Better collaboration needed to tackle county lines properly

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Efforts to tackle the activities of county lines drug gangs are being hampered by lack of a ‘fully integrated, national response’, according to a report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire Rescue Services (HMICFRS).

Mobile phone
Pay-as-you-go mobiles can be used as so-called ‘burner phones’.

While there were many examples of good practice, national coordination and intelligence sharing needs to be ‘more coherent and integrated’, says Both sides of the coin: the police and National Crime Agency’s response to vulnerable people in ‘county lines’ drug offending.  

The document acknowledges the efficient use of modern slavery legislation and ‘intensification weeks’ – dedicated action against gangs organised by the National County Lines Coordination Centre – but warns that competing priorities and sometimes inefficient organised crime mapping remain areas of concern. 

Protecting vulnerable people should be a top priority for all police forces, says the report, and while forces were generally getting better at identifying those at risk, they were often doing so in different ways, with no ‘single, consistent vulnerability assessment tracker’. Comprehensive, evidence-based guidance is needed to create a more consistent approach and make sure relevant data can be efficiently shared between the police and other public services, the report stresses. 

The document also recommends that the National Crime Agency (NCA) create a central team to coordinate use of restriction orders for telecommunications used in drug dealing, and that the Home Office commission a review of the ‘criminal abuse of mobile telecommunications services’ to look at whether regulation should be toughened.

While police chiefs are able to apply for restriction orders – which compel service providers to deny mobile services to dealers – these are only in relation to specific phones or numbers, and the report found ‘little support’ for their use. Gangs would simply transfer customers’ contact details to a new phone, it said, with some interviewees suggesting that anyone buying a mobile phone or SIM card should have to register their personal details. However, dealers were increasingly using social media, including encrypted platforms, to sell drugs, the report states.

HM inspector of constabulary, Phil Gormley
HM inspector of constabulary, Phil Gormley

‘County lines offending is a pressing issue for law enforcement in the UK – it is a cross-border phenomenon involving criminals working across regions, to deal drugs and exploit vulnerable people,’ said HM inspector of constabulary, Phil Gormley.

‘To tackle cross-border crime, there needs to be a cross-border response. Our inspection revealed that policing is currently too fragmented to best tackle county lines offending. Although we did see many excellent examples of collaboration, we concluded that the current approach does not allow for the level of coherence needed.’

Report at https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmicfrs/