County lines crackdown may criminalise exploited children, campaigners warn

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Children who have been coerced and threatened into carrying or dealing drugs by county lines gangs must not be criminalised under new government plans, campaigners have warned.

The 10-year Drugs Strategy (Home Office, 2021), which was unveiled on Monday (December 6), has allocated £300m to “dismantle” more than 2,000 county lines operations.

The plans also signal a crackdown on illegal drug use and allocate £780m for treatment and recovery, which it says will target the 300,000 crack and heroin users who are thought to be responsible for half of all “acquisitive crime”, including burglaries, robberies and shop thefts.

However, the Children’s Society said this week that it is worried vulnerable children who have been coerced and threatened into county lines activity could be caught up in the crackdown.

For its part, the government says its measures will build on the County Lines Programme, which the Home Office says has already closed 1,500 lines, made more than 7,400 arrests and safeguarded more than 4,000 vulnerable adults and children.

At the same time, the Department for Education (DfE) has launched a £30m scheme to deliver support to young people who are most at risk of serious violence and gang exploitation to keep them in school – targeting those living in “violence hotspots”.

The term county lines refers to the use of children and vulnerable adults by individuals or gangs to transport and sell drugs – especially from urban areas into market or coastal towns. Children are also used to transport and hide weapons.

Children aged from 15 to 17 make up the bulk of the vulnerable people involved, but gangs often approach victims before the age of 11 in order to build a relationship and trust. The grooming techniques are similar to those we see in cases of sexual exploitation (SecEd, 2019).

Responding to the Drugs Strategy this week, Iryna Pona, policy manager at the Children’s Society, said: “Still too often, the criminals at the top of the chain who are grooming and exploiting children to sell drugs are escaping justice and too many children are being criminalised for drug dealing.

“We need to see further detail, but under these plans we are worried that children and vulnerable adults could also be prosecuted more often for using drugs, as we know criminals use offers of drugs, as well as alcohol, gifts, friendship and status to groom young people.”

Darren Martindale, the virtual school headteacher at City of Wolverhampton Council, says that it is common to see exploited young people suffering the legal consequences of county lines activities. Writing in our sister magazine SecEd last year (Martindale, 2020), he said: “There is an insidious process of luring children into these gangs. At first, they might be invited to undertake a bit of “work” for what seems a harmless reward, e.g. food, gifts, money or accommodation. Class B drugs (e.g. cannabis) are often also supplied to the child as a hook.

“Brainwashing and coercion through violence usually follow, until the young person is completely isolated and controlled through intimidation. These gangs are characterised by more extreme levels of violence than local gangs. Their victims have stumbled into a world where shootings, stabbings, the breaking and severing of limbs and other horrendous forms of violence are not uncommon.

“If the child is caught by the police, their actions may have been made to look consensual so that they alone suffer the consequences, though the reality is starkly different.”

The Children’s Society is now repeating its calls for a national strategy to tackle child criminal exploitation, pointing out that even now child criminal exploitation is not defined within modern slavery legislation. It says the new Policing Bill presents an opportunity to introduce a definition into law.

Ms Pona added: “Child criminal exploitation needs to be seen as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice problem and more must also be done to improve understanding of the issue among children, parents and the wider public. Far better early support is needed to help those with drug addictions, including young people, as well as to protect them from predators out to manipulate and exploit them. Too often, intervention comes late or not at all and children end up trapped in a cycle of dangerous exploitation which puts their lives at risk.”

The National Police Chiefs’ council lead for county lines, deputy assistant commissioner Graham McNulty, said: "County lines drug dealing is linked to the most serious violence and abuse of vulnerable young people, and we are committed to doing everything we can to bring these criminals to justice. Additional funding will support police in stopping these abhorrent criminals, protect young people and protect our communities from the misery caused by county lines."

Violent hotspots

The county lines crackdown comes after the DfE unveiled the £30m roll-out of 10 SAFE Taskforces. SAFE stands for Support, Attend, Fulfil, Exceed and the taskforces will work in identified “hotspot” areas, where incidents of serious youth violence are highest.

The taskforces will be led by local schools and aimed at supporting vulnerable young people to engage in education and avoid them becoming involved in county lines and criminal activity.

The initiative will focus on improving pupils’ attendance and reducing the likelihood of young people being permanently excluded from school.

The areas to receive a SAFE Taskforce are Birmingham, Newham, Manchester, Lambeth, Leeds, Southwark, Sheffield, Bradford, Liverpool, and Haringey.

The government has also announced that 22 alternative provision settings will benefit from “Alternative Provision Specialist Taskforces”, which work directly with young people to offer “intensive support from experts, including mental health professionals, family workers, and speech and language therapists”.

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