Modern slavery: County lines drives record number of child referrals

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

A record number of children have fallen victim to criminal exploitation or modern slavery according to the latest Home Office figures.

Driven in part by a “rapid increase” in county lines drug-dealing, the latest data shows that 1,630 children have been referred as suspected victims of exploitation this quarter (April to June 2022).

This is a 20% increase on the previous quarter and includes 813 British and 817 foreign nationals.

The disturbing figures have sparked calls for professionals and authorities to step-up vigilance for signs that a child is being exploited.

The Covid-19 pandemic saw a sharp rise in county lines activity and the latest figures show that of 589 referrals for criminal exploitation related to drug-running, 484 were children.

County lines describes drug gangs in large cities expanding their reach to small towns. Often the gangs exploit vulnerable individuals to transport substances and mobile phone “lines” are used to communicate drug orders.

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

Common signs include children being anxious, frightened, possessing more than one mobile phone, carrying large amounts of cash, being seen with people who are older than them, and missing school.

Writing in Headteacher Update sister title SecEd in 2020, virtual school headteacher Darren Martindale described the world of violence and intimidation of county lines exploitation: “Children can be manipulated into participating in organised crime. These young people may be escaping from situations where their needs are neglected and they feel unsafe. They could be suffering from domestic violence or other trauma. There is often an absence of a primary attachment figure (lack of a positive male role model is a common feature). These children are often looking for someone to run to – and they run the wrong way.”

The Home Office analysis states: “Throughout 2020, a rapid increase in the identification of ‘county lines’ cases partially drove the increase in referrals for children within the criminal exploitation category. In 2021, cases flagged as county lines remained at this high level, averaging over 500 referrals a quarter.”

However, there has also been a 49% increase in referrals of children suspected of being victims of labour exploitation, such as working in cannabis farms, nail bars, car washes and so on.

Modern slavery is a term that includes any form of human trafficking, slavery, servitude or forced labour, as set out in the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

If potential victims come to the attention of “first responder organisations”, such as local authorities, they are referred via the Home Office’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM).

Overall this last quarter there were 4,171 potential victims – adults and children – of modern slavery referred, a 34% increase from the same quarter last year and the first time the number of referrals has exceeded 4,000. This is the highest number since the National Referral Mechanism began in 2009.

The most common nationality of victims was Albanian (27%) followed by British (24%) and Eritrean (7%). However, a large proportion of the UK nationals – 813 of 1,013 referred – were child victims.

Commenting on the latest figures, Iryna Pona, policy and impact manager at The Children’s Society, said: “The record numbers of referrals show what huge problems modern slavery and exploitation are for all children, whether they are British or migrant children trafficked to the UK.

“More than a third are suspected to have been groomed and coerced – usually with terrifying threats – to commit crime, which can include carrying drugs in county lines operations, while scores more are believed to be victims of sexual exploitation.

“We hope these figures reflect increased knowledge of child exploitation among professionals. Even for children referred to the National Referral Mechanism, support too often falls short, but the outlook can be even more bleak for the many other victims who are still not being identified by professionals.

“These children may not report their exploitation because they have been manipulated into thinking they are making a choice by those trafficking them, while others face terrifying threats and violence.”

The Children’s Society is calling for the government to define child criminal exploitation – including county lines drug-dealing – in law and create a national, funded strategy to ensure early identification and intervention to tackle the increasing problem.

  • Children’s Society: Look closer to spot and report signs of exploitation (guidance for professionals):
  • Headteacher Update: Drug gangs groom young children to run county lines, February 2019:
  • Home Office: Official Statistics: National Referral Mechanism and Duty to Notify statistics UK, April to June 2022, August 2022:
  • Martindale: County lines: A world of violence, intimidation and crime, SecEd, March 2020:

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