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.

5. The prevalence and impacts of SOC in Scotland


This section discusses some of the criminal activities SOC groups are involved in, and gives an indication of the prevalence and social and economic harm caused by these.

As outlined, by the Home Office, [76] the impacts and harms associated with OC are generally not well mapped; meaning discussion of these is inherently limited. Further evidence on the nature of harms is required to inform efforts to tackle SOC.

However, the evidence that is available gives an indication of the serious social and economic impacts SOC has both on Scotland and on the UK as a whole. The total estimated social and economic cost of SOC each year to the UK is at least £24 billion which the Home Office considers to be a conservative estimate. [77] This can be broken down into a number and variety of criminal markets. For example, drug supply and distribution is estimated to cost £10.7 billion per year; organised fraud £8.9 billion and organised immigration crime £1 billion. [78] In Scotland, it is estimated that SOC costs the Scottish economy alone ( i.e. excluding the social cost) £2 billion per year. [79]

Evidence demonstrates that SOC encompasses a range of criminal activities, and in turn impacts a diverse range of victims, and is responsible for causing a wide range of harms. Indeed, the Home Office notes that the harms associated with SOC translate into harms to society, harms to individuals and businesses. [80] It is beyond the scope of the review to discuss the nature of all of these harms and the groups impacted. However, some of the harms associated with some of the criminal activities outlined earlier in this review are now discussed. As will be shown, these varied activities affect some or all of these different groups: for example, individuals, businesses and society as a whole.

Drug supply and distribution

Given that around two thirds of SOC groups are involved in the supply and distribution of illegal drugs, the social harms associated with the sale and consumption of illegal drugs are one of the main social harms of SOC. This section aims to give an indication of both of these through drawing on a number of sources.

First, to put the issue into context, a 2009 report estimated the total social and economic cost of illegal drug use in Scotland to be just under £3.5 billion. [81] This report also identified particularly high costs to be associated with problem drug use specifically; this accounts for 96% of the total cost, which equates to just under £61,000 per problem drug user. In comparison, recreational drug use accounts for 4% of the total estimated cost, equating to £134 per user. [82] More recent figures for the UK estimate the total social and economic cost to be £10.7 billion, of which almost half (£6 billion) can be attributed to drug related crime. [83]

The Scottish Crime and Justice Survey ( SCJS) provides the most reliable indication of the prevalence of drug consumption across Scotland, which includes an indication of the prevalence of new psychoactive substances. [84] Evidence from the SCJS suggests that drug consumption may be reducing but that it is still a large and profitable commodity in Scotland.

The most recent SCJS (2014-2015) found that around 6.0% of adults in Scotland reported having used one or more illegal drugs in the last year. [85] This figure represents a statistically significant decrease over time: for example, this stood at 7.6% in the 2008-09 survey.

As regards drug use among young people, who have often been the focus of attention in this context, findings from the most recent SALSUS [86] (Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey) supports the general trend of declining drug use among 13 and 15 year olds since 2002, though there was a small increase in the proportion of 15 year old boys who consumed drugs in the month prior to the study (from 11% in 2013 to 13% in 2015). The survey found that 3% of 13 year olds and 11% of 15 year olds reported using drugs in the last month. [87]

However, closer scrutiny of the 2014-2015 SCJS also suggests that, set against this overall trend, drugs markets are concentrated within certain populations or locations. Firstly, people were more likely to have been offered illegal drugs if they worked in routine and manual occupations, lived in urban areas, or lived in the 15% most deprived areas of Scotland. [88] While recording different data, findings from the Scottish Household Survey (2015) suggested that there is a relationship between area deprivation and perceptions of the prevalence of drug misuse in the area. The survey found that for Scotland as a whole, 12% of respondents thought that drug misuse is a 'very' or 'fairly' common problem in their neighbourhood for Scotland. However, this figure rose to 29% for those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods, based on SIMD scores. Indeed, there is a relationship between the perception of drugs misuse problems and the deprivation levels of neighbourhoods. [89] These findings suggest that SOC drug markets have a greater presence or visibility in deprived areas than in areas experiencing lower levels of deprivation, possibly exacerbating other neighbourhood problems as well as negatively affecting wellbeing and overall quality of life.

The SCJS reveals that self-reported illegal drug use ( i.e. consumption patterns rather than the experience of being offered illegal drugs) in the last year [90] was significantly associated with socio-economic classification, urban or rural classification, victim status and area deprivation based on the SIMD. [91] Finally, this variation is also reflected in rates of drug dependency. The 2014-2015 SCJS found that within the category which asked about usage within the last month (the category particularly focused on drug dependency) [92] , there was greater dependence on drugs among people who had never worked or were long-term unemployed: 29% compared to 11% of routine and manual occupations [93] ; and among those people living in the 15% most deprived areas of Scotland which stood at 31% compared to 12% of those living in the rest of Scotland. [94] It is important to point out too that the SCJS cannot capture all problematic drug use. It is a survey of private households and therefore excludes those who may take drugs who live in other circumstances; for example, those living in institutions or communal residences ( e.g. student accommodation, or prisons). It also does not capture those with no fixed abode (for example, the homeless population). [95] Moreover, it may even exclude drug users who do live in private households whose chaotic lifestyles mean they are either not at home or may be unable to take part when the survey interview takes place. [96] Therefore, the estimates on problematic drug use provided by the SCJS are likely to under-estimate the scale of the problem. Findings from the NHS can give some indication of prevalence: it estimates that there are approximately 61,600 problem drug users in Scotland aged between 15 and 64. Expressed as a percentage of the population, the rate of problem drug use is 1.68%. However, these most recent prevalence estimates are from 2012-13. [97]

Data from these sources therefore suggest that the effects of drug supply and demand are not evenly distributed, and that individuals living in deprived areas or those who may be disadvantaged in other ways are more likely to have been offered illegal drugs; are more likely to use drugs; and are more likely to experience drug dependency than those not living in these areas or not disadvantaged in other ways.

The relationship between socio-economic disadvantage and problem drug use and of how these also link with general health inequalities is often acknowledged. [98] Indeed, recognition of the connections between these is also built into Scotland's Strategy for Drugs, published in 2008 (which will soon be refreshed). [99] This link requires closer examination and further research to offer additional insights. It is also complex: underlying disadvantage may lead to problem drug use, but it may also be a consequence of it, compounding problems. Indeed, the 2009 report defined 'problem drug use' as illegal drug use that often results in users requiring social or medical intervention into their lives. [100] It noted that problem drug users characteristically are not in employment, may have criminal justice issues, and often other social/medical issues relating to the injection of drugs. [101] As stated, this link is a very complex one, but an appreciation of this link is important when considering the impacts of SOC; specifically which groups of people are more likely to be impacted, or to be impacted disproportionately.

On the note of impacts, it is worth briefly outlining some of the harms associated with problem drug use. There were 867 drug related deaths registered in Scotland in 2016, (23%) more than in 2015. This was the highest number ever recorded and more than double the figure for 2005 which was 336. Men accounted for 68% of drug related deaths in 2015, and 73 % of drug related deaths were among those aged 35 and over. [102] It is thought that the upward trend in drug related deaths is due to an ageing cohort of problem drug users with multiple and complex needs. [103]

In response to these trends, on 26 th July 2017, the Minister for Public Health announced her intention to refresh Scotland's (2008) Drug Strategy entitled 'Road to Recovery'. [104] The refresh will build upon the foundations of the current strategy while taking cognisance of the change in pattern of contemporary drug use, and the challenges for treatment providers in retaining patients. In addition, the refresh will evidence that problem drug use is a product of wider health, social and economic inequalities. It will aim to provide leadership while also reinvigorating and reenergising the sector against a clear set of priorities, with an associated action plan.

While much more should be explored in relation to the link between problem drug use and the experience of socio-economic disadvantage, there is recognition that the relationship between the two is complex. In summary, the evidence suggests that the harms associated with problem drug use are disproportionately felt by those already disadvantaged. Consequently, this suggests that the harms of SOC- at least in relation to drug supply and distribution- are not evenly distributed across sections of the population. Therefore while SOC exacerbates inequality, it also is a symptom of it, having a greater presence in areas that are socially and economically disadvantaged, and being more likely to affect individuals who already experience or have experienced some form of disadvantage.

Child Sexual Exploitation ( CSE)

As discussed, CSE is complex, and there is difficulty associated with mapping perpetrators (including groups of perpetrators) and identifying that which is related to SOC. The Home Office categorises CSE into three distinct types, and in this way, the CSE which is attributed to SOC groups is more easily identified. These categories are: inappropriate relations; the 'boyfriend' model of exploitation including peer exploitation; and organised/networked sexual exploitation or trafficking. [105]

This third category is entirely organised in nature and therefore connected to SOC, and involves the grooming and abuse of children and young people by organised groups and networks. [106] Organised CSE alone (excluding other forms of CSE) is estimated to costs the UK £1.1 billion per year. [107] CSE causes a wide range of often long lasting harms to the young victims as well as to their parents and families, and wider society.

Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation

Human trafficking is the exploitation of humans for profit. The Home Office estimates that the total social and economic cost to the UK of human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation alone are £890 million; other forms of human trafficking include criminal exploitation, domestic servitude and forced labour. These forms are excluded from this estimation due to a lack of data; therefore the cost is likely to be substantially higher than this. [108] In 2015, the UK National Referral Mechanism Statistics received 145 referrals of potential victims of human trafficking [109] , though this is likely to be an under-estimation due to issues of under-reporting. [110] Often those who are trafficked are already vulnerable, and stay hidden through physical isolation, language or cultural barriers. [111] Victims of trafficking report experiencing extreme levels of trauma, fear, anxiety alongside physical and other mental health problems; moreover, these are often experienced at the same time, and affect victims in their daily lives. [112]

In terms of how sexual exploitation is perpetrated by SOC groups in the UK, analysis of police data by the Police Foundation suggested that OC had "significant presences" in this particular market (with business like structures required to manage brothels in order to ensure maximum profitability and to minimise the risk of exposure to the police) strongly suggestive of a link to OC. However, according to the practitioners consulted in its study, exploitation in the off street adult sex market (within brothels) was far more prevalent than that recorded in police databases. [113] Lastly, 2009 figures from Scotland estimated that around 5% of all crime groups known at that time were involved in prostitution. [114]


The Annual Fraud Indicator estimated the annual cost of fraud to the UK using data provided by stakeholders, and suggests that fraud costs the private sector £5.7 billion, from a total annual loss of £15.5 billion. Estimates are also provided for the public sector (£702 million), individuals (£9.1 billion) and charities (£30 million). [115] As discussed previously, SOC groups are known to be involved in fraud in Scotland. While precise details on the financial impact of SOC group's fraud related activities are not available, it is suggested that Scottish SOC groups contribute to these losses, including to businesses.

Based on the findings from its study, the Police Foundation categorises organised fraud ( i.e. fraud committed by SOC groups) into seven distinct types. These are: identity fraud; fraudulent sales (occur when a victim purchases a good or service- these often occur through online auction or selling websites); mass marketing fraud (where victims are contacted via email, letter, phone or advertisements); fraudulent sales in person (when a victim purchases a good or service from the perpetrator in person); abuse of trust (where a victim's trust is abused and the victim's position is taken advantage of); fraudulent applications where the perpetrator deliberately misrepresents themselves or position (for example, lying on a claims application form); and investment fraud. [116] The Police Foundation report that the scale of organised fraud committed by SOC groups is substantially higher than is suggested by Home Office estimates. They also report that organised fraud causes greater financial harm than fraud which is not organised. [117] It is important to bear in mind that even if individuals do not experience direct victimisation, organised fraud on this scale results in losses to, as mentioned, the public, private and voluntary sector. However, findings from the Crime Survey for England and Wales indicate that fraud is numerous and widespread at an individual level, with fraud accounting for 3.8 million offences of a total of 5.8 million incidents of fraud and computer misuse experienced by adults over 16 in England and Wales for the year ending March 2016 (recorded by this survey). It is important to point out that most money stolen is reimbursed and it is for relatively small amounts, but the aggregate effect of this is signficant. [118]

Counterfeit goods

Businesses may be particularly impacted by SOC through the unauthorised taking of intellectual property through the use of counterfeit goods. The Home Office estimates the scale (or market size) of organised intellectual property crime and counterfeiting to be £90 million; this reflects the revenues (not profit) earned by organised criminals from this activity. The Home Office estimates the total economic and social cost ( i.e. in terms of total harm) of this type of SOC activity to be £400 million; this estimate attempts to take account of the wide range of impacts of SOC on society. [119] Included in this figure are physical counterfeiting and the piracy of specific goods (namely CDs, DVDs, games, business software, clothing and footwear); notably excluded are digital goods and digital piracy [120] which are likely to also be responsible for significant losses in revenue. The Home Office estimates that the total costs are likely to be far higher. [121] In its assessment of total economic and social cost, the Home Office includes loss of profit and sales to business, lost revenue to the exchequer, loss of jobs, additional payment resulting from this loss of jobs and enforcement costs by media stakeholders for pirated CDs and DVDs; although this is not an exhaustive list of costs. Once again, the Home Office suggests this estimation is conservative. [122] While figures from Scotland are not disaggregated in the Home Office data, given the extent of SOC activity in Scotland, it is likely that the scale and the total economic and social cost of these activities alone (excluding the various other SOC activities which impact businesses) are significant.

Wider harms

The harms discussed caused by these different types of activity cause ripple effects for wider society. SOC also causes other societal harms, such as fear of crime, the loss of revenue for public services and the associated increase in taxation to replace this loss. [123] Given the hidden nature of SOC, it is impossible to estimate the exact financial cost of SOC in terms of the loss of revenue for public services, and the associated increase in taxation to make up for this shortfall. However, given the extent of SOC activity in Scotland, it is likely that the financial impact is significant.

As regards fear of crime, a finding from a 2013 Scottish Government commissioned survey of public perceptions of SOC indicates that fear of SOC is of concern to the Scottish public. The telephone survey (part of an omnibus survey conducted by Ipsos MORI) of 1,000 adults explored various aspects of SOC including (but not limited to) public awareness of SOC, personal experiences of SOC, assessment of the prevalence of SOC and an assessment of who was responsible for tackling SOC.

The survey found that in response to the question: 'What do you think the main impacts of organised crime in Scotland are?' 21% viewed fear in the community as the main impact. 17% thought this was drug abuse, and 12% thought that this was less money available for public services. [124] Therefore, fear in the community was perceived as a main impact of organised crime by just over one fifth of respondents. Yet, the survey also asked respondents if they had experienced organised crime themselves. Only 10% said they had been personally affected by organised crime in the last three years [125] ; although it is acknowledged that this time frame is limiting. This suggests that although individuals may not be personally affected by organised crime, they have an appreciation of the general sense of worry and unease within communities which SOC can create.

In terms of understanding how SOC can cause this, witnessing or even hearing about violence in the community can contribute to a climate of fear. In addition, being aware of the presence of SOC groups and fearing their influence and profile may raise concerns that SOC groups may infiltrate services; indeed, this is supported by the evidence which demonstrates that SOC groups can directly and indirectly infiltrate procurement processes (for example, through winning a contract to provide a good or service). [126] As discussed previously, strategic assessment data suggests that Scottish SOC groups engage in violence (ranging from mild threats to serious and fatal violence) and corruption. A Police Foundation study found that while the violent incidents which occurred were primarily between members of rival SOC groups, they tended to take place in residential streets, which undermined feelings of safety and well-being within communities; specifically the interviewees in this study cited that there was a "pervasive atmosphere of fear and menace" and they also shared their experience of verbal and physical violence. [127] The wording of the question in the Ipsos MORI survey does not provide an answer to whether or not respondents were actually fearful of SOC, but it gives an indication that people associate SOC with fear in communities. Therefore, the evidence suggests that there are a number of societal harms associated with SOC. These include (but are not limited to) fear of crime as well as the financial impacts of loss of revenue and associated increases in taxation.

In conclusion, this section's discussion of just a handful of the diverse range of individual, business and societal harms associated with SOC has raised an important point for our understanding of SOC. While SOC may be considered to simply be an aggregate of individual crimes perpetrated against a particular individual, the evidence suggests an alternative picture: instead, the impacts of SOC are broader and more complex, and SOC imposes secondary harms on, for example, communities and the economy.


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