Drug Crime

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:47 pm on 20th April 2022.

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Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs) 2:47 pm, 20th April 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Pritchard. I thank Robbie Moore for his speech; it resonated quite a lot with my experience in my constituency. He did a really good job of introducing the debate.

I want to raise an aspect of drug crime that I believe is still massively under-prioritised: child criminal exploitation, or CCE. The Minister knows this is a subject I have raised repeatedly over recent years. Unfortunately, while some genuine progress has been made, I still do not believe enough focus is being put on this. I gently say that I am still disappointed by that.

I have spoken many times about the damage done in my constituency as the end result of child criminal exploitation: we have seen dozens of children murdered and many more who have been stabbed, and we have seen the fear that has been created and the enormous potential that has been wasted and lost to gangs and crime. The groomers and exploiters who prey on our children seem to get off very lightly. This is about how organised criminals—mostly selling drugs—conspire to abuse, exploit, and dispose of children for profit. While constituencies such as mine have seen the biggest impact from county lines, the tentacles of those gangs extend across the country—the damage they do is widespread.

I have a few outstanding issues to raise with the Minister, and I would also like to remind him about my ten-minute rule Bill from December, as he might need some bedtime reading.

Last month we saw new guidance published for inspections of local area responses to CCE, which was very welcome. The guidance understands that CCE can be prevented, that children can be supported to break free and enabled to realise their potential, even after being exploited. Most of all, it recognises that all agencies, as we have heard, need to work together to respond together—schools, councils and police. I would be glad to hear from the Minister when there will be a concerted programme of inspections using the guidance. I would also like to understand how the Government are going to use the lessons learned to inform a strategy that will bring an end to the business model that is county lines.

Another issue that the Government need to get a handle on is the relationship between child criminal exploitation and child sexual exploitation. We know that there is an overlap. Children in the grip of drugs gangs are vulnerable to sexual abuse. Both forms of child abuse are happening to both boys and girls. Sexual abuse can and is being used as a weapon by drug gangs to deepen their control over the children they are exploiting. However, children affected by child criminal exploitation or child sexual exploitation will generally need different forms of care. Confusion can cause real damage.

The recent report by Professor Alexis Jay into child sexual exploitation had some alarming findings. Some police areas were tagging all cases of criminal exploitation as sexual exploitation. In other areas, boy victims of sexual abuse were given a generic criminal exploitation tag.

Only full data can help us understand the scale of particular problems in an area, and only then can we ensure that the right resources are directed to support all children in need. It is essential to tackle drug harms to communities, and other harms that those drug harms do. We need agencies working together, so that vital opportunities to intervene are not missed. When they are missed, there are utterly appalling consequences for children and families. In the case of child criminal exploitation, there are consequences for entire communities, because of the violence and death that the county lines drug trade has brought to my constituency and others. This situation demonstrates why we need clear statutory definitions, including for child criminal exploitation. Without them, we are not getting clear data, we do not have consistent practices across different areas and there is no strategic focus on driving down both those forms of abuse across the country.

Without clarity, transparency and accountability, some will understandably worry that one form of exploitation or another is being neglected as the media agenda shifts. We need flexible laws and recognition that different forms of abuse overlap and interact, but we need legal clarity too. I do not think that we have got it right so far; I hope the Minister might comment on that point today.

We also need to recognise that the methods used by groomers and exploiters have changed. During the lockdowns, partners identified a big increase in the use of social media to groom children into child criminal exploitation. Obviously, the more traditional method of identifying and meeting children on the street by McDonald’s and the chicken shop was now harder. The Government need to provide a better account of how the Online Safety Bill will require online platforms to identify, block and report grooming and exploitation for the drug trade of county lines.

Child criminal exploitation is not listed as a priority offence in the Bill. I genuinely believe that it needs to be, if we are to give it the focus it deserves. If we get this right, online spaces could identify children who are being groomed and exploited. We would be on to the criminal gangs much earlier, preventing enormous harm. If we get it wrong, social media will continue to give drug gangs easy access to vulnerable children. I would like the Minister to tell us how the Home Office is working with colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that the Bill will guarantee action on that.

Finally, I want to raise the importance of working with schools to prevent exclusions, which can make children so much more vulnerable to the exploitation of drug gangs. Children’s charities and experts are clear that schools need to be equipped with information about the signs of child criminal exploitation. They need to consider that risk of exploitation before they decide to exclude a child. In reality, drug groomers can, and do, actively conspire to get a child excluded by, for example, forcing them to carry drugs or weapons into school. Sometimes they spread the word, ensuring that the school knows that the child is carrying, in order to trigger an exclusion and make that child a better mule for them.

Schools need to be wise to that tactic, and provide children with real support in those situations, and not do exactly what the groomers want, which is to exclude children and send them to alternative provision, where other members of the gang often already sit. It is then impossible to get out of the grip of the groomers and make a new start in life. Will the Minister talk to his colleagues in the Department for Education to ensure that the statutory exclusions and behaviour guidance is revised? That would help prevent children being exploited and would, in turn, reduce the harms of drug offending that we are discussing today.