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“County lines” is the term used to describe the situation where a group supplies drugs from an urban hub to a county location (typically a market or coastal town) within a different police force boundary. Young and vulnerable people are often exploited by the group to carry and sell the drugs, or for their homes to be used as a base for drug dealing activity.

The National Crime Agency (NCA), which leads the policing response to county lines at a national strategic level, describes a typical county lines scenario as involving the following components:

a. A group (not necessarily affiliated as a gang) establishes a network between an urban hub and county location, into which drugs (primarily heroin and crack cocaine) are supplied.

b. A branded mobile phone line is established in the market, to which orders are placed by introduced customers. The line will commonly (but not exclusively) be controlled by a third party, remote from the market.

c. The group exploits young or vulnerable persons, to achieve the storage and/or supply of drugs, movement of cash proceeds and to secure the use of dwellings (commonly referred to as cuckooing).

d. The group or individuals exploited by them regularly travel between the urban hub and the county market, to replenish stock and deliver cash.

e. The group is inclined to use intimidation, violence and weapons, including knives, corrosives and firearms.

The NCA says that at a conservative estimate there are at least 720 lines across England and Wales. However, it also says that the true scale of county lines activity is difficult to determine accurately given its fluid nature, unclear intelligence, and inconsistent recording practices.

There is an increasing policy focus on the exploitation of the (often) young and vulnerable people involved in county lines activity. Some may be recruited to move and deal the drugs (and the cash proceeds), while others may have their homes “cuckooed” to provide a local base for dealers to operate from. Police and prosecution guidance on tackling county lines activity acknowledges the need to safeguard vulnerable individuals, as well as the need to prosecute those responsible for the exploitation. In December 2017 it was reported that, “in the first case of its kind in the UK”, two London gang members running a county line had been convicted of modern slavery offences after exploiting a vulnerable woman to transport and sell drugs.

The Government response to date has focused on:

  • establishing a new Home Office-led working group to develop and deliver action by the police and key sectors to tackle county lines;
  • enhancing police capability to respond to the issue, including the introduction of the Drug Dealing Telecommunications Restriction Orders Regulations 2017, SI 2017/1240 to give the police powers to close down mobile phone lines being used for drug dealing; and
  • publishing guidance to raise awareness of the county lines threat amongst frontline staff including in education, health, children’s services, housing and jobcentre staff.

In October 2017 the Home Office announced that it was awarding £300,000 to the charities Missing People and St Giles Trust to operate a pilot support service for exploited young people involved in county lines activity between London and Kent. The service will focus on offering support to young and vulnerable drug carriers, those at risk of being drawn into county lines, and those who have returned from being missing while being used as a drug carrier. The charities will also conduct research into the services available to help young people exit county lines involvement, including investigating the potential for a 24/7 dedicated helpline.

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