National Crime Agency shares national strategic assessment 2021

The National Crime Agency (NCA) has published its 2021 UK national strategic assessment of serious and organised crime, a comprehensive analysis of the threat to date providing several takeaways for the legal profession.

Tackling serious and organised crime

The NCA’s priorities remain tackling high-harm offenders who:

  • exploit the vulnerable – through child exploitation, modern slavery and human trafficking
  • dominate communities – through drugs, firearms and organised acquisitive crime
  • undermine the UK’s economy – through cyber-crime, fraud, money laundering, and bribery, corruption and sanction evasion

The impact of money laundering in the UK

The assessment highlights that money laundering and illicit finance fuels crime not only in the UK but around the world, with the UK acting as a global centre for facilitating money laundering and organised crime.

It remains hard to quantify the scale of money laundering due to the variety of methods used to launder criminal proceeds generated from inside and outside the UK.

However, money laundering has likely increased as a result of the rise in predicate crimes (such as drugs and fraud).

The NCA found that it was highly likely that over £12 billion of criminal funds are generated annually in the UK, with a realistic possibility that the scale of money laundering impacting the UK (including through corporate structures or financial institutions) is in the hundreds of billions of pounds per year.

Professional enablers

The NCA found that money launderers have adapted their methods in response to new technology, regulation and the pandemic.

The 2021 assessment recognises that the threat of serious organised crime cannot be considered in isolation.

It’s increasingly important to target cross-cutting enablers that enhance offenders’ abilities to conduct criminal activity. These are identified as:

  • criminal use of technology
  • the UK border
  • law enforcement corruption and insider threat

The NCA reiterated that professional enablers continue to be used to hide and move criminal proceeds.

However, in a change of language and rhetoric around the legal profession, this year’s assessment identifies the key professional enablers as family offices that provide wealth and property management services and privacy for ultra-high-net-worth individuals and their families.

The assessment notes the continued use of UK companies to move criminal funds, as highlighted in a leak of files from the US Treasury in 2020.

The NCA asserts this is reflected through overseas-generated illicit funds being used to buy UK property with complex business structures to obscure ownership.

Money laundering in the property market

The following two cases highlight the links between the property market and money laundering and illicit finance, identifying the potential risks for those providing professional services.

Case 1

An NCA investigation in July 2020 resulted in eight criminals being sentenced to a combined 139 years’ imprisonment on conspiracy to import heroin.

In a series of civil investigations into dozens of close associates of those convicted, the NCA recovered 59 properties in Birmingham and Northern Ireland worth £17 million. These had been acquired using the proceeds of crime, including heroin importation and distribution, fraud and money laundering.

Case 2

In October 2020, the NCA secured an unexplained wealth at the High Court that resulted in a businessman from Leeds agreeing to hand over 45 properties in London, Cheshire and Leeds; four parcels of land; as well as other assets and over £580,000 in cash – with a combined value of nearly £10 million.

NCA civil investigators (who had been investigating him for over a year) argued that this wealth had been accumulated through many years of money laundering for serious and violent organised crime groups in West Yorkshire.

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