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County Lines Drug Gangs

Volume 719: debated on Monday 5 September 2022

14. What steps she is taking to tackle the exploitation of children and young adults by county lines criminal networks. (901269)

Through our drugs strategy, we are investing up to £145 million in the county lines programme to tackle ruthless gangs harming our communities. That includes providing specialist support to victims of county lines exploitation and their families. Since 2019, police activity funded by the programme has resulted in more than 2,400 line closures, 8,000 arrests and 9,500 individuals engaged through safeguarding interventions.

Over the summer recess I was proud to join our brave Staffordshire police officers on a drugs raid of a suspected county lines operation, sweeping the scrotes and their drugs off the streets of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Sadly, we have seen an increase in filthy drug thugs peddling their dirt on our streets. It is because of this that I ask my hon. Friend to join me in supporting the campaign of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) to have monkey dust reclassified as a class A substance and increase the prison sentence on the parasites who plague our community.

I would of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to talk about this issue in more detail. Monkey dust is a street name for certain cathinones. The Government recognise the harm of cathinones, which is why they are controlled under class B of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The penalty for supplying a class B drug is 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both. There are no plans to reclassify those drugs, although the Government keep drug classification under review and will seek to take account of any new evidence of harms.

Over the summer I met residents and parents in North Shropshire who are concerned about the presence of county lines drug networks in our market towns. Our local police force has done a superb job in breaking up some of those lines, but more needs to be done. The Government promised an additional 311 police officers in West Mercia, but at the moment we are only at 165—far off target. Can the Minister reassure me that those additional police officers will be recruited into West Mercia to tackle the ongoing county lines problem, which exists in rural areas as well as urban ones?

I thank the hon. Lady for approaching this issue so constructively, because the matter of county lines gangs is of huge concern to communities both urban and rural, as she alludes to. The team in the Home Office will work very constructively and intensively with her force to ensure that we see the uplift programme through, so that her constituents feel the maximum benefit of the highest number of officers possible out on the streets, catching criminals and deterring crime.

Thanks to the work of the Home Office, British Transport police are working alongside Hampshire Constabulary to help tackle the appalling problems we have with county lines in north Hampshire. Can my hon. Friend tell me whether that is a project that he continues to see moving forward? I have seen at first hand that it is an essential way of tackling the appalling movement of drugs from different parts of the south-east into my county of Hampshire.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the way she approaches this issue and her positive advocacy for that initiative, which we are committed to. It is about continuing to roll out the county lines programme, with £145 million over the next three years, to tackle what is the most violent and exploitative distribution model yet seen. It is about safeguarding vulnerable people from being exploited, arresting and charging those running the lines, and stopping them exploiting people.

Local police have told me that they have seen a worrying rise in teenagers going missing, and there is inevitably an increase in county lines activity. Given the huge issues with county lines drugs gangs exploiting vulnerable children, will the Minister confirm whether the Government will be implementing the definition of child criminal exploitation in law and assessing whether police have the resources on the ground to deal with this terrible issue?

It is fair to say that what is happening in London is a considerable increase in police officer numbers, running at nearly 3,000 already recruited through the uplift programme, as well as additional funding in the millions and millions of pounds. The Mayor of London has the resources he requires to tackle these issues and this criminality. It is important that the hon. Lady has strong dialogue with him on that and, of course, the Home Office will continue to monitor progress on the issue.