I thank my hon. Friend Mr Umunna for securing this important debate and for his excellent speech, which outlined the complexities and difficulties of the subject. It is a privilege to follow the powerful contribution of my hon. Friend Ms Buck.
I want to focus on the phenomenon of “county lines”, whereby urban, criminal gangs groom and coerce children and young people into selling class A drugs, particularly heroin and crack cocaine. Young people travel many miles from their home, often to quiet market and seaside towns where they are set up to deal drugs, sometimes from the home of a vulnerable person.
Last July, I attended the launch of the first major report into county lines, entitled “Running the risks: the links between gang involvement and young people going missing”, which was published jointly by Catch22 and Missing People. A month later, the National Crime Agency produced an intelligence assessment that said that county lines affect “most forces”, and almost always involve the exploitation of vulnerable people. It said that children are used
“as they are inexpensive, easily controlled and less likely to be detected by police”.
In January, the Home Office published a report entitled, “Ending gang violence and exploitation”, which highlighted the fact that gangs have wised up to police tactics and are operating more covertly, making it harder for the police to disrupt activity and safeguard vulnerable people. The reports also state that young girls are groomed for involvement in criminal behaviour and harmful sexual behaviour as part of the gang culture. Indeed, the recent Rotherham trial showed the connection between organised crime and drugs, and child sexual exploitation.
We do not yet know the scale of the county lines problem, and where it is discovered, agencies are not clear how to deal with it. I have been told about children from Greater Manchester who have been found selling drugs in flats in seaside and other provincial towns, including some as far away as Devon. Children are used to reduce the risk to older gang members, and they may go unnoticed by local police, particularly if they have no record of offending. The gang leaders are rather like modern-day Fagins or Bill Sikes—hard men who groom youngsters and then use them to do their dirty work. There is serious under-recognition of the county lines phenomenon, which I believe is the next big grooming scandal.
Just as with children groomed for child sexual exploitation, we must recognise that young people drawn into criminality and drug dealing have, in the first instance, been groomed and manipulated. Those young people end up being charged with criminal offences, which gives them the same relationship with the law as the adults who groomed them. That leaves them vulnerable to further exploitation, and they continue to be victims at the same time as offending. That must be seen in the context of organised crime and the systematic grooming of young people. Often, those at the centre are long-term hardened criminals.
The Catch22 report stressed the link between gang involvement and young people going missing, and said that too often the young people are criminalised rather than safeguarded. It said that, although missing incidents for children and young people are generally under-reported, that is particularly acute for those involved in gangs. It presented evidence of gang-involved children and young people being placed into care miles away from their home town, with little care planning or support, leaving them vulnerable to getting drawn back into gangs. An additional issue with county lines is that the young people involved may often be aged between 16 and 18. According to the Children’s Society, there is evidence of massive under-reporting of young people who go missing in that age group.
Understanding of county lines is developing at a national level, and the use of young vulnerable people to traffic drugs across county lines is flagged up as a major issue by practitioners. Organisations that work to turn young people away from gang crime—most notably the St Giles Trust, a charity in London that works with young people to break the cycle of offending—have been dealing with the issue for some time and have harrowing stories to share. I was told by the St Giles Trust that young people are using the plastic container from Kinder Egg toys to transport drugs inside their own bodies—a serious risk to their health. It is hard to imagine a more graphic metaphor for the perversion of childhood. The trust also told me about young girls dressed in school uniform who are being used to mule drugs because they are unlikely to be stopped and searched. The age at which young people get involved with gangs is concerning. There have been reports of cases in London involving children as young as nine, and the trust gave at least one example of a child aged 12 being involved in county lines.
Increasingly, there are stories about gangs setting up their own young members to be robbed en route. They are then told that they must work off the debt by trafficking and selling drugs for free, or by engaging in sex. That is nothing less than slavery. The threat of child sexual exploitation for girls involved in gangs is known, but the added factor of being trafficked to remote locations compounds their vulnerability. Those young people are at risk of physical violence, sexual exploitation, and emotional and physical abuse. That model of grooming arguably involves both trafficking and modern slavery.
These children are seen as “bad kids” who have chosen a criminal lifestyle. For example, a national newspaper recently reported a court case involving a 13-year-old Manchester boy who was sent to Barrow in Cumbria by a criminal gang and set up as a heroin and crack cocaine dealer. There was a quote saying that police said the boy “revelled” in his role as a “little gangster”. He was a child.
The recent Home Office report indicates that we still have some way to go in tackling county lines. Action is needed at national level to set out clearly where responsibility lies within law enforcement for detecting and disrupting county lines, and how information should be shared with local authorities and safeguarding boards so that when young people are found they are supported in an appropriate manner.
We need to know the scale of involvement of vulnerable young people in county lines. I asked a number of parliamentary questions to try to establish numbers. The Home Office Minister responded that, because the National Crime Agency does not conduct county lines operations, it does not hold that information. We also need to know how much use is being made of anti-trafficking legislation and modern slavery laws to charge older gang members with grooming younger members. Finally, we need to know how best to support those young people once they have been found.
The police should be using data on missing episodes, and cross-referencing that with information about possible gang involvement, not only to understand trends, but to take an early intervention approach, and to try to disrupt involvement early after missing incidents. I offer the Minister a practical suggestion that would help to disrupt the grooming of children and young people to sell drugs at that early stage. Currently, numerous civil orders are available to the police to combat grooming for child sexual exploitation, including sexual risk orders, sexual harm prevention orders, and child abduction warning notices. I would like similar orders to be created, to be used where children are being groomed by organised criminals and gangs to act as drug runners. Perhaps they could be called “Fagin orders”.
Many children who are initially groomed into criminal activity are often then groomed for sexual exploitation; alternatively, they are initially groomed for child sexual exploitation, and then for criminal purposes. The two forms of exploitation are often inextricably linked, and young people are reluctant and frightened to disclose either. Return interviews with children who have gone missing are an important source of establishing the risk to the young person, and of gathering information about their associates and intelligence about county lines. It is important that that information is used for safeguarding by police and children’s services.
When young people are found and arrested after involvement in county lines, the approach from agencies should be holistic. The St Giles Trust has suggested a pilot in which their caseworkers—who are ex-offenders—accompany police on targeted raids and immediately offer support to the young people, who are more likely to listen to those who have been in the same situation.
To conclude I will return to the point I made at the beginning of my remarks: we must learn from the child sexual exploitation scandals that have ruined so many lives, and we cannot afford to make the same mistakes again, blaming young people, saying that they have made their own bed, failing to ask the right questions, and failing to respond even when we know what is going on. Missing People has been working with a mother whose son started going missing aged 12 and was being groomed by a gang to sell drugs away from home in a county lines operation. The mother was desperate not to lose her son to that, and always reported it every time he went missing. It took her six months to receive any support from services. How can that be right? The boy repeatedly went missing for periods ranging from overnight to up to three months. He ended up being taken into care and had numerous distance placements.
We need a response to county lines that ensures that children are found, safeguarded and supported out of gangs, and that the adults who groom and manipulate them are punished to the full extent of the law. Until then, it will continue to be the young victims who are blamed and punished, as their abusers and puppet masters continue with a trade that nets them thousands of pounds a day.