Home Secretary's speech on organised crime at RUSI

Understanding And Confronting Organised Crime, delivered at the Royal United Services Institute on Wednesday 11 June

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

The Rt Hon Theresa May MP

It is a pleasure to be here at RUSI once again. My previous speeches here have been about the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, and of course RUSI has a well-deserved reputation for outstanding work in that field, but today I want to talk about what we consider to be another serious national security threat, and namely the threat from serious and organised crime.

For too long the damage caused by this serious threat has gone ignored, the threat has gone unchallenged, and the nature of what we are talking about has barely been understood. That is why I think the work RUSI is now leading on organised crime – and the conference that you have organised today – is so important.

Police reform

When I became Home Secretary a little more than four years ago, I began a comprehensive programme of police reform. In large part, the purpose of that reform was to get the Home Office out of local policing.

So the tripartite system of police governance – in which policing was supposedly run by the Home Office, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities – has been swept away.

The Home Office no longer believes it runs policing. I have reformed police pay and conditions, introduced direct entry, made the Inspectorate of Constabulary more independent and I have beefed up the Police Complaints Commission. The Association of Chief Police Officers has lost many of its responsibilities to the new College of Policing – which I introduced to develop a better evidence base for policing. And the Police Federation, for years the roadblock to police reform, has voted to reform itself.

Police reform is comprehensive, it is coherent, and it is working. Despite police budget cuts of more than twenty per cent in four years, crime is falling.
  If one of the themes of police reform was my determination to get the Home Office out of local policing, another theme was to make sure that the Home Office – along with the appropriate law enforcement agencies – paid proper attention to the threat from serious and organised crime. Because when I became Home Secretary four years ago the lack of a response to that threat – both in policy terms and operational terms – was glaring. While the centre was bossy, clumsy and interfering when it came to local policing, it was weak, timid and sometimes entirely absent when it came to serious and organised crime.   Yet the facts are stark. Organised crime costs the UK at least £24 billion a year. There are over 5,300 organised criminal groups that affect people in the UK today, and more than 36,000 people are engaged in these criminal activities. Most people don’t think of themselves as being a victim of organised crime, but the chances are that everyone in this room has been affected by organised crime in one form or another. Maybe you were caught up in their activities. Maybe your house was burgled by somebody addicted to drugs shipped here by a criminal gang. Maybe your emails were hacked. Maybe your insurance premiums are inflated because of organised scams. Maybe your taxes are higher because of fraud. Whatever your precise experience or experiences, the chances are that organised crime has affected all of us here today.

That is why, back in 2010, I made sure serious and organised crime was included in the National Security Strategy of that year. And it’s why I was determined that we would change the Serious and Organised Crime Agency and replace it with the National Crime Agency – an organisation with the powers, clout and reach to get the job done. It’s why even as we have made sure that local policing should remain local, we have a Strategic Policing Requirement so forces do not stop chasing criminals and investigating crimes when they cross county borders. It’s why we have strengthened Regional Organised Crime Units so we can maintain a sophisticated and cohesive response to organised crime when it occurs across police boundaries. And it is why we have introduced a Serious Crime Bill in Parliament and why, last year, we set out a comprehensive new cross-government Serious and Organised Crime Strategy.

I want to come back to these changes later in my speech because they are very important but first I want to say more about the problem we face.

Organised crime is not what you think it is

The first thing I want to say is that organised crime is not necessarily what you think it is. It’s not all about gangsters and Mr Bigs and luxury lifestyles. It’s not a far-removed, victimless form of crime. It’s not about mythical adventurers who are glamorised and glorified in books, films and popular legend. The reality of organised crime is seedy, grubby and immoral. Its perpetrators are thugs like Dale Cregan, the murderer of police officers Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes. Its commodities are drugs to be fed to addicts, children to be abused by paedophiles and men and women who are traded as modern day slaves. And as I’ve already said, the wider costs of organised crime are felt by all of us. 

Organised criminals create a self-serving climate of fear. Their value system – such as it is – is brutish and exploitative. Often it is violent. They make money out of other people’s misery. And their victims are often the most vulnerable in our society. There is an uncomfortable point here. Some organised criminals in some of our communities have been able to fill a vacuum of authority. They have established themselves as alternative providers of justice, security, housing and livelihoods. Some have become, perversely, a kind of role model to others in their local communities. This is quite profound. It troubles me greatly – as it should other national and local political and civic leaders. It needs challenging and confronting.

Now, the thing that almost all organised crime has in common is profit. Wherever there is profit to be made, organised criminals will find a way to exploit systems and people – making money from physical goods, virtual assets or human beings.

So organised crime often takes the form of economic crime perpetrated by fraudsters who fleece pensioners of their life savings, and money launderers and corrupt lawyers, accountants and estate agents who hide the proceeds of crime. This is something we need to say again and again because for too long in this country we have not taken economic crime seriously. Whether you’re a thug in a hoodie from the inner city or you’re a criminal in a suit, a criminal is a criminal and it is time we started to say so.   Organised crime is also just as likely to be about border and immigration crime. When you talk about illegal immigration people think immediately of people trying to get into the country illegally, in the back of a lorry or through the Channel Tunnel or using counterfeit documents. And of course it’s a big part of the problem. But it’s also about people who come here legally on real visas and then overstay. What both forms of illegal immigration have in common is that they are, in lots of cases, made possible by organised crime. The gangs who facilitate the transportation in awful conditions of desperate people from poor countries with the promise of a better life. The criminals who provide fake identity documents. The unscrupulous landlords who knowingly house people with no legal right to be here. The dodgy employers who take on illegal immigrants in order to take advantage of their lack of workplace rights and willingness to work for less than the minimum wage. They are all part of organised crime.

So organised crime can be economic crime, it can be border crime, it can be crime relating to the sexual exploitation of children, and of course it can be a combination of different crimes. And the nature of the crimes we are talking about is changing rapidly because of modern technology. The internet allows criminals to carry out crimes in Britain while they are sitting hundreds or thousands of miles away in other countries where we find it harder to work. Technology is causing new types of crime to emerge and it is facilitating existing, more traditional forms of crime – but in both cases it is allowing criminals to operate on a scale and pace that was previously unthinkable.

And we are not just talking about hierarchical groups that aim to make as much money as possible. Elaborate online markets are used to exchange information – such as compromised credit card details – and to sell drugs and firearms. Niche skills are bought to order – last year, for example, a drugs trafficking network brazenly hired cyber criminals to alter cargo manifests in an attempt to smuggle their goods in containers. And of course we know that paedophiles interact online where the currency is not dollars, but abhorrent images of child abuse.

I am aware that it is a relatively new way of thinking to consider organised crime a national security threat, and I know that some people here may argue that individually none of these crimes represents a national security threat. But when you consider their collective effect, when you add up the total cost to society, when you realise the huge numbers of victims who suffer from organised crime, there is no doubt in my mind that it is a very real threat to our national security.

The effects of organised crime are not what you think they are

So organised crime is not what people generally think it is. But neither are the effects of organised crime what people think they are.

Someone who has their house burgled, their goods stolen, and their personal treasures trashed by an addict, might not associate what seems like an isolated but personal crime with organised criminality. But when you start to trace things back – the addiction, the drug dealer, the illicit supply of drugs in the UK, the international drugs trade – it is clear that this crime has its origins in organised crime.   Someone who is scammed on the internet, or finds their computer infected by malware that harvests their personal and financial data to be sold into criminal markets, or finds they have spent their savings on fake shares – all these activities can be traced back to organised crime.

As we improve our understanding of organised crime we will improve our understanding of its effects. And this may well lead us to some uncomfortable discoveries.   Just a few years ago, the appalling crime of modern slavery was largely unnoticed and, to the extent that it was noticed, it was unrecognised for what it is. A crime in which men, women and children are forced, tricked and coerced into a horrendous life of servitude and abuse. Hidden out of sight, they often endure rape, violence and mental torture. Some are sexually exploited for profit, others forced into backbreaking work, living and working in terrible conditions, while still others are forced into a life of crime. Victims are treated as commodities, sometimes moved from place to place as though they are not human at all.

Behind much of the modern slave trade are criminal gangs with networks that stretch across borders, and who operate in different jurisdictions, exploiting modern and relatively cheap modes of travel, and systematically exploiting people and forcing them into a life of degradation and abuse.

We have a long way to go in our battle to stamp out modern slavery, we have made only a start, but we should consider for a moment that this appalling crime – this crime that has been going on all around us for years, for decades – is now being brought out into the open. We have politicians debating it, newspapers reporting it, journalists investigating it, police forces arresting its perpetrators and the criminal justice system punishing them. Just a few years ago, the only people even discussing it were a few lonely, but brave and heroic, campaigners.   As we improve our understanding of organised crime, there will be other types of crime that emerge. There are, of course, “known unknowns”, so at this stage we can only speculate about what they might be. But it would not be surprising if, as the National Crime Agency develops and the organisations that police the immigration system mature, the full extent of organised crime in immigration will emerge. Neither would it be the greatest shock if we found that we had only scratched the surface of white collar and corporate crime. Nor if criminal practices were exposed in supply chains that serve the kind of mainstream businesses you would expect to be far removed from organised criminality.   The effects on the consumer and the citizen can be surprising. Who would have thought that there was horsemeat in British supermarket products? In an age of satellite television, the internet and complex betting products, how many sports matches are affected by match fixing? To what extent are everyday things like insurance made more expensive by criminal activity?

The effects on the economy as a whole can be considerable too. Cyber crime reduces our confidence in buying goods online, while illegitimate businesses undercut and illegally out-compete those that act legally and ethically. If unchecked, it could undermine the UK’s reputation as a great place to do business.

There are consequences too for individual companies as well as the reputation to the UK economy. Companies can be victims of organised criminality. Individual companies and whole sectors can lose the confidence of the public if they are seen to be involved with organised crime or the security of their products is questioned. And then there is the risk to UK companies of extra territorial action from regulators in foreign jurisdictions.   There are consequences, too, for our work to fight terrorism. Some organised crime gangs can facilitate terrorist activity. Some of the people who enable organised criminality also enable terrorism. Likewise, poor governance, conflict and instability in foreign countries can help to fuel organised crime and terrorism that have consequences not just in those countries but here in the UK too.   ##The way we need to fight organised crime is therefore different

So we can see that organised crime facilitates many other crimes. And increasingly at the Home Office we are seeing how organised crime is a common factor behind many of the challenges we face, such as immigration control.

Organised crime is highly complex and it therefore requires a comprehensive, systematic approach involving government policy and the operational response. That is why very early on, as I have said, it was clear that we needed a more powerful crime-fighting organisation to confront organised crime. An organisation that can defend our borders and deal with the economic consequences of crime, that can protect children and vulnerable people, and that is active in tackling cyber crime.

That new organisation was the National Crime Agency which we created in statute last year and which was launched last October. With Keith Bristow at its head as Director General, the NCA has four commands - Border Policing, Organised Crime, Economic Crime and Child Exploitation and Online Protection – as well as a new National Cyber Crime Unit. And at its heart is the intelligence hub – because if we are going to crack down on the organised criminals and gangs, if we are going to properly map their activities, understand their networks, get under their skin and put them out of business – that effort must be driven by intelligence.
  On the same day that the National Crime Agency became operational, we published a new Serious and Organised Crime Strategy based on the successful framework we use for counter-terrorism: pursue, prevent, protect and prepare. That strategy sets out a comprehensive, detailed, cross-Government approach to ensure we do all we can to disrupt and combat organised crime.

The NCA is collaborating more closely than ever with law enforcement partners such as HMRC and police forces. Those police forces are for the first time required to take into account cross-border crime through the Strategic Policing Requirement and they also participate in Regional Organised Crime Units.
  But tackling organised crime also depends on effective relationships and information sharing with government departments, regulators, local authorities, the voluntary sector and the private sector. Each is represented here today, and I think it’s fair to say that we would all agree that we have not always been very effective in this respect. We’re starting to change things for the better. Work to establish local organised crime partnerships is a priority, but we still have a long way to go.

I mentioned the private sector, and I just want to emphasise the importance of the partnership between private sector companies and our law enforcement agencies, particularly if we want to tackle financial crime, prevent money laundering and recover more of the proceeds of crime.   Very recently, 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 useful meeting with chief executives from the financial services sector, in order to try to improve our response to the criminal finance and cyber threats we face. The outcome of that meeting is the new Financial Sector Forum, which I hope will lead to better information sharing. I know the first meeting of the Forum will be in the next few weeks – and many of you here today will be involved in that important work.

I’ve already mentioned that of course organised crime is often international. Organised criminals work across borders, their networks spread across different jurisdictions, and their victims can be in entirely different countries. So we must continue to work effectively with our international partners. On that note, I am pleased to see that David Cohen from the US Department of Treasury is speaking here later today. The US is a close ally in our fight against organised crime.

We must also build on our work with European countries, and with EUROPOL and INTERPOL. And we must continue to help build capacity in priority countries overseas. It is for these reasons that the National Crime Agency has one of the largest law enforcement networks in the world, with more than forty overseas stations covering over one hundred countries.

Organised crime often depends on bribery and corruption. And organised criminals use a range of professionals – wittingly or unwittingly – to facilitate their activity: to launder their criminal profits, to evade arrest and prosecution, to secure procurement contracts corruptly. In the next few weeks, we will publish a cross-government anti-corruption plan – clearly setting out the actions we are taking to tackle corruption both here in the UK and overseas. From stamping out corruption in the police to ensuring greater transparency over the ownership of companies, we will do more to make sure that corruption is no longer a tool of choice for organised criminals.

Targeting and convicting the associates of criminal groups can be difficult under current legislation. So the Serious Crime Bill will close this gap by creating a new offence of participation in an organised crime group. Those convicted could face up to five years in prison and have the proceeds of their crimes taken from them.

This will allow the NCA and the police to go after those who knowingly make money from organised crime while turning a blind eye – and it will send out a strong signal that no one should be beyond the reach of the law.

Addressing the threats we face also requires new technologies and new capabilities. For example, the Government is investing £860 million over five years through the National Cyber Security Programme. The Home Office has so far been allocated £70 million of this to improve law enforcement cyber capabilities.

We are ramping up cyber crime training of police officers. So we are increasing specialist policing capabilities in the network of ROCUs - the Regional Organised Crime Units - in England and Wales. Last year the Home Office provided an additional £10 million of funding to the ROCUs, leading to new capabilities that better handle intelligence, protect witnesses, and tackle cyber crime and fraud. We are making further new investments this year.

We are also taking action to crack down on the ability of organised criminals to conceal, hide and move illicit proceeds.

We have a good story to tell. Performance on asset recovery has been stronger over the four years of this Government than ever before. We have recovered around £750m from criminals, returned some £93m to victims, and have frozen in excess of £2.5billion to put it beyond the reach of criminals.

But we are not standing still.

The Serious Crime Bill will therefore close loopholes used by criminals to get around confiscation orders, for example by hiding money with third parties such as spouses and associates. It will ensure assets can be frozen more quickly and reduce the time in which offenders must pay. And it will significantly increase the time in prison for those criminals that fail to pay confiscation orders, to deter those who choose a sentence rather than paying up.

And yesterday I introduced a Modern Slavery Bill in Parliament. This will make law enforcement agencies better equipped to tackle modern slavery, ensure perpetrators receive the sentences they deserve, and enhance protection and support for victims.   ##Understanding and confronting organised crime

And already we are seeing results from our approach. The National Crime Agency recently published its first assessment of the serious and organised crime threats facing the UK. Together with its ability to task and coordinate law enforcement assets, the NCA’s intelligence capacity means it is already working well with police forces to target and disrupt the highest priority criminal groups. In its first six months, the National Crime Agency achieved over 500 disruptions against serious and organised criminals, and secured 300 convictions.   We have seen successful high-profile operations, with the NCA working with police forces, Regional Organised Crime Units and international partners. Such as the cracking of an organised crime group engaged in internet-based child sexual abuse in the Philippines. We’ve seen the dismantling of a major human trafficking group in Cambridgeshire, which resulted in the release of 77 victims and the arrest of eight people for slavery offences. And we’ve seen the disruption of two major pieces of computer malware that were responsible for losses running into hundreds of millions of pounds globally.

But this is only the start and there are big decisions for Government to take. We need to address declining capabilities when it comes to communications data. We will need to take a decision about the future of counter-terrorism policing and whether lead responsibility should be transferred from ACPO and the Metropolitan Police to the NCA. And we will need to keep under review the relationship between the law enforcement agencies that are responsible for tackling economic crime.   The threat from serious and organised crime is very significant and it is forever changing. Whether it is online or offline, overseas or at home, whether we are talking about drugs, stolen goods or trafficked people, organised crime amounts to a serious threat to our national security. Its effects can be felt by every single one of us. And it has an extraordinary degree of influence over other public policy problems, like immigration. And I have touched on the linkages with our work on counter-terrorism.

We have made a concerted effort to understand the nature of organised crime and its effects. And that means we have been able to make better policy. We are getting our structures right, not just with the NCA but with Regional Organised Crime Units and the Strategic Policing Requirement. We have a sound strategy in place. We are joining up intelligence across the public and private sectors. And we are giving the NCA and law enforcement agencies the powers they need.

There is a long way to go but we have, since 2010, made important progress. Because – after too many years in which organised criminal gangs, their members and their associates got away with it – I want to send the clearest possible message. Whoever you are and wherever you are, if you’re involved in organised crime then we will come after you, we will find you, we will prosecute you and we will punish you.

Thank you very much.

Published 11 June 2014