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18 February 2016

Crime up, capacity down

Cybercrime is rising, but our ability to tackle it is not. Why isn’t the current government doing more?

By Steve Reed

Online crime is growing at an unprecedented rate. Yet in January, when I asked the crime prevention minister Lynne Featherstone about the government’s approach to this form of crime, she replied that “up to now, cybercrime has been a lesser interest”. Later in the parliamentary session, when Conservative MP Karen Bradley was challenged about the low levels of prosecutions for online fraud, she explained that “cybercrime is a crime that we are getting to grips with”.

Cybercrime threatens everyone who uses the internet, and that’s nearly all of us. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) recently reported that only 3 out of 43 police forces across the country had a comprehensive strategy to tackle cybercrime, and that (on average) less than 2 per cent of police staff had taken up full training in responding to cybercrime, as offered by the National Cyber Capabilities Programme and the College of Policing.

With the government appearing uninterested in the problem, and the police left without the tools to tackle it, we are seeing online and cybercrime rise rapidly in this country. A slew of figures expose the mounting scale of the problem: between 2013 and 2014 online banking fraud went up by 71 per cent according to Financial Fraud Action, while e-commerce fraud went up by 23 per cent, card fraud up 15 per cent and remote banking fraud up by 59 per cent over the same period.

If these figures related to street robberies, burglaries or pickpocketing there’d be an outcry and a traditional Home Office crisis. Instead, hidden behind closed doors and with low priority, cybercrime is growing and the government isn’t responding.

In 2013 the Home Affairs Select Committee report on cybercrime said that “there appears to be a black hole where low-level e-crime is committed with impunity”, and rather than responding to the growing threat to the British public “at a time when fraud and e-crime is going up, the capability of the country to address it is going down”. The National Audit Office suggested that action is so slow it could take 20 years to develop the skills needed to respond effectively to cybercrime in this country.

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Despite these warnings, a year later in 2014 HMIC found that “the gap between the threat and police capacity is widening”. The government has been warned repeatedly about the growing risk but it has looked the other way and crowed about other crime statistics that don’t accurately reflect card and online crime. The government is blind to the fact that crime is changing, not falling. It has moved online where criminals feel safer from detection and prosecution, and it’s growing fast.

Instead of complacency, we need a government that takes online crime seriously. More and more people shop online, bank online, socialise online and share personal information online. They are all at risk from cybercriminals and online fraudsters who are laughing in the face of Government ministers who stand idly by as the criminals swindle billions of pounds from people and businesses every year.

Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, announced in 2012 that Labour would introduce a “Teach First” style programme to get the best maths and IT graduates into the police force. We need highly skilled graduates able to start closing the capability gap between the criminals and the police.

We also know it’s not good enough that police forces, stretched thin by government cuts, haven’t been in a position to train their officers to respond to modern crime and haven’t got strategies in place to deal with cybercrime. Labour has been pushing amendments to the Serious Crime Bill, in the teeth of Tory and Lib Dem opposition, to make sure that every police force has a strategy for cybercrime so that every citizen, wherever they live, can feel safe from the cybercriminals who are going undetected.

Crime has changed in this country: it’s moving into cyberspace. We need more effective national expertise to tackle it, and stronger international partnerships to combat this growing global phenomenon. I find it shocking to see Tory and Lib Dem ministers ignore the risk or pretend it’s all new to them when the truth is it’s been growing for years.

Cybercrime is a direct threat to our economy and the personal finances of millions of people who shop and bank online. We need a new government that recognises the threat and is prepared to act against it.

 Steve Reed is Labour MP for Croydon North and a shadow home office minister