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Scottish Parliament Speech: Serious Organised Crime (January 2008)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

Serious organised crime is one of the most difficult issues before our Parliament because it goes right to the basis of our civil society.

I begin by going back to a book that was published 32 years ago. I refer not to "The Red Paper on Scotland", which launched the career of a remarkable politician and economist with undervalued talents elsewhere—Vincent Cable, of course—but to a book called "The Crime Industry", which the Scottish home department commissioned from the late John Mack of the University of Glasgow and my colleague Hans-Jürgen Kerner, who is now professor of criminology at the University of Tübingen. The book was eventually published by the Council of Europe but, as far as I know, the great Eric Ambler and I are about the only people who have actually read it.

Concluding that crime was both serious and organised, Mack and Kerner said even in 1975—when computers of the power of my laptop needed to be the size of this chamber—that computing, along with the existence of tax havens and the globalisation of business, would revolutionise the crime industry. In a recent seminar at Tübingen, Professor Kerner had to add a fourth and very serious development: the tainting involvement of regulation and of the forces of law and order in this enormous industry. I will explain that point later.

The first element is that this is a global business. As everyone has said, crime is second only to tourism in international trade. It involves human trafficking, drugs and counterfeiting. Of course, counterfeiting refers not just to the counterfeiting of cash but to these things that flood in from China—actually sponsored by the Chinese state—that transact an estimated £2 billion a year in the Barras of Glasgow. All of that is lubricated by money laundering, which turns criminal gains into legitimate wealth. I refer members to Nick Kochan's book "The Washing Machine"—published, interestingly, not in Britain but in the States—which details how the situation has involved the institutions of the City of London.

The second development is computing. Who among us has not encountered in the past 24 hours an offer in our inbox asking us to verify the details of our account? Who has not received one of those exotic letters from east Africa urging us to help someone who could remove large quantities of money, which somehow got into a Swiss bank account, if only they knew our bank account? What damage such letters might do if the writers ever learned to spell, but that seems to elude them.

The third element is tax havens. I refer not just to the Andorras and Liechtensteins, where big businesses are holed up—including the likes of British American Tobacco—but to our rich collection of such havens in the United Kingdom. Those include the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and—according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development—the City of London.

The situation is much worse than it was in 1975, especially when we analyse Kerner's final element: regulation. According to Kerner, the clever criminal needs and uses the law. My information on this matter also comes from my friend Clive Emsley, professor at the Open University and a notable academic authority on British policing.

First, the police require contacts with the underworld and lesser villains who supply information—the sleepers and narks. Deals are done, because those sources of information must be protected. The firewall is flawed, and deals can reach out and embrace officers of the law. Members have heard some of that alluded to in the despairing words of Graeme Pearson on leaving the SCDEA.

Secondly, our police in the 18th century sense—those to whom Adam Smith refers as patrolling the transactions of the market—have been in constant, damaging flux, especially under the present Government. Look at the comments of my friend Bill Keegan, the economics correspondent of The Observer, on the despair of people in HM Revenue and Customs and the Serious Fraud Office at the way in which the mix of regulatory authorities is constantly being changed. People are retired early and new institutions are established, which have to settle down and find their own ways of operation. Look at the Serious Fraud Office inquiry into BAE, our last major industrial complex in Scotland, which was terminated because reasons of state took precedence over justice.

We may have reached the stage specified by, I think, William Cobbett, who said:

"The law will gaol the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the Common.
But lets the bigger villain loose
Who steals the Common from the goose."

It is as if we have gone back to that great old Scottish villain, Long John Silver, who says en route on the Hispaniola that he will make sure that none of his companions comes back, because when he is riding in his coach in London he does not want people informing on him. The problem in our country goes much higher than the villain in his Ponderosa ranch-style house in a Glasgow suburb.

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