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Rise in 'county lines' gangs targeting children outside cities

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Increasing numbers of young people are being targeted in smaller towns and rural areas for ‘county lines’ exploitation in which gangs make them sell drugs in other areas, the most comprehensive report into the problem has found.

The county lines model involves organised criminal networks moving drugs into areas and using dedicated mobile phone lines, known as ‘deal lines’, to take orders.

The National Crime Agency’s (NCA) intelligence assessment, published today, says county lines activity continues to be dominated by criminals based in big cities, with approximately 15% based in London, 9% in the West Midlands and 7% in Merseyside.

But it states: “An emerging trend in recruitment is the targeting of children within importing towns and cities, rather than in the exporting areas, in which offending groups are based.”

It adds there are currently 23 other areas where the exporting of class A drugs is known to be taking place but it warns other police forces may be unaware county lines criminals are operating in their areas.

The report says the establishment of the National County Lines Coordination Centre since the NCA’s 2017 report on the issue, along with raised awareness of its links to modern slavery and exploitation, has improved data and understanding of the threat.

The report adds that data gathered in the national referral mechanism (NRM), which assesses individuals as potential victims of human trafficking and/or modern slavery, shows exploitation of both vulnerable children and adults remains a “key element” of the county lines model, with the “concerted efforts” of councils, police and the charity sector helping to drive up reporting.

It adds: “Despite the growing number of related referrals, it’s believed that NRM data underestimates the number of victims exploited in county lines cases.

“Data is presented according to the primary exploitation type recorded, meaning that statistics may not present the full extent of exploitation suffered.”

The new data also revealed potential victims are aged as young as 11, while most of referrals relate to boys aged 15 to 17 years old.

“Individuals within this age group are likely targeted as they provide the level of criminal capability required by the offending model, but remain easier to control, exploit and reward than adults,” the report adds.

Children who are excluded from school are highlighted as vulnerable to exploitation, while schools, further and higher education institutions previously attended by offenders, pupil referral units, special educational needs schools, foster homes and homeless shelters are described as “key locations for recruitment”.

NCA director of investigations Nikki Holland, who leads on county lines, said: “We… need to ensure that those exploited are safeguarded and understand the consequences of their involvement.

“This is not something law enforcement can tackle alone - the need to work together to disrupt this activity and safeguard vulnerable victims must be the priority for everyone.”

The NCA said activity in the last week had resulted in 600 arrests across the UK. This led to 400 adults and 600 children being considered for safeguarding action and 40 referrals to the NRM.

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