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Better co-ordination to tackle causes of serious and organised crime needed

27 September 2019

The Public Accounts Committee report says that government does not know how successfully it is addressing serious and organised crime.


Serious and organised crime is increasing but the government does not know why

Serious and organised crime is increasing, with at least 4,500 organised criminal groups active in the United Kingdom, costing the economy at least £37 billion a year. Serious and organised crime is difficult to tackle. It is broad and varied in nature, hidden from view and causes considerable harm to individuals and communities. Despite launching a new strategy for dealing with serious and organised crime in 2018, government does not yet fully understand the threats from serious and organised crime. It does not have the right data to measure success or the performance of the government and law enforcement bodies tackling serious and organised crime. These bodies are focused on pursuing criminals after the crime has been committed, but this has been at the expense of doing work to 'prevent' crime from happening in the first place.

A better system is needed to address national priorities

The Home Office is currently not using all the levers it has at its disposal to ensure that law enforcement bodies at local, regional and national levels prioritise work to tackle serious and organised crime. Without a better system, police forces will continue to focus most of their resources on local priorities, which will not necessarily reflect or help address the national priorities for serious and organised crime. There is still confusion over the role law enforcement bodies at each level should play in tackling serious and organised crime. As we have previously found, funding mechanisms are complicated and short-term – a problem compounded by uncertainties surrounding the delayed 2019 Spending Review.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Government has not yet achieved its objective of moving its focus away from pursuing criminals and it is not prioritising activities that might stop serious and organised crime happening in the first place. The Department's strategy for tackling serious and organised crime is based on the same '4P' model used for the UK's counter-terrorism strategy. Activities to prevent people being drawn into organised crime are potentially more important in tackling serious and organised crime in the long-term than pursuing criminals after a crime has been committed. But government only spent 4% (£84 million) of its total budget for tackling serious and organised crime on 'prevent' activities in 2015-16, a fraction of the 79% (£1.8 billion) it spent on 'pursue' activities. We are not convinced that the 'prevent' activities that do take place are well enough thought through. The Department asserts that it is launching a multitude of 'programmes' to prevent crime, but it is unable to explain how these are designed in a way that builds on previous initiatives. For example, its new initiative of 'community coordinators' seems to be little more than a re-invention of previous initiatives such as neighbourhood policing teams.

Recommendation: The Home Office should set out clear plans to support an increase in effective preventative activity across the law enforcement system and provide an update to the Committee within six months.

The Home Office and the National Crime Agency's ability to understand the scale of the threat from serious and organised crime is weakened because they do not use data effectively. Serious and organised crime is increasing but government does not know why. The increase is in part due to a lack of police resourcing; technology enabling crime to move online; and globalisation making it easier to commit crimes in other countries. But the Department does not know how much of the increase is due to better recording of data or more willingness to report crime. The NCA is developing its capability to make use of data held by the police and others and has started using data from multiple organisations to help tackle crimes such as online child abuse. The Agency was able to revise its estimate of the number of organised drug-dealing groups that operate across 'county lines' from 700 to 2,000 by bringing together data from different police forces. The Department's 2013 strategy for serious and organised crime included undertaking better data processing and joining data obtained lawfully from multiple sources on multiple themes, including economic crime, cyber-crime and child sexual exploitation. However, in 2018 the NCA assessed government's understanding of four of nine prioritised serious and organised crime threats as ‘weak' and the Department accepts that more could be done to use data to understand serious and organised crime.

Recommendation: Within six months, the Home Office and NCA should provide an update on their understanding of the highest priority threats from serious and organised crime and what new insights the National Data Exploitation Centre (NDEC) is providing.

Constraints created by current funding arrangements for law enforcement bodies make it harder to tackle serious and organised crime. Police forces report that they have limited resources and that members of the public and Police and Crime Commissioners expect them to prioritise the most 'visible' crimes, such as antisocial behaviour or speeding. This can be at the expense of serious and organised crime, which can feel more like "unseen policing". Dealing with serious and organised crime often requires multi-year operations, but funding is approved annually and comes from multiple funding sources, making it harder for forces to determine how much money they will have and plan how to spend this money effectively. Annual budgeting also risks successful projects being stopped for financial reasons. The NCA told us that annual funding for its £10 million programme to disrupt online child abuse was at risk of not being renewed despite it identifying 129 million compromised online credentials that could be used for criminal activity. Funding uncertainties are a particular concern for Regional Organised Crime Units (ROCUs), around one third of which have funding agreed on an annual basis, and funds are often received so late that ROCUs have to rush to spend cash to avoid an underspend. We reported in 2018 that projects funded by the police transformation fund can face a 'cliff edge' if national funding is not renewed, because it can be difficult to keep such projects going using already very stretched local budgets. At that time, the Department claimed to have made improvements to the process for getting funds to police forces more quickly, but we are still concerned by shortcomings in its administration of funding. The principal government process for providing certainty over multi-year projects designed to tackle serious and organised crime is its five-year spending review, which was due this year. The delay to the spending review exacerbates uncertainties for law enforcement that could be avoided if a longer-term approach to funding was taken.

Recommendation: As soon as possible, or as part of the Spending Review, the Home Office should agree with HM Treasury a way to provide greater certainty on how multi-year police programmes will be funded and administered.

The Home Office still does not know how successful it has been at reducing serious and organised crime. The Department has been slow to develop a way of measuring the impact its activities are having. It has been collecting data on the performance of its strategy since 2017, but this is mostly focussed on 'outputs' such as numbers of arrests or value of drugs seized. Although useful, this does not allow the Department to understand how effective its strategy has been, identify the overall impact of the strategy, or determine whether the threat from serious and organised crime has been reduced. The NCA claims it is developing the way it captures data so it can better measure success but admits that the way data is recorded by law enforcement organisations does not give a complete picture of what is happening at local or regional levels. Raising public awareness of serious and organised crime is an important part of ensuring law enforcement agencies have the intelligence they need and that activities to tackle serious and organised crime are effective, but the Department has not yet done enough to educate the public about serious and organised crime threats.

Recommendation: The Home Office and NCA should write to the Committee within six months, setting out what progress has been made in developing its performance measures, and what the impact of this has been.

We are concerned that a lack of clarity about the roles and responsibilities of the organisations involved in tackling serious and organised crime hinders the effectiveness of their activities. The Department told us that serious and organised crime has more prominence within law enforcement than ever before. But although all parties agree on the need for collaborative ways of working, well-defined roles, sufficient funding and good governance at the local, regional and national levels, we are not convinced that this has been translated into practice. The Department has committed to working collaboratively with relevant partners, but is unable to give any examples, beyond this commitment, of how it could ensure that the system for tackling serious and organised crime worked effectively. ROCUs must balance priorities set by both the NCA at national level and by individual forces at local level, but do not have enough clarity about the level of funding they will receive to be able to invest in building capacity at a regional level. ROCUs are also vulnerable to Police and Crime Commissioners choosing to invest in local rather than regional priorities, which could result in ROCUs losing up to 72% of their funding at short notice. The level of engagement from Police and Crime Commissioners in tackling serious and organised crime is varied: there are now two PCC leads responsible for this area, but only 29 out of 43 territorial forces in England and Wales were represented at the NCA's annual PCC day.

Recommendation: The Home Office should develop a clear statement of roles and responsibilities at a local, regional and national level and provide an update to the Committee within three months. This should be underpinned by guidance for PCCs on their role.

The Home Office is not using the levers it has to manage the complex law enforcement system effectively. Since July 2012 the Department has issued a Strategic Policing Requirement (SPR) which Police and Crime Commissioners 'must have regard to'. The SPR provides a way for the Department to ensure law enforcement organisations take a coordinated approach to national priorities, including serious and organised crime. But the SPR has not been updated since 2015 and is not specific about which serious and organised crimes forces should tackle or how Police and Crime Commissioners should invest in capability to tackle serious and organised crime. For example, modern slavery is not included in the SPR despite being classed as a 'priority' in the serious and organised crime strategy. Serious and organised criminals operate across police force boundaries, but Police and Crime Commissioners are not required to support regional efforts such as ROCUs despite the 2018 strategy setting out an ambition that the ROCUs should lead the regional response. This lack of detail makes it harder for Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services to check whether forces are complying with the SPR. There are also numerous governance groups for Ministers and officials and boards which are complex and bureaucratic, with several tackling different forms of violence.

Recommendation: As soon as possible after the spending review, or within six months of this report, it should review the Strategic Policing Requirement, which sets out the threats that require a coordinated policing response. This should consider the local needs and capabilities of forces and not be a one-size fits all approach. The Home Office should also write to the Committee to explain how it is rationalising governance groups and making decision making more transparent.

Further information

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