Lynne Owens, director general of the National Crime Agency, is one of the most important figures in UK law enforcement. She tells Richard Johnstone how her drive to help people at their most vulnerable took her to the top of her profession.
Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
The streets of Catford may only be seven miles away from the grandeur of Whitehall, but it was a 30-year journey for Lynne Owens to go from policing the south London suburb to briefing the home secretary. Despite the change in surroundings, the head of the National Crime Agency is still driven by the same determination that inspired her as a rookie constable: helping those that only the police can support.
Speaking to Civil Service World at the NCA’s central London headquarters, Owens says her time on the beat at the age of 21 showed her “the difference that you can make to a person’s life, often at the worst time”.
“There are lots of things that frontline police officers do. Some of them are brave like confronting a knifeman, or walking into a massive pub fight,” she recalls.
Others, she says, require huge compassion, like breaking the news to families that a loved one has died.
“I remember having to tell a mother that her son had drowned when he was on holiday, and a profoundly deaf lady that her husband had been killed in a fatal accident. Those situations require such flexibility of thought about how you’re going to deliver a message in the certain circumstances, it frames you as a person.”
From Catford, Owens moved to Kent Police to train as a detective, becoming the detective chief inspector and senior investigating officer leading major crime investigations where, again, she helped people at their lowest moments.
More senior jobs followed, including as the Metropolitan Police’s head of central operations and specialist crime directorates – where Owens oversaw security at the 2011 royal wedding – and a three-and-a-half year spell as chief constable of Surrey Police. In January 2016, she became NCA director general, leading the UK’s fight against serious and organised crime at the agency that is operationally independent but reports to the home secretary.
But Owens says her early policing days remain the ones that have been most important to her approach.
“I’ve done some big set piece events, like the royal wedding for William and Kate, and that was an amazing thing. But it’s the small things where you can look back and just know the difference you’ve made,” she says. “I really enjoyed being a murder team detective. Seeing a murderer found guilty of the crime that they have committed, and giving the family closure on that horrific incident, that really matters.”
She highlights the same sort of moments when asked to list achievements from the last four years. She points, for example, to the conviction of paedophile Matthew Falder “for his horrendous blackmailing of women and children over a long period of time”, as well as work tackling high-end cyber criminals. “They are all just moments in time when you know that you, or your officers, or your organisation are making a difference,” she says.
Owens says the extent of the threat from serious and organised crime is “truly staggering”, with gangs and offenders operating at “growing scale and complexity”.
“We know that there are almost 2.9 million users registered on dark web child abuse sites,” she says, citing the NCA’s 2019 strategic threat assessment report. “There are about 180,000 people in the UK engaged in serious and organised crime. We know that the number of county lines [drug gangs] has risen from about 720 to more than 2,000 in a year. And in 2018, there were 3.6 million incidents of fraud.
“So no matter what lens you look at serious and organised crime through – whether it’s targeting the vulnerable or the harm that’s being caused by those who dominate communities, or those who use illicit finance to impact on the state – it’s of significant concern.”
The threat is also changing, she says. “When I joined law enforcement 31 years ago, crime happened very much with a geographic basis,” Owens says. “And while technology has some great strengths, it enables serious and organised criminals to operate across borders, both within the UK and internationally.”
The NCA crest The NCA badge is a symbol of the office and demonstrates that its officers exercise their powers on behalf of the Crown, and not just state. It shows a griffin and a panther supporting a portcullis. The griffin represents the NCA’s valour and vigilance, while the panther incensed – meaning the animal has flames coming from its mouth and ears – symbolises pursuit, with its multicolored spots reflecting the NCA’s range of abilities. The flames represent a persistent and intimidating force.
The figures in the threat assessment represent both “the changing nature of crime and us becoming more aware of it”, Owens says. “County lines has been a phenomenon for a while, modern slavery and human trafficking has been a phenomenon for a while, but the reality is that the more we look for it, the more we find it. We mustn’t, as a nation, close our eyes to some of these challenges.”
One of the NCA’s roles is to make sure that action to tackle the threat remains front of mind.
“I think one of the challenges with organised crime is having that conversation publicly or indeed across Whitehall departments, because it’s a bit of an anonymous phrase,” she says. “We know we have work to do to describe to the public, and to partners, why we think the scale and complexity of serious and organised crime is changing, and we need to do that in language that means something to people.
“So what does it mean? It is children that are being abused. It is violence that is occurring on our streets. It is illicit finance undermining the prosperity of this country. That’s what’s behind serious and organised crime, and we do need to describe it in a meaningful way to the public and our partners, because we need the public, and we need policymakers, to think differently about how we protect one another from the crimes that might be happening. And sadly, it is the headlines that can grab attention.”
The formation of the NCA in 2013 was intended to ensure that threat got the focus it needed. In the words of the then-home secretary Theresa May, it was to herald a “wholly new approach to the fight against organised crime”.
The future prime minister said the agency would “look at a wider range of organised crime, working with police forces and others across government in addressing this pernicious problem in our society” and ensure “the relentless disruption of organised criminals”.
As an organisation that is less than seven years old, the NCA is still working to create a unified culture, Owens says. It was formed from the Serious Organised Crime Agency, Police Central e-Crime Unit, Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, and parts of the National Policing Improvement Agency. Some of these predecessor organisations had themselves been formed from multiple other bodies.
Although the NCA has created its own set of values – flexibility, integrity, respect, service, transparency – its DG acknowledges that “we would still say the identity of the organisation is a bit of a work in progress”.
It is often called Britain’s FBI in media shorthand – so much so that Owens jests that “I have a bit of a joke with the director of the FBI that I will know I have been successful when people ask him if the FBI is the American NCA” – but there are still questions from staff about where the NCA sits in the UK’s security and policing landscape.
“We still get asked that by people internally – are we a law enforcement agency, are we an intelligence agency, are we a policy department? We are really clear: we do all of those things. We are the agency that leads the UK’s fight against serious and organised crime with our own identity and we are very proud of that identity.”
Nonetheless, Owens says that she is keen for the NCA to have a strong exchange of information and expertise between policing, the intelligence agencies and other Whitehall departments. And she urges ministries that touch on crime and justice policy to make this a two-way street.
“My challenge to policy is: how can you write good policy without understanding the operational impact or the public impact of your work? We have an offer to make there to our colleagues in Whitehall,” she says. “We have a very good strategy department where we always welcome good offers of support.”
The relationship with the Home Office is particularly close. The NCA updates home secretary Priti Patel every week on the top 25 operations for the agency, as well as meeting her every other week.
“We write to her at two classifications – we write a secret letter and we might write a top secret letter depending on the nature of our work. And I have regular conversations with her, as I have done with her predecessors,” Owens says. “It’s an accountability relationship. She has to be confident that we are delivering and keeping the public safe from the threats that they face.
“It’s no different in many ways to policing, it’s just the politician is at a different level. In policing there are either police and crime commissioners or local mayors who chief constables are accountable to. It’s the same, but just a national level.”
Including Patel, there have been four holders of that particular great office of state since Owens took up her post, from May to Amber Rudd and then Sajid Javid before last summer’s government reshuffle.
The NCA briefs each new occupant. “Whenever we have a new secretary of state, the first thing we have to do is help them understand the changing nature of the threat and what it is that we’re dealing with,” she says.
“We are an operational agency. We help the Home Office understand the nature of the threat, we hope we influence their policy ideas and, of course, they help decide on the funding for the agency. It’s a good and strong operational relationship.”
Those in Marsham Street and beyond do “appreciate the scale of the challenges” from organised crime, Owens says, with an ongoing review of how the system works by former Metropolitan Police deputy commissioner Sir Craig Mackey likely to inform funding decisions in the next Spending Review. The NCA last year called for £650m in additional funding to tackle serious and organised crime and Owens says that Mackey is identifying “different capabilities we might need to respond to the threat and I think there are questions about capacity in the system”.
“Seeing a murderer found guilty of the crime that they have committed, and giving that family closure on that horrific incident, that really matters”
There is a leadership challenge for the NCA within this system that Owens acknowledges. Unusually in UK law enforcement, the NCA is not bounded to a particular geographical area, but has officers based across the UK’s four nations, as well as around 140 officers overseas – some funded by the Department for International Development.
This means that “leadership and visibility is actually harder running this agency than as a chief constable,” Owens says, speaking from experience.
It is a part of the job that, she admits, she did not fully appreciate before she joined.
“I don’t think I’d thought enough about how you ensure people feel connected to the organisation when they’re based overseas,” she says.
“That’s something that I’m sure the permanent under secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has to think about a lot, but it wasn’t something I had to do previously.”
This is “genuinely quite a challenge,” she reflects.
“I have to split myself three ways: trying to ensure I’m visible to our officers and having important conversations, being accountable to the home secretary and all the Whitehall machinery and the National Security Council, and then working with all the other partners in the public and private sector. It’s for others to judge if I get that balance right.”
Owens’s reflections on her own leadership reveal again that determination to be a force for good, which propelled her from those early days protecting a patch in south-east London to protecting the whole UK.
“When I feel that I’ve been successful it is when I have really made a difference to the public. I’m really motivated by the ability to protect the public and to lock up or take action against the very worst offenders,” she says. “That motivated me then and it still motivates me today.”