Children's Society responds to report on 'county lines' exploitation

By Agencies
November 28, 2017

The National Crime Agency (NCA) has published an update on the drug dealing model known as County Lines, which involves networks from urban centres expanding their drug dealing activities into smaller towns and rural areas, often exploiting young or otherwise vulnerable people to do so.

Dealers will usually use a single phone line to facilitate the supply of class A drugs – primarily heroin and crack cocaine – to customers. The line becomes a recognised and valuable brand and is therefore protected with violence and intimidation.

The 2017 report brings together data from every police force in England and Wales, in addition to Police Scotland and British Transport Police.

There was evidence of County Lines activity in 88 per cent of force returns (38 forces), while 12 per cent of forces (five) reported no evidence. However, the NCA believes County Lines to be present in some form in all England and Wales force areas.

  • 74 per cent of forces (32) noted exploitation of vulnerable people
  • 37 per cent of forces (16) reported exploitation of persons with mental health issues
  • 12 per cent of forces (5) reported exploitation of persons with physical health issues
  • 65 per cent of forces (28) reported that County Lines activity was linked to exploitation of children

Virtually all forces that reported County Lines activity also referenced that the individuals responsible were involved with carrying weapons. Knives were mentioned by 85 per cent of forces (35) and firearms were mentioned by 74 per cent of forces (32). However, there were no reported incidents of guns being discharged in relation to County Lines activity

Based on the data provided, the NCA estimates that there are at least 720 County Lines across England and Wales, although the actual figure may well be higher. Based on the data provided by forces, at least 283 of those lines will originate in London, although other urban hubs continue to emerge

The NCA estimates that the majority of those 720 plus lines will involve the exploitation of multiple young or otherwise vulnerable people.

Lawrence Gibbons, the NCA’s Head of Drugs Threat and Intelligence, said, “The data tells us that County Lines groups continue to exploit the vulnerable, including children and those with mental health or addiction problems, at all points of their drug supply routes. Effective collaboration between law enforcement and safeguarding organisations must remain a vital part of the national response.

“This is the third of three planned reports on County Lines since we first identified the emergence of the threat. This year’s report is the most complete, with every territorial force in England and Wales having provided returns. There is, however, more work for all of us to do to gain the fullest possible intelligence picture.

“With policing colleagues, we are leading a new national approach on County Lines. This will not only improve that intelligence picture and assist policing partners in prioritising action, but involve direct NCA activity against crime groups engaged in serious offending.”

Duncan Ball, National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) lead on county lines said, "County Lines has long been recognised as a serious issue by a number of police forces but this report now highlights the extent of this activity across the country. We've already been conducting operations across policing to tackle the violence associated with these lines and perhaps more significantly the real harm through the criminal exploitation of young people by organised gangs and groups.

“We've been working with police forces and partners across the country, the NCA and the Home Office to address this increasingly significant issue. We know that County Lines activity affects urban, rural and coastal communities and its impact can be felt in many areas. I wholly welcome the NCA's role in coordinating this response nationally and the ongoing work by policing across the country will continue in close collaboration with the NCA. "

Responding to the NCA's report, Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said, “This report sheds light on the shocking scale of the grooming and exploitation of children by criminal gangs, but we are seriously concerned that these figures may still be just the tip of the iceberg.

“The stories we have heard from young victims of ‘county lines’ exploitation are horrifying and absolutely heartbreaking. Gangs are grooming the most vulnerable young people in our society with drugs and alcohol or promises of status and wealth, then using threats, violence and sexual abuse to coerce and control their victims. The coercion of children into drug dealing is traumatic and puts them at great risk – they are often forced to carry drugs inside their bodies, and sent across the country to stay in ‘trap houses’ and sell drugs to dangerous adults.

“Too often, these young people are seen as having chosen to get involved with gangs and as a result they are criminalised when they should instead be recognised as victims of trafficking and exploitation. Legislation also needs to be updated to take into account the methods gangs are using to threaten and control young people and give police and children’s service the tools to identify and disrupt exploitation earlier.

“We know from our work supporting young runaways that young people who go missing from home are frequently falling victim to criminal exploitation. The risk of ‘county lines’ exploitation needs to be assessed every time a child is reported missing, and the government must speed up the introduction of its promised Missing Persons Database to enable the sharing of information across police borders when children are found far from home.

“The findings of this report show that the police alone will not be able to protect children from criminal exploitation. Education is also vital to make sure that children are aware of the risks of grooming and exploitation, and the government should include this in relationships and sex education. Concerted efforts are needed from all services and professionals working with children to identify children at risk and take action to stop ‘county lines’ exploitation devastating young lives.”

Read the National Crime Agency report, County Lines Violence, Exploitation & Drug Supply 2017  here

* National Crime Agency

* The Children's Society


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.