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Drug Dealing Telecommunications Restriction Orders Regulations 2017

Volume 787: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2017

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Drug Dealing Telecommunications Restriction Orders Regulations 2017.

My Lords, these regulations were laid before Parliament on 12 October. The drug dealing telecommunications restriction orders—DDTRO—respond to an operational requirement of the police and the National Crime Agency to support them in tackling the issue of “county lines” drug dealing and its related violence and criminal exploitation.

As noble Lords probably know, “county lines” is the police term for urban gangs supplying drugs to suburban areas and market and coastal towns, using dedicated anonymous mobile phone lines. We are particularly concerned about this form of drug dealing because of the high-harm nature of this activity. County lines gangs target and exploit children and vulnerable adults, who are then at high risk of extreme physical and sexual violence, gang recriminations and trafficking. In the National Crime Agency’s latest threat assessment of county lines, three-quarters of police forces in England and Wales reported exploitation of vulnerable people in relation to county lines, including children as young as 12.

The mobile phone line is central to county lines activity, with some prominent lines making in excess of £5,000 per day. However, the phone number has limited personal data associated with it and the handset is typically located well away from street-level drug-dealing activity. Such factors make it hard for the police to gain possession of the handset and to pursue criminal prosecutions against an individual for the activity on the line. Where it is possible to do so, and where there is sufficient evidence, the police will pursue prosecution. However, where prosecution is not possible, the police and the NCA have been clear that closing down the phone lines will seriously disrupt county lines drug dealing and the associated violence and exploitation.

With that background in mind, I turn to the details of the regulations before us. The DDTRO Regulations are made pursuant to Section 80A of the Serious Crime Act 2015, which sets out the power to make regulations which enable courts in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to issue DDTROs. In essence, the regulations provide the civil courts with the power to make a drug dealing telecommunications restriction order, and set out the process and procedure for doing so.

The applicant for a DDTRO—that is, the police or the NCA—will have to satisfy a court that on the balance of probabilities the device has been used, is likely to have been used, or is likely to be used in connection with drug-dealing offences. The court will also have to have reasonable grounds to believe that the order would prevent or restrict the use of a communication device in connection with drug-dealing offences.

It is important that the initial DDTRO application hearing is conducted in private and without notice to ensure that the phone owner does not know that their line will be closed. If forewarned, the phone owner is likely to take action to negate the order by changing phone numbers in advance. The regulations also provide a number of safeguards to ensure swift resolution if a phone owner is impacted in error. This includes the ability for the applicant authority to disapply the order of its own volition, as well as the right of an affected person to appeal an order at a public hearing.

I hope noble Lords will approve these regulations. They will give the police a vital tool in their efforts to tackle county lines drug dealing and protect vulnerable individuals from being exploited by county lines gangs. I therefore commend these regulations to the Committee.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her explanation. I have some specific questions about these orders and a general comment about the Government’s approach to illegal drugs and related issues. We support these measures but we have wider concerns.

As the Minister has explained, these regulations allow law enforcement agencies to make an application to a court to disconnect mobile communication devices, such as mobile phones, where there are reasonable grounds to believe that an order would prevent or restrict their use in connection with drug dealing. These orders can be made without notice to the people affected, in private and at the request of the applicant, without any details being disclosed to anyone. I can understand the need to protect covert human intelligence sources who may be involved in supplying information to the enforcement agencies and I also understand what the Minister has said—that if people were told in advance, it might enable them to change their telephone numbers in advance—but surely this is going to be only a marginal benefit, as it will soon become apparent to the drug dealer that their phone has been disconnected. Unless I do not understand the issue fully, it would not take very long not only for an alternative number to be secured but for the suppliers and clients to be notified of what the new number is. What is the real advantage of keeping the whole process secret—other than protecting sources—set against the benefits of having, as far as possible, an open justice system? Can the Minister explain how these measures present any more than a minor irritation to the drug dealers? In her explanation, she talked about these measures seriously disrupting drug dealers, but surely it would be very quick and easy to re-establish their lines of communication.

Moving on to wider issues, these measures are symptomatic of the Government’s approach to illegal drugs—tinkering around the edges in the vain hope of appearing to be doing something. But the inescapable fact is that there is an insatiable demand for illegal drugs, from young people who smoke small amounts of cannabis to the rich and famous who use cocaine. The fact that these drugs are illegal is no longer a consideration for millions of recreational drug users in the UK. As with most forms of prohibition—as we have learnt from history—stemming demand is clearly ineffective and, as a result, the law is being brought into disrepute. Addiction to illegal drugs, on the other hand, should be treated as a health issue and not a criminal justice issue. It is the sufferer’s addiction that is the issue and not the drugs that they are addicted to.

As with any insatiable demand, there will clearly be a supply. The only effective way to deal with illegal drug supply is to take out the whole distribution network from source to street. During the period of the “peace dividend”, between peace in Northern Ireland and the rise of Islamist terrorism and the far right, the police and the security services were able to mount a limited number of operations that did just that—take out importers, distributors and street dealers. The combination of the diversion of the security services back to their core function of anti-terrorism and the reduction in police resources means such operations are no longer possible.

There was a story in the Times this week on this very issue of county lines, which reported:

“Thousands of children and teenagers are being used by criminal gangs as drug runners ... The National Crime Agency ... believes that the ‘county lines’ drug trade, in which urban gangs move Class A drugs and cash between inner-city hubs and out-of-town locations, is out of control”.

I spoke a few weeks ago in Parliament to some young people whose lived experience is that drug dealing, with all its inherent risks and dangers, presents the best way to make money as far as they are concerned, whether to support a reasonable lifestyle or to put food on the table for their families. Prison was seen by them as a place where they can meet with their friends. As one young woman recently released from Holloway prison explained, it was somewhere where she had “the best time”, to quote her exactly. She added, admitting the irony, that when her local police station was the base for a safer neighbourhood team and she saw uniformed officers on a regular basis she felt safer, but not anymore.

In a society where discrimination against the young, and black and minority ethnic people, persists in the job market, where young people’s lives are blighted by criminal records acquired at a young age, and which, from young people’s perspective, gives them little or nothing and no hope of making a decent living by legitimate means in the future, they believe drug dealing to be a legitimate option. All this creates a parallel society where young people feel they have to arm themselves with knives and guns to make themselves feel safe, whether they are engaged in drug dealing or not, resulting in record numbers of young people dying on the streets from knife crime and of people dying on our streets from taking illegal drugs because there is no control of the strength or composition of the drugs they are taking. What is the Government’s response to this alarming picture? It is to cut off the phones of drug dealers, if and only if they find out what numbers the dealers are using—something that can be rectified by drug dealers within hours.

There is a crisis in this country enveloping increasing numbers of young people. Of course we should make life difficult for drug dealers and these measures may have a marginal impact, but a major rethink about the legalisation and regulation of drugs, the treatment of addiction, the incarceration and criminalisation of young people, providing opportunities for young people to earn decent money legitimately, and the decimation of community policing, is desperately needed.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, for her explanation of the regulations before the Grand Committee. I am fully supportive of them as far as they go and I welcome the action being taken here, although more could be done.

I have spent a few Fridays and Saturdays with the Metropolitan Police over the last few months, looking at a variety of the operations it undertakes and how it has to work in some very challenging circumstances to keep us safe. This whole issue of drug gangs crossing county lines was the subject of a briefing I received recently. I remember visiting one particular unit that explained how a number of young people from their area had been apprehended in a coastal town with drugs and cash. They had gone from their London base and they were dealing stuff there. It is absolutely right that this exploits some very young, vulnerable people. It potentially drags young people into a life of crime. There are other risks for these young people of being groomed and sexually abused, and of being subject to other forms of violence. It is a very depressing thing to see.

I also went on a raid of a property being used as a drugs den. Across the table there were about a dozen mobile phones. If you are a drug dealer apparently you have loads of phones, which is why we have these orders. That highlighted to me the importance of these phones to the operations.

This is a serious issue and the orders have my support but my problem is that the phones can be bought with minimal information. You can just wander into a high street store or supermarket and do not need to provide anything and you can get a mobile phone and off you go. If you are a drug dealer I suppose you buy loads of these phones. I think you can also buy the mobile phone credit with minimal information. There are lots of circumstances where if you want to do things in this country you have to provide ID—to buy goods, to buy services, to get access to credit. This week I went to the post office because a parcel had arrived, we were not there and a little card was put through the door. To get the parcel, which was for my wife, I had to produce the card, our council tax bill and both our passports—just to get a parcel that was legitimately ours. But apparently someone can go to the high street and buy a mobile phone with no indication of who they are—and go off and set an operation up.

That is part of the problem. Why are we allowing people to walk into shops and buy phones with little or no verification of who they are? We all accept that a proportion of these phones that are bought without any information being given will be used for criminal activity. As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said, the orders will disrupt some activity for some period of time but I suggest that people will be off down to the same shop where they bought the previous phone to buy a new phone pretty sharpish, and they will be off again—with, I suspect, some amazing speed—to do their drug dealing with phones. This is a really serious problem and people have to be stopped. As I said, I support the regulations as far as they go. I do not know where the problem is—is it that the Government do not want to go any further? Is it that the retailers will not co-operate? Is it the mobile phone companies? Who is stopping us going that bit further? I would be interested if the Minister could tell us that.

The regulations are fine as far as they go but much more ought to be done. These are really serious issues. Lives are ruined by drug dealing but also by the criminal records that people get. There is a risk of violence, abuse and death. It is a horrific situation. I agree with the general points made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, regarding drug use, including that it is a real health issue. All these issues—drugs, knives, mental health—are now at epidemic proportions. The pressure that people are under was quite clear in my time with the Metropolitan Police over the past few months. In each London borough, on most shifts quite small numbers of people are trying to keep things under control.

I was also shocked to learn—maybe I am naive—that it is not illegal in this country to buy cannabis seeds. Apparently you can go out and buy them, and the lamps and the other equipment, on the high street. I never knew this. I was told by the police which high street shops sell them. It is a ridiculous situation. The Government should deal with that straight away. Is it not ridiculous? Anyway, I will leave it there and look forward to the Minister’s response to the points I have raised.

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for the points that they raised. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, made a series of very good points about this issue, including about the perhaps marginal benefit of disconnecting the phone. I guess that assumes that the phone is used by one person to make one call but in fact it is not. It is often used by hundreds of drug users to facilitate thousands of deals every single day. Therefore, giving no notice of the intention to close down the mobile phone stops the criminals from posting to the users the fact that the phone is going to be closed down. So that is one benefit of it.

Both noble Lords suggested that this is just one very small step. It is something that the NCA and the Government have been concerned about. It is one step. It is not the whole solution. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, talked about the general support that users need with rehabilitation and perhaps with mental health problems. The other issues around guns and gangs often go together with drugs. He is right that there is often a multiagency approach to just one of the problems that these young people face. As I said to, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, before the debate, often these young people are in care, so they are very vulnerable. These are the people who are being used for the county lines activity. It absolutely needs sorting but noble Lords are right that this is not the full answer to what is quite a complex problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, talked about the police cuts. As I have explained on many occasions, the police budget has been protected over the last few years. The NCA shows that police forces across the country are very engaged in tackling county lines. They are not linking any problems with budgetary issues to being able to tackle these problems.

I understand that new CPS guidance has been issued, as well as awareness guidance on health and social care problems. I do not think the police or the Government want to criminalise a young person at 16 for drug use. They want to rehabilitate that person, as the noble Lord says. Access to jobs and a life away from drugs, guns and gangs is much more preferable to a life dealing with drugs, albeit such a life can be quite lucrative.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked why the NCA cannot launch criminal proceedings against the phone line. The ownership of the phone line is concealed and often anonymous. The noble Lord makes the point about identification, because we have to provide identification for everything, but someone can simply go into a mobile phone shop and buy a mobile phone. I will take that point away with me. The noble Lord also made a point on verification, and I do not disagree. He also asked whether there was an unwillingness of mobile phone operators to engage with this. I think there was that element, because the Government would not have legislated if mobile phone operators had co-operated on this. I think that that answers the noble Lord’s questions.

I thank the Minister for those replies. I am pleased that the Minister has confirmed that some of the companies involved may not be as keen as we hoped they would be. It is a bizarre situation that someone can go off down the road and buy a mobile phone. This may not be the only solution, but if you bought a phone and the line was attached to you and you had to provide your passport and credit card, and even if in the end you were not a drug dealer but the phone was used for a drug deal, someone could go back and say: “Hang on—you bought this phone six months ago and now it has been used in these operations. What have you got to say about that?”. The fact that it is all anonymous makes things very difficult for everybody concerned.

I think it is the companies—either the shops or mobile phone operators—who are not keen to co-operate. We have seen in other Bills, such as the Data Protection Bill, other issues from companies that are not keen to co-operate with the Government and law enforcement agencies. Perhaps we should look further at that, because it seems ridiculous to me. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, will know better than I that these are really serious matters. People’s lives can be totally destroyed. A company certainly has no right not to co-operate with the Government. The Government should insist on this. As I said, you cannot get your parcel from the Post Office without producing your council tax bill or your passport, but you can go off and buy a mobile phone and become a drug dealer. It is ridiculous.

I also mentioned the point about cannabis seeds. Cannabis seeds and all the equipment can be bought in this country quite legally. You cannot run a cannabis farm, but you can buy seeds on a number of high streets, which is absolutely ridiculous. I found that out only a few weeks ago when I was out with the police on the beat. They said, “That shop down the road, you can buy all the stuff, and there’s nothing illegal in doing that”. If that is the case—and I have no reason to doubt the officers—that should also be looked at, because it is a ridiculous situation.

I forgot to mention that point. If the noble Lord would let me know the name of the shop, we can take that on.

Motion agreed.