I want us to ensure that no matter where serious and organised criminals are, no matter how hard they seek to evade the law, we do everything in our power to target them, prosecute them and put them behind bars where they belong.

Published 19 March 2015