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Why 2020 needs to be a year of significant improvement in tackling County Lines

  • Video report by ITV News National Editor Allegra Stratton

Today’s report by the police watchdog into how our 43 forces are dealing with county lines is more critical than I had expected. We first revealed the scale of the vast sprawling nature of county lines three and a half years ago and over that time I have seen a heck of a lot of good work by police forces trying to get a grip, and also an improvement from areas that had been in denial.

Which, by the way, included quite a few forces since county lines has seen the drug problems of our cities exported to places that hadn’t previously had them… and with that a challenge to the mind-set that these were only urban problems. Well, not anymore.

Whilst today’s report praises some aspects of law enforcement… on what I think is the central measure – whether or not these different areas work together well enough – it’s damning. They say policing is still “too fragmented to best tackle county lines”.

This is 18 months after the publication of the government’s own serious violence strategy telling us it believed that half of all the serious violence we were seeing on Britain’s streets (and continue to see) was down to county lines drug dealing. Fragmentation is no good when dealing with a challenge like this.

Some of this will be addressed as time goes on. In 2018 the government set up the national coordination centre for county lines and that has been up and running around a year and still needs time to establish itself.

Police have been trying to clamp down on county line drug dealing. Credit: ITV News

But today’s report is a chunky document and its weighty recommendations direct criticism at the Home Office as well as the National Crime Agency. Indeed, it comes up with a list of ten areas where it wants to see movement from the government by the end of this year.

Most interesting to me is the idea of whether everyone should be able to buy a pay-as-you-go mobile. Since county lines relies on mobile phones, the police were given a new power – Drug Dealing Telecommunication Restriction Orders (DDTRO) to shut down a drug dealing line where possible.

Police watchdog into how our forces deal with county lines is more critical than I expected, writes Allegra Stratton. Credit: ITV News

But these have been used rarely by police officers, weary at the idea (and futility) of getting a DDTRO approved, only for the targeted dealers to buy a new sim card and reopen the line on another number. This happened, in one case mentioned in the report, just one hour later.

Today the report asks whether, in future, people should have to register personal details when buying a phone or new sim card. This happens in other countries but will trigger a debate here about whether the state needs to know every phone bought by those who are not drug dealers. The authorities will want to come up with a way of doing this without unnecessary intrusion.

The report also gives the Home Office a year to review whether modern slavery legislation is strong enough to convict adult drug dealers of exploiting their younger drug mules – senior police officers I know see this as the game changer. And they may be right.

Their logic is that once dealers start to be sent to prison alongside others who have exploited children, perhaps sexually, they may lose their sheen in the local community. When they are let out after a conviction like that, they are stopped from working with children for an extended period of time. Senior officers believe this will make adults less keen on using kids to ferry drugs. This may be true, but while there have been high profile examples of these kinds of convictions, there have not been that many of them.

There is some praise for the police today. They have "improved" their understanding of county lines and they are using modern slavery legislation effectively. But it's clear their own watchdog thinks 2020 needs to be a year of significant improvement.