Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 7:15 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, Amendment 228 introduces a new clause with a regulation-making power that will enable the police and the National Crime Agency to apply to the courts for an order compelling communication providers to take whatever action the order specifies to prevent communication devices being used in connection with drug-dealing offences. Such action may include blocking mobile phone handsets, SIM cards and preventing particular phone numbers from porting between networks, as well as preventing access to wi-fi networks. This is an enabling provision that provides for the Secretary of State to set out in regulations details of how applications are to be made and dealt with in the courts. The amendment broadly mirrors Section 80 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, which provides for a similar power to prevent the use of mobile phones in prison.

The amendment responds to an operational requirement of the police, who require support in tackling the issue of county lines—the police term used to describe gangs in large urban areas who supply drugs, especially class A drugs, to suburban areas and market and coastal towns. To support their market expansion, gangs recruit and exploit children and vulnerable adults through deception, intimidation, violence, debt bondage and/or grooming. They are used to carry drugs and money.

County lines gangs’ criminality relies on the unrelenting recruitment, coercion and systematic exploitation of the most vulnerable including looked-after children, young people reported as missing and children from broken homes. Vulnerable adults are also exploited and can lose control of their home to gangs who use it as a base to distribute drugs, in a practice known as cuckooing.

The phone line is central to this model and to the gangs’ ability to deal drugs out of area in this way. When establishing a new county lines market, gangs will promote a number locally as the number to call to buy drugs. That “deal line” is therefore at the very core of this criminal model. Dealing drugs is a serious criminal offence and the police are committed to securing prosecutions wherever possible. However, as the deal line is held well away from local street-level drug-dealing activity and it will be an anonymous pay-as-you-go line, both those factors make it hard for the police to achieve prosecutions against an individual for the activity on that line.

Each deal line has the potential to interact with hundreds of customers and facilitate thousands of deals 24 hours a day. Disrupting these lines will have a significant impact in disrupting the gang-related drug supply and associated exploitation. There is currently no legal power in place to compel communication providers to disconnect phones used in county lines drug-dealing activity. We must ensure that the police have the powers they need to tackle this issue.

This legislation is part of a wider ongoing multiagency response, including safeguarding partners, to tackle county lines gangs, but this new order is a critical tool that will render this operating model ineffective and unattractive through the disruption of it. Amendments 236 and 241 are consequential. I beg to move.