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County Lines Drugs Gangs

Volume 699: debated on Monday 12 July 2021

What steps she is taking to (a) tackle county lines drug trafficking and (b) safeguard children from county lines exploitation. (902510)

Since 2019, we have invested over £65 million to tackle county lines and drug supply, including £40 million committed this year. Through our county lines programme, we have become smarter in our activity against these ruthless gangs, resulting in more than 1,000 lines being closed, more than 5,800 arrests and more than 1,500 vulnerable adults and children safeguarded.

Drug dealing is a despicable crime that preys on the vulnerable, damages communities and causes misery to so many. Locally, the Burnley and Padiham neighbourhood policing team has set up a taskforce to tackle this issue. Will the Minister confirm that local police forces will continue to have the resources and support they need really to tackle this issue and rid our communities of it? Will he meet me and our police and crime commissioner, Andrew Snowden, to see what more we can do?

I am always happy to meet police and crime commissioners and their Members of Parliament to talk about fighting crime, and I am very pleased that my hon. Friend is so embedded in the collective mission to reduce crime in his constituency. He is quite right that we are having enormous success with county lines, and that is off the back of significant Government investment. I am hopeful that police and crime commissioners can see the wider benefits of that programme in suppression of violence in their areas and will supplement the work that we are doing, but he should be assured that we will be making a very strong case in the spending round for continued investment. The one thing I have learned about the Treasury over the past few years is that it likes investing in success, and we are certainly having that with county lines.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He mentioned that the Home Office and officials are getting smarter, but so are gang members. They are getting so smart that even during lockdown they had the sheer audacity to use our young people to carry drugs up and down the country dressed as key workers. They are always one step ahead. They will continue to exploit our children until we have a clear definition on child criminal exploitation. It is estimated that over 4,000 teenagers in London alone are being criminally exploited. What additional steps will the Minister be taking to ensure the Government put their full weight behind addressing this real and serious issue?

The hon. Lady rightly highlights one of the truly despicable aspects of county lines, which is the horrible exploitation and often victimisation of young people who are driven into the awful activity. She might be interested to know that we are very focused not necessarily on them but on those who control and victimise them. Much of the activity taking place in the three big forces we are funding—Liverpool, London and in the west midlands—is in targeting those line controllers who drive that exploitation. Interestingly, more and more of them are now not just being prosecuted for drugs importation or distribution, but for modern slavery or under child grooming legislation. That means that when they are convicted, they are put behind bars in the sex offenders wing, which is something not even they see as desirable. It is proving to be a very strong deterrent.

One of the key aspects of our work is gripping the transport network, in particular rail. We are finding that where we shut down their ability to use rail and they divert to roads, their likelihood of using young people, who cannot drive and are more likely to be arrested, is dropping. All our effort is being focused not just on restricting the supply of county lines across the country, but on rescuing and preventing young people from getting involved.

There have been a number of illegal cannabis farms busted recently by Staffordshire police. Many are in derelict and abandoned buildings, including the empty former Woolworths building in Longton, which was raided for the second time in under two years recently, finding 1,500 marijuana plants. Will my hon. Friend look at what more can be done to tackle the use of empty and derelict buildings by organised gangs to cultivate drugs?

My hon. Friend is known for his innovative approach to policy and he certainly raises something that merits further investigation. He is quite right that we have seen a growth in the number of cannabis farms across the country in all sorts of buildings. Notwithstanding the drugs they produce, there is very often disgusting oppression and victimisation taking place inside—people who are trafficked across the world to tend the plants—and we need to do something about that as well. He might be interested to know, however, that in their off-hours when police helicopters are not dealing with other crimes, one thing they do is circle around using thermal imaging cameras to find houses that are strangely heated to full blast in the middle of summer, indicating that there may be something afoot. That has been a very rewarding way of investigating those farms. I will look at his idea and pursue it further.