Children as young as 12 are being used by criminal gangs in London to ferry drugs around the country in what is feared to be a new child exploitation grooming scandal.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd this week faced unprecedented calls from London councils to launch a national strategy to tackle the so-called "county lines" phenomenon.
The cross-party initiative – led by Islington Council and backed by 18 other councils – warned older gang members were "grooming" vulnerable children into becoming drug mules, forcing them to carry illegal drugs hundreds of miles in a bid to expand criminal networks into seaside and market towns.
It has seen exploited children from London found carrying drug packages as far away as Cornwall and south Wales, the councils said.
"We believe that County Lines has the potential to be the next grooming scandal, following the Child Sexual Exploitation grooming scandals we have seen in Rotherham, Oxfordshire and elsewhere in recent years," read a joint-letter sent to Home Secretary Rudd on Tuesday (17 January).
Warning that exploited children were being criminalised instead of helped, it added: "Just as society treated girls groomed for Child Sexual Exploitation as criminals complicit in their own abuse, we are in danger of repeating this mistake with the vulnerable young people exploited by adults through County Lines."
Councillor Joe Caluori, of Islington Council, said the "county lines" phenomenon urgently needed a national strategy involving multiple police forces and local authorities.
"We have seen in Islington how organised gangs are trying to minimise their risks and maximise their profits by grooming and exploiting vulnerable young people to run drugs, money and even weapons to remote locations," he said.
He added: "This problem crosses local authority and police boundaries, and by its very nature requires a national solution from the Home Office. We all need to work together on this to safeguard vulnerable young people – and urgently."
'At any time you could be hurt or killed'
The "county lines" phenomenon involves drug gangs using a network of drug runners to expand their criminal operations beyond local areas to other parts of the country.
One schoolboy caught up in the dangerous world of being a "county lines" drug mule – also known as "going country" – described how he was groomed by older criminals when he was aged 13, giving him gifts and making him feel part of the group.
"They'd pick me up around the corner from my house. They'd give me a lift to school and I'd get out and you just felt like you were important getting out of a nice big car," he told ITV News anonymously in September.
"Anything I ever wanted I got given and I thought it was all for free."
The boy, now aged 15, said they then began asking him to deliver shoeboxes of class A drugs, including Cocaine, and bags of pills, often long distances from his home.
"At any time you could be hurt or killed or anything, because you don't know what kind of enemies these people are making," he said.
A 2015 report on "county lines" by the National Crime Agency (NCA) said some 181 urban gangs had sent more than 800 people to market towns and coastal areas across the country to deal drugs.
It also warned vulnerable young people "are being exploited in order to facilitate the running of street level drug dealing within county lines".
A subsequent NCA report, published last year, found extreme violence, incidents of kidnap and use of firearms had prevailed as a consequence of the "county lines" markets.
Furthermore, youth charity Catch 22 says it has found links between children reported missing and drug gangs expanding their reach.
"We found evidence of young people both overtly coerced and more subtly exploited into travelling to unknown areas to sell drugs for weeks at a time in what has been described as 'county lines'," its 2015 report said.
One London borough, Lewisham, said last year it believed half of its missing children have been groomed to carry drugs.
Home Office minister Sarah Newton said: "Gang and youth violence has a devastating impact on young people, their families, and local communities, and has no place in a safer Britain that works for everyone.
"Our Ending Gang Violence and Exploitation programme prioritises action to tackle county lines, protect vulnerable locations and safeguard vulnerable young people exposed to gangs.
"We are working with law enforcement agencies and local charities, amongst others, to tackle this problem and have formed a new partnership with the Institute of Community Safety to support local areas facing gang problems, including county lines."
The letter to Home Secretary Amber Rudd
Dear Secretary of State,
As you know, 'County Lines' is a model of organised drug dealing in which older gang members reduce their personal risks and maximise profits by grooming vulnerable young people to travel to towns hundreds of miles away from home and sell drugs, taking advantage of underdeveloped drugs markets in seaside towns and market towns.
Vulnerable children from London as young as 12, have been found in locations as far away as Cornwall and South Wales.
We believe that County Lines has the potential to be the next grooming scandal, following the Child Sexual Exploitation grooming scandals we have seen in Rotherham, Oxfordshire and elsewhere in recent years. We are contacting you as Lead Members for Children's Services from London Boroughs, to request a meeting about the national response to this problem.
The recent NCA report shows that County Lines drug dealing is increasing and drawing in more vulnerable young people. The report shows that serious violence, including kidnap, the use of weapons (including firearms) and ruthless debt control remain key features of County Lines drug dealing.
There is a growing concern that the Home Office has not so far taken the action necessary to enable a co-ordinated and consistent approach. The meeting we are requesting will provide an opportunity to discuss how we can work together to tackle County Lines drug dealing and the urgent need for a clear national strategy and action plan from the Home Office dealing specifically with this issue.
It is vital that local authorities are provided with a clear account of the responsibilities of different tiers of policing, from the NCA to Borough forces, and how they will be resourced to fulfil the action plan. It must also be made clear how the Government expect police forces from the 'County Bases' and 'Home Bases' of the gangs to work together to safeguard vulnerable children.
Furthermore, we believe that a commitment must be made to prioritising prosecuting those who organise the County Lines, rather than the young people caught up in them, including the use of anti-slavery and trafficking legislation. We believe that County Lines has the potential to be the next grooming scandal, following the Child Sexual Exploitation grooming scandals of recent years.
Just as society treated girls groomed for Child Sexual Exploitation as criminals complicit in their own abuse, we are in danger of repeating this mistake with the vulnerable young people exploited by adults through County Lines. As London Boroughs we can take a lead in stopping this phenomenon, but we need national support, otherwise we will always be one step behind the gangs.
Signed by members of the following councils: Islington, Barking & Dagenham, Brent, Camden, Croydon, Ealing, Greenwich, Hackney, Hammersmith & Fulham, Haringey, Harrow, Hounslow, Lambeth, Lewisham, Merton, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest, Wandsworth.