Dr Alicia Kidd from the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull thinks that the County Lines gangs choose to target children because they are easier to manipulate.
Sputnik: Firstly, what are County Lines gangs and just how significant is it that these gangs are now targeting children as young as 7?
Dr Alicia Kidd: The term County Lines gangs basically refers to drug trafficking, so using people to run drugs from more urban areas to rural areas and criminal gangs are using children because they're easier to manipulate, they're easier to control, it is cheaper to buy their services; so it might not even be that they're paying them with money, it might be an old iPhone or respect from somebody who they think is ‘cool’. It is really significant because obviously those ages, seven and eight, are so young and if these children are being brought into this kind of criminal activity at such a young age, it’s going to have such an influence on the rest of their lives going forward. If you're recruiting people who are in school - that's an easy network. If you've got a child who has got friends, that child can go into school and tell them oh, look, I've got this new iPhone, or I got this new designer bag or whatever, and then start recruiting friends. That way that the criminal gangs aren't even going to do the work of recruiting because they've got children doing it for them.
Sputnik: The number of 10-17-year-olds arrested for intent to supply drugs outside of London has gone up 49%, with the number of children being trafficked to sell drugs outside their home area nearly doubling. How rife is this problem and what are the difficulties when tackling these crimes?
Dr Alicia Kidd: Obviously these numbers are terrifying - the size of the increase that we are seeing. But I think it's also important to remember that an increase doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole increase is because we're seeing more children victimised. It could be that our police forces and our local authorities are getting better at identifying it. So numbers going up could be because we know what to look for, how to respond to it and how to intercept those criminal gangs. But this is not to deny that there probably is an increase and either way, those numbers are so significantly high. If you look at some of the figures from 2018, the number of people that were identified as potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK, there were 6993 people; 45% of those were children, so that’s over 3000 children. And of course this is just the number of people who are identified so it's not accounting for the numbers that we don't know about. To break it down, unfortunately, those statistics don't show figures specifically for criminal child exploitation, but 63% of children were used for labour exploitation and that encompasses things like any form of labour exploitation but it covers criminal exploitation and county lines is one form of criminal exploitation. And the majority of those children are male but that's not to say that it doesn't affect females. So obviously in the last two years, we've heard a lot about child grooming, particularly for sexual exploitation. Now the tables are kind of turning for awareness of different types of exploitation of children and looking at this other form of criminality and using children to run drugs.
Sputnik: Okay, so what preventative measures are being put forward to stop children being recruited for County Line gangs and conversely what more could authorities be doing?
Dr Alicia Kidd: Because people are becoming more aware of it, I think there is more awareness growing in the practitioner side of things; so local authorities and schools and police knowing what to look out for. Also, with the Crown Prosecution Service knowing that this is an issue and thinking actually is this is young person a criminal or are they a victim? That's one of the most important things we have to consider. When we're looking at victims, they're not always going to fit those perfect criteria of this troubled young child who is upset and quiet and refrained. It could very well be an angry child that doesn't want to engage but we've still got to, as professionals, question whether that person might be a victim; their demeanour doesn't necessarily mean that they're not. Increased training and increased awareness obviously are really important but also as members of the public and people with children, with family members who are children, it's important for us to be aware of it, understand how children are recruited, speak to our children, and make sure that there is an open line of conversation between parents and children. So they know that if there is something going on or they’re a little bit anxious or they've heard on the school playground that somebody else is doing this thing, they can talk to them about it because that's a real key area of where we can get this information and where we can start intercepting it before it happens.
The views and opinions expressed by Dr Alicia Kidd are those of the expert and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.