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County Lines Drugs Gangs

Volume 801: debated on Wednesday 8 January 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the statement of the Chief Constable for Devon and Cornwall Police that children involved in county lines drugs gangs should be seen as victims not criminals.

My Lords, county lines exploitation has a devastating impact on our communities. We are working to disrupt county lines gangs and end the exploitation of children and vulnerable adults. This includes investing £20 million in a new package of measures to crack down on these gangs. Our position is clear: children who have been groomed and exploited through country lines should be seen as victims first and foremost.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for her reply. The chief constable points to the lack of family and security in these children’s lives and to the need to bridge the gap between dysfunctional homes and school. That is exactly what the family hubs promised in the Conservative manifesto aim to do. Can my noble friend update the House on the Government’s plans for delivering on that promise?

I certainly can, and it is apposite that my noble friend has asked this Question today, because earlier today he will have heard the PM reiterate his commitment to family hubs to our honourable friend Fiona Bruce in another place. My noble friend Lord Younger has also written today to outline our commitment to supporting vulnerable families with the intensive, integrated support that they need to care for their children. That is why the Government have announced up to £165 million of additional funding for the troubled families programme in 2021, and they will be setting out their plans for family hubs in due course.

My Lords, the Minister may be aware that, since 2013, there has been a 70% increase in the number of young people being excluded from school and put into alternative provision. Much of that alternative provision is unregistered, which means that often no proper checks are made on those young people. We also see young children in care being put into unregulated accommodation. How do the Government plan to support these most vulnerable young people?

I am glad that the noble Lord has raised this issue. It is not just something that we are acutely aware of—as he and I will know from our local government days, it is long overdue for attention. He may also know that the Government commissioned my honourable friend Ed Timpson MP, who I am delighted to say is back in the other place, to undertake a review of alternative provision so that the quality of provision can be as good and effective—perhaps more so—as in a mainstream school, because these children need extra attention. To date there has been a £4 million investment in an innovation fund for alternative provision, and I am sure that the House will be kept updated on its success.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness comment on youth services funding? She mentioned family hubs, but since 2010 there has been a 69% reduction in the funding of youth services by local authorities. This must have had a negative impact on the lives of many young people. Will the Government now start to reverse that?

The Government have already made quite a few inroads, particularly for vulnerable children. I have just mentioned the £165 million-worth of funding for troubled families for the next year. We have invested £3.6 million in the National County Lines Coordination Centre, which is absolutely essential for safeguarding young people who get into that sort of activity. Further, the £200 million youth endowment fund will be delivered over 10 years, in addition to the £22 million of the early intervention youth fund that is already funding 10 projects. But one of the most important aspects of funding is that into which we put into our trusted relationships fund. These children do not trust anyone, so it is very important that they are able to build up trust with those who are seeking to protect them.

My Lords, the Minister has already indicated that here we are talking about some of the most vulnerable children in our society, some of whom are in the care of local authorities. Building on the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, does the Minister agree that this is a sad reflection of the current state of child protection services in this country? Is it not time that we looked again at the quality of child protection standards?

The noble Lord and I go back many years on this issue and we do not disagree. I shall certainly get my noble friend Lord Younger to update him on some of the child protection issues, because if children are staying in unregulated bed and breakfast accommodation, for example, which is something I remember from the past, that situation needs to change. But I will give him an updated position on that.

My Lords, I had the privilege of representing a Devon constituency for 18 years and I support the view of the Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall on this matter. May I respectfully remind my noble friend that I represented 650 square miles of Devon—a very sparsely populated area? When we look at national solutions, what is very often needed in rural areas is a very different approach from when you are looking at large urban conurbations. There are pockets of deprivation in rural counties that reflect exactly what one sees in inner cities, but they are on such a small scale and so disparate that they never qualify for grants and support. I ask my noble friend to make sure that we do not fall into the one-size-fits-all trap.

My noble friend raises two very important points there: the spread-out nature of county areas and the distances people have to travel to get support. I do not know whether she recalls—I recall it only vaguely from two or three years ago—the rural sparsity fund that was designed to address precisely such an issue. Of course, she also brings to mind the fact that county lines are specifically designed to cross from town areas into country areas and vice versa. So she raises the really important point that, wherever children are, their vulnerability is equally important.