EXPLOITATION of children by the criminal drugs trade through county lines needs to be treated as a public-health issue, with priority given to early intervention, the Children’s Society warned, as the Government unveiled its ten-year drug strategy this week.
The new strategy promised to dismantle 2000 county lines, in which vulnerable children are exploited and used as drug mules, ferrying drugs from urban areas to smaller towns in the UK.
A further £145 million is to be invested in the anti-county-lines programme by the Government to increase enforcement, monitor road and rail networks, and protect those exploited by drug gangs.
The Children’s Society said that it was concerned that the plans could result in the prosecution of more children and vulnerable adults for drug use, as children are often groomed by gangs with the offer of drugs.
The Children’s Society’s policy manager, Iryna Pona, said: “Child criminal exploitation needs to be seen as a public-health issue, not just a criminal-justice problem, and more must also be done to improve understanding of the issue among children, parents, and the wider public.
“Far better early support is needed to help those with drug addictions, including young people, as well as to protect them from predators out to manipulate and exploit them. Too often, intervention comes late or not at all, and children end up trapped in a cycle of dangerous exploitation which puts their lives at risk.
“Even now, child criminal exploitation is not defined within modern-slavery legislation. The new Policing Bill is a golden opportunity to finally introduce a definition in law which would help bring to justice more of the criminals exploiting vulnerable children.”
The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, who is the Bishop for Prisons, welcomed the financial investment, describing county lines as a “serious blight on our communities”. She also called for more support for vulnerable people exploited by gangs.
“Research suggests that already as many as 48 per cent of women in prison committed their offence to support someone else’s drug use, and this revolving door without proper support is a serious failing in the current model.”
The Government estimates that drug crime costs England alone nearly £20 billion a year.
There are more than 300,000 heroin and crack addicts in England, who are responsible for nearly half of all burglaries, robberies, and shop thefts. Drugs also lie behind nearly half of all homicides.
The Government’s plan includes investment in drug treatment, and improving access to treatment and the number of places available for addicts.