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.

2. Introduction

Serious Organised Crime ( SOC) in Scotland comes in various forms, which includes the supply and demand of illegal drugs, organised acquisitive crime and human trafficking. Yet these varied activities tend to be underpinned by the common goal of the generation of profit. [7] SOC in Scotland and across the UK is responsible for causing substantial economic and social harm to individuals, businesses, communities and society as a whole.

The overall aim of the Scottish Government's refreshed strategy (2015) on SOC is to reduce the prevalence and harm of SOC, and it aims to deliver this via four strands entitled: DIVERT, DETER, DETECT and DISRUPT. [8] This strategy notes the need for a detailed, evidence-based understanding of SOC in Scotland. [9] 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. As part of the Scottish Government's programme of work to deepen this understanding, this report reviews the existing evidence on SOC, drawing from relevant national and international literature, and from the Scottish Multi-Agency Strategic Threat Assessment (2016) ('the strategic assessment'), which brings together Scottish specific data on SOC (as well as terrorism and other emergent threats) from a wide range of agencies.

Section 1 of this report discusses how SOC is termed and defined in Scotland, and briefly compares these to those from other countries. Other countries' chosen terms and definitions vary subtly, but they share with Scotland a number of key features. These features include recognition that SOC involves: activity that is a means to an end for profit or sometimes power; activity that involves a level of cooperation and organisation between networks of people who may have specialist skills or knowledge; and activity that has harmful by-product effects in social and economic terms.

Section 2 discusses the scale of SOC and provides a snapshot of groups involved in SOC in Scotland.

Section 3 explores the evidence provided in Section 2 in more detail, and through drawing on international evidence, discusses: the importance of social connections in creating and maintaining SOC groups; the structure of SOC groups and how they operate; and the key criminal activities SOC groups engage in.

Section 4 discusses some of the harms of SOC (including an indication of their prevalence). These harms impact individuals, businesses and society in general.

Section 5 discusses public perceptions of SOC.

Section 6 summarises the findings from the review and re-iterates what the gaps in knowledge are in relation to SOC, as identified throughout the report.

Methods and limitations

In addition to the data provided by the strategic assessment, this report was informed by evidence generated by two sweeps of the literature carried out by the Scottish Government Library Service first in November 2014, and then again in October 2016. The searches were informed by key word search criteria submitted by two analysts within the Justice Analytical Services division of the Scottish Government in each of these sweeps. The literature generated included academic articles, government reports and surveys. The analysts also carried out their own independent searches to add to the body of work highlighted by these searches.

The literature generated was primarily from Scotland, England and Wales and a number of European Union ( EU) countries. The shared characteristics included in countries' definitions justify the use of this literature in this review, although it is acknowledged that various differences exist between countries, to some extent limiting comparability.

On the subject of limitations, it is important to outline a number of points which should be kept in mind while reading this review.

Firstly, the review does not purport to provide a comprehensive and definitive account of the evidence on SOC, but rather, constitutes a collation of the material which could be identified and accessed within a relatively short space of time.

Secondly, it is limited by the fact that there are inherent difficulties in assessing the scale of a problem that is by its nature often hidden or disguised. The difficulties in measuring organised crime have long been recognised. [10]

Thirdly, a key source of information for this report is the strategic assessment. The data contained in this assessment are collected by a range of agencies including Police Scotland. However, this assessment can only offer partial insight into SOC. For example, agencies are limited by the nature of the information that reaches their attention, which includes the obscuring and withholding of information about SOC activity, as well as under reporting by victims of SOC. The Police Foundation recently identified that only a small portion of incidents categorised as organised crime in England and Wales featured individuals who were already identified by these agencies, which suggests a limitation of data collected and held by these agencies. [11] This means that numbers may be under-estimated, but also that the emergent characteristics and trends are shaped by the intelligence that is gathered. This is not a problem that is unique to Scotland. In addition, the problem is not unique to agencies; the nature of SOC means that SOC and the groups and individuals involved are likely to remain hidden from social science researchers. This limits the available information and as a result, our understanding of the issue.

Finally, the information that does reach the attention of agencies or that is able to be collected by them is often limited in scope and depth, meaning important understandings cannot be gained. For example, these data which are captured in a 'live' context are likely to be focused on immediate developments and concerns, and do not offer insight into those which are less immediate. These data also cannot shed light on: the reasons underlying individuals' involvement in SOC; the less obvious impacts of SOC; the longer term impacts of SOC; how SOC links with other aspects of economic and social life; and what public perceptions and experiences of SOC are. While some evidence on these aspects is available and has been drawn from to produce this review, further research and further research focused specifically on the Scottish context is required to give a fuller picture of SOC in Scotland.

On that note, it is important to re-iterate that this review forms part of a comprehensive programme of research projects on SOC that the Scottish Government is currently engaged in. Combined, findings from these research projects should offer important insights into SOC in Scotland and as such, should help to fill some of these gaps in knowledge.

Terms and definitions

As noted by Tilley and Hopkins, criminologists, governments and law enforcement bodies have long debated how to term and define organised crime. [12] This lack of consensus has persisted, and is reflected in the variation among countries in chosen terminologies and definitions. However, as will be discussed, these tend to share a number of key characteristics.

Scotland's term, 'serious organised crime' conveys both the centrality of organisation to SOC as well as the seriousness of the harms caused by SOC. The official definition of SOC is contained in the national strategy on SOC. The original strategy entitled 'Letting Our Communities Flourish' was published in 2009 and refreshed in 2015. [13] SOC is defined as crime which:

  • involves more than one person;
  • is organised, involving a level of control, planning and specialist resources;
  • causes, or has the potential to cause, significant harm;
  • involves benefit to the individuals concerned, particularly financial gain.

This definition refers to the collaborative nature, motivations, organisational structures and harmful impacts as the defining characteristics of organised crime. These characteristics distinguish SOC from other types of crime. However, as will be discussed, in order to facilitate the typically principal goal of the generation of profit, SOC may involve the commission of other crimes; crimes which in themselves would not fall into the SOC category, but committed for this goal and committed in this way do. The organisational element of SOC is central to it and differentiates groups involved in SOC from other groups or networks, for example, urban street gangs. [14]

The UK's chosen term, contained in Home Office publications, is 'Organised Crime' ( OC). The UK definition is outlined in a strategy produced by the Home Office, [15] and shares parallels with the Scottish definition. The UK definition additionally includes reference to the international dimension of OC, beyond geographical borders and national interests. It refers to the threat posed to national security, and also refers to the strategic use of other crimes such as bribery, violence, and corruption in the commission of OC. It is possible that the UK's international focus may reflect aspects of OC that relate to its remit for national security, immigration, foreign policy and defence; responsibilities that have not been devolved to Scotland. However, Scotland is not immune to the impacts of transnational OC. [16]

While terms vary across European Union ( EU) member states, in recent years, official EU discourse has tended to use the term 'serious crime', which both reflects and emphasises the inherent negative impact of OC. Definitions across EU member states also vary and are shaped by respective legal and cultural contexts. Despite attempts in 2008 and 2013 to agree a common definition in the EU, there is no centrally agreed definition across EU member states. [17] Although, Europol notes that there is an internationally shared definition of organised crime groups, which is provided by the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime. This definition overlaps with some of the features mentioned in definitions of organised crime: an organised criminal group comprises of three or more persons existing over a period of time acting in concert, with the aim of committing crimes for financial or material benefit. [18]

For the purpose of this report, which aims to provide an overview of SOC in the context of Scotland, the Scottish term of ' SOC' and the definition it encompasses will be used predominantly. However, where literature is drawn from which explicitly describes the issue as ' OC' the source's chosen term will be respected and ' OC' will instead be used; therefore there is some interchange-ability in terminology but all terms used in this review refer to the same phenomenon.


Back to top