Susan Hall is a member of the London Assembly.
County Lines is one of the biggest and fastest-growing issues facing the police across the country. It involves gangs in cities such as London using young people to deal drugs over a network of dedicated phones placed in smaller towns, suburbs and rural areas across the country. Horrifyingly, the children involved can be as young as 11 and deal mostly class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine.
I am so glad that this is something our wonderful Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has committed to tackling. The Prime Minister made it clear in his speech to Conference that we Conservatives will not stand for this any longer, saying how he was committed to “rolling up the evil county lines drugs gangs that predate on young kids and send them to die in the streets… and we will succeed.”
It is paramount that we stamp out County Lines as it is not simply a drug enforcement issue – it is child exploitation. Something needs to be done and we are better placed to deal with the problem than ever before. Through improved reporting and enforcement, as well as having a Prime Minister who is desperate to tackle this issue, we can confront the problem head-on.
The Prime Minister has committed to getting 20,000 more Police Officers on our streets. He has started recruitment within six weeks, whilst the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has disgracefully taken over six months to start the recruitment drive he promised, meanwhile choosing PR over policing.
At City Hall, the London Assembly Conservatives developed a fully-costed plan to put 1,378 more police officers on our streets by cutting the £83 million that the Mayor has wasted on PR, bureaucrats, and other pointless expenditure. Whilst Johnson prioritises keeping us safe, Khan shamefully prioritises his own image.
It is thanks to a Conservative government that the £3.6m National County Lines Coordination Centre became fully operational a year ago. This is starting to greatly aid officers in tackling the problem. Thanks to improved awareness and investment from the government, the picture around county lines is the clearest it’s ever been.
More Police Officers on the frontline is a great start to tackling this issue but we all agree that a wider, strategic approach is what will help bring down the organised gangs who co-ordinate the County Lines. Reporting cases of County Lines is key for this to work and the good news is, reporting is vastly improving.
According to the most recent intelligence assessment, 2,000 individual phone numbers have been identified as being used for established County Lines networks – almost three times the previously established figure of 720. Although this may appear concerning with the number of cases growing, with reports of County Lines improving, the police are in a good position to combat the problem. For example, in 2015, an intelligence gathering exercise found only seven police forces were reporting County Lines. This has swiftly grown to 38 forces by 2017 and then up to 44 forces in 2018, including the British Transport Police (BTP), highlighting the vast improvement in the police’s capabilities and response to the issue.
As well as improved reporting, enforcement is improving by using modern slavery legislation. This legislation is helping to deter gang leaders from using young people for County Lines. Gang members are less worried about going to prison for dealing drugs than they are for child exploitation or trafficking as there is a stigma attached and harsher repercussions than just drug crime.
The growth of County Lines is hard to track as drugs gangs go to where the markets are. It is supply and demand. However, reports demonstrate the scale of the problem, with the Children’s Society estimating 4,000 teenagers in London alone are exploited through County Lines, whilst according to the Children’s Commissioner, at least 46,000 children in England were caught up in gangs.
Whilst it is clear Johnson understands the scale of the problem and the need to take action, sadly the current Mayor of London does not. Sadiq Khan uses the excuse that crime is rising faster outside of London than it is inside of London to defend his poor record and avoid dealing with the problems on his doorstep. The shocking reality is that the Metropolitan Police force area is the largest exporting hub of County Lines in the UK, with 65 per cent going into other forces. Disgracefully, Sadiq Khan is exporting crime to other areas of the country to avoid taking action.
I am thrilled that we have a Prime Minister who is doing all he can stop the evils of County Lines, setting an example to the Mayor of London of how to get his priorities right. The London Assembly Conservatives will continue to hold this failing Mayor to account and do all we can to stop the appalling exploitation of children through County Lines.