My name is Robert Jones. I am one of the operational directors at the National Crime Agency. I tackle all the serious organised crime threats and my particular interest in this is that I tackle organised immigration crime as one of the national priority threats that the agency deals with.
Q I would like ask you some questions about the work of the National Crime Agency in breaking the crime gangs that are smuggling people into the country. Clearly, a lot of those gangs operate internationally. What is your experience around working internationally to try and break those gangs?
Obviously, there is a lot of interest in the small boats business model. I will talk about the whole route first and then focus on small boats. For some time, we have operated with our international liaison network and international partners to try to deal upstream from the UK with smuggling gangs that are targeting the UK for profit. That is a big part of what we do. That has involved targeting people who use high-risk methods of clandestine entry, where they pack people into concealments in lorries and move them overland from as far afield as Turkey, typically via an overland route.
For a variety of reasons, beginning in 2018 over the Christmas period, we have seen a movement towards the use of the small boats business model to execute clandestine entry into the UK. That has been driven by a number of factors. Obviously, during the period of lockdown when we had a long period of benign weather, almost perfect conditions and the traffic through the Schengen area and traditional border crossings was supressed, we saw those same smuggling gangs recognising an opportunity and beginning to exploit the small boats model.
Our stated intent is to disrupt as much of this as far away from the UK as possible. That means operating in a range of different environments, which we do. We also work very closely with French, Belgian and German authorities to try to disrupt smuggling gangs that are much closer to home. The emphasis, particularly post exit and particularly because of small boats, on that relationship in the near continent is ever more important. The centre of gravity for small boats is not in the UK; it is in France, Germany, Belgium and further afield.
When we can identify crime groups in the UK, we target them and we use a range of investigative tactics to bring them to justice and take them through the criminal justice system. A big part of what we do is intelligence collection, where we share intelligence about known smuggling gangs with overseas partners. We do that very effectively with the French through a joint unit that we set up; we also work with German and Belgian partners in a similar bilateral way. Crucially, if we have lead intelligence that a boat is being supplied to a smuggling gang, an engine is being supplied to a smuggling gang, or smugglers are moving migrants to lay-up points where they are then going to be involved in small boats crossing, we pass on that intelligence as quickly as possible for action to prevent that crossing from happening. The stated intent for all of this is to prevent loss of life. Our biggest concern is a mass casualty event in the English channel, so everything we do is driven by that article 2 responsibility.
Q Some of the people who have been trafficked do not come in across the channel in small boats. What steps are you taking to tackle people who are trafficked, either for sexual exploitation or modern-day slavery?
We work closely with national policing and we are one of the first responders for dealing with modern slavery, so we proactively investigate controllers and traffickers who keep people in debt bondage in the UK, and we bring them to justice through the criminal justice system. Through our liaison network, we also try to disrupt that threat further afield. That work has led to some powerful results through Project Aidant, where we worked with policing partners to look at things thematically. You talked about sexual exploitation, and with that, forced labour and all the areas that form the modern slavery threat, and we operate against them to try to disrupt them. That involves encountering victims, setting up reception centres and dealing with the victims of trafficking as well as with the perpetrators who keep them in debt bondage.
Q You have just mentioned victims, and obviously the NCA and most police enforcement operate on intelligence. Some of that intelligence comes from people who have been victims or who are perpetrators. One thing that concerns me about the Bill is the disclosure of information straight away. I wondered what your experience was of that.
Some victims disclose relatively quickly. We recognise that others will not and that there are some people who, because of their level of vulnerability, need safeguarding and will need time before they can talk about their experiences. What I would say about the legislation and proposed changes is that we now have a national system for recognising the victim engrained. I do not see any of this changing that. First responders have become very good at recognising a victim, and we have significantly improved the picture nationally with national policing. In the victim-suspect paradigm, what are you dealing with? The intent is always to recognise the victim as quickly as possible. I recognise that it takes some time and is not straightforward.
A range of different scenarios. Many of these people are in debt bondage and there is leverage on their families, or they have already committed to working in an area that might be illegal, such as cannabis cultivation. It is a complex area, but we have a lot of experience of dealing with it and we deal with victims very carefully to ensure that we get the safeguarding right and whatever intelligence dividend we can.
You mentioned small boats in the context of modern slavery, so to deal with that really quickly, it does not really lend itself to the typical exploitation model. That said, we have seen some evidence of some nationalities coming through on small boats where there are some signs of that business model being used. I say it does not lend itself to that business model because these people are coming pretty much straight into the asylum system and to first responders. Traffickers do not like that; they do not want it. They would prefer those individuals to arrive in a truly clandestine fashion, so that they are not met by first responders and debriefed.
Q Going back to the question of victims who might not disclose the information early on, one thing the Bill does is treat them differently if they do not disclose that information for some reason—you have given some examples. Again, that might make them less likely to co-operate with the authorities. Do you think that that will be a problem in getting more information to detect the real people behind organised crime?
This is a really difficult area. In the practical application of those provisions, it is really important that the level of oversight we have now is maintained. The other side of that coin is that you need to ensure that the defences available to people involved as victims in modern slavery are not abused. We see both sides of this. Our tactical advisers and expert witnesses disprove false claims from people claiming to be the victims of slavery and support legitimate claims. It is really important that the system maintains its credibility by having some appropriate tension and challenge without undermining victims.
Q Going back to small boats, clearly if we are working with the French authorities to disrupt the people behind smuggling, it does not seem to be going so well. How could we work better with the French to try to stop that?
This is inherently challenging: 150 km of coastline and it is not a canalised control point, so it is not like juxtaposed controls. The level of ambition required to tackle this is similar to that required to set up juxtaposed controls. The Le Touquet agreement set up what was then an unprecedented system for joint controls over immigration, and indeed customs. Where we find ourselves now is that we work really closely with the French on meeting that challenge.
Ultimately, it is for French law enforcement to deal with those departures and, from our perspective, our intent is to make sure that the disruption of departures is as far away from beaches as possible. That means that smuggling gangs are disrupted away from beaches and that the French do not have to chase migrants on beaches. That is not the best way to do this. It is an intelligence-led, planned response. That is the aspiration of the relationship with the French, which we build on every day with colleagues in the Clandestine Threat Command from immigration enforcement. Dealing with people who are leaving a border that is not controlled in the way that a typical border would have been controlled is inherently challenging. Those controls need to push back inland from the border, so that there is an intelligence-led proactive response. The French are working very closely with us to try to achieve that.
We are, absolutely. We have very positive relationships with those countries. The supply of boats to northern France and of engines in the infrastructure that supports these crossings is something that those partners can help us with.
Q I heard your answer in relation to modern slavery, but in terms of wider criminality and what you are seeing on the ground, what impact do you think the proceeds of small boat crossings are having on criminal gangs?
We know that that route is more and more attractive to organised crime. That is why we need to break the momentum that is pushing the viability of that route. People who are involved in the facilitation of migrants are also involved in drug trafficking and other serious organised crime. We have seen that polycriminality with HGV companies that will one day smuggle drugs and another day smuggle migrants.
One of the good things about these provisions is that they, to coin a phrase, level up the sentencing for people involved in the facilitation of migrants with that for those who are dealt with for drug trafficking. It cannot be right that, at the moment, if you smuggle 20 kg of class A drugs, you could face a life sentence, but if you conceal 20 people in a false floor in a lorry, which is one of the things that we encounter at the border, it is 14 years. Some of the provisions here, including the life sentence for facilitation, are a useful deterrent that we feel will help with that broader organised crime threat where some of this money is reinvested in other crimes.
Q I agree with you very much on the penalty. It would seem obvious to me that closing down that line of revenue for these criminal gangs is a sensible and obvious thing to do. One other area in relation to penalties in the Bill is the issue of returning foreign national offenders. At the moment, I think the penalty is six months. We are proposing to increase that penalty to five years. How valuable do you think that will be in terms of some of the issues with which no doubt you end up grappling, with foreign national offenders returning to this country and then carrying out further crimes?
That is another helpful element that has, we hope, a deterrent effect. Criminality linked to the western Balkans, and really determined people who will be deported and then engage in a merry-go-round using false ID cards and clandestine entry to come back to the UK to continue committing crime, is something that we need to deal with. Those provisions would be helpful in that context.
Q I am interested, on a broader level, in what challenges you think our country faces from organised immigration crime more generally.
It is now recognised by organised crime groups as something that can generate a lot of revenue quickly. The previous witness talked about pull and push factors. The UK is a very attractive destination, and people will pay significant amounts of money—thousands of pounds—to smugglers. As we move forward with more pressure—we have seen what has played out with Afghanistan—and with more irregular migrants moving, there is the opportunity for organised crime to capitalise on that. Having a strong deterrent and being able to project our response and deal with organised crime groups upstream is really important to us, because there will be more and more pressure on the system, which inevitably will be exploited by smuggling gangs.
Q Presumably trying to focus our approach on safe and legal routes is also very helpful from a national security perspective.
Absolutely, with the normalisation of clandestine entry, where people are allowed to hide in a crowd. When this problem began, a big day was 100. We are now looking at a big day as being over 700. Within that, you get an increased risk that people will enter the country in a truly clandestine fashion. The more that you can do to offer safe and legal routes, and to disincentivise the business model through deterrents and a range of provisions, the more effective we can be at tackling the organised crime element, because we can then concentrate on the worst groups, which pose the highest risk and will potentially be moving people with a criminal history, whom we are most concerned about.
Q Thank you for your evidence, Mr Jones. I do not think that anyone would beg to differ on the need to deter and disrupt the smuggling gangs and to support safe legal routes; the issue is much more about where we draw the line in trying to deter people who use those gangs, whether it is appropriate to criminalise them, and so on. May I ask you about another challenge on which I think you have given evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee: the use of social media companies and encryption to try to organise these sailings, and so on? Back then, I think you indicated that there was a lack of co-operation from a lot of the social media companies, which was posing a lot of challenges. Has there been any progress in that regard?
There has been some progress. We have been working constantly with the social media companies to get a better response, and to ensure that their platforms are not being used to promote dangerous crossings, and there is progress. We are working in a voluntary environment. We are, in some ways, short of regulation, particularly in relation to this element, but we continue to work with those companies on a day-to-day basis to take material down. That response has improved. It is still not as good as I would like it to be, and we are working to an action plan where we have a common agreement of standards in terms of takedown and our aspiration to prevent adverse outcomes in the English channel, which is ultimately what this is all about. It has got better. It is not as good as it could be. Your point on encryption and some of the closed spaces that we cannot see that are being used to promote these crossings remains an issue for us.
Q Are both these things that you continue to pursue solutions to through agreement, or has the time come for there to be regulation, perhaps through the Online Safety Bill or something else?
Obviously, we welcome the Online Safety Bill and its passage. It is a complex area, and only some of this can be dealt with in the Bill. We still require platforms and technology companies to be responsible, because however far regulation takes us, we still need the platforms to understand who is using them and to ensure that they are not being abused by organised crime figures, who are making money out of desperate people.
Q Finally, are there any other barriers that you would highlight, in terms of how we go about trying to tackle the smuggling gangs? Is it resources? Is it co-operation? Over the last four, five or six years that I have been in this place, a number of Ministers have said, “We’re doing a, b and c, and this will solve the issue, or at least drive it down,” yet here we are, and records continue to be set.
This is a shared endeavour. I say that the centre of gravity for the organised crime element of this is in France—that is really important—so building on the partnership with France in order to deal with the issue is really important, and we continue to do that. We are also working with partners across Europe and developing those relationships. The factors that surround this, many of which are touched on in the Bill—safe and legal routes, the deterrents effect and so forth—are all important, because there is no silver bullet here. Because of the pull factors, the incentive for organised crime remains, and that is what we are trying to deal with by tackling the problem upstream. It is a range of all those factors, which need concurrent effort, and you cannot underestimate the need for the French to prevent departures in order to allow space for other measures, such as the organised crime element being tackled, to actually kick in and make a difference.
Q Sure. I would challenge very little of that. The issue we have on this side of the fence is that a lot of the evidence is that some of the deterrents in the Bill, which are aimed not at smugglers but at people using them, will not work and are, in themselves, objectionable from the point of view that if you put someone in prison, they could be an Afghan interpreter who is fleeing because of what happened yesterday. We draw the line there.
I understand the point you make, but in relation to illegal entry, you do need an offence and you do need to be able to deal with it. None of that should create the issues that you describe, if the legislation is applied judicially and proportionately, and with properly trained people. I say that because we still have a position at the moment whereby, in relation to illegal entry, there is a difference between entry and arrival. In a maritime scenario, that is really unhelpful. It is not helpful for the safety of the migrants who could be on a smuggler’s boat, and it is not helpful for law enforcement.
One of the things that the proposal suggests is tidying up the position around arrival and entry for illegal entry, which is quite important. I recognise what you describe, but the NCA would never be involved in uniformed border control, where the mass criminalisation that you describe as a risk is something that would be the net impact of what we do. We are intelligence-led and deal with organised crime. Looking at it from that angle, I can see the benefit of those measures.
Sure, but our concern is that that is exactly what the Bill does, and obviously we will hear evidence from UNHCR and various others who have that concern as well. Thank you for your evidence.
Q Clearly, we are all concerned and admire your commitment to stopping these dangerous crossings and the risks at which they put people. Our issue as a Committee is to determine whether the measures in the Bill are the best way to achieve that objective.
You talked about the factors that had led smuggling gangs and others to move from lorry and train crossings to boat crossings. We heard from witnesses earlier that we blocked off the opportunity to board lorries through the fortifications around terminals, which was one of the factors that pushed people to the more desperate route of boats. The Home Office’s own impact assessment of the Bill says that there is a serious risk that these measures could encourage people to attempt even riskier routes. Do you think that is a factor we should bear in mind?
Displacement, in terms of protecting security measures, is always a potential second-order consequence. Organised crime is flexible, and we will respond to that. In terms of where we are at now with the general maritime threat, this does need dealing with. We are trying to second guess where people will go next. We had a terrible mass casualty event in Purfleet, where people were locked into a fridge box. We have had fatalities in the channel already, so we know just how ruthless some of the individuals involved are. We are trying to second guess where they may go next. We already know that bigger vessels have been used, and some of these tactics we have spoken about are important in dealing with bigger vessels.
I think we have pretty much got to the point now where a lot of the tactics and trade craft used in the eastern Mediterranean and other areas of the world are now being deployed in high-risk clandestine entry to the UK. That risk has already manifested itself. We need to live with it, confront it and deal with it, because it is happening now. With the numbers that we see and some of the vessels that are in the channel, we do need to do something different. It has grown to the point where you now have 50 or 60 people in vessels that are not licensed and that are taped together with plywood floors. That is, unfortunately, going to end one way unless it is disrupted, so it does need a second look.
On the displacement point, yes, it is a risk, but where is it? We are now living with a range of tactical options from smugglers that pretty much covers all of the modes. The riskiest one right now is, unfortunately, the English channel and small boats.
Q I fully accept the risk of the channel. Your general conclusion is that really we need to more to tackle these problems upstream, I think you said, and the more that we can do to invest in safe and legal routes to avoid desperation, the better, from your point of view.
That would certainly help our efforts, which are always going to be against the subset of the threat of a small number of individuals that are at the higher end of organised crime. That is going to be much more effective if some of those push and pull factors are not there anymore and if the incentivisation of the business model is taken away.
Q You have said a number of times that having safe and legal routes is one of the things that will reduce what some people refer to as the pull factor. I am going to dispute the idea of the pull factor, because of a report a few years back by the Refugee Council that demonstrated that the vast majority of people making their way to Britain had no clue what lay ahead. They just had some idea that Britain would welcome them. I wonder if one of the things we could do is show them clips of Conservative MPs talking about what kind of welcome they will get. Maybe that would reduce the pull factor. Anyway, that was not my question. Are you surprised that there is nothing in this legislation about safe and legal routes? There is nothing about increasing or improving them.
Thankfully, that is a policy issue, which I do not need to deal with. It is for others to deal with. I can give you my perspective on the impact of tackling organised crime. In relation to the other factors, it is helpful. No doubt, those considerations are under way, but that question is best asked to others.
Q You talked about the concurrent effort needed. I suppose you do not want to agree, but I am going to ask you anyway. Do you agree that it would be better if, at the same time as tackling the small boat crossings, we were doing something as substantive as this legislation on beefing up the safe and legal routes throughout world?
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