County lines gangs 'perversely' telling recruits slavery law makes them immune from prosecution

COUNTY line dealers are telling recruits they should claim they have been trafficked in a bid to avoid prosecution if caught, a report has found.note-0

Friday, 10th January 2020, 12:01 am
Updated Friday, 10th January 2020, 12:05 am

Sophisticated gang members are luring children and the vulnerable into ‘a false sense of security’ over a law designed to protect true victims of modern-day slavery.

Anyone trafficked into committing a crime ‘on behalf of their abusers’ has a statutory defence under section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

But this safeguard is ‘perversely’ being exploited by dealers who claim it protects those put to work as drug runners in lucrative county lines.

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File photo from a county lines policing operation at a train station in Portsmouth in January 2019. Picture: Habibur Rahman
File photo from a county lines policing operation at a train station in Portsmouth in January 2019. Picture: Habibur Rahman

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Gangsters who forced teenagers as young as 14 to run drugs in Portsmouth convict...

Watchdog inspectors looking into the policing response to county lines highlighted the case of three men jailed for drug and trafficking offences.

The men forced children as young as 14 to deal drugs in Portsmouth while the men made up to £2,000 a day. Three of the teenagers were convicted of drug offences before the gang leaders were convicted of trafficking.

In October police said they arrested 49 people and took over dealers' phones in a crackdown. Such nationally-run ‘intensification weeks' have been praised in a report today.

A Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary report published today said: ‘But, perversely, we found signs that the availability of this statutory defence may increase the risk of exploitation.

‘We were told by a survivor of county lines exploitation that some offenders coach their recruits (vulnerable or otherwise) to say they have been trafficked if they are arrested.

‘For some vulnerable people, this may give them a false sense of security. Most of the forces we visited said that use of the section 45 defence is increasing.’

The report found that forces were too ‘fragmented’ in their response to the phenomenon, which sees class A drugs transported from big cities, mainly London, Liverpool and Birmingham, to smaller towns and cities.

Police now want it so that people ‘should have to register personal details when buying a mobile phone or replacement SIM card’ to prevent pay-as-you-go handsets and numbers being used by gangs.

Hampshire police previously admitted to The News such gangs are operating nearly every town in the county.

Inspectors said there are more than 2,000 individual deal line numbers - advertised to addicts to contact to buy drugs - linked to about 1,000 county lines.

The report added: ‘In policing, the challenges of responding to county lines offending are symptoms of a bigger problem created by the 43-force structure in England and Wales.

‘This structure acts as a barrier to personnel being deployed efficiently, co-ordinating efforts, or to forces sharing intelligence over police borders.’

Hampshire police was reported to ‘deserve credit’ for developing a system to assess vulnerability of people involved in county lines.

‘More needs to be done’ by the National Crime Agency to task resources nationally, the report said. And most regional organised crime units are, understandably, not into the problem, it added.