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.

7. Conclusion

This report has aimed to provide an overview of SOC in Scotland. It has drawn from national and international literature, as well data from the multi-agency strategic assessment to provide an overall picture of SOC.

It has:

  • Discussed how SOC is termed and defined in Scotland and elsewhere.
  • Provided an overview on the prevalence on SOC in Scotland and provided some basic information on SOC groups and the demographic characteristics of members.
  • Provided an overview of the workings of SOC groups, including consideration of the importance of social connections, how groups are structured, and the key criminal activities SOC groups engage in.
  • Discussed the social and economic harms SOC inflicts on individuals, businesses and communities/wider society.
  • Provided insight into public perceptions of SOC, and demonstrated the complexity of public attitudes which may have a bearing on prevention.

However, it has been emphasised throughout this review that there is lack of evidence across aspects of SOC, meaning some conclusions are tentatively drawn.

Summary of review findings

A key finding of this review is that there is a lack of social science evidence on SOC, and that current views are heavily based on operational and administrative data, which is designed for other primary functions, and has important limitations as a source of evidence, due to the way it is collected and analysed.

There is a need to develop the social science evidence base on SOC, from more varied perspectives, to deepen understanding of SOC and in turn to prevent and disrupt SOC; a need which is recognised in the 2015 refreshed strategy. This review contributes to this understanding by bringing together the various sources of evidence on SOC. In so doing, it helps to provide a more comprehensive overall picture of SOC, although this picture remains incomplete and limited.

In terms of the characteristics of who is involved in SOC and the nature of SOC groups, strategic threat assessment data suggest that 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. These groups are found across Scotland but there is a concentration of these groups in the west of Scotland. SOC groups are often connected to each other, with members often involved in more than one SOC group at a given time. Although, as has been discussed, this data have a number of limitations.

There is no single pathway into SOC. Instead, there are a number of risk factors for becoming involved in SOC, which relate to, among other things, individual views , circumstances, opportunities and networks. On the subject of networks, 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. These can originate from a range of contexts, including from family, relationships and business associates.

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. This reveals the adaptability of SOC groups and gives an indication of the wide range of harms SOC groups cause by virtue of their involvement in such a wide range of criminal activities.

Understanding how the public perceive SOC is important to tackling it. 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 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, any benefits (perceived or actual) gained from SOC are substantially outweighed by the harms SOC causes.

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. While this is the case in some circumstances, this is just one representation of SOC and the evidence 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. SOC harms individuals, businesses, the economy and communities. For instance, individuals may be victims of human trafficking, fraud or doorstep crime, legitimate industries lose sales and have fewer jobs to offer members of the public; and governments lose vital funds for public services, affecting individuals and communities. Lastly, while SOC is an issue for all of Scotland, it has a disproportionate effect on those who are vulnerable within communities.

Identified gaps in knowledge

While it is not possible to know everything about SOC, it is possible to continue to build on developing our understanding of SOC and the evidence base surrounding it, particularly social science evidence. This review has highlighted some key gaps in knowledge, which further research should help to fill:

  • A lack of detailed evidence on the reasons why people become involved in SOC.
  • A lack of detailed evidence on the workings of Scottish SOC groups: for example, how SOC groups operate in Scotland, and how they are structured.
  • A lack of evidence on the impacts and harms of particular criminal activities associated with SOC. These include cybercrime and fraud.
  • A lack of qualitative evidence on public perceptions and experiences of SOC, particularly within communities. For example, public attitudes towards particular forms of SOC activity, and understandings of how individual communities experience SOC on a day to day basis.


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