Drug Trafficking: County Lines

Petition - Public Land for Public Good: Bootham Park – in the House of Commons at 7:03 pm on 17 October 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Milling.)

Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Independent, Barrow and Furness 7:04, 17 October 2018

I am really pleased to have been able to secure the Adjournment debate this evening on the crucial matter known as county lines. This long-distance drug running is bringing misery to towns such as Barrow and coastal and rural areas right across the country, as well as to the big cities where the drug gangs operate, where thousands of young people are being coerced into what is effectively—and what is being prosecuted as—modern-day slavery in order to run drugs from the big cities to areas such as mine.

To be clear, there have always been issues of drug dealers getting into other areas, but the scale of the problem is now unprecedented. The Government’s own figures, which I will ask the Minister to confirm, suggest that the problem is spiralling out of control, with an exponential rise in the number of these dedicated mobile phone lines in towns such as mine. People use them to order drugs, which are then couriered by young people, often against their will and under the threat of violence. Communities such as mine are finding themselves awash with drugs, to a level that they have not seen before, and seeing the kind of drug-related violence that has previously marred big cities but has thankfully kept away from towns such as my own.

The Daily Mail had an excellent investigation on its front page today, and some of the figures that it reported were truly astounding. It found that county lines were bringing in around £7 million to drug gangs every single day, which equates to £2.5 billion a year. The new national county lines co-ordination centre, which I am sure the Minister will want to say more about, has revealed that each mobile phone line is making about £5,000 a day. British Transport police said recently that it arrested 476 drug couriers using the railways, of whom more than 100 were classed as frequent train travellers.

The effect of county lines on these young people is predictably devastating. The children’s charity Safer London believes that 4,000 children are involved in the capital alone. A National Crime Agency report last year showed that nearly every police force area in England and Wales had been affected to some degree. Of the 44 forces, 35 mentioned knife crime linked to county lines and 32 mentioned gun crime. Academic evidence shows that county lines drug-selling gangs are generally much more violent than the local dealers who previously controlled the market.

Last month, I was able to bring together Members of Parliament, senior police officers from across the country, the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service and his opposite number, my hon. Friend Nick Thomas-Symonds, as well as charities from across the country, to talk about this issue. The representative from the National Crime Agency suggested that, according to the latest estimate, there had been 1,000 county lines in operation last month. That figure suggests an increase of more than a third on the 720 that were reported last year. However, the Daily Mail reports today that that same organisation now estimates the number to be 1,500, which would be a nearly 100% increase in one year. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify those figures.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing forward this important debate. York has also had a real challenge with county lines. Does he share my concern that North Yorkshire police are going to withdraw their special operation on county lines? Surely all police authorities should be investing in special operations to deal with this issue.

Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Independent, Barrow and Furness

That does indeed sound concerning, and I can understand why my hon. Friend wonders why that is happening, particularly at a time when police forces are focusing on how they can put more resources into this and achieve a greater level of co-ordination. This issue goes beyond the traditionally drawn boundaries between police forces, and therefore requires a greater level of intelligence sharing, co-operation and co-ordination than was used to tackle traditional drug operations in past decades. The message from the seminar was that, yes, greater police powers and more investment in the police are necessary, but also that we cannot simply arrest our way out of this situation. Agencies need to come together, and health, safeguarding and education need to play a role.

Turning to what is happening in Barrow, which is what spurred me to call for this debate and do this work on county lines, 12 people died drug-related deaths between December 2016 and April this year—a four-month period. To put that in perspective, there were 66 drug-related deaths per 1 million people nationwide last year, and Barrow saw 12 such deaths in four months in a town of only 67,000 people. The community is rising to the challenge, which is focused on an estate called Egerton Court, where four of those 12 deaths occurred. By the end of the year, a multi-agency hub will be operating out of Egerton Court to try to remove the stigma, change the culture and show drug dealers that that they can no longer ply their pernicious trade with impunity in the area.

However, so much more needs to be done. I want to hear from the Minister about the Government’s latest thinking. I have two proposals that I hope they will consider seriously, and the first relates to the public transport network. In previous years in Barrow and elsewhere, drug dealers would arrive by car and get their produce in using that method. Now, however, younger people are being used, and most of them are reliant on the public transport network because they are too young to drive, so coach drivers, cabbies and train guards can be the eyes and ears of the police service. The Government recognised that with the publicity campaign they launched earlier this year, so I would like to hear about how that is going and how widespread it is.

Posters are not enough on their own, though. I hope that the Minister will agree to speak urgently to his colleagues at the Department for Transport, who are pressing ahead with changes to franchises on so many train lines that pretty much require train operators to remove guards from trains. It is the guards who can detect and pick up on signs when something does not look right. Many of these young people stick out like a sore thumb because they are travelling alone and look vulnerable, so public transport staff can play a vital role in alerting the police.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure)

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem, but I am a little worried that he wants to bring train guards into this war on drugs. Has he considered the option of regulating and controlling this marketplace, which would take all the power away from criminal gangs?

Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Independent, Barrow and Furness

The hon. Gentleman is a long-time advocate of the legalisation of drugs, but I do not think that that is the route to go down, given the horror that drug use causes, never mind the criminal activity around it. That would not get much support in Barrow.

Properly training public transport staff in what to look for can be a positive thing. I hope that the Home Office will consider investing in training, intervening to stop guards being taken off trains and, importantly, offering rewards to people who are prepared to speak up, tip off the police and stop this trade along the major public transport arteries on which it relies.

Secondly, the Government need to do more to crack down on landlords and property owners who effectively turn a blind eye to this trade, and who get rich off drug money by not asking questions and not looking too closely at what is happening in their property. At the moment, the long-standing provision in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 makes it an offence for someone to allow their property to be used in that way, but there has to be absolute proof that they had specific knowledge. That allows too many landlords and, potentially, owners of holiday lets, hotels and caravan parks not to ask questions and to make money by allowing these people into our communities to do incredible damage.

Will the Minister consider changing the burden of proof so that a landlord is required to act, and can be prosecuted if they do not act, where there is reasonable suspicion that their property is being used for cuckooing, with drug dealers coming in to deal from the property temporarily? That is another huge part of the problem, and the vast majority of police forces say that it is happening in their area.

I will leave it there because my right hon. Friend Joan Ryan wants to speak, and I am happy for her to do so. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North 7:16, 17 October 2018

I thank my hon. Friend John Woodcock for securing this debate and for the helpful and useful seminar he pulled together last month.

I asked to speak in this debate because I secured a similar debate in Westminster Hall in January, and I am pleased that there is now a debate in this Chamber. In the past year alone we have seen an 85% increase in violent crime in Enfield, which sounds unbelievable. My hon. Friend is right that such county lines criminal activity is increasing week on week. It is an amazing business model, and the children who are involved in it are both victims and perpetrators. The National Crime Agency has warned about this for the past three years in their reports to Government, and the Government are very late in coming to this issue.

Photo of Mike Kane Mike Kane Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Child criminal exploitation is on the rise, and it is putting huge demands on our police services. Some 19,000 children were off-rolled in our schools last year, and the Government do not know where 10,000 of them are. Does she think the Government should be investigating the causal link between those two things?

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

Absolutely. This is a hunting ground for those seeking to recruit and groom children into this criminal activity—this business model.

I will not take much time, because we want to hear from the Minister. The serious violence strategy and the national county lines co-ordination centre are welcome steps in the right direction, but they are late and are not enough.

There are some fantastic projects in my area, including the Godwin Lawson Foundation, which goes into schools to educate young people and to support teachers. The North Enfield food bank and Jubilee centre has early intervention programmes and mentoring schemes. Those things work, but organisations do not have the capacity to scale up, which is what they need to do. A multi-agency approach is needed.

We have seen £161 million slashed from our local council budget alone, we will see £1 million taken out of our local public health funding by 2020, and we know that the Government have cut £22 million from the capital’s youth services, which makes it almost impossible to scale up the things that work. We need much more action, but action can only happen if it is resourced. This is a scandal and we need to protect these children, who are vulnerable and are leaving Enfield with every orifice stuffed with class A drugs to sell in areas such as my hon. Friend’s constituency. We know that these people are applying the same county lines model in their home area. They are not just leaving London boroughs to do this; they are doing it in London boroughs and outside. That accounts for this rapid growth. Please, Minister, we need more resources to deal with this.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security) 7:20, 17 October 2018

First, let me congratulate John Woodcock, a near neighbour, as I do not live that far from his constituency. He raises an important issue. Not only has Joan Ryan held a previous debate on it, but I spoke in the good and important Westminster Hall debate held by Lyn Brown. What strikes me about county lines is that sometimes the debate goes from the ground up—from the vulnerability of the young people up—and sometimes it is about the organised criminals at the top coming down. That is the challenge we face with county lines.

County lines gang activity and the associated violence, drug dealing and exploitation has a devastating impact on young people, vulnerable adults and local communities. That includes the impact on the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. As has been reported, last week brought the sentencing of two south London men, drill rapper Daniel Olaloko and Peter Adebayo, who ran a county line from London all the way to Barrow—that is 300 miles. Other areas in Cumbria are also affected: Connor Halliwell and Kieran Howe were sentenced in September for county lines drug dealing in Kendal; and there is an ongoing trial of a 16-year-old London schoolboy for dealing in Carlisle.

The plus side of those convictions is that some of those people were the leaders of the organised crime groups in London, and it was not just low-level individuals who were taken out. One reason we have seen a shift of London organised crime groups to Barrow—the hon. Gentleman will be interested in this—is the work that was done regionally, through the organised crime unit, to take out some of the Merseyside gangs that were blighting north Lancashire and Barrow. The gap left by their displacement has been filled with London organised crime groups. With the technology that they use, they can be quick to exploit gaps and vulnerably.

Let me try to answer the point made by Rachael Maskell about North Yorkshire police. All the work we have done on tackling county lines shows that some of the best ways to respond to the organised crime group is through the region, rather than just through the home force. The home force can play a role at spotting exploitation and cuckooing, but if we are to cut the head of the snake in the organised crime groups, it is often best done through the organised crime unit. I am sure that if she were to engage with her regional organised crime unit, the people there would be able to show her some of the work going on across the whole of Yorkshire. I do not think that it would be a case of the police not doing it; I suspect they have moved it into a regional or even a national response as a way to tackle some of the challenges and ensure they have the specialties needed to take on some of the secure communications these people use.

Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Independent, Barrow and Furness

If the current co-ordination efforts do not prove sufficient, is the Minister alive to the possibility of designating a lead force, in the manner that the Met works on counter-terror for the whole country?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

I know that the hon. Gentleman has called for that. The national county lines co-ordination centre is about trying to fill that space. It is not just a couple of desks; it is more than 40 officers and staff, centred, pulling together not only the intelligence, but some of the investigations and response. They are making sure the investigations are in the right place, so that where we pick up someone who is low-level, we can trace across to an organised crime group that is already under investigation by the Met, for example. That is one of the main aims of this co-ordinated approach—the county lines co-ordination centre. I have arranged for some hon. Members to get a briefing by the National Crime Agency on that, and I am happy to facilitate that for the hon. Gentleman if he would like.

Time is tight, so I will not be able to deal with all the points, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman about some of the figures. We recognise the figures that he used. We assess around 1,500 lines in service as of July. The improvements from the national county lines co-ordination centre’s work with the National Crime Agency and the National Police Chiefs Council has started to have an impact already. Last week, the centre co-ordinated the first in a series of regular intensifications of activity targeting county lines. In one week alone, there were more than 200 arrests; 58 vulnerable people, including a number of children, were identified and safeguarded; deadly weapons, including hunting knives, a firearm with ammunition, an axe, a meat cleaver and a samurai sword, were seized; tens of thousands of pounds of suspected criminal cash were seized; and significant quantities of heroin, crack cocaine and other illegal drugs were seized. That is in one week, which shows the benefit of that co-ordination. Whether it is a single force or, I would venture, a co-ordination centre, that shows what can be done when we focus and bring our efforts to bear.

We need to be clever about how we prosecute these individuals. In some cases, we prosecute them under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 for in effect trafficking the children up and down the country. On 4 October, Zakaria Mohammed was sentenced to 14 years for human trafficking offences, but he was leading a county lines drug cartel operation. That was an important way to deal with it.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure)

The Minister is outlining success stories—big arrests, big sentences and big drug seizures—yet the problems continue to get worse. Is it not perhaps time to consider other tactics?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

The problems are getting worse, and this business model is a fantastic business model, as the right hon. Member for Enfield North said, partly because of the turbo boost that communications give these people. Secure communication and end-to-end encryption mean that people can order with total impunity, because it is very hard for us to get into the telephones to see what they are doing. They can use modern technology to resupply and communicate, and to launder the money at the same time. I do not agree that the approach should be to legalise drugs. In my experience, criminals are interested in the margins, not the product. If we legalise one drug, they will push fentanyl tomorrow; if we legalise fentanyl, it will be another. They want the margin: in my experience, it is the money that drives them, which is why we have to do more work.

The right hon. Member for Enfield North correctly talked about prevention. We need to harden the environment. The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness is always full of good ideas, and he will have seen in our latest counter-terrorism Bill that I have absorbed some of them. I think that is a polite way to say that I have nicked them. I certainly believe that he is right about somehow making sure that people take responsibility. We cannot arrest our way out of this problem, so we have to burden-share. We have to educate the public. We have to educate taxi drivers in Barrow. Both modern slavery and county lines often hide in plain sight. It is amazing how many people in effect work in slavery on our high streets and no one does anything about it or thinks about it. Someone might have had their nails done but never said to themselves that most of the women working in the nail bar were probably—more often than not—victims of human trafficking. That is why we have to try to encourage part of the wider community—the hon. Gentleman may say we should legislate—because they have a role to play.

When I saw a Merseyside county lines group get taken apart, it was brilliant to see the way the Merseyside local authority worked alongside the local police. When it came to dismantling the group, the people who needed care got care and the people who needed to be prosecuted—some of them were young; they are not all vulnerable—were prosecuted. One challenge we have is that not all the 15 or 16-year-olds are exploited; some of them are pretty hard and dangerous. At the same time, we took some assets, and in the end the Merseyside police, in public, pulled down the gates of the organised crime group’s house, to show that permissive society was not going to tolerate that behaviour. That group’s operations went all the way into Lancashire, so it was a good success.

I absolutely hear what the right hon. Member for Enfield North said about the need for better prevention, community provision and diversion for these young people. I have a list as long as my arm that I think I sent to some Members in the context of the previous debate on this subject. We have the anti-knife crime community fund. The Home Secretary has announced a £22 million early intervention youth fund and a £200 million youth endowment fund. There is an £11 million modern slavery innovation fund, which is all about trying to deal with that in the communities and how we can wrap around it.

We also support and fund local authorities that are engaged in mapping county lines. I definitely urge hon. Members to encourage their local authority to seek to do that, and the Home Office and the police will support them in delivering such action—with our funding rather than theirs. In that way, local authorities can get an understanding of what is going on in their very community. It is a phenomenon. Although I understand the pressure on the police—I am not deaf to the challenges around that and to the fact that more will need to be done—the biggest single contribution from what I have observed has been mobile communications, encryption and money laundering in a way that is so different from the past. Those lines can be run from the very top of an organised crime group in Colombia. The group can order, resupply and get delivery so that drugs arrive on the doorsteps of our communities.

We all have a role to play—a really strong role—to make sure that schools do not go down the exclusion route, because that puts many of those young people out on the streets to be preyed upon. We have to do a lot of work around the permissive society. What we find is that there are a few areas—they are significant and solid—where these crime routes are coming. There are communities that are permitting the organised crime routes to become strong enough to send people into our communities. Work on permissive societies is something that we all have to address.

Organised crime might involve someone buying an illegal pack of cigarettes behind a bar. They might say that it does not really matter—a bit of a knock-off at the local bar—but people do not realise that that pack of cigarettes is moved by people who move women on a Monday and children on a Tuesday, and flog drugs on a Thursday. Someone might say, “Wink, wink, I got this a bit cheap down the local bar,” but that person is fuelling and helping organised crime. We all have a role to play. We must tackle permissive societies, harden the environment, get everyone knowledgeable about what is out there to stop young people being exploited and help our local authorities deal with those cases. It will be a growing issue. Co-ordination, planning and investment will be key. I from my end and the organised crime end will help to support such action through the serious organised crime strategy, which is due to be launched very soon, and I know that the Minister responsible for crime reduction is keen to tackle this from the bottom up. We will make sure that we work across the Government and across parties to try to achieve that.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.