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Children: Criminal Exploitation

Volume 798: debated on Tuesday 9 July 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the report by The Children’s Society, Counting Lives: responding to children who are criminally exploited, published on 5 July.

My Lords, criminal exploitation associated with county lines drug dealing has a devastating impact on those affected. We must continue to work together to identify and safeguard the victims and potential victims of this exploitation as early as possible. We will carefully consider the findings from the Children’s Society’s report as we continue to strengthen our response to county lines.

My Lords, in January 2019 the National Crime Agency and the National County Lines Coordination Centre co-ordinated a series of drug raids which resulted in 600 arrests, with 400 vulnerable adults and 600 children being offered safeguarding advice, but only 40 referrals to the national referral mechanism. Does the Minister agree that we need to implement a national strategy for child criminal exploitation to ensure that statutory services across the UK can recognise the signs of exploitation and offer the support that children need?

The figures I have before me are slightly different to the noble Lord’s. I understand that they led to over 1,600 arrests and over 2,100 individuals safeguarded, but I absolutely agree with him; I do not think anyone would disagree that there needs to be a multiagency approach to this. As he will know, the public health approach consultation has only just closed. In terms of the NRM process, the Home Office is leading a review of first responders which considers the training provided and how to refer a victim to the NRM, and the support that is available through it. The final recommendations of that review will be published in due course.

My Lords, the criminal justice system acknowledges that women subject to coercive control who attack their abusive partners may be the victims of crime rather than perpetrators. What are the Government doing to encourage all the agencies in the criminal justice system to acknowledge that vulnerable young people who commit criminal acts under the coercive control of criminal gangs may also be victims rather than perpetrators?

The noble Lord and I have discussed this at length, and I do not disagree that someone who is caught up in county lines activity or similar types of activity is both a victim and perhaps a perpetrator through the coercion of a third party. He will know that the knife crime prevention orders—I know he disagreed with them—were introduced in an attempt not to criminalise children but to divert them out of the activity in which they had become involved or into which they had been coerced.

My Lords, following up on that last question, the grooming patterns of children and young people, whether for sexual exploitation or criminal exploitation, are almost exactly the same. It took us ages to achieve a proper definition of exploitation of children in the sex industry. We should not make the same mistake again. It seems that what we need to do, and I ask the Government to consider this, is create a legally binding definition of child criminal exploitation that makes it absolutely clear that the vast majority of these children, some as young as 10 years old, are victims.

The right reverend Prelate makes an important point. The Serious Violence Strategy, which we published in April 2018, contains a government definition of child criminal exploitation, which is commonly used to describe child exploitation associated with county lines drug dealing. There is robust legislation alongside that to prosecute those who exploit children for criminal purposes.

Does the noble Baroness recognise that as long as the Government persist with policies that hand control of the drugs market to organised crime, we will continue to see the appalling exploitation of children through county lines?

The approach we have taken over the last few years has been central to government policy and a major priority of the Government; indeed, the Home Secretary chairs the serious violence task force. That demonstrates that we are not only taking this seriously but exploring all the routes into county lines and drug activity from young people.

Does the Minister recognise that children in care are particularly vulnerable, especially those in children’s’ homes and 16 and 17 year-olds placed in supported accommodation? Will she speak to her colleagues about ensuring that, in the comprehensive spending review, local authorities are adequately funded so that they can give the very best support to those particularly vulnerable children?

I totally agree with the noble Earl. Children in care are vulnerable for all sorts of reasons, and we estimate that children who are vulnerable to county lines activity are generally between the ages of 15 and 17 and are generally boys, although not always. A child in care needs a safeguarding wraparound like no other.

My Lords, a few weeks ago I asked the Minister about the issue of child spies: children who are caught committing drugs offences, for example, by the police, who then send them back into the gangs to be spies for the police—it is an incredibly dangerous manoeuvre. A whistleblower told me that the police were apparently going to ramp up the numbers, and the Minister said that she would check for me. Does she have any information on that?

I do not have any up-to-date information for the noble Baroness, who refers to juvenile covert human intelligence sources. I understand her point, but we must not forget that there are very few of them, as the report stated, and that they are used only in very rare cases. As the noble Baroness pointed out, those children may well have been involved in that sort of activity.