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County Lines report

The UK has around 2,000 ‘county lines’ phone numbers of drug dealing networks, according to the National Crime Agency (NCA) in its fourth annual assessment into county lines drug supply, vulnerability and harm. Exploitation of children and vulnerable adults is increasing, the NCA says. It describes the criminal threat as significant and national.

The number of actual ‘lines’ (networks) has increased from 720 (as acknowledged in the previous 2017/18 assessment) to 1000. Children aged between 15 to 17 make up the bulk of the vulnerable people involved in county lines, and girls and boys are groomed and exploited, says the NCA.

The eight-page assessment describes the criminals and their business model as highly adaptable. Lines, using dedicated mobile phone lines and mass marketing text messages, run mainly from London, the West Midlands and Merseyside. As a sign of how little the authorities know, the report admits that other police forces may not know a line is operating or exporting from their area. Some gangs use social media, some avoid it.

The report covers recruitment and coercion of members, use of ‘cuckooed properties’ – but also short-term lets and guest houses, and use of railways by drug runners too young to drive: Manchester Piccadilly, Clapham Junction and London Waterloo and St Pancras, and Birmingham New Street (pictured) are named as hubs. The report admits gangs’ use of private hire vehicles is an ‘intelligence gap’. The report describes such gang traffickers as victims, who go unpaid while the single daily delivery can bring in thousands of pounds in profit. A ‘county line’ can make £800k in profit a year, according to the assessment.

The grooming techniques seen as part of county lines are similar to what has been seen in child sexual exploitation and abuse. Often the young people don’t see themselves as victims, police say. Instead the youths are flattered by the attention and gifts they receive, so are less likely to speak to law enforcement.

Exploitation methods continue to involve sexual abuse and exploitation, modern slavery and human trafficking, as well as the threat of violence and injury to ensure compliance. This makes the whole system approach to tackling county lines more important than ever before.

County lines cover all police force areas and organised crime threats, the NCA stresses. The National County Lines Coordination Centre (NCLCC), launched in September 2018, is jointly led by the NCA and the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC). It maps the threat from county lines nationally and prioritising action against the most significant perpetrators. It provides support to front line officers and is working to deepen the partnerships with non-law enforcement organisations to enhance the wider national response.

Nikki Holland, Director of Investigations at the NCA and County Lines lead, said: “Tackling county lines is a national law enforcement priority. We know that criminal networks use high levels of violence, exploitation and abuse to ensure compliance from the vulnerable people they employ to do the day-to-day drug supply activity.

“Every organised crime group trafficking drugs is a business which relies on cash flow. County lines is no different. What we will continue to do with our law enforcement partners is disrupt their activity and take away their assets. We also need to ensure that those exploited are safeguarded and understand the consequences of their involvement. This is not something law enforcement can tackle alone – the need to work together to disrupt this activity and safeguard vulnerable victims must be the priority for everyone.”

The assessment publication follows a week of coordinated law enforcement activity across the UK which resulted in over 600 arrests. For more visit the NPCC (National Police Chiefs’ Council) website.


For example in Southend-on-Sea, the borough council’s children services team, adult services, local head teachers, Essex Police and the NHS are among members of the violence and vulnerability group. Schools are looking out for early signs of issues, and injuries are followed up by the NHS. The group has run two public awareness campaigns. The first, #SeeTheSigns, aimed at parents in the borough, alerted them to criminal gangs who are targeting young children. Then the #MerryMuletide campaign was designed to appeal to recreational drug users’ consciences and told the grim reality of the children used to supply ‘party drugs’. Councillor Helen Boyd, cabinet member for children and learning said, “The multi-agency team is making strong headway in disrupting the activities of these criminals.”


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