Serious organised crime in Scotland: a summary of the evidence

A desk-based review of national and international literature and national operational and mapping data on serious organised crime.

1. Executive Summary


Serious Organised Crime ( SOC) is responsible for causing a wide range of harms to individuals, businesses, communities and society. In Scotland, SOC is defined in the Scottish Government's refreshed strategy (2015) on SOC. This defines it as criminal activity which: involves more than one person; is organised and involves a level of control, planning and specialist resources; causes, or has the potential to cause, significant harm; and involves benefit to the individuals' concerned, particularly financial gain. [1] These distinctive features differentiate SOC from other forms of crime.

The overall aim of the Scottish Government's refreshed strategy on SOC is to reduce the prevalence and harm of SOC. This strategy notes the need for a detailed, evidence-based understanding of SOC in Scotland. [2] This understanding is required in order to inform approaches aimed at reducing the prevalence of SOC in Scotland, and the extent and severity of its impacts. Importantly, the success of strategies and interventions depend on an accurate conception of the problem and the specific nature of its short and long term causes and effects.

In order to contribute to this understanding, a desk based review of national and international literature on SOC, as well as national operational and mapping data on SOC was conducted. The review found that there is a relative lack of social science evidence in relation to SOC. The Scottish Multi-Agency Strategic Threat Assessment (2016), which brings together data on SOC from a range of agencies, provides a useful source of information. However, it should be borne in mind that there are inherent challenges in assessing the scale and nature of SOC, some of which relate to the rapidly evolving organisation and activity of SOC groups and the difficulties in detecting some forms of online SOC. [3] Nonetheless, in drawing from a wide range of sources, this review is able to provide an overview of available evidence on SOC, and therefore contributes to developing this understanding. The following section provides a summary of the key findings.

Key findings

As regards this picture of SOC, available evidence shows that SOC is found in all areas of Scotland with SOC groups located throughout the country; although, there is a concentration of these groups in the west of Scotland. Most offenders involved in SOC are men and most are adults (a small percentage are under the age of 18 years old). Individuals involved in SOC form groups which take various forms and structures. SOC groups are often connected to each other, with members often involved in more than one SOC group at a given time.

There is no single pathway into SOC. Instead, there are a number of risk factors for becoming involved in SOC. These are broadly categorised by the Home Office into four categories: criminality; ability; networks and identity. The first- criminality- identifies individuals who show particular offending patterns as being at risk of becoming involved in SOC. Ability refers to the involvement of individuals with specialist skills and access or professionals being drawn into SOC to provide key services. Risk factors relating to networks entail having access to criminal networks through a range of contexts, such as through family, relationships and business contacts. Finally, risk factors relating to identity may involve individuals' upbringing (including adverse childhood events such as parental break up or drug use) or relate to personal views such as underestimating the level of harm caused by SOC or having the perception that through engagement with SOC he or she is offering a legitimate good or service. Relatedly, the evidence particularly highlights that trusted social connections between members of a SOC group, and with other groups and individuals, are essential to the creation and on-going success of a SOC group; age sometimes has a part to play in helping these establish.

SOC groups vary considerably in terms of their structure and composition. For example, at one end of the scale, groups are very hierarchical with a clear chain of command and are made up of longstanding members. At the other end of the scale, groups are very fluid criminal networks whose membership changes in response to emerging criminal demands and opportunities.

SOC groups are involved in a wide range of criminal activities, and are often involved in perpetrating more than one of these at a given time. These activities involve both primary and secondary activities. Primary activities are those that generate profit directly and include drug supply and distribution, human trafficking, and fraud. Secondary activities are not directly profitable in themselves but are carried out to support SOC groups' work to generate profits and need to maintain influence and profile; these include activities such as money laundering, violence and corruption.

Understanding how the public perceive SOC is important to tackling it. Given the diverse and far reaching harms associated with SOC, it is important that the public are able to identify SOC in their area and to report it. Moreover, if the public are aware of the harms associated with SOC, this may help to deter them from engaging with SOC markets; for example, from purchasing counterfeit goods. Further, having an understanding of public perceptions helps to ensure that we have a reliable sense of the problem, directly from the people who experience it. If this is not gained, agencies may be tackling a problem that has been defined with inherited conceptions and definitions; these may not match with lived experiences.

Public perceptions of SOC are complex. The public fear SOC (and crime in general) and recognise the harms SOC is responsible for causing, though those that more obviously affect individuals are more likely to be identified or considered to be particularly damaging. However, individuals and businesses may also benefit, or perceive that they benefit, from some specific SOC activities (for example, from the sale of cheap counterfeit goods). SOC goods and markets may be particularly attractive to those whose financial choices are constrained by virtue of poverty and disadvantage. Nonetheless, the evidence shows that any benefits (perceived or actual) gained from SOC are substantially outweighed by the harm caused, both at an individual and societal level.

Finally, SOC has often- at least historically or within some operational cultures- been conceptualised as an aggregate of individual crimes perpetrated against a victim in a particular situation. However, this evidence suggests that this is a narrow depiction of SOC; the evidence instead highlights the variety and complexity of SOC activity and SOC groups. It demonstrates clearly that the impacts of SOC are broad and complex, and that the harms associated with SOC affect more than those directly involved or those most obviously impacted. As Croall observes, victimisation for SOC is often indirect and diffuse, and as such, is "far more complex" than that caused by other forms of crime. [4]

SOC harms individuals, businesses, the economy and communities; and more subtle harms can build up and cause further harm, as in the case of fear experienced in communities. SOC causes legitimate industries to lose sales, and governments to lose revenue, which can then have implications for tax or for the cost of goods; SOC can result in job losses through the trade of counterfeit goods [5] , and fearful individuals in communities may be deterred from reporting crime, preventing perpetrators from being caught and prosecuted, and thus from committing crime. Being afraid of crime is harmful in itself, but it also may cause further harms. For example, it may result in avoidance behaviours, where individuals leave their homes less frequently or avoid certain places. This then limits opportunities for social interaction, and social interaction helps to protect physical and mental health. [6] Lastly, SOC is an issue for all of Scotland, but these harms often disproportionately impact those who are more vulnerable within communities.


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