The Government are determined to stop the terrible exploitation of children and rid our streets of criminal county lines gangs. That is why we are augmenting significant police activity with an extra £25 million of targeted investment across the next two years to uplift the law and enforcement response to county lines and increase the support available to children, young people and their families.
In Beaconsfield, the Thames Valley police have been working tirelessly to protect and prevent child exploitation, particularly from county lines. Will the Minister update the House on what preventive tools the police can use to protect children and young people who are at risk of being criminally exploited through the county lines network?
One of the most significant deterrents that we think will be available to us is differential sentencing. A judge, on giving a sentence to somebody who is involved in county lines, can already take into act culpability factors, such as the use of children. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the Sentencing Council is currently reviewing those guidelines, and we hope and believe that the most severe penalties will be meted out to those who exploit children in this way.
With no statutory definition of “child criminal exploitation”, different safeguarding agencies and police forces understand the risks differently, but county lines exploitation is everywhere. In order to comply with Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary’s recommendation that we need a unified definition in law of child criminal exploitation, when can we expect such an announcement so that we truly safeguard these child victims?
The co-ordination of the effort across Government and indeed, across all the arms of government, including local government, will be one of the primary tasks of the new Cabinet committee that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has established. The hon. Lady is right that dealing with this phenomenon, which spans force and local authority boundaries, will take a united and concerted approach, and we will be doing so over the next few weeks.
According to Hampshire police, every town in our county has been targeted by county lines drugs gangs, and in Fareham we had some recent arrests of drug dealers. Will the Minister reassure me that Fareham will not get overlooked in the allocation of police officers as part of the new recruitment wave?
In her usual manner, my hon. Friend fights hard for resources for her constituency and I do not blame her, but, as she knows, the allocation of police officers—not least, new police officers—in a specific force area is a matter for the chief constable. However, as a Hampshire MP myself, with a town that has also been preyed upon by county lines drug dealers, she can be assured that how we as a county, and indeed, as a country can combat this scourge is at the front of my mind.
What discussions is the Minister having with other Departments about what we do when young people have been identified as having been caught up in county lines? It is very important, in some cases at least, that they are treated as victims, but that means getting them away from the scenes where they are vulnerable, and many times they are not found until they present at hospital because they have been stabbed. What are we doing about rehousing them or finding them a safe place to go, so that they do not get caught back up in the gangs again?
As I said in answer to an earlier question, co-ordination of the effort against county lines in terms of enforcement and intervention, and then rescuing young people who are involved in it, will take a huge amount of effort. The Cabinet committee that the Prime Minister has drawn together will look specifically at this. The hon. Lady will be pleased, however, that the Cabinet Office has been leading on cross-government work, looking at what more we can do to make sure that we deal with this problem.