Serious youth violence Contents

4The changing drug market and county lines

Jake’s story

Jake came from a loving, caring and supportive family. Until the age of 13, he was doing very well at school and was described as a caring and active child who played basketball and represented his school team in national competitions.

Over a few weeks, his behaviour changed rapidly and he became aggressive, abusive and dishonest. He disengaged from his family and from school. His mother thought initially that he might be being bullied at school and kept asking him about this. In fact, Jake had been introduced to some men by boys at his school. At first, he was approached and asked to take a package to a local house and offered £30 to do so. He did this a few times but was then given train tickets and packages of drugs to transport to a house in a town 100 miles away and promised much more money. It was only when he arrived at the house that he found it was full of adults taking drugs, including injecting heroin, and he realised he was at risk and had become involved in something beyond his control.

Jake was, for a time, not able to leave that house and while he was there he was not given food and found the adults to be very aggressive. One of them stole some of the drugs he was carrying and because of this he was now indebted to the dealer and forced to ‘work’ for free and threatened with violence if he did not continue to do so.

As such, he frequently went missing from home and was found repeatedly in houses across the country living in very neglectful conditions. He was forced by his dealer to carry drugs internally and on one occasion when he lost some of the drugs he was carrying he was brutally attacked by other boys involved in county lines. Jake would often return home suffering with injuries, such as stab wounds, as a result of the violence linked to county lines.

Jake was eventually taken into care with the agreement of his parents due to concerns about his safety and the safety of his siblings. However, while in care, he moved many times, frequently went missing and his mother feared for his life as he was still subject to threats of extreme violence, as were his family. His mother has lost her job, experienced depression and there has been a severe impact on the well-being and sense of safety for all the family, including his brothers and sisters.

Case study from a report by HMPP, HMICFRS, CQC and Ofsted: Protecting children from criminal exploitation, human trafficking and modern slavery: an addendum, November 2018


74.Our inquiry heard significant evidence about the impact of the changing drug market on serious violence, including the way in which serious organised crime gangs are exploiting children, young people and vulnerable adults to distribute drugs and carry out illegal activity. We also heard about the increasing levels of violence linked to drug distribution and ‘county lines’. The term ‘county lines’ generally refers to the exporting of illegal drugs within the UK by gangs and organised criminal networks, usually from their base in metropolitan areas into smaller cities, neighbouring counties and towns, using dedicated mobile phone lines and other forms of deal-line.

75.County lines criminality generates particular additional challenges, because it operates across local authority and police force boundaries. However, many of the phenomena linked to county lines groups are happening within cities too: the Home Office has acknowledged that gangs are increasingly likely to “exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store the drugs and money”, and they will “often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons”.

76.This chapter describes the evidence we received on the changing drug market, gangs, county lines violence and exploitation; Government action to date; and concerns about the ability of current safeguarding systems to keep young people safe and prevent them from being drawn in to serious violence.

The changing drug market

77.Commissioner Dick said that “we have to really stress just how much of this phenomenon that you are focusing on—serious violence affecting our young people—is connected to drugs in one way or another”; and specifically linked it to “the market and the availability”. She added that this is, “in my view, at the root of it all; it really is”.102 The cross-party Youth Violence Commission, which published an interim report last year, also concluded that “drug markets generate violence and, in particular, create a crime hierarchy where our most vulnerable young people are being groomed to enter the lower levels of drug distribution”.103 Commissioner Dick warned that county lines groups are “constantly learning; they are entrepreneurial; they are aggressive; and they can see a new market. They know where they want to take over, and they know how to target young people”.104

78.The Government’s Serious Violence Strategy also drew links between county lines and serious violence, highlighting academic research that shows that “drug-selling gangs are generally much more violent than the local dealers who had controlled the market previously”.105 Professor Simon Harding told us that violence is being driven by a demand among drug users for a service that he described as “24-hour “’dial a dealer’”, through which “drugs are now delivered directly to your door”. This has led to increased competition within gang markets:

To address that and to build a competitive advantage, the gangs have now expanded their drug markets outside of their turf or their territory and we have the county lines phenomenon and the huge amount of violence that comes with that in control, debt bondage, sanctions against the runners, sanctions against the dealers, sanctions against the users, anybody who grasses or snitches. It is a very violent world.106

The evolution of the ‘gang’

79.Professor Harding explained to us how street gangs in the UK have evolved over the last five to seven years, linked to rising levels of deprivation in some communities. His research has found that entry to gangs is happening earlier, with people (mostly boys) joining at the age of 12–14. At the “other end”, they are “not maturing out, so when they reach the ages of 21, 24, 25, [ … ] they are getting stuck in the gang”, which has become “a very adhesive place for young people”. He attributed these trends to public service funding cuts, which he said have “sharpened the edges of poverty and deprivation” and led to “a retraction of the state”.107

80.Other witnesses agreed that gang violence and membership was being affected by poverty and funding cuts: Junior Smart from St Giles Trust said that the “lack of resources” has led to more children going “under the radar” of social services,108 and Chief Constable Thompson suggested that there are now more vulnerable young people who can be enticed into criminality, because of “poverty, frankly”. His force had seen examples of people who are “doing this for family food bills”.109 A young community consultant from a North London youth project, Project Future, summarised his views concisely during a roundtable event we held in April: “My personal opinion is that the root of this all is poverty”.110

81.Professor Harding told us that the expanded age range has resulted in a higher number of individuals involved in gangs and in their “orbit”, meaning that “there is greater competition among the gang affiliates to raise their reputation, raise their status, and to rise above their peer group”. This has evolved into “a form of hyper-violence, ultra-violence if you like”, and a need to develop greater “street capital”, behaving in ways that will “get them noticed”.111 Commissioner Dick confirmed that violence has evolved in recent years: “you have a group of teenagers setting upon an individual [ … ] and inflicting injuries with very large knives. [ … ] these are huge Rambo knives, hunting knives, and great big kitchen knives.” There is “repeated stabbing, again and again, sometimes associated with other violence as well”, causing “life changing injuries”.112 In June, it was reported that teenagers in Liverpool were being offered up to £1,000 by “gang leaders” to stab other young people in fights to resolve disputes between rival groups, enabling senior gang members to avoid arrest.113

82.Witnesses linked these trends directly to county lines and the drug market. Junior Smart asserted that “the battle on the street at the moment is for concentration of drugs”, and told us—shockingly—that the youngest client on St Giles Trust’s caseload is just eight years of age:

[ … ] it is criminality evolved. Why would they target someone who is eight years of age? It is because that person is likely to be under the radar for longer and they are malleable, they are easier to manipulate, and they don’t understand the risks of what they are getting involved in.114

83.Written evidence by the Children’s Commissioner outlined the possible scale of the problem in relation to gang membership and criminality. Research completed for them by the ONS, based on the Crime Survey for England and Wales, found that there are around 27,000 children in England (aged 10–17) who identify as being in an urban street gang, amounting to around 12,200 girls and 14,800 boys. There are an additional 33,000 siblings of gang members and 34,000 who know a gang member and have been victims of gang violence. This adds up to a total of 100,000 children whom the Children’s Commissioner describes as being “at high levels of immediate risk” of gang violence.115

County lines as a form of gang exploitation

84.County lines is not a new phenomenon: Evan Jones from the charity St Giles Trust told us that his organisation became aware of it as early as 2012, but police forces have been slower to identify this pattern of criminality. In 2015, only seven forces told the National Crime Agency (NCA) that they were being affected by county lines. Within two years, all 43 forces acknowledged that it was a problem.

85.When we took evidence on county lines in January, the NCA’s Director of Investigations, Nikki Holland, told us that there are now thought to be 2,000 lines in operation, following estimates of 700 in November 2017.116 The NCA’s latest report on this subject clarifies that 2,000 individual deal line numbers have been linked to “approximately 1,000 branded county lines”.117 Simon Ford from the Violence and Vulnerability Unit (VVU), a team of community safety experts commissioned by the Home Office to research county lines and serious youth violence, told us that this form of criminality is “growing”, and that there is a “sustained peak” occurring.118 The NCA has also reported that:

86.The Violence and Vulnerability Unit produced a report last year based on research in around 70 local areas. It confirmed that older dealers and gangs, including individuals in their early 20s, are controlling people as young as 14 by placing them in debt for drugs, often involving financial and sexual exploitation. It found that the customer base for Class A drugs has grown across the UK, including an increase in women and young people using crack cocaine and heroin, and that there are “price wars between gangs across the country as they seek to open new markets”. As well as making drugs cheaper, county lines groups are “marketing their drugs through texts using enticements such as ‘two for one’ offers”.120

87.We were told in oral evidence that this business model “works”, so it is being exported around the country. Its profitability is being sustained by increased user demand, which we will return to later in this chapter.121 Harry Shapiro, Director of Drugwise, said that there is “a lot of product out there now, certainly a lot of cocaine, and a lot of people involved because they can see the profits that can be made”; particularly in “poor, disadvantaged and deprived communities where the opportunities to make serious amounts of money prove too tempting”.122 We were told by the national policing lead, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Duncan Ball, that the picture is fragmented across the country: there is no “all-controlling network” in charge of county lines, but rather many groups, mostly exporting from London, the West Midlands and Merseyside.123 According to the LGA, 23 separate county lines had been identified running into Blackpool alone.124

88.This inquiry heard extensive evidence about the links between county lines and serious youth violence. We were told by Steve Rodhouse, Director General of Operations at the NCA, that 13% of the 2,000 deal lines can be linked to violence, but with significant under-reporting suspected, and that around 9% have access to firearms.125 Assistant Chief Constable Jacqueline Sebire from Bedfordshire Police said that her force was seeing higher levels of violence as a result of “territorial disputes” between criminal groups, the majority of which are “enforced either through firearms or knives”.126 The Children’s Society’s representative, Lucy Dacey, also confirmed that her organisation is “definitely seeing an increased risk of violence and threat to the young people we work with”, including “debt bondage” and “fear of recrimination”. The charity has also seen a “big increase in missing episodes”, both in frequency and duration, as children are trafficked away from their area to sell drugs.127

89.The APCC’s written evidence stated that Ipswich in Suffolk has seen a 34% rise in knife crime over the past year, “because of gang and drug related violence directly linked to county lines”.128 Harry Shapiro from Drugwise also highlighted how increased competition had driven up violence. Previously, gangs would move into other areas, “but would supply drugs to the local dealer networks and then go home again”. That has now changed, and “when you have [ … ] people trying to take over turf, inevitably there is going to be some violence”.129 Evan Jones from St Giles Trust told us that a “real irony” is that “the gap for the county lines model to expand has been created by effective policing”: the police have been “quite good at taking out local drug dealers, which removes the supply, but the demand is still there”. As a result, “instead of a drug market run by nasty local 30-year-olds, you get one run by nasty 18-year-olds from London”. That “tends to create more chaos, more violence and more problems”; he likened it to “like using antibiotics—you end up with superbugs”.130 We return to the issues surrounding demand for Class A drugs later in this chapter.

The Government and police response to county lines

90.In Chapter 3, we outlined our concerns about the Government’s fragmented approach to policing policy and governance. A recent NAO report stated that the Government’s response to serious and organised crime (SOC) involves over 100 Government and law enforcement bodies, agencies and other organisations. In the context of a growing threat from organised criminal groups, including those involved in county lines offending, the study highlighted that there had been “significant failings” in the Home Office’s previous serious and organised crime strategy, published in 2013. A Government review found that:

91.Recent Home Office publications suggest that the Government is making moves to improve national coordination against serious organised crime, including county lines offending. For example, in the latest Serious and Organised Crime Strategy, published in November 2018, the Home Office pledged to “align our collective efforts to respond as a single system” to serious criminality. The Department will work with the NCA to develop a system-wide Serious and Organised Crime Capability Strategy, to improve their understanding of where collective capabilities lie, and which capabilities are most in need of development. This will “ensure that we have a coherent, end-to-end response to complex threats such as drug trafficking and distribution via county lines, for example.”132 The Department’s response to our Policing for the Future report made similar commitments, and acknowledged that “There is greater ambition for policing to work more as one system in order to better manage new threats”.133

92.Nevertheless, the NAO found shortcomings in the 2018 Serious and Organised Crime Strategy and the wider Government approach to this issue, despite acknowledging that the Home Office had “acted on learning” from its previous review. The Government continues to organise its work around the ‘four Ps’, but the NAO had “not seen a well-evidenced justification that this is the best approach”, and the Home Office had “not fully estimated the cost of what it must do to realise its strategy aspirations in full”. Funding overall is “uncertain and inefficient” and regional resources are “variable, putting government’s ambitions for a stronger regional response at risk”. For example, “Some chief constables have [ … ] prioritised their own forces’ capabilities to tackle serious and organised crime, rather than investing in the development of regional capabilities”. Overall, the Government “lacks a strong accountability framework to drive the implementation of the strategy”, despite making some progress towards consolidating the 37 governance groups that tackle serious and organised crime, and the 59 groups that discuss related topics.134

93.Witnesses also suggested to us that the statutory response to county lines has lacked national direction, resulting in piecemeal attempts at local restructures to enable agencies to deal with it more effectively.135 When asked whether more national leadership was needed, Simon Ford responded: “Very much so [ … ]. That is the only way you will get the ownership to deal with such a complex agenda”.136 Dr Carlene Firmin, an academic expert in ‘contextual safeguarding’, also called for an “increased strategic response, a cross-Government response”:

We see local authorities developing practice in the absence of any national strategy for safeguarding adolescents. There is no consistency at all, no recognition that the system is not fit for purpose, so local authorities are having to work it out themselves. There is no leadership on that at all, no cross-Government strategy on exploitation.137

94.Evidence on the quality of individual police forces’ response to county lines is relatively limited, but suggests that some have struggled to respond to it effectively. In November, the Director General of the NCA, Lynne Owens, reportedly told a conference that she had used her “tasking powers” for the first time to ensure that there was a co-ordinated effort between chief constables over the “significant threat” posed by county lines. She apparently said that there were five towns in which gangs had each been able to run 21 county lines without meaningful law enforcement intervention.138 Nikki Holland told us later that the agency’s tasking powers had been used for two reasons: first, to ensure that all forces returned data about local county lines activity; and second, to ensure “prioritisation of county lines packages”. She implied that this had been required to drive activity in the “exporting forces”, such as the major cities.139

95.As a result of an NPCC proposal to the Home Office,140 a new National County Lines Coordination Centre (NCLCC) became fully operational in Birmingham in September 2018, comprising a 38-strong team of NCA experts, police officers and regional organised crime units. Officers work together to develop the national intelligence picture, prioritise action against the most serious offenders, and engage with partners across Government to “tackle the wider issues”.141 When it was launched, the Home Office said that there are “already 200 active county lines investigations underway, but the introduction of the centre will allow police forces to intensify their operations”.142

96.Witnesses from the voluntary sector told us that police officers were becoming increasingly aware of the vulnerability of children exploited through county lines. Evan Jones said there had been “huge progress with the police’s attitude to this issue”, including “much, much better recognition of vulnerability”. The picture is mixed across the country, however, with some forces still prosecuting children who have been exploited.143 Others are spending a lot of time returning children to London, handing them over at service stations on the M25.144 St Giles Trust has recently started to offer a rescue and response service, giving one number for the whole of London and enabling their workers to reach exploited children at crucial moments.145 We are examining the use of modern slavery legislation to prosecute county lines offending in our separate inquiry into Modern Slavery, as well as the effectiveness of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) at providing support for county lines victims.

97.Government and law enforcement efforts to tackle county lines criminality have been hampered by wider failings in the response to serious and organised crime. Fragmented governance and funding structures and poor coordination of resources have been contributory factors in giving county lines offenders a head start, making it easier for this terrible form of exploitation to flourish.

Safeguarding problems

98.A common theme emerging from the evidence was the failure of statutory safeguarding systems and processes to protect children from county lines exploitation. Evan Jones said that the key piece of safeguarding legislation—The Children Act 2014—is focused on protecting young people from abuse in a domestic setting, and it is “extremely difficult” to use “traditional safeguarding tools and social work practice to identify young people who are [ … ] enslaved to a group of people”.146 Children involved in county lines often don’t present with any of the usual indicators of neglect that might trigger a social work investigation, according to the LGA, and may not regard themselves as victims.147

99.Lucy Dacey from the Children’s Society told us that “we really need to reinvent the thresholds for children’s social care”, and “reframe how we have traditionally assessed abuse and neglect, because it is extra-familial—outside the home—in the case of county lines exploitation”.148 Evan Jones said that St Giles Trust representatives “regularly have arguments with social services teams” about the way in which they are assessing risk.149 A scoping report on county lines by St Giles Trust and Missing People, published last year, suggested that “a contextual safeguarding approach would address this issue”. This would involve greater consideration of the risks outside the home, but the report warned that it requires a change in approach and specialist staff development. It also noted that there is a high demand on “limited” social services budgets, which raises the threshold for support.150

100.Similarly, the VVU’s research found that referrals to agencies of children showing signs of involvement in criminal exploitation are frequently not accepted, due to “diminished resources and higher thresholds”. One youth offender worker reported that “they had to fight for a case of a child who had possession of a gun to be accepted as neglect”, and the report warned against viewing these young people’s behaviour as a “lifestyle choice” rather than “evidence of a vulnerable child in need of protection”. They compared this approach to the manner in which young girls were viewed in Rotherham, while agencies failed to act on evidence of sexual exploitation and abuse.151 The authors argued that there was an “urgent need to explore a type of Child Criminal Exploitation Protection Order”.152 Dr Lucy Gore, a psychologist from Project Future, contrasted the approach to sexual exploitation with the support offered to young men being criminally exploited:

The lack of safeguards for certain young men is interesting. There is something about them being young boys. There is a lot about sexual exploitation in women, but young men just do not seem to get the same understanding put to them—for example the vulnerabilities of 14-year-old boys who are found in Scotland. I have actually heard them described as “All criminals” and have heard things such as, “We need to get them out the area and make it somebody else’s problem.”

There seems to be a lack of consideration that they are a 14-year-old who went missing for over a month and was never reported as such. What does that say about their environment and what could be put in place [ … ]? [ … ] they are seen as antisocial and difficult, rather than as really vulnerable.153

101.Dr Carlene Firmin also confirmed that children exploited by county lines groups are being referred into children’s services but are not reaching the threshold for support.154 She called for public authorities to “create a child protection system that is adequately designed for adolescents”, and added: “That needs to be co-ordinated through a statutory piece of work. It cannot just be something that you commission to organisations. It needs to happen within a framework, and I would spend [ … ] money creating and implementing that framework”.155

102.The Children’s Commissioner told us in written evidence that safeguarding failures may have resulted in underestimates about the number of children at risk of involvement in serious violence, arguing that “As with child sexual exploitation, there has been a reluctance to acknowledge the scale of the issue”. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner asked Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards (LSCBs) to provide them with ‘working estimates’ of the number of local children who are in gangs, related to gang members, and at high risk of gangs or gang association. Many areas did not respond at all—”often those areas with the highest level of risk”. Of those authorities which did respond, the quality of responses varied considerably, and generally suggested that “very small numbers of gang members are being identified locally”. The Commissioner concluded that LSCBs are “not fulfilling their statutory remit in relation to gang violence”.156

103.Later this year, Safeguarding Children Boards are due to be replaced by new ‘arrangements’, with clearer responsibilities for contextual safeguarding. Guidance issued by the Government last July said that, by September 2019, the three “safeguarding partners”—local authorities, police chief officers and NHS clinical commissioning groups—must “make arrangements to work together with relevant agencies (as they consider appropriate) to safeguard and protect the welfare of children in the area”.157 These reforms follow the findings of the ‘Wood Report’ on the role and functions of Local Safeguarding Children Boards, published in March 2016, which found that the duty for agencies to cooperate (under the Children Act 2004) “has not been sufficient in ensuring the coherent and unified voice necessary to ensure multi-agency arrangements are consistently effective”.158

104.Alan Wood also said that LSCBs were “essentially predicated on interfamilial child abuse”, and recommended that the three safeguarding partners “should determine, for an identified area, multi-agency arrangements for protecting and safeguarding children”.159 The Children’s Commissioner told us that the new bodies “have the potential to be much more effective, and it is important that this is realised”.160 There has been considerable criticism, however, that the new safeguarding partners do not include education and schools, which have a key role to play in engaging vulnerable young people.161

105.County lines exploitation is blighting communities and destroying young lives. Children have been let down by safeguarding systems that are far too narrowly focused on risks inside the family home, as well as an ongoing failure of agencies to work effectively together to build a package of support around young people. These systems and processes have failed badly to keep up with county lines groups, who exploit and abuse children who may be perfectly safe in their family home. Later this year, Safeguarding Children Boards are due to be replaced with new arrangements, with clearer responsibilities for contextual safeguarding. The Government must prioritise safeguarding in the upcoming spending review, with ringfenced resources for safeguarding partners to ensure that they operate much more effectively. It is not enough to expect separate agencies—the police, local authorities and the NHS—to resource inter-agency partnership work, given the financial and operational constraints within which they are operating.

106.Safeguarding bodies should be given a duty to produce local plans, with clear targets and milestones, to reduce the number of children at risk locally of county lines exploitation, reporting back to the Home Office on a regular basis via the regional serious violence leads that we recommended in Chapter 3. The Government should also examine whether changes are needed to the statutory framework and resources underpinning child safeguarding, to ensure that children abused outside the home do not fall under the threshold for social services support.

Data-sharing issues

107.A number of witnesses suggested that data-sharing problems have hindered the statutory response to county lines exploitation. The St Giles Trust and Missing People scoping report on county lines warned that children arrested away from home can enter a ‘no-man’s-land’, with agencies in both areas unable or unwilling to facilitate the child’s return.162 Lucy Dacey told us that one reason why the county lines business model is “really effective” is that “perpetrators know that when young people and criminals cross boundaries, it’s very difficult for agencies to catch up with them”. The statutory and voluntary sectors “share information a lot more slowly [ … ] than perpetrators”.163 According to Junior Smart, some areas “do not know whether it is their locals who are creating the criminal activity and the violence or whether they are on the import or the export end”.164

108.Nikki Holland also emphasised how vital it was for the NCA that agencies share intelligence, enabling public bodies to be “more predictive in our analysis by having all the data, not just the law enforcement data.”165 Simon Harding told us that the county lines issues vary by locality, “and we need to ensure that each local area has an up-to-date, contemporary profile of its young people, its provision, its substance misuse community, and so on, because things are moving very, very, very quickly”. Like Ms Dacey, he warned that “county lines and the people who run them are two or three years ahead of us”.166 Councillor Simon Blackburn from the LGA suggested that local partnership work had suffered as a result of funding cuts, because “the number and seniority of people present at those meetings has altered”. When he was a social worker, he used to have multi-agency meetings every Friday:

There would be me, somebody from the police and a whole host of other agencies, and we just talked about the half a dozen kids in Fleetwood who we knew were always on some sort of spectrum of risk. We would exchange information about where they had been, who they had been seen knocking about with and what our plan for them was for the next week or two. We ended up stopping those meetings because in the end it was just me and the police officer. All of the other third sector organisations had gradually had their funding cut by local councils or by other bodies.167

109.The NCA has noted that the use of missing children is a commonly-reported feature of county lines, “but it is often very difficult to get young missing people to engage with the police or partner agencies”. Lucy Dacey told us that early episodes of going missing “need to be seen as higher risk”, adding that young people are being reported missing by one force, which might recognise them as vulnerable, but are then “prosecuted and criminalised in another area of the country”. The Children’s Society has been calling for a national missing persons’ database, to ensure a more joined-up intelligence picture on vulnerable young people.168

110.Following consultation earlier this year, the Government announced in July that it will be introducing a new legal duty to support the multi-agency ‘public health’ approach to serious violence. This will include the police, local authorities, local health bodies such as NHS Trusts, education representatives and youth offending services.169 The Government will also legislate to require Community Safety Partnerships to set out strategies on serious violence, to ensure that the issue remains a “priority at a local level”. Its response to the public consultation stated: “We want to galvanise the partnerships that are not as effective at preventing and reducing serious violence currently by encouraging them to share data, intelligence and knowledge”.170 Witnesses to our inquiry were sceptical about the need for additional legislative duties to share data. They asserted that there are no statutory or legislative barriers to sharing information, but people and agencies—particularly in the health service—are nervous about doing so.

111.For example, Simon Ford from the VVU highlighted Section 115 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which states: “Any person who, apart from this subsection, would not have power to disclose information—(a) to a relevant authority; or (b) to a person acting on behalf of such an authority, shall have power to do so in any case where the disclosure is necessary or expedient for the purposes of any provision of this Act”. The authorities listed include the NHS, housing providers and probation services.171 He told us that information-sharing varies significantly between areas, adding:

We have the legislation there, but still, when we go to those localities, people in those positions are very reluctant and nervous to share data. But they can do it and there should not be any hurdles in the way of being able to share that data, whether it is A&E data, crime data, safeguarding data or education data.172

112.Similarly, Professor Harding said that he “continually” speaks to partners “who throw up the Data Protection Act and the GDPR as barriers to information sharing”. He suggested that the lack of proper structures was to blame, rather than any lack of statutory duty to share data:

[ … ] I hear a great deal of talk about multiagency partnership working and occasionally about information sharing as if it was invented yesterday. It has been a statutory duty for the past 21 years [ … ] Information sharing is a statutory duty; partnership working is a statutory duty. Much of this has become focused on the police and police cuts but very little about the statutory-duty role of the other providers—probation, health, local authorities and so on. All of that needs to be reinflated, reenergised and reinvigorated. [ … ] We do not have the policing or partnership structures to address this successfully or over the long term.173

113.According to the report from the Prime Minister’s knife crime summit, NHS England has “written to all trusts to remind them of their responsibilities to record and share data on attendance in accident and emergency departments as a result of violence–and to provide reassurance that this can be done in compliance with data protection laws”. The Government will also “consider whether the Crime and Disorder Act could be used to ensure that NHS data is shared with Community Safety Partnerships”.174

114.The Government has proposed a public health duty to share data, but there is also a need to address the non-legislative barriers that inhibit data-sharing. Legislation already requires agencies to share data in order to protect children and reduce serious violence. The evidence we received suggests that problems with data-sharing are more closely tied to lack of resources at a local level, alongside widespread misunderstandings about data protection law. The Government should consider whether a national data-sharing protocol should be established for the new safeguarding structures being created. Ministers should also examine the case for funding the Information Commissioner to establish an advice service on data-sharing between public agencies. The new serious violence team within the Cabinet Office should send us a written update on this issue by the end of September.

Demand for Class A drugs

115.When we took evidence on county lines, we asked witnesses how they would prioritise any additional investment to reduce this form of criminality. Strikingly, the national policing lead for county lines, DAC Duncan Ball, suggested that demand for drugs was the issue that most needed addressing:

As long as there is a user population that stimulates the market, you will have county lines [ … ]. [ … ] If we were able to collectively reduce the size and demand from the drugs market, you would find that there was no longer as much money in the criminal networks, and as a consequence, you would expect the amount of county lines activity, and the violence and exploitation, to reduce.175

Chief Constable Dave Thompson also said that demand needed to be addressed. Without such activity, he argued, any additional work to address drug supply (such as through border seizures) would “create its own problems”, because if it “drives up the price of drugs, that will hit acquisitive crime”.176

116.To explore this in further detail, we took evidence separately on the changing drug market. We were told that there have been increases in Class A drug use in recent years, along with a significant expansion of “access points” for drugs. Harry Shapiro linked this to the “delivery economy, whereby people can have anything delivered 24/7”, echoing Professor Harding’s previous comments about a “24-hour “’dial a dealer’” situation, outlined in paragraph 78. Global drug production has also increased significantly—including a 120% increase in cocaine production—which may explain increased levels of drug purity in the UK market, and the highest number of drug-related deaths on record.177 The UK also has one of the highest rates of drug deaths in Europe. In July, figures revealed that drug-related deaths in Scotland are almost ten times higher than the European average. In England and Wales, drug deaths are around three times higher than the European average.178

117.Witnesses told us that demand for illicit drugs had been affected by cuts to treatment provision, including heroin scripts. Professor Fiona Measham, a drugs expert from Durham University, said:

We have among the highest prevalence rates [of drug use] in Europe anyway. We have very cheap, very easily available drugs [ … ]. We have high purity, and along with that we have had a massive cut to health services and to treatment services. I guess we have had a perfect storm, which has led to us having the highest drug-related death rate on record, and the highest drug-related death rate in Europe. It is a national disaster at the moment.179,180

118.Although the Serious Violence Strategy suggests that changes to the drug market may have played a role in the recent increases in serious violence, there are few actions related specifically to drug use. The Home Office pledged to work with Public Health England (PHE), frontline practitioners, service users and peer mentors “to understand more about the current cohort of crack cocaine users”, and to “review the availability of evidence-based treatment interventions for this cohort”. It also said that it was launching a new round of Heroin and Crack Action Areas, which “provide local partners and communities with the space to consider their response to a variety of public health issues”, and providing funding for up to seven coordinators to support these initiatives.181

119.Witnesses to this inquiry emphasised that harm-reduction services have closed and public health budgets have been cut.182 Harry Shapiro argued strongly that Government investment should be focused on drug treatment:

I have been in this field for about 40 years, and the only area where I could see drug policy making a difference to people’s lives is treatment and rehabilitation. [ … ]. [ … ] I know of treatment agencies that are refusing to pick up local council tenders for drug-treatment services because they are saying, “We cannot deliver a quality service for the amount of money you are offering us”.183

There were 268,390 adults in contact with drug and alcohol services in 2017–18, which is a 13% fall since 2010–11.184

120.Dr Mike Shiner, a policing and drugs expert from the LSE, said that the direction of Government drug policy over the last decade had been “unfortunate in many ways”, arguing that a focus on abstinence is “at the very least optimistic”, given that “we cannot ensure that contained environments as security-focused as prisons are drug-free”. He called for the success of drugs policing to be measured by harm, such as the number of drug-related deaths, arguing that “the effect of a lot of traditional enforcement activity” appears to have been “increases in drug-market violence”.185 He added later: “It would be very difficult to make any evidence-based claim that drug policy is a success”.186 Steve Rodhouse from the NCA conceded that it is “unlikely that enforcement alone” will eliminate the drugs market, adding that it needs to be “supported—I could not agree more with what my colleagues on the panel have said—by demand reduction”.187

121.The UK has one of the highest rates of drug deaths in Europe—in England and Wales, drug deaths are three times the European average, and in Scotland they are ten times the European average. Government leadership on county lines and drug markets has been woefully inadequate. On all reasonable measures, the Home Office’s Drug Strategy is failing miserably. The Government has acknowledged the link between the drug market and violence: it must now take urgent action to reduce demand by improving the provision of treatment for drug users. There is no need to await the outcome of Dame Carol Black’s review, when the links between violence and demand for Class A drugs are so clear.

122.We have major concerns about the apparent growth of a 24/7 ‘dial a dealer’ drug culture, and the turf wars associated with this profitable market. The explosive growth both in drug gangs exploiting young people and in county lines criminality is damning evidence of systemic failures within current structures and processes for law enforcement and child protection. Combatting county lines requires far more than an acute response from the National Crime Agency and the police service. More action is needed against organised criminal groups, but county lines activity has been sustained by a thriving market for Class A drugs, a growth in the number of vulnerable young people, and a failure of safeguarding and law enforcement agencies to operate effectively across borders and share data on at-risk children.

103 The Youth Violence Commission, Interim Report, July 2018

105 HM Government, Serious Violence Strategy, April 2018

115 Children’s Commissioner for England (SVC0054)

117 National Crime Agency, County Lines Drug Supply, Vulnerability and Harm 2018, January 2019

119 National Crime Agency, County Lines Drug Supply, Vulnerability and Harm 2018, January 2019

120 Violence and Vulnerability Unit, County lines - a national summary & emerging best practice, May 2018

121 For example, Q86

128 APCC written evidence (SVC0048)

131 National Audit Office, Tackling serious and organised crime (HC2219), 28 June 2019

132 HM Government, Serious and Organised Crime Strategy (Cm 9718), November 2018

133 The Government response to the Tenth Report from the Home Affairs Select Committee Session 2017–19 HC 515: Policing for the future (CP62), 15 March 2019

134 National Audit Office, Tackling serious and organised crime (HC2219), 28 June 2019

150 JH Consulting, St Giles Trust and Missing People, County Lines Scoping Report, May 2018

151 Violence and Vulnerability Unit, County lines - a national summary & emerging best practice, May 2018

152 Violence and Vulnerability Unit, County lines - a national summary & emerging best practice, May 2018

156 Children’s Commissioner for England (SVC0054)

158 Wood Report: Review of the role and functions of Local Safeguarding Children Boards, March 2016

159 Wood Report: Review of the role and functions of Local Safeguarding Children Boards, March 2016

160 Children’s Commissioner for England (SVC0054)

162 JH Consulting, St Giles Trust and Missing People, County Lines Scoping Report, May 2018

169 Home Office news story, New public health duty to tackle serious violence, 14 July 2019

178 National Records of Scotland, Drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2018, 16 July 2019; and BBC News, Scotland has highest drug death rate in EU, 16 July 2019

180 As outlined above, Scotland has the highest drug-related death rate in Europe. The combined rate in England and Wales is the fifth highest in Europe, at 66 deaths per million people.

181 HM Government, Serious Violence Strategy, April 2018

182 Q256 and Q194

Published: 31 July 2019