My Lords, county lines has a devastating impact on our children and communities, and this Government are determined to crack down on these criminal gangs. We are providing £25 million of targeted investment this financial year and next to boost law enforcement efforts. This builds on previous activity, including establishing the National County Lines Coordination Centre, which launched in 2018 and has co-ordinated activity resulting in over 2,500 arrests and 3,000 people safeguarded.
My Lords, I first thank the Lord Speaker for his wise words and wish him and all noble Lords well.
With regard to the Question, the largest rise in child victims of modern slavery and human trafficking reported by the NCA is due to county lines crimes. However, the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which was not passed with this type of crime in mind, is being used by prosecutors to try to tackle this growing problem. Given the disturbing rise in this life-changing crime, will the Home Office prioritise an investigation into the use of the Modern Slavery Act in relation to county lines cases to determine where swift improvements can be made?
I certainly take the noble Baroness’s comments on board. The Government constantly review legislation to ensure that it is working effectively, but I shall certainly look into the point that she makes. We of course want the legislation to work in the best and most effective way.
Does the Minister agree that many of those caught up in county lines drug trafficking are extremely vulnerable children and teenagers, and furthermore, that our response should and must be cross-governmental? We need to have a grown-up conversation about drugs policy. The present policy—often described as a “war on drugs”—seems only to embolden gangs and cause misery in many communities. At the other end of this joined-up thinking, particularly to stop the disproportionality of black children being excluded from schools, must be an unprecedented recruitment drive of black male teachers.
I most certainly agree with the noble Lord about this whole thing being driven by the drugs markets. The types of people who are most predominantly targeted and engaged in this are indeed vulnerable teenagers, and in fact younger. I totally agree that a multiagency approach is entirely needed, which is what the National County Lines Coordination Centre aims to do. It is a multiagency team of experts from the NCA, the police and regional crime units. I also take his point about the stopping of black people. People should be stopped on an intelligence- led basis, not because of the colour of their skin.
Does the Minister agree that the work of the West Midlands Police and West Mercia Police in Operation Ballet, led by Detective Inspector Julie Woods, has been exemplary? It led to convictions at the Worcester Crown Court last Friday of 13 individuals who had operated a county lines scam starting in London, going to Birmingham New Street station, and then spreading out, with couriers and local people in the towns of Herefordshire and Worcestershire; these towns are not normally associated with drug trafficking, but, in the present circumstances, seem to be hotbeds of this terrible anti-social activity.
The noble Lord makes exactly the right point: towns and counties that one would usually not expect to be associated with such criminal activity in fact are. I pay tribute to Julie Woods for the convictions secured at Worcester Crown Court. For every one person convicted, an awful lot of young people are safeguarded from this terrible scourge.
My Lords, what assessment have the Government made of the links between young people being drawn into county lines and increasing child poverty, the number of children in care and the number of young people being excluded from schools? Also, what are the Government doing to divert those who have been caught from a lifelong career of criminality?
My Lords, like all these things, the causes are multifactorial. The symptoms are also many and varied. It might not be drugs or county lines that a young person gets into; it might be other things as well. What was the second part of the noble Lord’s question?
Noble Lords have previously brought up in this House that the young people who are drawn into this sort of activity are not themselves criminals; they are victims of other people’s exploitation. It is very important to keep that in mind when we think about how we deal with these children and divert them into mainstream life and out of a life of crime.
My Lords, following the Government’s decision to fund an increase in the number of police officers by some 20,000, the Home Secretary told police chiefs that she now expected them to deliver a return on that funding in the form of a reduction in crime. Now that the Home Secretary has admitted through that statement that the total number of police officers available does have an impact on the level of crime—contrary to what the Government used to maintain while they were busily reducing the number of police officers over the last decade—will the Government now agree that one reason, though not the only reason, for the rate and level of expansion of child criminal exploitation, or county lines, across the country has been the reduction in the number of police officers and the resultant increasingly stretched police forces across the country over the last 10 years?
My Lords, as I said earlier, I think these issues are multifactorial. One thing that the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, would say if he were here is that it is driven by the drugs market, but the drugs market is not the only factor. It is also fair to say that at some point demands on the police, and crime, became more complex, and therefore it was the right decision to take to promote the move towards having more police officers on our streets to fight crime.
My Lords, sometimes in the past the police have caught a young criminal, a young gang member who has been involved in criminal activity, and, instead of charging or even rehabilitating them, they have actually turned them around and sent them back into the gang as a child police spy. Is that still happening? If it is, how many children are involved?
The noble Baroness will know from previous answers I have given that the number is estimated to be fewer than 10; she will recall the report that looked into that. It is something that is used only very sparingly, and its ultimate aim is to drive down crime and bring to justice those people who are exploiting children.