Ministers are planning to give a huge budget boost and sweeping new powers to ‘Britain’s FBI’ to combat the growing threat of online paedophile rings, people traffickers and County Lines drugs gangs.
It comes as the National Crime Agency reveals the frightening scale of organised crime in the UK.
In an interview with The Mail on Sunday, Lynne Owens, director general of the NCA, said her gangbusters ‘need more capability’ to fight soaring levels of organised and increasingly sophisticated crime.
She pointed out that while it was understandable that terrorist threats dominate the headlines, it was ‘chronic and corrosive’ organised crime that ‘kills more citizens every year than war, terrorism and natural disaster combined’.
According to NCA intelligence, a staggering 181,000 criminals – the equivalent of the entire population of Ipswich – are members of the 4,500 organised crime groups that span the length and breadth of Britain.
The NCA, or ‘Britain’s FBI’, can be seen here in action. According to NCA intelligence, a staggering 181,000 criminals – the equivalent of the entire population of Ipswich – are members of the 4,500 organised crime groups that span the length and breadth of Britain
Lynne Owens, Director General of the National Crime Agency, speaking at the talk on crime and security after Brexit, October 30. In an interview with The Mail on Sunday, Lynne Owens, director general of the NCA, said her gangbusters ‘need more capability’ to fight soaring levels of organised and increasingly sophisticated crime
Between them, the gangs bring misery to millions and cost the UK economy at least £37 billion a year.
In response to the threat, Sir Craig Mackey, a former deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has been asked by the Government to lead a detailed review of the NCA, what new powers it needs and what laws need to change to make it more effective.
On a tour of the NCA’s London HQ last week, Security Minister Brandon Lewis said the review would focus on ‘making sure that these guys have got the tools they need for a change in criminal behaviour. We must make criminals afraid of operating in this country.’
It is understood that the plans, which would fundamentally change how the war on organised crime is fought, include:
- Streamlining a number of existing crime-fighting organisations and bringing them under the control of the NCA;
- Substantially increasing the agency’s budget to fund a ‘new phase of growth’ including extra personnel and new technology;
- Reforming how fraud is investigated, with the NCA taking on work currently assigned to local forces;
- Introducing new legislation and reforming the Computer Misuse and Theft Acts so they are ‘fit for purpose in the modern age’;
- Revisiting plans to regulate tech giants and social media firms which Ministers and crimefighters think are still doing too little to fight online paedophiles.
Despite the NCA helping to protect 10,000 children, seizing 2,700 firearms and taking 430 tons of cocaine off the streets since 2015, Ms Owens hinted that the current structure of policing risked giving crimelords the upper hand. ‘Our statutory responsibility is to lead the UK fight against serious and organised crime, yet the response is devolved to at least 43 police forces, Border Force and Immigration enforcement, all of whom operate through different government structures,’ she said.
Sir Craig Mackey, pictured receiving Investiture, a former deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has been asked by the Government to lead a detailed review of the NCA, what new powers it needs and what laws need to change to make it more effective.
‘What capabilities do we need that already exist but are disparate across the 43 forces? Is there a different way of structuring that?’
In addition to paedophiles, drug dealers and traffickers, the NCA is planning to focus on the growing levels of fraud carried out by teams of increasingly sophisticated domestic and foreign scamsters. ‘If you’re an old person whose life savings have been extorted, you don’t get that response and actually that’s just not good enough,’ she said. ‘So we’ve got to find a way to having live-time responses to all of the most serious offences.’
Mr Lewis added: ‘If someone takes away the last £10,000 of savings from a pensioner, that has as much impact on them as some crimes we think of as being more powerful.’
Echoing concerns about a lack of cohesion, he added: ‘There’s the Fraud Office, the City of London Police, every single police force across the country.
‘Each needs to have a fraud squad because they all have residents involved in that, but are we co-ordinating that in the best way, particularly with technology moving and changing how fraud is committed?’
The NCA, which launched in 2013 and currently employs about 4,400 staff, also want changes to legislation which, argued Ms Owens, has failed to keep up with technology.
‘The Computer Misuse Act went through Parliament at a time when cyber wasn’t the tool that it now is to enable all sorts of crimes like fraud,’ she said. As an example, under the Theft Act, data can’t be stolen so there are some places where you probably would want it to look quite different.’
Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis
The Mackey Review is due in February, but both Mr Lewis and Ms Owens made clear they want more support from technology giants such as Facebook and Google. ‘I don’t think it’s acceptable that all the industry does at the moment is say, “We’ve identified an image of a child being abused.” [They] have a much bigger social responsibility to prevent harm,’ said Ms Owens, who called in May for the NCA’s budget to be more than doubled from the current £424 million a year to £1.1 billion.
‘We wouldn’t accept people designing cars without locks, but for some reason we accept technology companies designing these systems.
‘They spend millions every year on research and development and artificial intelligence tools so they know who to target their adverts at to make a profit. We think a proportion of that should be preventing offending in the first place.’
Mr Lewis added: ‘You wouldn’t dream of a newspaper publisher ever having the ability to say, “I don’t care what an advertiser puts in my magazine or newspaper, it’s going into the public domain.” ’
Office heroes battling the gangs and abusers
Amid the constant clatter of trains, visitors to an unassuming office block near Vauxhall Station in South London arrive at a sparse reception area before passing rows of staff at computers.
NCA director general Lynne Owens said: ‘Technology has many great benefits, but one of the disbenefits is that we used to be taught that victims and offenders were in close geographical proximity, and they absolutely don’t have to be any more. We have many cases of offenders live-streaming and giving instructions’
It could be just a call centre, but on the screens the nature of the crimefighting work being done becomes apparent. In one wing, staff compile intelligence on so-called County Lines gangs that use children to distribute cocaine and heroin from cities to provincial towns. In another, workers watch depraved images of sexual abuse to trap predators.
For the latter – part of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command team – the content is so disturbing they must take a break every three hours, and counsellors are on hand 24/7.
With an estimated 88,000 active UK paedophiles, the task of bringing them to justice is vast. In one recent case, NCA experts had to trawl 2.2 million images. Each must be logged in the hunt for the perpetrators and to identify victims. NCA IT experts face a constant battle to keep up with sophisticated encryption software.
There is a reward for the hard work. Last year, 552 victims were identified and 700 children brought to safety due to the NCA’s work.
The NCA scored a greater victory last month when it led a multi-national force to smash a group called ‘Welcome To Video’ which hosted 250,000 child-abuse videos on the dark web. It led to the arrests of 337 suspected paedophiles in 38 countries.
Individuals are pursued as aggressively as gangs. Earlier this year, a team at the NCA brought paedophile Tashan Gallagher to justice by matching trainers he wore when abusing children for videos uploaded to a Russian messaging app to those he was wearing on his Instagram account. Gallagher was jailed for 15 years for the rape of a six-month-old girl and assault of a two-year-old boy.
NCA director general Lynne Owens said: ‘Technology has many great benefits, but one of the disbenefits is that we used to be taught that victims and offenders were in close geographical proximity, and they absolutely don’t have to be any more. We have many cases of offenders live-streaming and giving instructions.’