“County Lines has contributed to an 807% increase in children referred for support by councils in relation to modern slavery” (1)
What are ‘County Lines’?
The National Crime Agency defines it as : “.. where illegal drugs are transported from one area to another, often across police and local authority boundaries (although not exclusively), usually by children or vulnerable people who are coerced into it by gangs (Organised Crime Groups – OCGs). The ‘County Line’ is the mobile phone line used to take the orders of drugs. Importing areas (areas where the drugs are taken to) are reporting increased levels of violence and weapons-related crimes as a result of this trend.
There are between 1,200 and 1,500 County lines throughout the UK that provide links from urban hubs such as London, Birmingham, Newcastle etc. to more rural / coastal areas where drug markets are less saturated.
Once a new drugs market has been identified, OCGs will then target and groom vulnerable people – typically children or vulnerable adults – to travel to and from the urban hub to the county location to sell drugs and move cash and weapons.
With profits from a single mobile phone line often exceeding £800,000 per year, it seems clear that the expansion of county lines is largely financially driven. Dame Carol Black, in her ‘Review of Drugs Report’, also identified other factors for this expansion:
‘The expansion of county lines is likely to have been driven in part by declining heroin/crack markets in the urban hubs and also recognition of untapped markets in less established areas … It may also have been driven by an increase in the number of vulnerable young people (e.g. children in care, excluded from school) available for use and exploitation in county lines’.
Sonya Jones – a service manager and safeguarding lead for We Are With You in Shropshire – was quoted in a recent DDN article that OCGs use children because they are ‘easily controlled and quite an inexpensive resource – often referred to as Bics, as in Bic razor, because they are so disposable’. (‘Just a Child’ – DDN Oct 2020)
What are the key challenges?
The County Lines business model is based on exploitation, with children, young people and vulnerable adults deliberately targeted and groomed by gangs. They’re typically individuals that have found themselves educationally or socially excluded; they may be drug users themselves – usually cannabis amongst the youngest – which increases their exposure to criminal gangs who then lure them into their network by offering them inexpensive or free cannabis in return for running simple errands. Over time, the individual becomes initiated into the gang and ultimately indebted to them.
Once a bond of trust has been developed, this bond is then tested when the gang member asks the individual to look after a large amount of drugs, usually an amount worth more money than they could ever repay if they were to lose it. They then fall victim to a staged robbery, and, unable to pay back the money – or call the police for fear of being arrested themselves – find themselves in ‘debt bondage’, effectively enslaved to the gang until they can pay off their ‘debt’.
When the individual finds themselves trapped in this way, the demands on them from their ‘handlers’ become increasingly more extreme as they’re forced to carry harder drugs such as heroin and crack, stay away from their friends and family for long periods of time, carry weapons and slowly become absorbed within a corrosive culture of violence and crime from which they see little hope of escaping. Older, vulnerable adults can be easily coerced into letting the OCGs use their house as a ‘trap house’ – a place where money, drugs and weapons can be stored so they can be easily distributed across the network.
Impact of COVID
Pre-Covid, the County Lines model was already beginning to adapt, largely in response to successful police tactics such as the use of automatic number plate recognition, specialised operations by British Transport Police and the use of modern slavery legislation against senior gang members, all of which has meant that the people at the top have had more urgency to distance themselves from the dealing bases in rural areas.
Because of this, there has been a rise in the number of people recruited within the counties, with market and coastal towns being targeted through social media and through collaboration between urban gangs and local gangs ‘transforming the traditional county lines model into something more like a local franchise operation’ (2)
This move towards local recruitment escalated during the lockdown, with travel routes between rural areas and urban hubs less populous and subject to restrictions, those running the drugs via traditional coach and train routes became more visible to local police, to whom they may already be well-known.
This has certainly been the case in Northamptonshire, as Inspector Daryl Lyons can attest. He helps deliver a police initiative called CIRV – Community Initiative to Reduce Violence – who work predominantly with young people (under 25) that are either actively involved in County Lines or are at risk of becoming involved, and in the last 18 months CIRV have had over 1,700 people referred into their service, with the number of referrals per week being anything between 50-100.
How can services help tackle these challenges?
In November 2020, an online webinar was delivered for commissioners of drug and alcohol services, with presentations from Detective Chief Inspector Jason Kew (Thames Valley Police) and Inspector Daryl Lyon (CIRV – see below).
Jason Kew opened up the session by explaining that ‘…County Lines isn’t just about drugs, it’s about everything around that – harm, sexual abuse, rape, debt … co-dependency’.
Because the reasons vulnerable people find themselves entangled in County Lines is so complex, it is vital for services to work together to tackle some of the challenges.
Substance misuse services can have a vital role to play within this, being neither criminal justice nor social services and being able to offer holistic, non-judgemental support. As Sonya Jones points out, ‘Youth justice is set up to work with perpetrators – but what we know is that these children are not perpetrators, they are actual victims of crimes themselves. They are victims of modern slavery’. (3)
The challenges faced by vulnerable people continues to increase but it’s through shared experiences and approaches that we can all improve our communities.
If you have any questions or would like to find out more, please get in touch with our Client Services Team and we’ll be happy to help:
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(1) Children’s Society (2020) – https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/blogs/how-county-lines-grooming-growing
(2) County Lines after COVID – a new threat? – Joe Caluori, Head of Research and Policy for Crest – https://www.crestadvisory.com/post/county-lines-after-covid-a-new-threat.
(3) DDN, Oct 2020.