‘County lines’ drug networks are ‘significant national threat’

Criminal gangs are exploiting thousands of children as young as 11 to run lucrative “county lines” drug networks that rake in hundreds of millions of pounds a year, law enforcement chiefs have warned.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) believes there are now more than 2,000 individual deal line numbers in operation in the UK – more than double the number previously identified.

Analysis by the NCA found an individual line can yield annual profits in excess of £800,000.

Some are estimated to generate thousands of pounds from a single daily delivery trip.

Officers said county lines profits are estimated to total around £500 million a year, and suggested as many as 10,000 children may be involved.

County lines is a drug distribution model which typically involves city gangs branching out into smaller towns or rural areas to sell heroin and crack cocaine.

They deploy children and vulnerable people as couriers to move drugs and cash between the new market and their urban hub.

The name given to the scheme stems from the phone lines used by dealers.

In its fourth annual assessment on the activity, the NCA said the supply of class A drugs through the county lines business model is a “significant, national threat”.

The area covered by the Metropolitan Police has the highest percentage of individual deal lines, with 15%, followed by the West Midlands Police (9%) and Merseyside Police (7%) force areas.

Analysis suggests there are currently more than 2,000 individual deal line numbers in the UK – up from 720 in the last assessment.

NCA lead for county lines Nikki Holland told the Commons Home Affairs Committee: “This doesn’t necessarily indicate a worsening of the problem.

“What it actually indicates is an increasing awareness of law enforcement and our partners as to the scale of the problem.”

Speaking later at a media briefing, she said “the intelligence picture is as rich as it’s ever been” regarding county lines, and estimated that UK gangs were making about £500 million profit a year.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Duncan Ball, the national policing lead on the issue, could not put a specific figure on how many children are involved in running drugs, but said an estimate of 10,000 was “probably a reasonable number when you look at the scale”.

The NCA’s report said the county lines business model thrives on the exploitation of vulnerable adults and children to move and deliver drugs.

Data from 2018 indicates an age range of 11 to 56 for potential victims.

Teenagers between 15 and 17 are believed to make up the bulk of the vulnerable people involved in county lines.

Officers highlighted how offenders establish contact and build relationships with subjects before exploitation takes place.

The analysis said: “This means that children may have been approached before the age of 11 in some cases as offenders seek to build a relationship that they can later exploit.”

Gangs often target youngsters who are from poor backgrounds, have been excluded from school, or have previous involvement in crime.

But children from “seemingly stable” backgrounds or without a criminal footprint are also targeted, according to the assessment.

It said offenders carry out recruitment both face-to-face and via social media, offering payments and material possessions victims would be unable to obtain through legal means.

“This is enhanced by offenders’ use of social media, on which images and videos of cash, designer clothing, luxury cars and other high value goods are posted, creating a misconception that involvement in crime is rewarding,” the report said.

It also flagged up an “emerging trend” around the use of app-based taxi services to transport offenders and potential exploitation victims to supply areas.

Mr Ball emphasised the importance of tackling drugs markets “from a user perspective”.

He told the Home Affairs Committee: “If we were able to collectively reduce the size and demand from that drugs market, then you would find there was no longer as much money for the criminal networks, and as a consequence you would expect the amount of county lines activity, violence and exploitation to then reduce.”

Last year the Lord Chief Justice cited problems related to county lines as he called on wealthy drug users to consider the “huge social damage” linked to their actions.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Kirsty O’Connor / PA Wire.