Children committing drugs offences amid scourge of county lines gangs

Vulnerable children are being preyed on to commit drugs offences, say police.
Vulnerable children are being preyed on to commit drugs offences, say police.

Children in Nottinghamshire committed more than 100 drug offences inside a year, official figures show.

It comes amid police warnings about the scourge of county lines drug gangs and their effects on all police force areas in the country.

There were 101 drug offences committed by children aged between ten and 17 in Nottinghamshire in the 12 months to March 2018, Ministry of Justice statistics show.

Only proven offences are counted, which means when a child receives a caution or sentence for the crime.

Not all crimes committed by children will lead to a formal outcome, so the actual number of crimes could be higher.

Some youngsters may be dealt with informally, such as being given a community resolution or being referred to a youth offending team for advice about their behaviour.

The number of offences in Nottinghamshire fell compared to 2016/17 when there were 107.

However, across England and Wales, the number of drug offences committed by children rose by 2.5 per cent to 5,965, which was the first increase for ten years.

A surge in county lines drug networks, which gangs that use to transport drugs from urban centres into smaller towns and rural areas, has been blamed for the increase.

The Children’s Society says gangs often target and exploit vulnerable children, such as those living in poverty or in care, to act as ‘drug mules’.

It is important that such children are supported as victims rather than criminalised, the organisation added.

Iryna Pona, policy and research manager for the charity, said the increase in child exploitation could be behind the rise in convinctions and cautions.

She said: “After being groomed through promises of cash, drugs and a glamorous lifestyle, children are then terrified into following orders and carrying out drug-related crimes.

“We have sadly supported children who have been stabbed, raped and tortured, with their activities monitored through mobile phone live streaming and tracking.

“We want police to recognise that, in many cases, young people haven’t made a choice to get involved in gangs. Instead, they have been groomed and coerced in the same way as we have seen young people groomed and coerced into sexual exploitation.”

For Nottinghamshire police, Det Chief Insp Nick Waldram said: “The issue of county lines is a tactic where organised crime gangs use children to carry out drugs offences.

“We know this exists up and down the country and that recruiters prey on the most vulnerable in our society, so we have been taking steps to target this and recently took part in national co-ordinated action through the National Crime Agency (NCA).

“We have worked alongside our partners, not only to fight crime but also to educate, which has been bringing about positive results.

“Most of the time, these children need help, protection and safeguarding, and we look to identify them at the earliest opportunity.

“We will continue to be proactive in tackling county lines so we can put measures in place to stop criminals exploiting children in this way.

“But we also need people to be aware and work with us, by telling us if they’re concerned about someone and telling us if they think drug offences might be being committed in their area.

“Please call us on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously with any information that could help.”

The NCA estimates about 10,000 children as young as 11 years old are now being used as ‘drug mules’ for county lines gangs.

The gangs use dedicated mobile phone lines to take orders and move drugs across their networks.

A new report by the NCA reveals there are now 2,000 such phone lines across the UK, up from 720 a year ago, facilitating about 1,000 unique drug-trafficking routes.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Duncan Ball, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for county lines, said: “Police forces across the UK are working together to dismantle these networks and protect the young and vulnerable people who are exploited by them.

“The work of the National County Lines Co-ordination Centre has resulted in more arrests and large amounts of drugs and weapons taken off our streets.

“We will continue to do all we can to pursue and prosecute those who commit violence and exploit the vulnerable.”

Drug offences made up six per cent of all proven child offences in Nottinghamshire in the year to March, 2018.