Serious and organised crime is evolving at a rapid rate. The government recognises the seriousness of this challenge and is responding, but there are still significant and avoidable shortcomings to its approach, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

Tackling serious and organised crime is a significant and complex challenge. More than 4,500 organised crime groups operate in the UK in changing and unpredictable ways, often using violence and intimidation. These crimes also know no borders and many groups work in large networks spanning multiple countries.

Some of the most harmful crimes, such as modern slavery and human trafficking, and sexual crimes against children, are increasing and becoming more complex. There was a 36% increase in identified potential modern slavery and human trafficking victims from 2017 to 2018. While in 2018, sexual crimes against children increased by 9% compared to the previous year.

In 2017, a Home Office review found that the government’s 2013 strategy for tackling serious and organised crime did not deal effectively with the evolving threat. The 2013 strategy was meant to tackle serious and organised crime through four ‘P’ strands of work: preventing people getting involved in organised crime, pursuing criminals, protecting society against these criminals, and preparing so as to mitigate these crimes when they do take place.

However, government has prioritised the ‘pursue’ aspects of the strategy at the expense of the other areas. It estimated that, until recently, 79% of front-line spending went towards activities focused on pursuing criminals, and only 4% on work to prevent serious and organised crime from happening in the first place.

In 2018, government created a new strategy designed to improve its response. It set out changes to address some of the issues raised in the Home Office’s review, including doing more work to prevent people committing serious and organised crime, and raising public intolerance of it. It is also based on the four ‘P’ work strands but the NAO has not seen a well evidenced justification that this is the best approach. The government has also not worked out how much it will cost to achieve its objectives.

The government does not yet have the data that it needs to respond effectively. In 2018, it found that it had a weak understanding of the scale of four out of nine types of serious and organised crime.1 Its insufficient knowledge of international illegal markets has made even it harder for the government to know how best to respond.

The government has identified that it also needs to make better use of data, especially to respond to the growing threat of online crime. Work is underway to develop new capabilities to exploit data and tackle illicit finance.

The changeable nature of serious and organised crime, and the time taken for interventions to make a difference, makes measuring performance difficult. The government mainly uses law enforcement statistics, such as the number of crimes ‘disrupted’,2 to measure success. It is reviewing how it can improve its measures, but the government does not currently assess the amount of effort involved, the impact it had and how successfully it reduced the general threat of these types of crime. This means that the government does not know if its efforts are working.

In September 2018, there were 37 groups involved in the governance of tackling serious and organised crime, and another 59 groups that discussed related topics. Despite some progress in merging and simplifying these groups, governance arrangements are still cluttered and hinders the implementation of the strategy.

Police and crime commissioners spend around one-sixth of their funding on tackling serious and organised crime locally. However, funding for it is often uncertain and inefficient, coming from numerous sources without a joined-up approach. The distribution of funding by the Home Office has often been delayed, hindering effective planning and spending. The government does not yet target spending to achieve the greatest impact.

In 2018-19 the National Crime Agency identified six types of serious and organised crime to prioritise: child sexual exploitation and abuse, modern slavery and human trafficking, organised immigration crime, high-end money laundering, firearms, and cyber-crime. However, between April and September 2018, fewer of these crimes were disrupted than non-priority crimes, such as drugs crimes.

In May 2019, the definition of national priority threats was broadened, identifying three cross-cutting priority areas, covering crimes that exploit the vulnerable, profit from the criminal marketplace, and undermine the UK’s economy. However, it remains to be seen if this will help law enforcement to prioritise its response and target the crimes which cause the greatest harm.

The NAO recommends that the Home Office should accelerate its work to determine how it will measure the impact of law enforcement efforts on serious and organised crime. It also needs to improve its support to tackle the underlying causes of serious and organised crime and avoid wasting resources through the duplication of capabilities, such as surveillance teams across different law enforcement bodies.

“The government faces an immense challenge in fighting this complex, evolving threat. While it has made efforts to step up its response, there is more the government could do to make its aspirations a reality.

“To deliver its new strategy, the government needs to better match resources to its priorities, improve its understanding of these crimes and ensure governance and funding fit with its ambitious plans.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO

Read the full report

Tackling serious and organised crime

Notes for editors

Key facts 4,500+ identified organised crime groups operating in the UK £2.9bn government's estimate of total expenditure on tackling serious and organised crime in 2015-16, including front-line spending to tackle crime (£2.2 billion) and spending on back-office functions (£0.7 billion) £37bn government's estimate of the social and economic cost of serious and organised crime, 2015-16 £1.8 billion estimated spending by police and crime commissioners on forces’ work to tackle serious and organised crime locally (out of £2.9 billion total expenditure), 2015-16 79% of the estimated front-line spending by government and law enforcement bodies to tackle crime went on pursuing serious and organised criminals, 2015-16 4% of the estimated front-line spending by government and law enforcement bodies to tackle crime went on preventing serious and organised crime, 2015-16 6,993 potential modern slavery and human trafficking victims identified in 2018, a 36% increase since 2017, up from 5,142 61,646 sexual crimes committed against under 16s in 2018 (not including crimes involving indecent images), a 9% increase since 2017, up from 56,346 more than 100 government and law enforcement bodies, agencies and other organisations with a role in tackling serious and organised crime six serious and organised crime threats identified as national priorities in 2018-19 and 2017-18, up from five in 2016-17 and three in 2015-16  
  1. The nine types of serious and organised crime assessed in 2018 were modern slavery and human trafficking; organised immigration crime; child sexual exploitation and abuse; money laundering; fraud and other economic crime; international bribery, corruption and sanctions evasion; cyber crime; illegal firearms; and illegal drugs. In 2019, the government identified ten types of serious and organised crime, adding organised acquisitive crime.
  2. ‘Disruptions’ are law enforcement interventions that lead to an organised criminal or group being unable or less able to operate. These may include arresting an offender, seizing assets or preventing a person from entering the UK.
  3. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
  4. The National Audit Office (NAO) helps Parliament hold government to account for the way it spends public money. It is independent of government and the civil service. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether government is delivering value for money on behalf of the public, concluding on whether resources have been used efficiently, effectively and with economy. The NAO identifies ways that government can make better use of public money to improve people's lives. It measures this impact annually. In 2018 the NAO's work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £539 million.

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