It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. It looks as though we are going to be called for a vote imminently.
I congratulate Robbie Moore on securing this important debate. I agree with him entirely that we all want to sing from the rooftops about our constituencies, but we have to tackle the underlying problems that we all probably face. I agree with him about a twin-track approach, with a hard-line response to those criminals who are driving the drug market and support for those who are trying to get out and those we do not want to get involved in the first place.
My hon. Friend Ms Brown talked well, as she always does, about child criminal exploitation, the need to understand and define it in law and to tackle it. She highlighted the moments of vulnerability, such as school exclusion. If a young boy loses his life to knife crime, there will be a homicide review to learn the lessons. Why do we wait that long? Why do we wait until he has died? Why did we not intervene at an earlier stage? Why is the point at which someone is excluded from school not the point that triggers involvement with the parents and the child about what those vulnerabilities might be?
Anthony Mangnall talked about county lines and the drugs coming from all directions into his area. There was a drug line from my constituency of Croydon to Exeter. I have spoken to Exeter police about kids who find themselves on coaches to Exeter and how to recognise them when they get off. They do not have bags with them—only a little bag—and they know who they might be.
My hon. Friend Holly Lynch talked about the interesting findings related to drug driving, and the delays in forensics. It is absurd and awful that people could still be on the road, potentially causing the same problems, just because of delays in forensics. She also talked about the need for core neighbourhood policing teams, which we all agree on.
Jim Shannon said he was from the old school where people know the local bobby on the beat. I think we are all talking about a similar version, which is ensuring that the police are in our communities and areas.
Robin Millar talked about his beautiful community, and the drugs associated with such places. I was in Rhyl last year, where there are similar issues. It is a lovely, beautiful town hampered by drug use. I spent some time at a youth centre, where they were doing innovative work with kids on the street who were involved with antisocial behaviour and drugs. They had pulled them in, given them support and help. They had gone up Snowdon as part of a Duke of Edinburgh course, completely out of their comfort zone, doing things they had never done before, and giving them hope for the future. That was what the hon. Gentleman said was needed.
Drug crime is a scourge across the country. It fuels exploitation, violence and antisocial behaviour, and causes misery for communities. Drug deaths are at an all-time high. We have seen the emergence of increasingly violent and exploitative gangs, which use technology that is often way ahead of the Government’s, to groom children and sell them drugs. Dame Carol Black presented damning conclusions in her review on drugs. We have gone backwards over the past 10 years. Drug abuse is up at “tragically destructive levels”, she said, and drug treatment is down, with recovery services “on their knees”.
Prosecutions for drug offences are down 36% since 2010 and convictions are down 43%. The UK has become a target for international drug-trafficking gangs. This country is Europe’s largest heroin market. Serious organised criminals have a grip. Whether people live in a town, a city or the country, they worry about their kids getting involved in drugs, even buying them online. We have already talked a lot about county lines, and I think hon. Members agree on the problem. They are based on deeply exploitative criminal practices, forcing children, through debt bondage and other techniques, to become mules to ferry hard drugs up and down the country. Those children often appear not to be vulnerable, but they are hungry, scared and sometimes squatting in cuckooed properties of other vulnerable drug users.
I saw a picture in the Oxford Mail of a young lad wearing a hoodie and holding a wad of cash. When the police caught him, they asked him about the picture. He said:
“I thought it looked cool… It wasn’t even my money. I looked like a homeless person wearing a worn-out tracksuit. I hadn’t showered for two weeks.”
The reality behind the image is often very different.
In 2021, 49% of child referrals of modern slavery were for child criminal exploitation. The national referral mechanism received nearly 13,000 referrals of potential victims, up 20% on the previous year, which is the highest number ever. The number of specific county lines flags have also increased, up 23%. The evidence suggests a nationwide increase in this grotesque practice, and subsequent misery for the individuals and the communities affected.
I want to touch briefly on the online space. Drugs can now be bought and sold online. If someone goes on to Snapchat, they can buy one, get one free, or introduce a friend. The offers are all there. [Interruption.]