Policing models are too disjointed to ensure the most effective response to county line offending, a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services.
While police forces and the National Crime Agency have successfully improved their understanding of ‘county lines’ drug offending, there needs to be a more coherent and integrated system of national tasking, intelligence sharing and response, the HMICFRS said.
Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Phil Gormley said: “County lines offending is a pressing issue for law enforcement in the UK. It is a cross-border phenomenon involving criminals working across regions, to deal drugs and exploit vulnerable people.
“To tackle cross-border crime, there needs to be a cross-border response. Our inspection revealed that policing is currently too fragmented to best tackle county lines offending. Although we did see many excellent examples of collaboration, we concluded that the current approach does not allow for the level of coherence needed.
“Our report therefore contains a list of recommendations designed to facilitate the creation of a national, co-ordinated response to county lines offences," he added.
The report highlighted instances of good practice, including:
- The establishment of the national county lines co-ordination centre in 2018
- Effective use of modern slavery legislation by police forces
- The good use of ‘intensification weeks’, where the NCLCC co-ordinates law enforcement activity during dedicated weeks of action against county lines networks
- Good practice in relation to police bail.
HMICFRS warned, however, that the lack of a fully integrated, national response meant that investigations are often less effective than they should be. The report also noted concerns regarding organised crime mapping, competing priorities and the limited use of telecommunication restriction orders.
Mark Russell, Chief Executive at The Children’s Society, said: “Too many children experiencing horrific grooming and criminal exploitation through county lines continue to be let down by the frontline services best placed to protect them.
“These are children who may have been groomed with drugs, alcohol, or promises of status and wealth who then face the trauma of being coerced with terrifying threats, violence and sexual abuse to carry drugs around the country.
“While we welcome these recommendations and the progress made by police in responding to this worrying situation, all agencies are still failing to consistently identify children at risk and share crucial information and young people too often end up being treated as criminals rather recognised and supported as victims.
“That’s why The Children’s Society is calling on the government to define child criminal exploitation in law and introduce a national strategy backed up by the funding needed to help end the current postcode lottery and ensure a consistent response for all children affected from the police, councils and other agencies.
“This strategy must ensure that the real criminals are brought to justice and that children get early help to prevent them falling prey to exploitation - and the support they desperately need to stay safe and recover where this has already sadly happened, including access to an independent advocate," he concluded.
Both sides of the coin: An inspection of how the police and National Crime Agency consider vulnerable people who are both victims and offenders in 'county lines' drug offending