We are determined to end county lines and have announced a £20 million package of initial measures to do so. This will expand the national county lines co-ordination centre, help to target the transport network and go after the profits from this crime, and support young people to exit county lines.
North Yorkshire police have had recent success arresting six people in a county lines operation in Harrogate. Breaking the gangs that operate the county lines is obviously critical, but so is supporting the addicts, who are at the end of the line, and those exploited into dealing. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is through tackling both supply and demand that progress will be made in dealing with county lines?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I gather that he was recently involved with his local constabulary in the apprehension of a drug dealer on East Parade in Harrogate—I am glad to see he is on the frontline too. He is right that we need a balanced approach to tackling the harm that drugs cause in our society. While that includes enforcement and disrupting the business model of those involved in promulgating this awful trade, we also have to provide support to young people to get them out of the habit, or even to prevent them from getting into the trade in the first place. Significant resources are being devoted to this, not least through the early intervention youth fund, which is putting hundreds of millions of pounds behind these kinds of projects.
The Home Office has a number of UK-wide initiatives to combat the range of problem drug use factors, including county lines—we might even refer to it as country lines, because it affects the whole United Kingdom, and there are people suffering from drug gangs coming as far into the north-east as Banff and Buchan. With the SNP’s stated policy of decriminalising possession and consumption of controlled drugs, what effect does the Minister think that such a differentiation in Scotland would have on these UK-wide efforts?
My hon. Friend was present at the Scottish Affairs Committee when we discussed this matter in some detail, so he will know that my view is that having a different regime in Scotland from that in England and Wales could cause significant problems for Scotland, not least because it would become a target for those wishing to promote the trade more easily and running county lines from England into Scotland. There are times when we are four nations and times when we are one country, and on drugs we should be one.
My hon. Friend is a doughty defender of Sussex police and a great supporter, I know, of the brilliant police and crime commissioner there, Katy Bourne, who is doing a fantastic job. He is right that Sussex police have been in the forefront of the fight against county lines and have received significant funding of £900,000 through the early intervention youth fund and £1.3 million to support police operations in the area. I am happy to say that in the latest week of intensification of action against county lines, which I hope he noted the other week, Sussex police made 29 arrests and safeguarded 50 vulnerable individuals.
I too am concerned about the situation in Morecambe, not least because, like Birkenhead, it has happy memories for me of my childhood. I am keen to sit down and talk to my hon. Friend about what more we can do in Morecambe, not least because we are in conversation with Merseyside police about the action that we want to take on county lines. Obviously, many of the lines into Morecambe will be run from my home town. It is a town in a particular position, because there are limited points of access, over bridges and by road, which gives the police a significant opportunity to identify and apprehend criminals before they even get there.
Our July Select Committee report warned that county lines were spreading violence and drug networks into not just cities but towns. In Castleford, in my constituency, where I called a meeting with the police, local schools and community representatives, there is a real sense that the problem is getting worse in our towns, with residents reporting overt drug dealing on the streets and in town centres. People are concerned not just about the halving of our neighbourhood police, but about the fact that the youth endowment fund that the Minister has announced is tiny by comparison with the cuts in the youth service. Does he accept that there is a real perception across the country that the Government’s drug strategy simply is not working, and that unless they invest in the youth service as well, they will not turn this problem around?
As the right hon. Lady will have heard, I did, in answer to an earlier question, talk about a balanced drugs strategy that takes into account both enforcement and youth intervention. However, there is always more that we can do. Alongside the expansion of the county lines co-ordination centre and the action that we shall be taking over the next few weeks as part of the general uplift relating to the £20 million of funding that we have received, we have established a county lines group at the Home Office which is bringing together all the partners we think can have an impact, not just in policing but beyond. We need a real push, because we are under instruction from the Prime Minister to bring this phenomenon to an end.
Last week the Health and Social Care Committee, of which I am a member, published a report recommending a radical change in the UK drugs policy—a change from a criminal justice approach to a health approach. Given the high rate of drug-related deaths in Scotland, does the Minister accept that the current UK policy is simply not working, and that a new approach is desperately needed?
As I said to the Scottish Affairs Committee, my mind is open on what more we can do, but there are plenty of things that should be done and are not being done. One of the common phenomena in countries that have been successful in dealing with drug-related problems is investment in health treatment and recovery, but, sadly, that has not happened in Scotland over the last few years. As I said to the Committee, there are many things that the Scottish Government can and should be doing. Given the scale of the problem in that part of the United Kingdom, I am surprised that they are not putting more effort, and more resources, into treatment and recovery.
We have heard twice about the Minister’s early days as a youth, including in Liverpool, but the fact is that he will have to grow up fast, because the wicked people behind drugs in this country are big gangsters, and those who killed the 39 innocent people in that refrigerated van are big players. When will the Government tackle the wicked men and women who run crime in this country, and do it effectively?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman has noted some of the recent successes that we have had in dealing with some of the really big gangs who promulgate this trade—not least the National Crime Agency’s biggest ever seizure of drugs, which were being shipped in, funnily enough, in Liverpool, in fruit and veg lorries. Nevertheless, there is always much more to do. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be encouraged by the fact that the Home Secretary and I, along with the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend Brandon Lewis, who is responsible for dealing with serious and organised crime, are working closely together to see what more we can do in order to do exactly as the hon. Gentleman says, and take this business out from front to back.
County lines operations have invaded every town and city across the UK, and they do not discriminate when it comes to the lives they affect. South Wales police, my own excellent constabulary, is seeing children as young as 13 arrested for involvement in county lines. We must protect the young and vulnerable from this exploitation, and no matter what the Government think they are doing, it is not enough. We need to do more to protect young people from this dreadful county lines epidemic.
The hon. Lady is exactly right. Thankfully, her local police force will have more police officers next year to help with this effort, and I know that one of the key focuses of all police forces involved in dealing with this awful phenomenon is the safeguarding of young people. Obviously, I will be working closely with colleagues from the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education to see what more preventive work we can do. I believe that there is quite a lot more we can do around the disruption of the business model, to make it more difficult for people to deal drugs and to launder the money involved in the trade. That would make them less likely to promote it in smaller towns and villages and more likely to concentrate instead on urban areas, where we can get to work on the issue.