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County Lines Drugs Gangs

Volume 674: debated on Monday 23 March 2020

6. What steps her Department is taking to dismantle the operations of county lines drugs gangs. (901682)

We will not tolerate the abhorrent gangs that are terrorising our towns and exploiting our children, when it comes to county lines drugs gangs, and we have committed £25 million of targeted investment to boost law enforcement to roll up these drug lines.

Does my right hon. Friend think that the covid-19 outbreak might lead to an increase in the number of county lines gangs, and will she take steps to address that?

My hon. Friend is right about the risks associated with drug line gangs and covid-19. We are working with the police on this, because they are on the frontline and they monitor everything that goes on with gangs. They will not desist from the work that they are doing, and it is important that we pursue this work throughout the crisis to give the public confidence and provide reassurance that we are determined to roll up these drug gangs.

We hear plenty about county lines networks but not so much about the customers. It is simply not acceptable for people to pop down to Waitrose on a Saturday afternoon and buy their quinoa and then invite their friends round on a Saturday evening for some recreational cannabis. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what she is doing to try to disrupt the drugs trade—not just those who supply drugs, but those who use them?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The use of drugs is simply unacceptable and the fact of the matter is that those who misuse and take drugs should also be aware of the consequences of their actions: children around the country are being trafficked, abused and used by drugs gangs to fuel people’s drug addictions. A great deal of work is taking place across Government on this, including by Dame Carol Black, who did a review of drugs and has provided further evidence on what other measures the Government can bring in, in addition to law enforcement measures.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s robust approach to this, but I echo the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts). The concern is that with schools closed, children will have more time on their hands and that is a vulnerability. Will she assure us that what we do to encourage online activities and so on for them can be looked at across Departments, so that we reduce the likelihood of this happening?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important that we recognise the nature of the vulnerability of young people and children. It is a fact that, throughout this crisis, children are not at school. They could therefore become prey to gangs and are, equally, more vulnerable, so we are working with the police to make sure that greater work takes place on protecting young people. We are doing the same with local authorities, but the public need to do much more as well. It is a collective duty of the state to protect our children and make sure that they are safeguarded. Right now across Government, with covid-19 in place, we are absolutely determined to make sure that we safeguard children, protect vulnerable children and ensure that more kids do not become vulnerable to county lines drugs gangs.

It is very good to hear about the Government’s robust approach to tackling county lines. The issue of dealing around schools, including even at school gates, has been raised with me by anxious teachers and parents over the past year. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that when schools reopen, her focus will be on making sure that they do so safely for all those attending?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is about protecting children, including vulnerable children, but it is also about safeguarding. Everyone has a duty and a responsibility when it comes to safeguarding children. When schools finally reopen, they will play a very important role in making sure that children are protected, that they get back into education and are on a stable footing, and that they will not be susceptible and vulnerable to these types of criminal activities.

Hastings and Rye has serious issues regarding county lines, with drug dealers deliberately targeting young and other vulnerable people. Sussex police is working hard with local partners to combat drug dealers, but it needs the support of the justice system, imposing strong deterrent sentences to ensure zero tolerance of drug gangs, particularly during the coronavirus crisis. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are working together to pursue a zero-tolerance policy for drug gangs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Through the crime and justice Cabinet Committee that we now have, we look at this from an end-to-end perspective. The Home Office has put in £25 million specifically to target county lines drugs gangs and to roll up county lines. She has highlighted a really important point about the role of the criminal justice system in sentencing and deterrence, and about how we should work together to use intelligence to go after the gang leaders and cut the head off the snake—the people who are fuelling this awful, abhorrent crime.

County lines are one aspect of the threat posed by serious and organised crime, in respect of which the coronavirus crisis presents hugely difficult challenges. I should be grateful if the Home Secretary passed my thanks on to the Minister for Security for the discussions that I have had with him about measures on warrants, but can she set out what other measures she will take to ensure that our police can deal with urgent issues, including their having the appropriate protective equipment? Does she agree that we need to ensure that this period in which we will be in emergency measures is not exploited by those who wish us harm?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise those matters. I am aware of the discussions that have taken place between him and the Security Minister about the legislation that will be discussed this afternoon on the Floor of the House. He is absolutely right—I restate the points that I made about PPE, in particular, to protect frontline workers.

The hon. Gentleman will know that there are various measures in the Bill on the appointment of temporary judicial commissioners, as well as on biometric data and information—the essential steps that we have to take to make sure that we protect our people, our communities and our country. We cannot have any gaps or loopholes that would allow people who want to come in and do us harm to come in and do us harm right now.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about our collective focus, and I thank him and the Opposition Front-Bench team for the way in which they are working with us to make sure that we have those protective measures, because the duty of Government during this epidemic and crisis is to make sure that we have responsible measures in place to protect our country and our people.

I am grateful to the Home Secretary for that answer. Of course, the police are going to be under pressure in the months ahead, and they deserve all our support. We should all say that any abuse directed towards the police is totally and utterly unacceptable. However, there will be people carrying out the role of police officers in the months ahead. Thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the police have the protection of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, allowing courts to take into account the fact that they were on duty when the abuse occurred. Can we look at extending that measure to those who are carrying out the role of police officers in the months ahead?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I have put on record in the House my views about the appalling abuse to which our police officers and emergency workers are subject. That is simply unacceptable, and my intention, as he will know from the police powers and protections Bill, is to introduce the right legislation to bring in enhanced powers and measures in the criminal justice system to make sure that the right kinds of penalties are put in place.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. At this particular time, when there are additional pressures and strains on public workers—our public sector, our emergency workers and our police officers—we should do everything possible, and I will absolutely look into that.