Kevin Hyland, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, stressed this week that using children to transport and sell class A drugs in county lines operations is a form of modern-day slavery. He said that the police and other agencies were not seeing it for what it is: the use of children and young people as commodities by criminal gangs. He said that more and more county lines were being discovered each day but there was often a lack of sympathy for the victims. He was responding to the HMIC report, “Stolen freedom: the policing response to modern slavery and human trafficking”.
The criminal exploitation of children to sell drugs in county lines operations is the next big grooming scandal. It has many similarities to grooming in the early child sexual exploitation cases in places such as Rotherham and Rochdale. The National Crime Agency says that 83% of police forces have reported activity in their areas, and I have been told by a well-informed police source that there could be up to 1,000 county lines operating from major cities throughout the country that have well-established criminal gangs, including London, Liverpool and Manchester.
Although the exploitation of children by organised crime to carry and sell drugs is not new, there is a huge and growing problem of children being groomed to supply class A drugs—crack cocaine and heroin—around the country. That usually involves a gang from an urban area expanding their operations by crossing one police force boundary, or more, over to more rural areas, setting up a secure base and using runners to conduct day-to-day dealing.
A county lines enterprise almost always involves the exploitation of vulnerable children and adults. As more and more county lines are set up, more and more children are being targeted and groomed to carry and supply drugs. For the criminal gangs, it is a very successful business: new markets bring more income, and using children and young people reduces the gang’s risk of detection. For the children and young people, it often ends in drug and alcohol addiction, violence and sexual and other exploitation. The children become criminals and the groomers and exploiters of other children. The extent of county lines is very difficult to map, as data are collected by various agencies and there is very little sharing of those data.
This week, I was invited by Greater Manchester police to help launch an excellent new campaign called Trapped, to raise awareness of how children and young people can get drawn into county lines. Children as young as 11 have been ferried from inner-city parts of Manchester to Blackpool and Barrow to sell drugs. Only this week, the police found a young boy in Blackpool who they said was relieved to be locked up and whose face was green, as he had been so badly beaten.
The Trapped campaign aims to raise awareness of all forms of criminal exploitation by gangs of young people and vulnerable adults. Key to its approach is working with schools, youth centres and housing and drugs services to prevent young people from getting embedded, or further embedded, in criminal gangs and to provide them with safe people to talk to.
Some children are vulnerable to being targeted because of chaotic family relationships; others because they are looked-after children. Some may be younger children whose older siblings have got caught up in drugs, while others may have parents who have become complicit in the use of their children by gangs, to help feed their own drug habit. Methods of recruiting children include offers of cash and goods, coercion with threats of kidnap and young people having to work to pay back a drug debt owed to a gang member.
I chair the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults, which is supported by the Children’s Society and Missing People. In March, we held a roundtable on county lines, taking evidence from victim’s parents, experts and agencies. May I thank the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Sarah Newton for attending that roundtable? The report we produced made clear that children from all backgrounds are at risk of being drawn into county lines. Indeed, the parents who gave evidence did not meet the profile of a chaotic family. Their sons had become involved through friendships with other young people who had associations with gangs.
Pressure on young people is huge, and at the time of transition from childhood to adolescence, they are particularly vulnerable to pressure from peers. Young people can get drawn into what initially looks like a good offer, in terms of cash and lifestyle, but end up being trapped and coerced by some terrifying people.
Looked-after children in particular are targets for grooming by criminal gangs. Those placed miles away from their home areas can be especially vulnerable. There are additional difficulties involved in keeping children safe when they are placed far away. It is hard for social workers to give support from hundreds of miles away. It is concerning that since March 2012 there has been a 78% increase nationally in the number of children being placed in children’s homes outside their borough.
Parents whose children have been exploited expressed to our roundtable their despair at the response the system often gave to their pleas for help. I am concerned that the response of the safeguarding system is increasing the vulnerability of young people. The parent who is not supported will leave the child more vulnerable. Placing a child or young person in a children’s home that is being targeted by criminal gangs increases their vulnerability. Failing to assess risk in missing episodes appropriately will increase vulnerability.
There needs to be a more joined-up response from the National Crime Agency and at a regional and local police level. Criminal gangs are making millions from the exploitation and degradation of childrepn, and they are responsible for countless beatings, stabbings and murder. We need to disrupt the grooming of vulnerable children at a very early stage, while as prosecuting senior gang members. Preventing children from getting into gangs in turn prevents many more victims. We need to consider the better use of child abduction warning notices, and the national referring mechanism needs to be better understood, as it can be used to identify children as victims of exploitation, which in turn makes it easier to prosecute exploiters—who are hiding behind the children—under trafficking laws. That will also prevent prosecution of the child.
The exploitation of children by criminal gangs is increasing, and it is shocking that the message that organised crime is getting is that, provided that they use children and young people, we are powerless to do anything about it. We need to find better ways to work together and use available resources, and a better safeguarding response for children. Children should be our priority—