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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
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Taken before the Home Affairs Committee
on Tuesday 15 February 2011
Keith Vaz (Chair)
Mr David Winnick
Dr Julian Huppert
Mr James Clappison
Examination of Witness
Witness: Steve Coates, Deputy Director, Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: This is the first session of the Committee’s inquiry into the question of what UK-based organisations are doing in respect of organised crime that originates from Turkey; whether the proposed enlargement of the European Union, including Turkey, will have an effect on migration patterns and organised crime; and whether the previous enlargements of the European Union have in fact also had an effect on organised crime.
Mr Coates, thank you very much for coming in. Apologies for keeping you waiting. The Committee was considering some reports that we will be publishing shortly. Can I ask you what impact previous enlargements of the EU have had on organised crime in the United Kingdom?
Steve Coates: Thank you. The key element is co-operation. We have been able to use existing European legislation to co-operate more effectively with other law enforcement partners, which has made the exchange of intelligence much easier.
Q2 Chair: What about those gangs that exist in those EU countries? Are they penetrating the United Kingdom more easily? Co-operation may be better, but are they actually penetrating us more as a result of the EU? Of course, EU citizens are able to come in and out without question. I think concern was raised regarding Poland and Romania in particular. Has that had much effect here?
Steve Coates: It is fair to say that eastern European organised crime has had come effect on western European society, but our ability to work more closely with foreign partners, such as Europol and other agencies, has enabled us to tackle that reasonably effectively and to neutralise it.
Q3 Chair: Are there any implications for the possible accession of Turkey into the EU? Have you been looking at the way in which people are getting into the EU through Turkey?
Steve Coates: Turkey is important to us in its role as a transit country. It is a transit country for heroin and also for people who are being smuggled. The greatest impact from Turkey is heroin, and the involvement of Turkish organised crime in that issue. That is by far and away the largest area of crime in which Turkish organised crime groups are involved.
Q4 Chair: Where do they come in from? You said it is a transit country. Where are they coming from to get to Turkey? We will come in with heroin later.
Steve Coates: From a people smuggling or trafficking perspective, Turkey is used as a base by different ethnic groups, so it would be common to find Afghan criminal groups within Turkey smuggling Afghans, for example, and Pakistani groups smuggling Pakistanis. Because of its close proximity to the EU border, it is an extremely attractive country for those groups. The good news in all of that-and I think you may touch on it in a later question-is the fact that we have an excellent relationship with the Turkish National Police and Turkish law enforcement, which affords us a great many opportunities to impact upon various forms of criminality in that country.
Chair: That is a very good prediction. I do not know how you knew what our questions were going to be, but yes, we will touch on that a later.
Q5 Alun Michael: To what extent does organised crime affecting the UK, as things are at the moment, originate in Turkey or among Turkish nationals?
Steve Coates: We would make the assessment that Turkish organised crime dominates the heroin market in the UK, and we would say that that is probably around 70% of the market. That is an informed guess or an estimate, but we would say it is based on an element of science.
Q6 Alun Michael: Are there other forms of criminality that involve Turkish nationals?
Steve Coates: Yes. There is organised immigration crime, and there is evidence of fraud, firearms trafficking, money laundering and some copyright offences. But those forms of criminality are so far behind heroin, in terms of Turkish organised crime, that statistically they are almost insignificant.
Q7 Alun Michael: Are they generally linked, or are they completely separate?
Steve Coates: In my experience, I would say that Turkish crime groups involved in heroin traffic tend to operate simply in that criminal sector.
Q8 Alun Michael: Given what you said earlier, and assuming that Turkey comes into the EU, do you think that is going to make your work in controlling criminality whose origins are in Turkey easier or more difficult?
Steve Coates: I think there are advantages to it, as I said, in terms of our intelligence systems, intelligence pathways and operational ability to work on operations with other partners. We can use Europol and various pathways and facilities to exchange information in a more streamlined, structured and fast manner. I hope that helps.
Q9 Mr Winnick: No one disputes, Mr Coates, that Turkish nationals or former Turkish nationals are involved in criminality along the lines that you have referred to, and obviously everyone regrets that, but would it not be right to say that other foreign nationals are involved in all kinds of criminal activity and that it is not just a matter of Turks being in criminal gangs?
Steve Coates: I think I understand the question. Obviously, in terms of Turkey as a country, Turkish organised crime groups based there tend to be involved in heroin trafficking. That does not necessarily mean that the heroin comes through Turkey, but the controlling minds are within Turkish jurisdiction.
There are a number of other crime groups that operate in Turkey, if that is where I should limit my response to. West African organised crime groups are establishing a footprint there. As we speak, I have an officer seconded to Turkey to assist with a specific project in order to help the Turkish National Police, and there are obviously other nationalities operating within their jurisdiction.
Q10 Mr Winnick: Much has been said about criminals coming from the West Indies, Pakistan and many other countries which are all involved, unfortunately, in criminality. So it is not unique to Turkish nationals, that is what I am trying to establish.
Steve Coates: No; absolutely. In terms of drug trafficking, which is probably my area of greatest expertise, Colombians and South American criminal gangs tend to control cocaine trafficking, but certainly heroin trafficking is controlled primarily by Turkish groups. Obviously there are other ethnic groups within that, however, and also some British criminals.
Q11 Lorraine Fullbrook: Mr Coates, you said that Turkey is a major transit route, but it is also an area for storage and production of heroin in particular. SOCA estimated that most of the supply of heroin to Europe, including the UK, is processed in Turkey. Can you tell us exactly how much of the heroin that ends up in the UK comes from Turkey?
Steve Coates: I am not sure that much heroin is processed in Turkey. I think most of it is processed in Afghanistan and Iran. There is little evidence to suggest that there is any processing of heroin in Turkey. We estimate the size of the UK market for heroin as in the range of 18 to 23 metric tonnes per annum, and that is against the last figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which were, I think, about 650 tonnes. That gives some idea of the scale, and it is a very scientific estimate which has been supported by the Home Office, although it was SOCA work that arrived at that figure.
Q12 Lorraine Fullbrook: What would be the street value of that amount?
Steve Coates: I would not, or could not-I am sorry, I am trying to help you. I could not even begin to estimate that. That tends to lose value; we do not look at that specifically. I can give you an idea of what the wholesale commodity price is in the UK, if that helps your understanding. Heroin prices have been relatively stable at a wholesale level for many years, roughly in the range of £15,000 to £18,000 per kilo. In the last 18 months we have seen that rise significantly to the point where, in the UK at the moment, any heroin being sold at wholesale for under £20,000 per kilo is probably very poor quality. In one recent SOCA operation, we saw instances where it was sold for £40,000 per kilo, but that was extremely high quality. The general range at the moment seems to be £22,000 to £25,000 per kilo, because there is a shortage.
Q13 Lorraine Fullbrook: And there are 650 metric tonnes coming in?
Steve Coates: That is produced in Afghanistan, but to feed the UK market it is in the range of 18 to 23 metric tonnes. To give you an idea of the challenge that that poses to the UK Border Agency and to law enforcement agencies, I point out that you could put that entire supply into a 40 foot container or two transit vans. So it is a big challenge.
Q14 Mark Reckless: Could you tell us about the work that SOCA undertakes with your Turkish counterparts and what the level of co-operation is?
Steve Coates: We have liaison officers based in Ankara and Istanbul. I have worked with the Turkish National Police over a number of years, and I can say with some confidence that the relationship with the Turkish National Police at the moment is the best it has ever been. The UK is the preferred partner of the Turkish National Police. They are efficient, professional and competent. They have high-end capabilities and technical capability, but recently we have been sharing with them some of the experience that we have developed in SOCA from debriefing of offenders, and some of the subtleties around the mainstream criminal justice process, if I may call it that. We have been trying to share our experiences there with the Turkish Ministry of Justice to try to help them and give them an insight into some of the techniques that we are using.
Q15 Mark Reckless: What impact has that co-operation had on supply routes of heroin into the UK?
Steve Coates: I think that we can say with a degree of certainty that the shortage in heroin is not extensively down to law enforcement action, but we have had a significant impact on it. We have been able to reach out and impact some of these crime routes in a way that we could not do before. Heroin is controlled largely by overseas gangs, and the UK representatives are very easily replaced. We have had a series of significant operations where we have actually gone into Turkey with the Turkish National Police and impacted on some high-end traffickers, and that has also extended recently into cocaine. We have seen quite a lot of cocaine going into Turkey recently, and an operation we did last month-
Chair: We will be coming on to cocaine in a moment.
Q16 Mark Reckless: Given the level of addiction to heroin and the rise in price that you cite, what impact does that have on the amount of money spent on heroin? In other words, is the demand elastic or inelastic, and what, if any, are the knock-on implications for property crime, in your view?
Steve Coates: I could not speak with any great competency in that particular area, which is probably one for the Home Office. What we do see with the drought in heroin is an increase in cutting or "bashing" as we call it, where it is mixed with other agents, so what the user is buying is a lot less heroin and quite a bit more paracetamol or codeine.
Q17 Lorraine Fullbrook: Mr Coates, how exactly do both cocaine and heroin enter the UK? What are the primary ways of their entering the UK?
Steve Coates: We would assess heroin as mostly coming in along the Balkan route, and most of it probably comes by lorry or by deep sea container into one of the near continental ports. It is broken bulk, and it comes into the UK in much smaller quantities, which reduces the risk to the criminal groups. They are worried about the thin blue line at the border.
Of course, it comes in in a variety of other ways. There is an established air corridor between Pakistan and certain UK airports. There is quite a leakage out through Afghanistan into the Makran coast of Balochistan, into the Gulf, down into east Africa and down into South Africa. In South Africa, you have a meeting of the two trades: cocaine and heroin. Cocaine comes from South America, and it has to come across the Atlantic, either by a small boat or big boat, or by a small plane or large plane, and mainly that would come into west Africa, up into the Iberian peninsula and then into the UK.
Q18 Lorraine Fullbrook: You said heroin in particular comes into a near continental port and it is then broken down from bulk. Which countries are those near continental ports?
Steve Coates: By some margin, the Netherlands has a disproportionate effect on the UK market for heroin, but also for cocaine. That is also significant for synthetics as well. In fact there is quite a vibrant trade in synthetic drugs moving the other way, from western Europe to Turkey.
Q19 Lorraine Fullbrook: Are these legitimate ports, like Rotterdam, for example, or is it coming into small ports?
Steve Coates: It comes by deep sea commercial traffic into Rotterdam or Antwerp-they are the two big ones-or Le Havre or Hamburg. However, most of it, we would assess, involves Turkish organised crime, and they like to use coaches, cars or lorries.
Q20 Mr Clappison: In the last Parliament, this Committee had an opportunity to go to the Netherlands to see some of the aspects of the cocaine trade there. I think we are in agreement that if those who used cocaine saw how repulsive that trade was, they might take a different view. Can I ask you about cocaine and Turkey? Is more or less cocaine coming through Turkey into the rest of Europe?
Steve Coates: We have been keeping an eye on cocaine trafficking and the involvement of Turkish organised crime groups for some time. There has been some anecdotal reporting, tittle-tattle and bits of intelligence at a low level to say that this is happening. We have recently seen that solidifying; we have seen evidence of that.
SOCA did a joint operation last month with the Turkish National Police and the Spanish police where we enabled the Turkish National Police to seize 280 kilos of cocaine, and they arrested some extremely senior players-big players who were high-value targets-in the drugs trade in Turkey. That is clear evidence of that trade now materialising, and the Turkish police assess that a very small proportion was for the domestic market in Turkey. Most of it was for shipment to the UK.
Q21 Mr Clappison: You gave us a description of routes earlier on. Could you say a little bit about how this cocaine is arriving in Turkey and then how it is coming out?
Steve Coates: In that particular case, I cannot remember. We would assess that that too would be done by commercial container, as I think happened in that particular instance. I can’t remember the other example. There is no intelligence, or indeed anything anecdotal, indicating that any form of private aircraft, for example, is moving anything like that. At the moment it seems to be in commercial traffic.
Q22 Lorraine Fullbrook: Mr Coates, you mentioned your operation in which you lifted the high-net-worth individuals-in terms of criminality, at least. How easily or quickly the Mr Bigs are replaced?
Steve Coates: That is a very good question, if I may say so. In the UK, I would say that they are fairly easily replaced. Evidence suggests that if we can impact the groups nearer the source, it will have more of an effect. We have identified through some analytical work five significant crime groups that control the trade in heroin that impacts on the UK, and we have management plans and action plans in place against those five. Three have already been disrupted and impacted upon, and we have seen some displacement of their criminality into other countries, because in Turkey it is simply too hot for them to operate. I think that has been successful. We have sometimes been able to engage in a criminal justice outcome for that, but sometimes we can disrupt their finances and impact on their ability to operate. Even something as simple as reducing their ability to obtain credit can make them lose face when they are dealing with other drug dealers, and slow them down. It can impact on them and erode their power base. At the moment, we tend to look at it in a much broader fashion than just the criminal justice outcome, but obviously that remains a key tool.
Q23 Lorraine Fullbrook: But the Mr Bigs can be replaced quickly?
Steve Coates: Their lieutenants can be fairly easily replaced. The Mr Bigs in Turkish heroin trafficking have not really changed much in the last 20 to 25 years, so we have adopted a new approach, as I have said, which involves working more closely with the Turkish police to try to do that, and that has seen some success. We think that that is a significant contributory factor in the reduction in availability of heroin on the streets of the UK.
Q24 Mr Winnick: As far as human trafficking is concerned, Mr Coates, does Turkey play a particularly large role? Could you enlarge on that?
Steve Coates: Yes. As I said earlier, because of its proximity to Greece and successes that have taken place in other theatres of operation, we have seen the displacement of some other routes, and criminal groups using Turkey as a conduit to gain entry into the EU, but our experience shows that Turkish organised crime groups tend not to be involved in the trafficking of humans. That is not to say that they are not, but statistically it is much lower than other nationalities.
Q25 Mr Winnick: There is a tendency-I hesitate to use the word "campaign"-whereby, sadly, politicians abroad have wished to demonise Turkey and have used all kinds of reasons why Turkey should not be in the EU, which is not a consideration for this Committee. They want to paint a picture where Turkey, or Turkish nationals-obviously it is not Turkey as a country-somehow are more involved in criminality in Europe than other nationals. Would you go along with that?
Steve Coates: I would say that there is evidence to show that Turkish organised crime groups, not Turkish citizens, are significantly involved in heroin trafficking.
Mr Winnick: Which you have said before.
Steve Coates: Yes. I would say that there is some evidence that they are involved in other forms of criminality, but statistically, that is much lower than for heroin trafficking. From a law enforcement perspective, I would say that heroin trafficking poses the greatest threat if we are talking about Turkish organised crime groups.
Q26 Mr Winnick: Human trafficking is common to a number of countries, is it not? In the last Parliament, this Committee visited Russia and the Ukraine, for example, and made inquiries into what was happening there over trafficking. It is the position, is it not, that a number of European countries have criminal gangs that engage in this terrible business?
Steve Coates: Yes, that is correct. Organised immigration crime is not entirely my specific area of expertise, but I have been exposed to some operations that we have done in that, and it is fair to say that there are other countries involved, but Turkey is an important country because of its border with Greece.
Q27 Chair: Can I just ask you about the visa regime that Turkey sometimes introduces or changes almost at will? I understand that they have changed their visa requirements with some of the other countries in the Middle East, such as Yemen, for example. Yemen nationals no longer need a visa to go to Turkey and vice versa. Is this a problem for the way in which one tries to contain the issue of drugs and people trafficking from Turkey?
Steve Coates: I am sorry, I am not competent to talk about the visa situation. Perhaps we could respond to that question in writing.
Q28 Chair: That would be very helpful, because obviously it is not the people who are coming from Turkey; it is the people who pass through Turkey. How many SOCA operatives do you have in Turkey at the moment?
Steve Coates: We have a number. I think the members of the Committee are due to go to visit?
Chair: Yes, we are.
Steve Coates: Hopefully, you will see some evidence of what I have been telling you. I think it is about eight.
Q29 Chair: Eight of them. Is that regarded as a priority country for us? How does that compare with, for example, Albania or the Ukraine?
Steve Coates: Turkey is a priority country for us and we have invested heavily there, first because of heroin-I have talked about heroin a great deal-but also because it is a country where we can work co-operatively, collaboratively and effectively with local law enforcement. They want to work with us.
Q30 Chair: You mentioned Europol. We obviously know the work of Europol, and some of us have been to see what it does, but what about Frontex? Do you have any intercourse with Frontex?
Steve Coates: I am aware of Frontex, but not personally. My understanding-and it is my understanding; I am trying to be helpful-was that the UK did not have any officers seconded to Frontex, but if I am wrong about that, I will clarify that in writing.
Chair: But it is the organisation that is supposed to deal with illegal immigration at borders of the EU. Do you not have very much contact with them?
Steve Coates: Not me personally, but that may be because of my particular role in SOCA. I am not well-sighted on that, and we would be happy to respond and clarify that for you.
Q31 Chair: Can I ask a general question about SOCA, since you are here and you are the deputy director, and you would think it very odd if we did not ask you a question on this? Obviously, the Government are planning to merge SOCA into the new national crime agency. The Committee will return to this subject later in the year, when we will look at the new landscape, but at the moment, what is morale like in the organisation?
Steve Coates: I think morale at the moment is pretty good. I think we had a difficult start. It was a challenge to bring a number of precursor agencies together, but I have been in it from the start, and I think that about 18 months to two years ago things clicked and we really started to understand what we were about.
Q32 Chair: And now that it has clicked, you are being reorganised again into another organisation. Have you had any firm plans as to how this is going to happen? You obviously do some pretty effective work on organised crime. Have Ministers explained to you what is going to happen with the work that you do on organised crime and where you are going to fit into the new national crime agency?
Steve Coates: I think we have been extensively involved in discussions about that, and we are contributing to the programme team that is looking at the NCA with various briefings and discussions. We have exposed some of our capabilities to Ministers and, indeed, to Home Office officials. I have had the honour of showing you one particular capability in SOCA; you came to my unit a while ago. I think we have a good story to tell, and I think it will be a sound base for the NCA to take it to another level.
Q33 Chair: But are you recruiting more people? Are you reallocating your people, now that SOCA is coming to the end of its life? Are you seconding people? How is it going now?
Steve Coates: We are not able to recruit, along with other Government Departments, but we are obviously actively engaged in developments for the NCA and we will look to see how our role is decided on.
Q34 Lorraine Fullbrook: I would just like to ask about Turkish gangs, and in particular those that operate in the UK. Is it not the case that these gangs are also involved with money laundering, prostitution rackets, human trafficking, illegal firearms, and the whole gambit that comes along with the gang culture? Is it not the case that that happens? It is not just drug trafficking or dealing; it is the whole raft of serious crime.
Steve Coates: I understand. The high-level trafficking is pretty much dominated by the Turkish groups. As it tends to come down through what used to be called level 2 or level 1 type activity, street-level stuff, you do get a breaking down of those ethnic groups and different ethnic groups working together. There are, at street level, elements of violence and retaliation, and we work very closely with the Metropolitan Police in particular. They have an operation in respect of some of the Turkish groups in London and some of the criminality around that. We plug our Turkish project into that and exchange information and personnel. It tends not to be entirely Turkish groups that are committing that low-level crime. I do not want to devalue it, however: "Street level" is perhaps a better way of articulating it. Would you like me to expand?
Q35 Lorraine Fullbrook: I understand about street-level crime, but at the top level, is it not the case that these gangs are involved in the whole gambit of illegal activities: prostitution rackets, money laundering, illegal firearms-the whole lot?
Steve Coates: It tends not to be. They tend to keep to-
Lorraine Fullbrook: They specialise.
Steve Coates: It would be wrong to say that it never happens, but by and large they are involved in heroin trafficking and that is what they do.
Q36 Mr Winnick: In order to try to avoid demonising Turks, can we be quite clear, Mr Coates, in recognising one point? Obviously, as Mrs Fullbrook has said, and other witnesses including myself have acknowledged, there are gangs of Turkish nationals or former Turkish nationals involved in activities that are outright criminal and indeed inhuman. But is it not the case that at every stage you get full co-operation from the Turkish authorities? Is that the position?
Steve Coates: Yes. Sorry, Turkish law enforcement?
Q37 Mr Winnick: Yes. Do you have any criticism of any weaknesses on their part in co-operating with your organisation in dealing with criminality?
Steve Coates: No. I have worked with the Turkish National Police over many years and I would say they are an extremely effective overseas partner, and that we could not have impacted on the heroin trade without their significant assistance, and with resource implications for them.
Q38 Chair: I am a little bit concerned about your answer regarding the EU and Frontex. I think it would be helpful to the Committee if you were to write to us with a note of exactly how the EU is helping SOCA, because obviously Frontex is involved-its base, as you know, is in Warsaw-
Mr Winnick: Not my constituency.
Chair: Not Walsall, but Warsaw , although maybe it should be based in Walsall . Think of all the euros that would come in.
Anyway, they are involved, are they not, in helping Greece with the fence that Greece is building along the Greek-Turkish border? I think it would be helpful for the Committee to have a note on exactly what you are doing with Frontex, because we were led to believe that it is an organisation that exists to support national Governments, and we are to take evidence from Frontex later in this inquiry. If there is one thing the Committee should look for when we go to Turkey, what should it be as far as this area is concerned? We are meeting your representatives there. What is the key thing that we should be looking for?
Steve Coates: I think you should look for evidence to support what I have said about the credibility and capability of the law enforcement. It is not just the Turkish National Police; there are other agencies such as the gendarmerie, and I hope, with respect, that you will be pleased with what you see there and how we have been able to take this fight to the criminal gangs on their home territory.
Chair: Mr Coates, thank you very much. I am sure we will see you again when we carry out our next inquiry. For those of you who have come to hear from the POPPY project, unfortunately the witness has lost her voice-a very rare occurrence in the House of Commons-so we will not be taking evidence from the POPPY project today, but we will do so at a future date. Thank you for coming in.
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