Since 2013, the National Crime Agency (NCA), a non-ministerial government department has been on the front line of the fight against serious organised crime.
Serious and organised crime kills hundreds of people and costs millions of pounds ever year. With technology evolving, the threat is becoming increasingly complex. The work of the National Crime Agency is more important now than ever before. Here is a look at its history, its work, some of its biggest cases and what the future might hold for the national law enforcement agency.
Serious organised crime
Serious organised crime is a deadly, costly and growing problem in the UK. According to recent data it costs the economy more than £34bn ever year and kills thousands of people. The figure has risen sharply from £24bn five years ago.
Gang activity affects more people than any other national security threat including terrorism. The NCA’s latest assessment suggests there are approximately 4,800 organised crime groups currently active in the UK.
“Each year it kills more of our citizens than terrorism, war and natural disasters combined. And it costs the UK at least £37 billion annually,” said Lynne Owens, the current head of the NCA.
It comes in many forms from drugs to people or weapons smuggling, violence, fraud and cybercrime. In the digital age, technology is also making it more wide ranging and difficult to stop. It could be criminal gangs, white collar fraudsters or international cyber criminals sitting behind a computer. It can affect anyone, at anytime, anywhere.
What the NCA does
The NCA is the UK’s main body tasked with fighting back. Often referred to as ‘Britain’s answer to the FBI’, it is the lead agency tasked with the fight against organised crime, human, weapon and drug trafficking, cyber crime, and economic crime. The agency works across regional and international borders and may be used to investigate any crime, and it often works with sister agencies with as the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) or the UK Border Agency. However, the NCA’s most common areas of focus are:
- Border vulnerabilities
- Illegal firearms
- National Policing Improvement Agency
- Cyber crime
- Drug trafficking
- Money laundering
- Modern slavery
- Organised immigration crime
- Immigration Enforcement
- Kidnap and extortion
- Child sexual abuse and exploitation
- Bribery, corruption and sanctions evasion
The organisation is an operationally independent non ministerial government department operating across the UK. However, it respects the devolution policies of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Many of its officers have the powers of police officers, custom officers or immigration officials. They may also adopt additional training to help them with certain elements of their work.
The NCA Director-General (currently Lynne Owens) is accountable for the agency’s performance to the Home Secretary who is, in turn, accountable to parliament.
It looks at the big picture, analysing how criminals are operating and how to disrupt them.
For this, collaboration is key. It works with regional crime units, individual police forces and other regulators such as the Serious Fraud Office. It also serves as the UK’s point of contact for foreign agencies such as Interpol, Europol and other agencies. It may assist other police forces through voluntary assistance arrangements and, in extreme cases, can direct a police officer or police force to assist the NCA with tasks (as long as it secured consent from the relevant Secretary of State.)
The NCA was created in 2013 as part of an attempt by then Home Secretary Theresa May to create a more unified organisation to fight organised crime. She initially announced the plan in 2010 and in 2011 stated that the NCA would comprise a number of distinct operational commands including organised crime, border policing, economic crime and child exploitation. It would also include an online protection centre which would house the National Cyber Crime Unit.
Her move was consistent in her previous campaigns against human trafficking and exploitation. With this new organisation she sought to strengthen the UK’s response against some of the most serious criminal threats facing the country, as well as increase the influence of her own department.
This new organisation was to be larger, more powerful and streamlined sharing capabilities and expertise throughout the agency. Each command area would be part of something bigger, pooling resources under a Senior Chief Constable who would be solely responsible to her as Home Secretary.
In her speech to the Commons, she said her new agency would be given the authority to “undertake tasking and coordination, ensuring appropriate action is taken to put a stop to the activities of organised crime groups.”
It would, she said, be an “integral part of our law enforcement community.” She added that, “for the first time there will be one agency with the power and responsibility for ensuring that the right action is taken at the right time and by the right people and that agency is the NCA. All other agencies will work to the NCA’s threat assessment and prioritisation.”
In 2013 the NCA came into being under provisions granted by the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which received Royal Assent on 25 April 2013. It replaced the Serious Organised Crime Agency which had been criticised for being too focused on intelligence at the expense of operations. It was headed by Keith Bristow who was then Chief Constable of Warwickshire Police. He promised to use the agency’s 5,000 officers to install fear into organised criminals.
“We are going to be much more visible,” said Bristow at the time. “We want the public to have confidence and trust in the work we conduct and we want criminals to fear us. We are operational crime fighters who are intelligence-led but not an intelligence agency.”
However, he quickly found himself facing a political battle with Whitehall over Europe. With the UK considering withdrawing from Europol, he warned the Home Secretary against a move which he said would strip British police forces of crucial capabilities in fighting organised crime.
The UK was considering withdrawing from the scheme due to fears that new rules could compromise national security by requiring the UK to share information with other countries. Bristow echoed the opinion of other police leaders who stated sharing such information was crucial in Britain’s fight against organised crime.
Europol’s leaders had spoken with concern about the prospect of Britain withdrawing from international cooperation at a time when the threat of organised crime had gone global.
As things happened, the UK would later go on to vote to leave the EU, bringing the country out of Europol in any case.
One of the first questions facing the new agency was whether it should include counter terrorism as part of its remit. In 2014 the Home Affairs Select Committee concluded that moving counter terrorism to the NCA would bring benefits.
“The Metropolitan Police have a wide remit which has many complexities and the current difficulties faced by the organisation lead us to believe that the responsibility for counter-terrorism ought to be moved to the NCA in order to allow the Met to focus on the basics of policing London,” the report stated. “The work to transfer the command ought to begin immediately with a view to a full transfer of responsibility for counter-terrorism operations taking place, for example within five years after the NCA became operational, in 2018. When this takes place, it should finally complete the jigsaw of the new landscape of policing.”
However, as a new agency the report found that the NCA was still developing. Adding counter terrorism to its remit could be a little too soon. After the report, Theresa May shelved plans to incorporate counter terrorism within the NCA.
The NCA conducts hundreds of investigations each year ranging from financial crime to abduction, drugs and weapons smuggling. These threats have grown in scale and variety since its inception, with more and more investigations moving into the cyber crime sphere.
Over the years, the organisation has been involved in many high-profile cases focusing on a range of different crime types. These include:
Cyber crime: 2014 saw the NCA’s first success when it disrupted the banking trojan horse malware Shylock which was thought to have infected 30,000 computers around the world. The Shylock malware targeted users’ internet accounts and was one of the most sophisticated malware programmes of its kind.
Over a two-year period, its creators built the platform which stole bank data and used it to make fraudulent transactions. The threat is thought to have cost the banking industry millions of pounds per year. In 2013 it was named one of the top banking types of malware by Dell SecureWorks.
The campaign to disrupt the malware saw the NCA working with intelligence services around the world. Command and control locations were identified by law enforcement bodies such as Europol and the FBI and web site domains were also shut down.
Child sexual exploitation: 2014 also saw the coordinated arrest of 660 suspected paedophiles. 39 of them were registered sex offenders, but the vast majority had no prior record of offending. The NCA believes more than 400 children were protected by the operation which included arrests of individuals who had unsupervised access to children such as doctors, teachers and care workers.
Sextortion: The NCA has also used PR to raise awareness of certain crimes. In 2017 it announced that record numbers of men were falling victim to sextortion. Within three years the number of men affected rose three-fold. Organised crime groups would use fake dating sites and encourage men to stream sex acts. The groups would then threaten to share these videos with friends and family unless they were paid.
However, they believed the true figure was even higher with many victims choosing not to report the crime for fear of embarrassment. In 2016 they released a video as part of a wider campaign to raise awareness of the issue.
Drugs: In December 2020 the Lancashire Police, acting on intelligence from the NCA seized cutting agents used to make £2.5 million worth of amphetamine in Blackpool. Organised criminals planned to use the agents to traffic amphetamine across the country.
In September, 2020 the NCA intercepted a massive haul of class A drugs which would have been worth £120 million at street level. Using intelligence, the agency knew where the drugs were coming in, on which boat and at what time.
People smuggling: The recent rise in people smuggling has seen the NCA focus its attention on the UK borders. In February 2020, the agency announced it had dismantled a people smuggling network after intercepting a migrant smuggling boat carrying 19 immigrants in the Aegean Sea.
Modern slavery: In 2018 the NCA announced that a record number of slavery victims had been referred in the UK. More than 5,000 cases had been reported in the year and, for the first time, British nationals were the largest group, followed by Albanians and Vietnamese. They also announced an increase in child victims which they said was due to a drug supply route known as County Lines.
Operation Venetic and The EncroChat Hack
In 2020, the private chat provider EncroChat announced it had been breached by authorities in the Netherlands and France. Working with Europol, investigators developed software which allowed them to hack the site which had previously billed itself as unhackable.
It was bad news for the site whose USP had just been dismantled but even worse for the thousands of organised criminals who used the platform to coordinate operations. Law enforcement agencies across the world scrambled to get a hold of the data to help their own investigations. Pretty soon arrests began.
The NCA was one of those agencies. The data obtained from the EncroChat hack would lead to the biggest law enforcement operation of its kind in the form of Operation Venetic. Working with all police forces in the UK, officers arrested 747 people, seized £54 million in drug money, 77 firearms, 1,800 rounds of ammunition, four hand grenades, 55 high value cars and two tonnes of illegal drugs.
EncroChat’s data made it possible and provided an insight into the operation of the UK’s criminal underworld. It revealed messages including:
“The NCA is not “f***ing about” from one offender and UK police “have too much success” from another.
By processing millions of messages from the hack the NCA were able monitor every move of the criminal network under operation Venetic. It gave them a chance to mount a serious blow against organised crime and dismantle entire criminal operations.
EncroChat discovered the breach in June and sent a notification to its network telling them to destroy their devices. However, for many in the criminal underworld, it was too late. The evidence was there in black and white and in the hands of the police.
“This operation demonstrates that criminals will not get away with using encrypted devices to plot vile crimes under the radar,” said Home Secretary Priti Patel. “The NCA’s relentless targeting of these gangs has helped to keep us all safe. I congratulate them and law enforcement partners on this significant achievement.”
The operation was hailed as a major success. However, it has also caused controversy over the use of illegally obtained evidence.
In the last couple of years, new legislation has strengthened the hand of the NCA. In particular the unexplained wealth powers. In 2017, the government unleashed the Criminal Finances Act which gave investigators the power to go after unexplained wealth.
Proponents described this as a new dawn in the state’s ability to crack down on organised crime, but critics warned these powers they could be misused.
Unexplained wealth orders can be obtained by an enforcement authority such as the NCA, HMRC or the SFO if they have reasonable grounds to suspect someone’s lawfully obtained income is insufficient to explain how they have acquired property with a value of more than £50,000.
The NCA used these powers in a landmark case in 2020 to seize a suspected criminal’s vast property empire. Despite never having been convicted of a crime the agency seized millions in property and investment from 40-year-old Mansoor ‘Manni’ Mahmood Hussain.
The businessman, who is thought to have links to organised crime, was required to submit a 76-page statement to the NCA to explain how he had built up his real estate empire. The evidence from this was used to build an even larger case against him.
Challenges and the future
The NCA has largely achieved its goal of creating a breakthrough organisation to fight organised crime. Even so, it has attracted its fair share of criticism. In 2014, a judge criticised the agency after the collapse of a fraud case.
Evidence was found to be misleading or not gathered properly leading to the collapse of a case against seven defendants. At the Old Bailey Judge Wendy Joseph branded the then newly formed agency as ‘incompetent’ and said its mistakes were ‘beyond negligence’.
For example, investigators did not have software to take pictures from CCTV footage and were reduced to taking pictures with mobile phones. Other evidence had gone missing or was found to have not been investigated properly.
By 2015 the organisation was in full crisis mode after a series of similar collapses due to inappropriately gathered evidence. Every one of its current investigations was placed in jeopardy after it launched an internal investigation into all its warrants.
The NCA was forced to admit it had used evidence which may have been gathered unlawfully in four of its major cases.
Since then, things have improved, but its future remains open to debate. In recent years, the focus has been on its relationship with the UK’s largest anti-fraud regulator, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). Theresa May had long planned to bring the SFO into the NCA to create Britain’s answer to the FBI.
She included the plan as part of the 2017 election manifesto but shelved it when the Conservatives lost their majority. Even so, the future of both agencies remains under scrutiny.
After fresh failures in 2020, the SFO once again finds itself battling for survival with many suggesting it should be incorporated into the NCA. The jury is still out over what happens next.
Will funding be enough?
The NCA faces twin challenges of escalating case numbers and limited funding. Although its budget is around half a billion pounds, the combined budgets for those organisations it replaced was over a billion. That equates to a 50% funding cut compared to the previous regime.
This comes in the face of a criminal landscape which is surging both in volume and in variety. The cost of organised crime to the economy has surged to £37bn. Criminals are branching out into new forms of technology such as cyber crime.
This, in itself is a multibillion-dollar industry targeting individuals, companies and political organisation. Keeping on top of this requires funding, new skills and a fresh approach.
The pandemic has also created difficulties of its own. Like most other regulators, the NCA faces challenges in maintaining operations in the face of COVID-19 restrictions. Meanwhile, criminals have capitalised on the pandemic to create new threats.
Cyber crime and money laundering are rife with criminals taking advantage of the growth of remote working and online data transfers.
Government support also creates a fertile environment for fraudsters. Earlier in 2020 the NCA arrested a Hertfordshire man for offenses against the bounce back loan scheme. The bounce back loan provides companies with interest free loans to support them through the pandemic. He was suspected of falsely applying for a bounce back loan and using the money on personal items. A search of his home revealed £17,000 in cash and a number of high value watches.
As it moves to the future, the NCA faces a constantly evolving threat landscape. According to its annual plan, the organisation will spend the next few years focusing on investing in new technology, building its capacity to manage rising demand and reforming the serious and organised crime system so it can deliver a more coordinated response.
Meeting those challenges will be no easy task. Funding is tight and will continue to be as the UK manages its slow recovery after the pandemic. Even so it will have to confront an increasingly sophisticated adversary and a much wider range of threats.