County lines drug gangs fuelling rise in children abused modern slavery cases

County lines drug gangs are fuelling a rise in the number of British children being used as slaves, with cases more than doubling in a year.

Figures released by the National Crime Agency (NCA) showed the number of modern slavery cases involving UK minors went from 676 in 2017 to 1,421 in 2018.

Meanwhile, an independent report called for more to be done for victims of slavery after finding that new powers to order offenders to pay reparations have never been used.

Nearly two-thirds of the 2018 cases – 987 – were linked to labour exploitation, which includes by county lines and other criminal gangs.

Across all nationalities the number went from 2,118 in 2017 to 3,137 in 2018, a rise of 48%.

The annual figures come from the number of cases submitted under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), used to identify instances of modern slavery.

A report on the latest data by the NCA said: “This increase is due, in the majority, to a continued increase in the recorded NRM referrals related to the county lines criminal business model of exploiting vulnerable individuals and other forms of criminal labour exploitation.”

Around 1,500 county lines networks operate in the UK, with every police force in England and Wales affected.

They are known for exploiting children to use as couriers to take drugs from towns and cities to customers in rural areas, and have been held up by police chiefs as a key driver behind the rise in violent crime in recent years.

The modern slavery figures showed that 6,993 potential victims were identified in 2018, up from 5,142 in 2017.

The most common nationalities were British, Albanian and Vietnamese, although people from 130 countries were victims.

For 2018, 1,625 cases involving UK victims were identified, compared with 819 the previous year.

The causes of the slavery included labour, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and organ harvesting.

Two adults and four children were identified as potential victims of organ harvesting, although the NCA said no procedures had occurred.

Among the 6,993 referrals, 52 were referred to police in Northern Ireland, 228 to Police Scotland, 251 to Welsh forces and the remaining 6,462 to English forces.

NCA deputy director Roy McComb (pictured) said: “The increase is undoubtedly the result of greater awareness, understanding and reporting of modern slavery and that is something to be welcomed.

“However, the more we look, the more we find, and it is likely these figures represent only a snapshot of the true scale of slavery and trafficking in the UK.

“Of particular concern is the increase in referrals made for county lines-type exploitation. These are often vulnerable individuals – often children – who are exploited by criminal gangs for the purposes of drug trafficking.

“Our understanding of the threat is much greater than it was a few years ago, and modern slavery remains a high priority for law enforcement, with around 1,500 criminal investigations currently live in the UK.

“But we cannot stop modern slavery alone, we need support and assistance from across the public and private sectors, NGOs and most of all the public themselves.”

A report by the independent reviewers of modern slavery legislation found that there had not been a single use of new reparation orders, which were introduced by a 2015 Act of Parliament.

The orders are intended to force traffickers and slavemasters to pay their victims for the exploitation and degradation they have suffered.

The report also found that victims continue to be prosecuted for offences they were forced to commit, despite the 2015 Act providing them with a statutory defence.

The reviewers called on courts to keep compensation for victims high on their agenda and on law enforcement agencies to do everything in their power to freeze suspects’ assets to make them available for compensation.

Review chair and independent MP Frank Field said it was “our moral duty” to give slavery and trafficking victims “the help they need to reintegrate into society”.

Responding to the NCA figures, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said: “The sharp increase in the number of victims of these terrible and brutal crimes under this Government is disgraceful. Conservative cuts to police numbers have damaged their ability to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Sir Edward Davey said: “Theresa May once rightly called modern slavery ‘the great human rights issue of our time’, yet her hostile environment makes it harder for victims to come forward. Her refusal to fund enforcement properly is playing into the hands of slavers.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “Modern slavery is an abhorrent crime that this Government is committed to tackling. Our world-leading Modern Slavery Act has given law enforcement agencies the tools they need to pursue the perpetrators of modern slavery and support victims.

“Since the Act became law, the number of live operations tackling modern slavery have greatly increased, as have the number of people referred to the National Referral Mechanism.

“The Government is committed to supporting victims of modern slavery. We are reforming the National Referral Mechanism to improve the support available to victims before, during and after the NRM process.”


Child exploitation by county lines gangs has been thrown into the spotlight in recent trials.

In January, drug dealer Jerome Wallis, 20, who forced a London teenager to travel to Swansea to deal heroin and crack cocaine, was jailed for eight years.

Wallis, a convicted child rapist, met the 15-year-old boy on Snapchat and threatened him with violence to force him to act as a courier.

On July 12, the teenager met Wallis in a lane near Paddington station and was told to get in his car.

He was then driven to Swansea to complete drug deals.

The boy was told he would have to stay in the city for a year after returning with less money than expected.

On July 16, Wallis returned to London to collect more drugs and the “minder” who had been sent to watch the boy briefly left the property where he was staying.

He then managed to escape, approached a security guard at a supermarket for directions, and made his way to a police station.

Investigators said the boy, who cannot be named, provided “vital intelligence” that led officers to a Swansea address, where Wallis was arrested.

Another case in October saw former business management student Zakaria Mohammed, from Birmingham, jailed for 14 years for various drug and modern slavery offences.

Three 15-year-old boys were found by police in a “filthy, cold” one-bedroom flat in Lincoln littered with used syringes and frequented by drug addicts.

They had been “groomed” with false promises of money, but Detective Inspector Tom Hadley, from West Midlands Police, said: “The children looked drawn, tired and hungry.

“They were not wearing new trainers or designer clothes … they didn’t have new phones or gadgets.

“They were not making money – they were having their childhood stolen from them by Mohammed, who considered them expendable ‘workhorses’.”

Another two children – a boy aged 15 and a girl aged 14 – were found at another flat in Lincoln.

Drugs, £1,400 in cash and two knives were also found at the property.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Paul Faith / PA Wire.