Speech to RUSI Annual Conference on Serious Organised Crime


It is a privilege to speak at RUSI’s inaugural conference on serious organised crime. This is an important gathering at a time when the criminal underworld is increasingly trying to crawl out of the gutter and onto Britain’s streets. RUSI is an unrivalled leader in facilitating the must-have conversations on how to tackle our world’s most pressing challenges.

Indeed, as a student, soldier, and shadow minister, RUSI has been a constant source of advice for me, and I particularly want to thank Professor Malcolm Chalmers, Deputy Director-General of RUSI, and my former Tutor at Kings College London.

I should add that this was while I was doing an in-service degree, not an undergraduate one.

He’s not that old!

And I also want to thank the excellent Cathy Haenlein, Director of the Organised Crime and Policing research group for organising this very successful conference.

I was appointed the Shadow Security Minister back in September, in my first few days I had to deal with an escaped terror suspect from Wandsworth prison… albeit he only made it as far as Chiswick, the proscription of the Wagner group, and an alleged Chinese spy in Parliament.

It’s often the case that shadow ministers, and ministers, take on briefs that they don’t know much about. But I took on my brief, confident that I had a well-developed understanding of how our security services work, a deep knowledge of the South American drug trade, and, relevant for this speech, significant insights into efforts combating serious organised crime.

But then it’s amazing what you can pick up watching Spooks, Narcos and Line of Duty! Although looking at this audience I might have been better off watching The Sweeney!

It’s sometimes said that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but, from my life before politics, I know something of the challenges you face.

I know what it’s like to kick down a door.

I know what it’s like to kick down the wrong door!

While people fighting serious organised crime may, perhaps, be a little less ‘Lord Flashheart’ than some of those I served with, they are exceptional public servants, and our country is extremely fortunate to have them.

Meeting some of them recently, my huge respect for them has only grown. Serving in the shadows, sacrificing their own safety, protecting the public, it would be an enormous privilege to serve alongside them if I was Security Minister. So, today, I thank them for their service.

Sometimes though, thank you isn’t enough, and I’ll say something more about that a bit later.

Before I get to that, I’m going to do something quite unusual for a politician! I am going to say something nice about my opposite number, the Security Minister, Tom Tugendhat. We have an unusual relationship, in that we actually get on! We first met in the deserts of Helmand back in 2007, ironically when he was shadowing me. I’m pleased to now be able to return the favour!

We both care passionately about keeping our country safe, and we approach it from shared experiences. There’s a mutual respect, which is how we should do these things. And, of course, Tom worked under extremely challenging circumstances in Afghanistan.

It was a tough place to be and he had to deal with some incredibly difficult people, but, looking on the bright side, at least it prepared him for life in the Home Office, working under Suella Braverman!

I should probably say something about serious organised crime!

We meet at RUSI five years on from the Serious and Organised Crime Strategy’s publication. In the last couple of years: drug use is rising, theft is rising, fraud is rising. Five years on, our country is less safe; our future less secure.

Despite the valiant work and dedication of people in this room, and beyond, the strategy isn't working as well as we need it to. A new approach is needed, not just an update of the old one.

A new Serious and Organised Crime Strategy should focus on turbocharging the quality and quantity of interventions, to disrupt and defeat the activities of serious organised crime in the UK.

But that’s just the start.

Britain should be a hostile environment for serious organised crime, with an approach that is relentless in countering the worst criminal activity.

I’m thinking about: the retired nurse who had their life savings stolen via an online scam, the parents who lost their teenager to a drug overdose at their first festival, the child who was in the wrong place, at the wrong time – murdered in cold blood.

It is for the victims and for the public we strive to serve that the UK must become a hostile environment for serious organised crime. A hostile environment built on a multi-faceted and whole-system approach that is relentless in disrupting and defeating the worst criminal activity plaguing our country.

This approach starts at home.

In our communities, where we know strong, safe neighbourhoods are less vulnerable to predatory and parasitic criminals.

However, 13 years of funding cuts to police forces, and neglect of local government and public services, mean our communities are less safe, and more vulnerable to crime in all its forms.

Children are particularly at risk.

Losing touch with support services and being prone to falling into the reaches of the drug trade. The Children’s Commissioner for England believes that at least 27,000 children are county lines gang members.

That’s more than a third of the size of the regular strength of the British Army.

It's a national scandal, and the consequences will be felt for decades.

So, we must improve early years provision, school safeguarding, and child mental health services as an integral part of our arsenal to disrupt and defeat criminal gangs.

We must also sever their stranglehold on our High Streets, with shoplifting costing nearly 1 billion pounds a year. Easy revenue for criminal gangs on the backs of retail workers’ lives being made a misery.

That’s why Labour will remove the £200 threshold before shoplifters are prosecuted, so more criminals are in the dock; Ensuring the British High Street is no longer treated by criminal gangs as their cash cow.

Making our streets safer also means bobbies on the beat to counter criminals and reassure the public. That’s why Yvette Cooper has also pledged that the next Labour government will put 13,000 more neighbourhood police officers and PCSOs back on the streets.

We know stronger communities mean weaker criminal gangs.

We also know that perpetrators of serious organised crime work internationally, with many operating from overseas. Kingpins of international criminal gangs don’t care too much about lines on maps.

It used to be said that there was honour amongst thieves, but there is no honour to the modern criminal mastermind. They only see opportunities to make money, caring nothing for the misery they inflict.

70% of fraud committed in the UK is by perpetrators based overseas. Foreign scam factories are conning the British people on an industrial scale, with £580m lost to fraudsters in the first six months of this year alone. That’s after three quarters of adults in the UK were targeted in person, online, or by phone in 2022.

Then there’s the threat against our children online from predators in our country, and around the world. Something, that as a parent, concerns me deeply.

An online industry has been created out of child sexual abuse and exploitation; selling content of the most disgusting, and morally despicable acts. Some get gratification from child abuse; others see it as a business opportunity.

Regardless of motive, they all need to be hunted down and brought to justice.

But this requires reaching the perpetrators wherever they are in the world. So, the government needs to do much more to build relationships with international partners to tackle serious organised crime upstream, overseas, and online.

Strong alliances, built on respect, trust, and cooperation.

The new Home Secretary, relatively fresh from the Foreign Office, should know better than most that government can and should build on existing international frameworks,
to disrupt and defeat supranational criminals.

Under a Labour government, international partnerships would be bolstered with a new security agreement with Europe. We will also seek to introduce a new real-time intelligence-sharing system to replicate the functionality of SIS-II.

International cooperation must provide maximum global reach for all our crime fighting organisations, to expand their areas of operation upstream where necessary.

This is mission critical.

Doing so will help dismantle the abhorrent rise in human trafficking.

We know that traffickers treat human beings just like another commodity to smuggle into the UK. Misery is their business and, because of the government’s failed asylum and immigration policies, business is booming. People crossing the Channel on small boats has risen from 299 in 2018 to over 45,000 last year.

The Government hasn’t got a grip on human trafficking or smuggling, and is fixated on sending asylum claimants to Rwanda. At least £155 million already spent, and more Home Secretaries have been to Rwanda than asylum seekers!

We are paying the price for this government alienating our international partners over recent years. We need a tough approach to traffickers, not our international neighbours.

Just like in football, you don't score a goal from your own six yard box.

That’s why Keir Starmer recently went to Paris to meet with President Macron, and to The Hague, to visit Europol, to explore how a Labour government will rebuild these high-level relationships. And that’s why our party is proposing a new partnership with Europol. Along with a new cross-border police unit at the NCA, this will help the UK to provide leadership to stop people smuggling.

That’s because when international cooperation does happen, we get results.

Vital officer-level work by the NCA in countries like Cyprus and Bulgaria is getting results; dismantling trafficking routes deep into continental Europe, long before they reach The English Channel.

So, it beggars belief that the Prime Minister refused to meet his Greek counterpart last week, missing an opportunity to discuss cooperation on tackling human trafficking.

The Agencies need leadership from government to conduct more of these actions.

If I’m the Security Minister, I’ll be working with them to get the job done.

We also need to defend ourselves against foreign states sponsoring and benefitting from serious organised crime, including: money laundering, cyber attacks, organised theft, smuggling, drug dealing, and violence.

The victims, on nearly every occasion, are our people – who should never feel like a target of foreign aggression.

However, foreign states no longer need to use their conventional armed forces to undermine our homeland security and our sovereignty, when criminal gangs can do this work for them.

The threat is real, unfolding on our streets now, and to disrupt and defeat it, we must be smart about using every tool at the state’s disposal.

So, the Home Secretary should now be asking if the right structures are in place across Whitehall to counter state-sponsored, and non-state-sponsored, serious organised crime.

To do this, we need the brightest and best in public service.

Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting we bring back any former Prime Ministers on this occasion! Although I think Gordon Brown would be good at looking at our economic sanctions policy… I also think Robert Peel would have something to say on the current state of police funding…

And, while we’re talking about historical figures… Do our modern-day Alan Turings feel that the most innovative work and, let’s be honest, best paid work, is happening in the private sector?

For the brightest and best serving in our crime, security, and intelligence agencies, it's not a hypothetical question.

The Prime Minister’s recent AI Summit at Bletchley, whilst very welcome, might have been the best ever jobs fair for our brightest talent. To lose the best talent is a poor return on our country’s investment in individuals with the potential to disrupt and defeat thousands of crimes over long careers.

Criminals profit the most from poor retention.

I’m talking to Tom about what could be done about it.

To conclude, the most up to date estimate of how much serious organised crime costs every year is £37 billion, and this 2016 figure was seen as an underestimate at the time. That’s akin to 1% of our country’s entire gross national income, tied up in criminality and misery.

So, it’s time to turn the tide in the fight against serious organised crime, and a new Serious and Organised Crime Strategy will be part of Labour’s plans for government.

This will create the hostile environment that we need to keep the criminal underworld in the gutter, and off our streets. I am ready to work to create a single, joined up, approach to counter serious organised crime that endures for years to come. Taking, and keeping, the fight; upstream, overseas, and online.

A hostile environment for serious organised crime is what the public expects.

It is what criminal gangs fear, and what we must work together to deliver.


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