County Lines Exploitation: London — [Dame Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 17th January 2018.

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Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North 9:30 am, 17th January 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered county lines exploitation in London.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I thank all hon. Members who are here to participate, and in particular my hon. Friend Ann Coffey for her support before this debate and for her important work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults.

London gangs and criminal networks from other major cities are aggressively expanding their illegal enterprises. They are flooding suburban and rural areas as well as market and coastal towns with drugs. They co-ordinate their sales through dedicated mobile phone lines in a practice known as county lines activity.

The latest National Crime Agency report reveals that,

“there are at least 720 lines across England and Wales”,

with

“at least 283 lines originating in London.”

Worryingly, the report states:

“The actual number may well be considerably higher, as many of these areas are likely to have more than one line.”

London is the major urban source of county lines activity, and I will consider how the Met police, local authorities and other agencies in Enfield and across the capital are working to address it. It is spreading out from London and other urban areas, however, to reach into every area of our country. It is a national issue that demands a co-ordinated, nationally funded response that focuses on policing and children’s services.

County lines activity is having a terrible, damaging effect on young people, vulnerable adults and local communities. Children from my constituency and beyond are being exploited by gangs and forced to transport class A drugs, weapons and money great distances away from where they live.

Between November and December 2017, at least nine children from Enfield were reported as missing. Enfield police issued a statement to reassure the public that the borough was,

“not experiencing a disproportionate amount of missing teenagers.”

That was undoubtedly true, but I know from the messages and emails I received that the public were not reassured. If nine missing children in a matter of weeks is not disproportionate and there are 32 London boroughs, that is very frightening. There was genuine alarm about what was happening to those children and speculation that county lines exploitation could be involved.

It is not only vulnerable children and teenagers who are affected. Gangs are taking over the homes of vulnerable adults in those areas to set up drug dens—a process known as cuckooing—often through violence and coercion, or in exchange for free drugs. Many communities affected by county lines activities are reporting a rise in knife crime offences, violent crime and drug use.

The Government acknowledge that,

“County lines is a major, cross-cutting issue involving drugs, violence, gangs, safeguarding, criminal and sexual exploitation, modern slavery, and missing persons”.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the good advances that we have made over the past year has been to understand that some of our children are being coerced into those gangs? Is she pleased, as I am, that the modern day slavery legislation is being applied in such cases so that those children are understood, rather than condemned?

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

Indeed, I will come to that later. As pleased as I am about the modern day slavery legislation, it has been used very little. In fact, I think there has been only one case, which I will refer to. We need to bear it in mind that those children often do not see themselves as being exploited. They think, “I’m doing rather well here. I’m getting money in.” If they are not cared for children, they feel cared for by their exploiters.

The Government acknowledge that,

“the response to tackle it involves the police, the National Crime Agency, a wide range of Government departments, local government agencies and VCS (voluntary and community sector) organisations.”

However, they must also acknowledge that county lines activity is putting our vital public services in London and across the country under even greater strain. Our health and social care services, police forces, schools and youth clubs are trying to tackle this growing menace at a time of Government-imposed austerity and severe funding cuts to their budgets.

The way in which county lines activity is being carried out changes all the time—the use of social media as a recruitment tool is one recent development. Authorities require the resources to respond dynamically to those changes and be innovative. I call on the Government to establish a national, co-ordinated, inter-departmental and inter-agency strategy to tackle county lines activity. I urge the Government to ensure that they provide our public services and local authorities with the support and financial resources they need to end the exploitation of some of our most vulnerable children, young people and adults.

London is the exporting hub from which county lines activity flows into almost two thirds of police force areas across England and Wales. Every day, older gang members in the capital prey on vulnerable children and young adults, many of whom are from troubled backgrounds, have been excluded from school or are suffering from mental health problems.

It is particularly concerning that almost half the police forces in England and Wales have reported,

“that individuals involved with county lines came from care homes”.

All too often, we take less notice of the safety and security of children who are in care. From cases such as Rotherham, we already know what happens when warning signs of abuse and exploitation are missed or ignored. We cannot allow that to ever happen again.

Vulnerable children as young as 12 are being groomed by county lines gangs with promises of money, companionship and respect. In reality, they are often forced to go missing from home for long periods of time; they are used as drug mules with their orifices plugged with class A drugs, predominantly heroin and crack cocaine; and they are trafficked to remote areas and forced to deal drugs in squalid conditions. At all times, they are at great personal risk of arrest by the police—in fact, probably the only time that they are really safe—or of physical and sexual abuse from older gang members, local drug users or rival gangs.

We must remember that this activity is associated with a lot of extreme violence. These are cases of modern day slavery. We have seen harrowing cases of vulnerable adults whose homes have been turned into drug dens by urban gangs, such as one individual who was held hostage in their own home and prevented from using their own toilet. Those vulnerable people, young children and adults, are in desperate need of our help.

The National Crime Agency, which has reported on county lines activity since 2015, acknowledges that there

“remains an intelligence gap in many parts of the country”.

It states:

“A clear national picture cannot be determined currently” of accurate levels of exploitation and abuse carried out in county lines activity in many parts of the country.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Treasury)

One of the most shocking stories I heard was from a mum whose child had been on the county lines. She told me how she had been trying to stop him, but how he would just come home for a rest before going off again. What was most shocking was that child protection professionals were completely and utterly unaware of him. The gangs played the system really well: social services considered her a bad mum because of the unreasonable demands she was making on her son to stay at home.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

Absolutely; so much more needs to be done. Let us remember that county lines are somewhat below the radar: we might know about them, but the response to the Twitter reports about missing children in Enfield caused something of a public panic. The public do not know about the issue, so there is not enough pressure to introduce policies to deal with it. Drug dealers like nothing better than operating in the dark, under the radar. Young people especially may not recognise their exploitation.

It is clear that we need to understand the creation, recruitment, opportunities, risks and scale of county lines so much better if we are to address the issue. I therefore urge the Government to commission comprehensive and rigorous research to pull together up-to-date police and local authority data to achieve that aim. After all, how can we hope to tackle the problem unless we understand its true scale? As the NCA’s head of operations for drugs and firearms threats, Vince O’Brien, says:

“This is a national problem…there is still no national response.”

Gangs are aware of the intelligence gaps. County lines activity is exposing the challenges of dealing with offenders who operate across police force boundaries. Part of the problem relates to police forces’ ability to work together.

Operating across county lines is a fantastic business model for the gangs, because they are opening up new markets and operating below the radar. They have no competition at the early stages of their operation, and very low overheads because their business is based on using vulnerable children and young adults as slaves. In Enfield, a young person who is absent from school may be regularly reported as a missing person, but in Essex the same child could be deemed by the local police to be a street drug dealer or to have been forced into street prostitution. It is very likely that the two police forces could be operating in isolation from each other. Which is responsible for taking the lead? Do we need cross-border crime squad teams, like the old national crime squads?

Progress can be made by improving how Departments and other agencies share data. In spite of the lack of national leadership on the issue, councils across London, led by Islington’s lead member for children and families, Councillor Joe Caluori, have taken proactive steps to understand the county lines that originate in their own boroughs. They are working together to cross-reference data and identify areas where further information and action are required.

My hon. Friend Heidi Alexander may want to go into this in greater detail, but police in Lewisham have also done innovative work by looking at the numbers of missing young people over the previous 12 months, identifying those who may be at risk of exploitation and uploading their information to the police national computer. That means that Lewisham police will be contacted if any of those at-risk young people comes into contact with another police force, which will build a fuller picture of the scale of county lines activity.

I welcome the Government’s implementation of new drug dealing telecommunications restriction orders, which allow the police to shut down phone numbers used for county lines drug dealing. However, while that is an important step forward, how much disruption will it actually cause? How long does it take for a county lines dealer to simply get another phone and begin sending drug offers to their original contact list? A lot more needs to be done to address the problem at its root.

I am concerned that major questions about county lines remain unanswered. The county lines model is being changed all the time. We know that social media are used to recruit children and young people, but do we know enough? Is there enough research and is it moving at the right pace? There also needs to be a much stronger focus on prevention. By the time the police become involved, it is often too late to prevent irreversible harm from being done to a vulnerable child or young adult, or to ever extricate them from the world they have become involved in.

All Government agencies and local authorities need to be able to recognise and act on the warning signs for victims of county lines exploitation. That requires proper funding from central Government, but the reality is that health, social and children’s services are being pushed to breaking point by the Government’s austerity agenda. In Enfield, the Government have slashed £161 million from the council’s budget since 2010, and the council is required to make a further £35 million of cuts by next year. Immense pressure is being placed on Enfield’s public services at a time when they are already struggling to support a rapidly growing population. How do we expect councils and other agencies to implement strategies to prevent county lines exploitation, when their resources are being cut year on year? I ask the Minister not to simply pass the buck to local authorities by telling us about raising the precept. Hard-pressed Londoners cannot make up the funding gap, and nor could raising the precept. That is not a solution and should not be put forward as one.

Home Office guidance states that tackling county lines will involve working with groups such as voluntary and community sector organisations, providing meaningful alternatives to gangs. What we need is meaningful actions; warm words just will not do it. The stark reality is that the Government cut £387 million from youth service spending across the country between 2010 and 2016. Government cuts to London councils have slashed youth service budgets by £22 million since 2011, leading to the closure of 30 youth centres and the loss of at least 12,700 places for young people. If the Government are serious about tackling county lines exploitation, there needs to be greater investment in youth clubs for children and teenagers and in children’s services across the board.

A standout example of best practice to tackle county lines in London is Project Denver, an initiative piloted by the Met’s Trident gang crime command unit in Enfield between October 2016 and January 2018. The project’s objectives are to dismantle one of the most violent county lines gangs in London, to identify vulnerable people who are at risk of exploitation, and to prosecute the gang members responsible. The team assigned to the initiative is made up of specialist Trident officers and local police from Enfield and other affected forces, working alongside Enfield Council and other councils within and outside London. So far, 20 operations have taken place, leading to more than 100 arrests and the identification of more than 50 vulnerable children and adults. The gang has now largely been dismantled. Formerly one of the most harmful gangs in London, it is now ranked outside the top 20.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Scottish National Party, Inverclyde

I am interested in what the right hon. Lady says, but there is a slight problem with her argument. Every single time the police intervene and take down one gang, another is only too willing to step into the void. That gang will use increasing violence, because that is how these people operate: the more violent they are, the more territory they control. Every time we pull down a gang, another will step in until we get to the root of the problem: the illegal market.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s points that we must get to the root of the problem and that these gangs operate in a violent manner. However, I do not think that we can leave them in place; we would be abandoning children and young people to their mercy. We need a much bigger, better-resourced operation based on national intelligence about how county lines operate. That may then help us to address the root causes of the issue.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Scottish National Party, Inverclyde

I think we are trying to achieve the same thing and we are genuinely both looking after the interests of these young adults. However, if we regulated the marketplace, we would take away all the power from all the criminal gangs and all their production, distribution and selling of the product, and therefore they would not need these couriers to do the job for them. I am talking about re-regulating the drugs market at the top level, which would immediately take all the power away from the gangs.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is proposing, but I do not agree with him and that would not be the solution that I would look for. I do not believe that it would necessarily solve the problem, because violent gangs would either move on to some other product or would want to sell the product at extortionate profits, whether it was legal or otherwise. We see the sale of illegal cigarettes all the time, yet cigarettes and smoking are legal, so I am not sure that I can agree with him. However, I thank him for his intervention.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

I will allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene again shortly.

I want to finish what I was saying about Project Denver, because when we have an example of something that works, we should pay it some attention. One of the fundamental problems is poverty and the lack of care for exploited young people. We know how effective things like Sure Start were and we know how effective neighbourhood policing, which has been decimated, was. We know what some of the solutions are, without having to legalise class A drugs.

The gang that I was talking about has been largely dismantled and it has gone from being one of the most harmful gangs in London to being ranked outside the top 20. Earlier this month, as part of Project Denver, two drug dealers from Enfield were convicted of human trafficking offences under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which was the first case of its kind in the UK. Those men were operating a London-to-Swansea county line and they had trafficked a vulnerable 19-year-old woman from London to a house in Swansea, where she was being held against her will, in order to supply class A drugs.

The successful prosecution of those two men shows what can be achieved when police forces, local authorities and other agencies share data effectively. But make no mistake—this work is resource-intensive. It cannot be done successfully unless there are the necessary resources. At the moment, if police forces and local councils put resources into this work, they have to take them from somewhere else, and under the pressure of funding cuts everything is a priority right now.

I believe that Enfield police and the Metropolitan Police Service as a whole are doing a good job, under immensely difficult circumstances, to keep Londoners safe. However, since 2010 the Government have axed more than £600 million from the Met’s budget and in the next three years they plan to cut several hundred million pounds more. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, has warned that further cuts to the Met’s budget would lead to the loss of 3,000 officers, which is 10% of London’s police force, by 2021. That would mean that London had just 27,500 officers, which would be the lowest level in 19 years, at the same time as London’s population is growing.

The latest figures, which are from December 2017, show that Enfield—just one London borough—has just 504 officers, which is 48 fewer officers than the borough’s target strength. The police are operating with one hand tied behind their back; they simply do not have the officers to do the job. That comes at a time when knife crime in Enfield has risen considerably; it rose by 48% in the last year alone. If the Government are intent on continuing to cut the Met’s budget, what hope is there for vulnerable children and adults who are being exploited by county lines? Do those people not matter? The Government should be under no illusion as to how resource-intensive county lines operations are. The Met must be given the resources it needs to tackle county lines in London.

County lines exploitation is a major issue for London and the UK. As the Prime Minister has said, modern slavery is

“the great human rights issue of our time, and…I am determined that we will make it a national and international mission to rid our world of this barbaric evil.”

Well, Prime Minister, county lines exploitation is modern day slavery, and it is now three years since the National Crime Agency published its first assessment of it. Since then, the police, children’s services and other agencies have called for a national strategy to end this exploitation of vulnerable children and adults. On 19 January 2017, which is almost a year ago to the day, a cross-party group of London councils wrote to the Home Secretary to press the Government to implement a national strategy. So where is it?

The Government must show national leadership on this issue. We urgently require a national strategy to ensure that consistent practice in tackling county lines is applied across all local authorities and police forces in London and throughout the country. We cannot allow more vulnerable children, young people and adults, who currently are all too often invisible to the police and child protection services, to fall between the cracks. The Government must make tackling county lines exploitation in London and across the UK a priority.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Conservative, Colchester 9:55 am, 17th January 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, and I congratulate Joan Ryan on securing this debate and making a very powerful case in relation to tackling county lines and some of the many issues that come with that.

More observant Members will know that Colchester, despite being Britain’s oldest recorded town and its first capital, is actually 60 miles from London. Although the subject of the debate is county lines exploitation in London, county lines have a far wider reach and impact, as we all know.

Traditionally, although every town and city across our country has been affected by the scourge of drugs and knife crime, they have largely been the preserve of our capital and our major cities, where the vast majority of those particular types of criminality has been prevalent. However, what we are increasingly seeing, partly because of a saturation of the market in London and in some of our other major cities, is that drug-dealers and the gangs that peddle these disgusting substances are moving further afield to sell their wares and operating county lines.

I represent a seat in Essex and traditionally we saw such activity taking place in some of the towns on the outskirts of London, but more recently—certainly over the past two and a half years—we have seen criminal gangs are moving further and further out from London, to towns such as Colchester and even to towns further afield, because of the opportunity that such new markets present.

The right hon. Lady made a very powerful case about county lines and why we have to tackle them—in particular, because of the young people involved. In my constituency, we have seen an increase in county line activity. Those listening to this debate outside Westminster Hall may not understand what a “county line” is, and it is important that we actually spell out what it is. It is a network of mobile phone lines that are bought and sold like franchises—[Interruption.] Perhaps the right hon. Lady did explain: I may have misheard. But it is important that the public have an understanding of what county lines are, because, as she rightly said, they often go under the radar and people do not understand how easy it is—particularly for young people—to be sucked in and trapped by these drug gangs in the conveyor belt and cycle that the county lines operation represents.

County lines are phone lines bought and sold, like franchises or small businesses. Often, the people who own them are never involved in touching drugs at all, but they increasingly use young people to spread their networks up and down the country.

In Colchester, we have seen an increase in knife crime, which is hugely regrettable. However, what is really interesting about that increase, and it is why this debate is particularly important, is that predominantly both the victims and perpetrators of knife crime have not been from our town. They have not come from Colchester; they are from London. On one particular night, we had six knife attacks, and every single one of the individuals involved—both the perpetrators and the victims—was from London. They were part of rival drugs gangs who were coming to Colchester to sell drugs, and bringing with them the knives, the intimidation and the violence that come with that activity.

We have also seen an increase in cuckooing. I know that the right hon. Lady touched on this issue, but it is important to spell out what a scourge on our society cuckooing is. Cuckooing is where a drugs gang, often operating through a county line, will come to a town such as Colchester and pick on a vulnerable person, whether that is someone with mental health issues, someone in social housing, a prostitute or someone who is already addicted to class A drugs. The gang will operate from that person’s property, which is often social housing, using that base to exploit that individual or individuals to sell their drugs from the location over the course of a week or two.

An individual came to my constituency office absolutely petrified. He was clearly a class A drug user—he was perfectly honest about that—and he said, “I have had people come to my flat. They came with a gun. They took over my flat.” First, they offered him drugs, which he of course accepted; he was addicted to heroin. He said, “It has got to the point where they will not let me back in my flat. They have taken over.” He was too scared to go back to the flat, because they said that they would kill him. He came to me, and I gave the only advice I thought I could give, which was to go to the police. He went to the police station and he was subsequently arrested, because they went to the flat and found a large quantity of class A drugs. Despite that perhaps being a regrettable outcome, it was probably the best and safest place for him at that point in time. Cuckooing is becoming a major issue because it is happening more and more frequently.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Scottish National Party, Inverclyde

What we are seeing here is that a person with a drug addiction went to the hon. Gentleman looking for help and the best outcome he could find was to be arrested.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Conservative, Colchester

That is not quite what I said. I said it was the safest place for him because the police were able to take action. What advice should I have given to an individual coming to my constituency office who said an individual with a firearm had taken over his property? What action the police chose to take was up to them. That is not my job as a constituency MP; my job is to protect the individual and other individuals living in my constituency when I hear a report of a firearm. The issue is for the police.

On the wider issue of cuckooing—this is not a party political point; we all agree that we urgently need to tackle this issue across the country—what worries me most is how these drug gangs operating county lines are targeting the young and some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I mentioned that these cases often involve prostitutes, those with mental health issues, those in social housing and class A drug users, but often there are families involved in that scenario, too. Just because someone is a class A drug user, that does not mean they do not have children in the property. If a drug dealer operating a county line comes to a young person’s property and threatens them and their mother, I would not blame that young person for taking action to protect their parent, especially if they are young and vulnerable. That is why it is important that we take a long hard look at how we treat these young people and how we intervene.

I take all the points that the right hon. Member for Enfield North made on support services. We have to do more to put support services in place. Where we identify those young people—I take her point about missing people—who are vulnerable and are involved, or in danger of being involved, in a drug gang or a county line, we have to intervene, but we have to be clear about the action we want to take. It is important that we do not criminalise those young people. We should treat them as victims, because it is dangerous to criminalise them.

I predict that the Minister will say that if a young person is involved in a serious crime—especially a crime that affects another person, such as a stabbing—it is absolutely right that the criminal justice system takes full effect. However, if a young person has clearly been a victim and has been exploited and used as a drug mule carrying drugs about their person, as the right hon. Member for Enfield North said, or has been dealing drugs—it could even be a case of modern slavery—it is important that we send a clear message to that young person that we want to help. We should say, “We will intervene. We want to ensure that we get you back on the path to being fully involved in society.” We should not set them off down the wrong path, which is the danger in labelling them a criminal. What kind of message does that send out? When they are an exploited, vulnerable victim, what path does that set them on for the rest of their life?

We have to be careful how we treat young people in particular. To be clear, drug gangs are increasingly using children as young as eight, nine or 10, potentially entrapping them with gifts such as trainers, phones and other things, at which point they feel completely owned by that individual or drug gang. Sometimes it is worse—sometimes it is physical violence against them or a family member who they love. The point is that we have to intervene and offer them some kind of hope and a way out of a horrific situation.

I am passionate about tackling this issue, and I am keen to work cross-party to ensure we put in place the right measures and make support available, particularly to those young people to help them get out of that potential life of crime. I know the Minister is equally as passionate because we have had so many conversations about it. First, I urge her to encourage police forces to work far more closely on the county line issue. We need to get police forces outside London to work far more closely with the Metropolitan police in London, where sadly a lot of the county line activity emanates from. We need to put in more resources to tackle the county line issue. The Government recently put in just under £300,000, so they are taking action, but there is more to do. This is a growing issue that is largely going under the radar. Secondly—potentially this is more of a Justice issue than a Home Office issue—when we intervene and find those young people who are victims, are being exploited and have gone through the most horrific experiences, we should look at them as victims, not criminals.

Photo of Ann Coffey Ann Coffey Labour, Stockport 10:06 am, 17th January 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I thank my right hon. Friend Joan Ryan for securing this important debate on county lines; I thought her contribution was absolutely fantastic. I was interested in the description that Will Quince gave of the impact of county lines on the community he serves. He said that despite the fact that his community is away from London, the county lines have a corrosive effect on it.

The National Crime Agency report “County Lines Violence, Exploitation & Drug Supply 2017”, published in November, mapped the growing extent of the exploitation of children and young people and the shocking levels of violence, intimidation and coercion used. That this has reached such levels in what we all believe to be a civilised society is shameful. The NCA accepts that it does not have a national response at this time, but following its report, it will prioritise county lines and take a co-ordinating role with local and regional police forces. I think we would all agree that that is long overdue, and it would help if the Minister expanded a little on what that might look like.

There has been concern for some time about the growing county lines operations of organised crime gangs based in the big cities. In 2015, Missing People and Catch22 presented their report “Running the Risks” in Liverpool. It explored the links between gang involvement and young people going missing. In 2016, our all-party parliamentary group, which is supported by the Children’s Society and Missing People, reported on the safeguarding of absent children. We found evidence that children reported as absent who the police decided were at no apparent risk ended up falling through the safety net, exploited by adults for sex and/or for supplying and selling class A drugs.

The majority of those recruited by gangs are 15-to-17-year-old boys, but boys are more likely to be recorded as absent and at low risk than girls. That is why county lines operations have been able to exist below the radar. Girls who are exploited along county lines are at increased risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking. We should not forget that children can suffer multiple exploitation. We cannot simply deal with that by putting the issues into particular silos; it all has to come together in an understanding of the exploitation of children.

In 2017, the all-party group held a roundtable on children who go missing and are criminally exploited by gangs. We warned that the safeguarding system was failing children because of a lack of understanding of the signs of exploitation and because many children were still being seen as criminals and not victims—a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North and the hon. Member for Colchester. Looked-after children are particular targets for grooming by criminal gangs, and those placed out of the borough can be especially vulnerable, as are young people in pupil referral units. Such children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation because of the circumstances of their lives and their exclusion from schools.

Preventing young people from becoming embedded in gangs has to be a priority. Key to identifying early risk is the sharing of data on missing children. Frequent missing episodes and being found out of area, returning from missing episodes with injuries and unexplained absences from school were all highlighted as being signs that a young person could be involved in county lines activity.

There are issues about how missing data is collected and shared. I welcome the new missing persons database that will be operational later this year, but how effective it will be will depend on the information gathered by local police forces. Will the Minister say when the missing persons strategy will be updated? Recognition of missing episodes as indicators of potential criminal exploitation, followed by appropriate and timely responses, might prevent further exploitation of vulnerable children and young people. Disrupting county lines and convicting the criminals behind them is vital. Organised crime has been getting the message that, provided they use children and young people, we are powerless to do anything about it.

On 4 December, our APPG held an event at the House of Commons, attended by experts, professionals, police and practitioners to discuss the disruption of county lines and how children and young people can be better protected. There was overwhelming support for more use of trafficking legislation and the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

The national referral mechanism was set up in 2009 to identity victims of human trafficking or modern-day slavery. Acceptance by the national referral mechanism clearly identifies the young person as a victim, even if they have committed a criminal act, which is very important in the context of criminal exploitation. Evidence from the Children’s Society and ECPAT shows that the knowledge, understanding and implementation of the national referral mechanism is patchy. ECPAT is also concerned that the national referral mechanism does not necessarily trigger any safeguarding response and should be embedded into the child protection system.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North mentioned, there have been very few prosecutions under the trafficking legislation. One of them was at Swansea Crown court—the case that she mentioned, the first of its kind, against the gang operating out of London. There are ongoing cases in London, but, as with any new legislation, the police and CPS will be waiting to see how successful those cases will be.

We need effective tools to prevent young people from being used as drug mules by organised crime. Lewisham has used criminal behaviour orders, which can prohibit a young person from travelling to certain places, which makes them less attractive to the criminal gang. Child abduction warning notices can also be served on individuals suspected of grooming children and young people. Although there are some issues with those, such as the need to consult with parents—we can all see what the problem with that might be—they clearly identify that it is an individual adult who is exploiting children and it is the child who is the victim, which puts the responsibility where it belongs. That might encourage communities to look at the people operating in their communities as exploiters of children and might help to change attitudes towards those people.

However, there should be a notice that is more in keeping with the trafficking legislation than the Child Abduction Act 1984 is, and it should apply to all 16 and 17-year-olds, which child abduction warning notices do not. Breach of the new notices could then be used as evidence to apply for orders that carry penalties under the trafficking legislation. Will the Minister support such an approach?

We have a fragmented safeguarding system that responds to the child as a victim or as an offender and does not recognise that a child can be both. The most powerful contribution to our December meeting was from a parent who had battled hard to get safeguarding agencies to understand that her son, who was being groomed into criminal activities, was an exploited child. Her son became more and more embedded into county lines and ended up being stabbed. The parent said:

“It became so frustrating as all services that were assigned to working with my son in this period were all working as separate entities. With this came, on many occasions, lack of communication, oversight or duplication of what was meant to be done or not take place, and this caused me great distress.”

In the end, she herself set up an email group for all the many agencies to co-ordinate information about her son, which proved helpful. It is important to learn from the experience of parents to make sure that the safeguarding response that a system provides is helpful to both the young people and parents and does not make a bad situation worse. It is important to understand the impact of out of borough placements on young people, which can expose them to further risk rather than protect them.

We need to challenge public attitudes that blame the young person for their own exploitation. This echoes the early cases of child sexual exploitation where the young girls were written off as prostitutes. But who can blame the public when that was the view of the agencies tasked with safeguarding children? Education is crucial. The Greater Manchester police “Trapped” campaign focuses on county lines, aims to raise awareness of the grooming process in communities and schools, and encourages communities to spot and report exploitation of young people.

Greater Manchester police says that county lines is a much broader issue than drugs and also involves the transportation of firearms and money. It is a developing business model, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North has already said. It is vital for police forces and agencies to work well together, so Greater Manchester police is working closely with forces that have an expanse of rural areas such as Cumbria, Cheshire, North Wales and Lancashire.

The excellent Greater Manchester police YouTube video, made for the “Trapped” campaign, illustrates vividly how a child drawn by the offer of cash becomes more and more embedded in the gang. What at first seems like easy money becomes a miserable existence of escalating violence and threats to life. We know that certain factors make children more vulnerable to exploitation, but all young people can be vulnerable at the time of transition from primary to secondary school. That is why it is important that sex and relationships education in schools involves raising awareness of criminal exploitation and county lines.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

I completely agree about the transition period being a risk. Does my hon. Friend agree that the pupil referral unit, where we have seen gang members hanging around to recruit youngsters who often are vulnerable, is also a risk?

Photo of Ann Coffey Ann Coffey Labour, Stockport

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Young people in PRUs are specifically targeted by organised crime because of their vulnerabilities. Vulnerable young people often feel there is nothing else for them on the horizon except what the drug dealer might offer. Poverty, poor housing, unemployment and living in a high crime neighbourhood creates the conditions for county lines to flourish.

County lines is also a public health issue. We cannot ignore the demand for drugs and the impact on individuals, families and children’s health. Health needs to be part of the safeguarding response to county lines at a national and local level. I thank the Minister for meeting me recently to discuss many of the issues.

Recent media coverage has meant an increase in the awareness of the extent of exploitation of children by organised crime, reaching beyond high-crime areas to communities that have never experienced the brutality and violence that comes with county lines. It is progress that there is increasing awareness and that the National Crime Agency is taking a national co-ordinating role. There has to be an effective response by the police leading to successful prosecutions so that county lines are disrupted. Alongside that there needs to be better identification of children at risk by agencies working together at a local and national level. There need to be better interventions earlier in children’s lives, and more resources.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East 10:19 am, 17th January 2018

It is a pleasure to follow the contributions of my hon. Friend Ann Coffey and Will Quince. Both Members spoke with a huge amount of sense, obvious compassion and a clear understanding of the issues. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Joan Ryan on securing the debate. She made a characteristically well-informed and engaging speech, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport said, was thoroughly excellent.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that there should be a co-ordinated national approach to tackle the running of drugs along county lines and that we need to review the way in which we deal with children, young people and vulnerable adults who get themselves caught up in such activity. I also believe that we need to consider tougher sanctions for those directing and driving such activity and to ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service, the police and local authorities have the resources and powers that they need to tackle the problem.

I first learned about the phenomenon of county lines drug running about four years ago, following a visit to my advice surgery by a distressed mother. I can picture her now: she was a woman living three or four roads away from my home in Lewisham; she was originally from Sierra Leone, and spoke limited English; and she was in a state of desperate confusion. Her teenage son had been arrested the previous day in Portsmouth. I asked, “What’s he doing in Portsmouth?”. She did not have an answer, but she was scared stiff about what was going on, and what she feared had been going on for a while but could not describe. She was crying out to me, as her Member of Parliament, for help.

The mother said that she could not cope. She talked about strange men hanging around her front door, and the fact that her son would disappear for short periods. She did not know what he was doing, and she asked me to help her find out what was going on. Her son was involved in running drugs from Lewisham to the south coast. There are currently 317 under-25s from Lewisham believed to be involved in that activity, of which about 200 are of school age. They are supplying drugs in 19 different counties. That is 200 school-age children from one London borough out of 32, so the problem is not insignificant.

Last year, as a result of a two-year operation involving the police and the local authority, 174 arrests were made, including 22 key adults. A number of the individuals who were arrested are still awaiting their criminal justice outcomes, but so far 121 years of prison sentences have been handed out collectively. Some 23 kg of class A drugs were seized, with a street value of £4.5 million. Lewisham Council, thanks to the leadership of officers such as Geeta Subramaniam and elected councillors such as Janet Daby, has taken a proactive approach to tackling the problem. Some of my colleagues have spoken about the sorts of measures that have been taken. Those people at the council are determined to stop the involvement of children, and let us be clear that some of the individuals involved in this activity are children. I get the sense, though, that they are frustrated.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Scottish National Party, Inverclyde

I may be putting myself on the line here again, but I refer the hon. Lady to Neil Woods, who was an undercover police cop and drug officer for 14 years. He put his life on the line to fight against such people. He probably knows more about cuckooing, county lines, and the production and distribution of drugs than all of us put together. Neil himself estimates, having worked for 14 years and put people away for thousands of years in cumulative prison terms, that he disrupted the supply of class A drugs by a total of two hours across his entire career. I am not saying that we should not be trying to do it, but how we are going about it clearly is not working.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East

I have some sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says, because I think that what happens in prison to rehabilitate offenders and to take them off the path that they are on is just as important as how many years they spend there. I am not sure at the moment that the system operates correctly, so I have some sympathy with his point. However, the point I am making is about the scale and significance of the activity in one part of London, and the action that is being taken by the local authority and the police to try to tackle it. As I will come on to say, that is very difficult in a time of constrained resources and with the funding pressure that the Metropolitan police and local authorities such as Lewisham are under.

As I was saying, I get the sense, from talking to police and council staff, that they are frustrated in trying to tackle the problem. A number of years ago, there was an operation called Operation Pibera, in which the local authority, in conjunction with the CPS and the police, tried to bring charges of trafficking under the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Unlike Enfield, they were not successful in securing those prosecutions. They wanted to bring those charges because the sentences associated with that sort of conviction would be longer than for the other lesser offences with which the individuals could have been charged.

The guys who are in control of the activity and who are luring, and sometimes coercing, children, teenagers and vulnerable adults into getting involved should feel the full heat of the law. They are people who will stab someone who wants to get out of doing the drug running. They are taking advantage of kids and adults with mental health problems by, in effect, getting them to do their dirty work. It is despicable, and rather than simply going for the low-hanging fruit of charging the individuals found with the drugs or the money on the day, there needs to be a mechanism in place to hold the guy at the top responsible.

As I understand it, the Modern Slavery Act was drafted primarily to deal with problems around individuals forced into sex work and domestic servitude. The running of drugs along county lines is different. Some of the underlying principles may be similar, but I would be interested to know whether the Minister agrees that it might be sensible to review whether amending the Act could make it easier to bring successful prosecutions, to ensure that those calling the shots on the county lines are held responsible.

It has been put to me that one of the changes that might be considered is changing the law to require the police and the CPS to prove, in relation to drug offences committed by, for example, teenagers on the county lines, that they were not being exploited, but were knowingly and willingly involved in the activity. The Minister would need to consider that issue in the round, but I would be interested to know whether she is looking at amending the Modern Slavery Act in any way. I believe that some 14-year-olds will know exactly what they are doing, but others will be victims, and we need to take our responsibilities to those children and young people seriously. Just because they might not be cared for, that does not mean that they do not matter.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; everybody has been very generous this morning. One mum told me what she had heard about how county lines were being run. She told me about the provision of a gift such as trainers to an individual, which is then considered to be a drug debt that has to be paid back. When the child goes on the county run to pay back the debt, they are robbed by the very people who sent them out, which means that the debt gets higher and higher, and the child has to work it off. They cannot go to their parents to ask for money to pay off the drug debt, because they are often not wealthy people, or the individuals simply do not want to burden their parents by asking for that kind of money. It is coercion and slavery, whichever way we look at it.

Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East

My hon. Friend highlights the precise problem.

How we prosecute individuals involved in this crime needs attention, but so do the tools that the police and local authorities have at their disposal to detect and disrupt such activity. I know that the Government recently introduced regulations to allow the police to apply to a court to close down the mobile phone being used to receive the drugs orders, for want of a better word for them. I know that those regulations were introduced only in December, but it would be helpful to receive an update from the Minister on whether any such applications have been made, and whether they have been successful.

Will the Minister say what resource is being given to the Metropolitan police, the National Crime Agency and local authorities in London to ensure that the basic tasks that are needed to track and monitor such activity can be carried out comprehensively and in a timely fashion? I know that Lewisham Council is keen to do more work on a pan-London basis, looking at how statutory agencies might use social media more effectively to track and predict county lines activity, but that, of course, needs to be funded.

It also seems to me that the work done by councils and the police in big cities such as London to educate young people about how to stay safe is absolutely critical. We teach young people road safety. We need to have the same focus on bullying, knife crime, drugs and healthy relationships in our schools. We can pretend that this is not happening, but that is not doing anybody any favours. We also need to ensure that parents are involved in that conversation. All of that costs money and my genuine concern is that it is money that local authorities and the police do not have.

In my first term as a Member of Parliament, I visited the parents of three boys who had been stabbed to death in my constituency. I never want to do that again. My fear is that the postcode wars of seven or eight years ago, where gangs were defined by territory and violence escalated through revenge stabbings, are being replaced with gangs running drugs down to different parts of the country. The outcomes—people being stabbed and poor kids living in fear—are exactly the same. I do not want children growing up in Lewisham to have that on their plate. We need to find a way to join up the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle, treat children as victims when they genuinely are, take tough action against the ringleaders and find a way to stop the problem spreading. It already ruins too many lives in places such as Lewisham. The least we can do in this place is to try to work out a way to tackle it.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Conservative, Chesham and Amersham

We now move on to the Front-Bench speeches. I am sure the hon. Ladies on both Front Benches will know how to divide the time equitably.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing) 10:31 am, 17th January 2018

Thank you very much, Dame Cheryl. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and it is a pleasure to respond to this debate today, as it has been a fantastic one, with so many well researched, thoughtful and excellent contributions—not least from my right hon. Friend Joan Ryan. I congratulate her on securing the debate and continuing the discussion on this issue in Westminster Hall. She gave a fantastic and thorough overview of the exploitation and treatment of these young people—many of whom, as she said, do not feel themselves to be exploited—and of the very profitable business model that underpins the crime, which combines kidnap, child abuse, drug dealing, trafficking and violent crime.

Right hon. and hon. Members spoke from personal experience today about their own constituents, whether young victims themselves or the victims of cuckooing, which Will Quince spoke about. I know he has done a lot of work in this area. He demonstrated the implications of the crime on not just London but towns outside London and spoke of the victims in his constituency. He spoke of the need, as everyone did, to support victims, rather than criminalise those young people. Rotherham was mentioned as a comparator. The similarities are key here. I have spoken to many survivors of the Rotherham scandal who told me that they were treated as sluts rather than victims. I have spoken to Sammy Woodhouse, who has been campaigning for Sammy’s law, which would allow their criminal records associated with the grooming to be expunged, and Labour is very happy to support that. The situation has very strong similarities here, because those children and young people were victims, just as many of these young people are.

My hon. Friend Ann Coffey, who is nothing less than an expert on this issue—and has worked on it over many years, in particular on the vulnerability of looked-after children—gave some great examples of good practice in this area on criminal behaviour orders and child abduction warnings. She made the very sensible case for treatment under trafficking legislation.

My hon. Friend Heidi Alexander gave a very thoughtful and emotional contribution, again distinguishing between victims and offenders, who should face the true sanctions that this horrendous crime deserves. She laid out the scale of the problem in just one borough and police force area out of 32. She made some important points about the Modern Slavery Act, which I will come on to, and the difficulties of prosecutions under that Act, and about how relevant it is for this offence, which is nothing less than slavery. I know how useful it has been as a deterrent in Merseyside, which has had some success in prosecuting offenders under the Act, because those gang members have not been treated as big kingpins in prison. They have been treated differently under the Modern Slavery Act and been isolated in prison and it has served as a deterrent for other people who could potentially be involved. We absolutely support the hon. Lady’s call for a review of that legislation.

We have heard shocking examples of the practice from around the country. We know that London is the biggest metropolitan supplier of this crime, but the National Crime Agency has found that 38 of the 41 forces in England and Wales have identified this form of exploitation taking place in their area. The Children’s Society estimates that 4,000 children are at risk from this crime every year across England and Wales.

Organised crime and its associated effects lead to hundreds of deaths every year, with figures for 2016 showing 2,479 deaths from illegal drugs alone. Though figures for deaths from the violence linked to organised crime are not specified, it is a significant factor in gun and knife violence. A total of 26 people were shot dead in the year to March 2016, and a further 213 were victims of stabbings.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Labour, Tottenham

May I recommend my review to my hon. Friend, in which I talk specifically about youth crime and the disproportionality of black and ethnic minority children going into the youth justice system? We have to do more to use the exploitation legislation and understand that these young people are just as vulnerable as many of the young women that we have raised in the past.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

I have of course read my right hon. Friend’s review and thoroughly recommend it to all other Members in the Chamber today. It is a very thorough overview of the criminalisation of black and minority ethnic young people and people of all ages in our criminal justice system and the pervasive attitudes that still exist, sadly, across elements of our criminal justice system, which lead to that over-criminalisation.

It is no surprise that as serious and organised crime grows, as we have heard today, violent crime is rocketing. The threat is growing and the police are struggling to keep up. They have suffered horrific cuts over the last seven years, which have devastated local intelligence collection. Now, in unprecedented fashion, senior officers are sounding the alarm across the UK. Unfortunately, serious and organised crime and violent crime are only one part of the picture of the demand that our police forces face, as 999 and 101 calls are up by as much as 30% on last year. Some 83% of the calls to command centres are non-crime related. They are related to mental health and missing persons—vulnerable people—and the police are not the appropriate agency to be dealing with vulnerable people. In some forces, missing persons are up by 300% in the last five years.

Violent crime is up by 13% on last year. In that time, our police forces have lost more than 20,000 officers and more than 40,000 police staff. As we have heard, the only response from this Government is to require police and crime commissioners to increase the precepts. That will not fill the gap that has been left by cuts to police forces, alongside cuts to the Crown Prosecution Service, courts and local authorities.

The chief constable of Merseyside Police, Andy Cooke, has warned that fewer neighbourhood officers make it harder to win the trust of local communities and make it more likely that there will be a wall of silence to protect local gangs and criminals. The director general of the National Crime Agency is increasingly concerned that organised crime is not being prioritised. She said that the £377 million annual funding handed to the NCA by the Government is nowhere near enough, given the severity of the threat. She said that

“we have got to recognise that it needs investment if we are going to protect the public from some of the most invasive crimes.”

There is simply no precedent in the service’s modern history for tackling the phenomenon of organised criminal gangs while so starkly under-strength. That has hampered the effort to tackle county lines, which has been referred to as a hidden crime. It took time for it to be given the recognition it warrants as a highly exploitative crime, partly because of the difficulty police have in identifying it. The runners involved can appear initially to be voluntary and often a number of red flags would need to be raised before the practice itself is identified. That requires a good deal of police work. Indeed, that was the point in establishing the more elusive form of criminality in the first place—that it would be difficult for the local force to identify non-resident dealers.

The successful prosecution of a leading member of a gang that used county lines in London revealed that the activity regularly brings in up to £150,000 a month for one particular criminal gang, causing incalculable harm in the process. It is the number of exploited children that truly marks out this form of crime as horrifying. One metropolitan force told me that, in one city alone, organised criminal gangs are able to exploit a pool of 20,000 to 30,000 children who are missing or absent from school or home by coaxing them into their criminal networks.

The reach of county lines is deeply concerning, and very few forces are immune. The National Police Chiefs’ Council estimated that there are 282 county lines coming out of London, and that they reach 65% of forces nationwide. The work to break those networks is onerous and costly. Intelligence collection is critical to bringing the leading figures in the networks to justice, but it is through safeguarding that vulnerable youngsters can be protected and the practice disrupted. That is why it was astonishing to learn that, last year, the Government rejected a force’s bid for funding from the police transformation fund to do exactly that kind of safeguarding work, focusing specifically on county lines and stopping the flow of vulnerable youngsters into the criminal practice. At a time when serious and organised crime is growing, it is perverse that a bid to safeguard youngsters who may fall into criminal gangs was rejected.

I want to leave the Minister plenty of time to respond to all the points raised today. I would welcome some further clarification from her about the operation of the networks and the telecommunications order, which was mentioned. I was pleased to support measures to disrupt these networks’ means of communication at the end of last year, but at the time I raised concerns about the speed and the effectiveness of the measures in taking down the networks of those suspected of dealing in county lines. I also said that criminals could easily switch phones and continue to communicate. The NCA’s most recent report seems to support those concerns. Many forces identify that criminals use more than one phone line. I appreciate that the new measures have been in place for only a month, but I would welcome an update from the Minister on how they are operating.

The NCA also said that we need a more consistent approach to capturing county lines intelligence. What role is the Home Office playing in helping to build a picture of the threat so we can assess the true scale of the practice? It has a clear definition of county lines, but a variation in its application has caused a potential blurring of the threat picture and may account for some perceived discrepancy in activity. What efforts are being made to capture and utilise county lines intelligence to ensure it can be accessed by all relevant stakeholders, not just police forces?

I reiterate my call for a review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and the way it is applied to county lines. It is crucial, as all hon. Members said, that such children are treated as victims and are placed on the national referral mechanism. As the Children’s Society said, the response to child victims is too often punitive, rather than protective. We need a national response to ensure that all police forces in all circumstances understand that they are victims, not criminals.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 10:42 am, 17th January 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I congratulate Joan Ryan on securing this debate on this incredibly important issue, and on making her points in such a compelling fashion. She made clear the very real impact on constituents and the feeling in local communities, as did hon. Members from both sides of the House. This is one of those rare issues on which we can reach cross-party agreement. This debate has made clear the commitment to tackle it—not just in London, but nationally.

Drug gangs target vulnerable young people—including, sadly, as Ann Coffey said, children in care and those who have had a very difficult time at home. Gangs deliberately target such children because they know they are susceptible to peer pressure and the influence of adults. They beguile, entice, flatter and befriend them, and when they have ensnared them, they put them to criminal work. It is exploitation pure and simple, which is why I am pleased that we are beginning to see such cases prosecuted under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which gives them the stigma they deserve, at the same time as tackling criminality.

As we have heard, once caught up in county line gangs, children are at risk of extreme physical and sexual violence, gang recriminations and trafficking. My hon. Friend Will Quince, who has done much work in this area, set out cogently the effect that such violence has had in his market town, 60 miles from London.

County lines gang activity and its associated violence, drug dealing and exploitation has a devastating on young people, vulnerable adults and local communities, including the parents, as Heidi Alexander said. This is a relatively new phenomenon. The hon. Lady said that she met constituents involved in this issue for the first time four years ago. I suspect that that was the beginning of this terrible new phenomenon; we were not debating it in 2010 or 2011 because it was not a problem.

We must give the police and others who have to deal with such gangs a bit of room to pace up and understand the way these cases and gangs are developing, because it is an extremely dynamic situation. We know that gangs are looking for new markets at all times to “diversify” their businesses. It is extremely fast-moving. Everyone involved—the Home Office, the police, local authorities and charities—has to react quickly to these situations.

Please be under no illusion: the Government are determined to crack down on this phenomenon, help those who work so hard on the frontline to support children, and investigate and prosecute the gang leaders. In short, we want to rescue and safeguard the victims, and take the gang leaders off our streets. How do we identify the gangs and support the victims? There must be both a national and a local approach to county lines, given the geographical range of some of the gangs. As hon. Members said, we cannot focus just on law enforcement. We have to look at the care we give to the children who are dragged into the gangs, and prosecute the gang leaders.

We have set up a national group to deliver a co-ordinated programme of action to tackle this issue. Through that group, which includes heads of police and other agencies, we have engaged social workers, health practitioners and law enforcement, as well as trained school nurses and housing support officers to raise awareness among the groups of people who reach into the lives of those children and their parents. We are trying to raise awareness among those groups so they can spot the signs of exploitation and point the young people in the right direction.

We completely understand that we need a multi-agency response, and that is what we are trying to do through the national group. The national group then reports to an inter-ministerial group. I appreciate that, outside Whitehall, all these different groups may not mean very much, but that means that Ministers have an understanding for their Departments. We meet regularly—I chair the group—so we can understand what, for example, the Department for Education and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government are doing to tackle this dreadful gang crime. We will outline further action on this issue on our forthcoming serious violence strategy, which will be published early this year.

The hon. Member for Stockport understandably focused on the issue of missing people. She has so much expertise on that issue and has worked on it for so long; it was a pleasure to meet her recently to discuss her concerns. The safeguarding response to such children is at the heart of protecting young people involved in such exploitation. We have published guidance to raise awareness of the fact that missing is a clear indicator of potential county lines involvement. We have funded local reviews through our ending gang violence and exploitation programme, which I will talk about in a moment, to improve the multi-agency response.

Missing people, in the context of county lines, will be highlighted in the forthcoming missing people strategy, which we are working hard on. The hon. Lady knows only too well how complex the issue is. We want to get it right, and we hope to publish that strategy in the coming months. I have listened to what she has said about child abduction warning notices, which we will consider carefully.

On tackling gangs, we have the ending gang violence and exploitation programme, which again draws together all the relevant Departments—the Department for Education, the Department of Health and Social Care, and so on—so that we work collaboratively on the complex features of county lines. Through that programme, rather like the national group, we know that health professionals, school nurses, housing officers and so on are being given training and being made aware of the key indicators of involvement so that they can spot victims and give them the help needed.

We also need the public’s help. I have been struck by the submissions of colleagues that some parts of the public are not aware of the phenomenon, and that is why this year we are running a nationwide campaign to ensure that parents know when things are perhaps not going right at home with their children, and where to go to seek help.

Through the national ending gang violence and exploitation programme, we are also trying to help local projects on the ground. That includes £300,000 for a new support service operated by the St Giles Trust and Missing People to provide additional support to young people exploited through county lines. That includes one-to-one support for county lines victims travelling between London and Kent; specialist return-home interviews, with subsequent referral and care plans for victims; and scoping work to identify how our support can be improved.

In addition, we have given £100,000 to 15 local area reviews outside London, because those are the areas the gangs are targeting. We want to enable those areas to look at what they are doing to ensure they are responding to the threats to young people—not just those from London but young people in their areas, because the gangs recruit locally as well.

Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am listening intently to the Minister. She has pointed to the ending gang and youth violence strategy and to different areas that feed into her, with lots of different projects working together at different times. However, what many Members have asked about and what I am interested in is: how does this all link up? Are databases being shared, or is there cross-working among the different areas? If not, how will the Government ensure that we manage that better?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

We may understand this in Whitehall, but I appreciate that we cannot wander around the streets of London talking about strategies. However, it is through such strategies that we draw all the partners together. There is a great deal of collaborative work on this, because we know that a child may start in London but end up on the other side of the country—north, south, east or west.

I will come to law enforcement in a moment, but there is also a great deal of work going on between police forces. Such things are not always on the front page of the local newspaper, because that would not be appropriate, but we ensure that officers talk to each other and share intelligence, as happened in Swansea, so that they know when gangs in London are coming to an area outside and the police can work together to bring a prosecution.

Young people’s advocates are also important. We have heard a lot today about youth clubs and so on. Since 2012, young people’s advocates have been funded in London, Manchester and Birmingham. They do an incredible amount of work, in particular with women and girls. We have not spoken much today about the impact of such issues on women and girls, but they can be terribly affected by sexual violence in gangs. Recently, I visited a charity called Safer London, which has young people’s advocates working with young women who have been sexually exploited, sometimes pimped out by the gangs or used in gang recriminations. Those advocates can do a great deal to turn around such women and girls’ lives.

Other organisations that we are helping include Redthread, which targets—that sounds like the wrong word; I should say “focuses”—on young people in London when they come into accident and emergency with stab wounds. Redthread tries to reach them at that most vulnerable point in their lives to break them free of the gangs. We have also just handed out more than £800,000 to local knife-crime charities—some Members might have received a letter from me about local charities that have received such funds—to ensure a local approach, because areas are different and we do not assume that what will work in one part of London, for example, would work in another. We rely very much on local charities with their expertise on knowing what will work.

Other strands of work include a local projects fund of £280,000. MOPAC, the Mayor’s office for policing and crime, and police and crime commissioners play a very important role. We are pleased that the Mayor of London is continuing with the London gang exit scheme, which tries to get young people out of gangs.

I am conscious about leaving time for the right hon. Member for Enfield North to respond, so I will move on to prosecution. I used to prosecute drug traffickers and other criminals for a living, and I am keen that we target the leaders of the gangs. I have heard what has been said about the Modern Slavery Act 2015. To our collective recollection, we have had no request from any arm of law enforcement to review the Act; law enforcement is using the Act as it stands. Of course, if we get such a request, we will consider it, but we have had no such request yet.

The problem, as the hon. Member for Lewisham East emphasised, is getting the people at the very top; sadly, that has always been the case—I speak as someone who used to prosecute gangs. Trying to get the people at the top, rather than those lower down the rungs, is very difficult, but that is not the fault of the Act; it is the difficulty of drawing the evidence together so as to get, for example, conspiracy to supply class A drugs on the indictment. The police are very much working on that, and the National Crime Agency has prioritised county lines as a national threat. It is working on that across the country. It has had a 100% response rate from all forces with its latest report, which gives the best intelligence assessment we have had so far.

To focus in, however, because I am conscious of the time, I should say that we have had some success in the area of prosecution. I am very pleased that two defendants in Swansea recently pleaded guilty, and other cases under the Modern Slavery Act are in the pipeline. Drug dealing telecommunications restriction orders are in force, but I cannot give any more detail on when the first one will be used, for operational reasons. The police, however, were very excited to have those orders as a power and they intend to use them. I hope that at some point I will be able to update the House on that.

Be under no illusions—as a Government we are very committed to tackling county lines. To quote a police officer to whom I spoke recently, who is tackling such gangs in her local area: “They are stealing our children.” That sums it up. We cannot and will not allow them to do that, and we will do everything we can to stop it.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North 10:57 am, 17th January 2018

I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. We have heard some thoughtful, knowledgeable and concerned contributions. There is widespread concern about the issue among all those who know about it.

I accept the Minister’s commitment to deal with the issue, which demands a cross-party response, and I accept that the Government wish to deal with it. However, we have to will the means to make an impact. I have found the police refreshingly honest about the need for the resource, the difficulty that forces have working across county lines and, therefore, the need to develop that ability.

The Minister talked about sums such as £300,000 to support exploited children or £100,000 for local area reviews. Of course, that is all very welcome—who is going to refuse funding for such important issues? However, they are tiny sums in the face of the fact that, over a 10-year period from 2010 to 2020, the Metropolitan police will have suffered a cut of £1 billion, and London local authorities anything from £150 million to £200 million.

If we are to make meaningful inroads into tackling this issue, as we all want, we have to will the means, and the resources have to be put in. That is the only way we will make real progress, rather than having one or two examples that we are pleased about, but which will not solve the problem or protect vulnerable children and adults.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered county lines exploitation in London.