At the start of 2020 The Guardian broke a story about how county lines drug dealers had infiltrated a UK university. Members of county line gangs were posing as students in Bangor to sell class A drugs, reported the newspaper.
While the news may have shocked the public it merely confirmed what many local authorities and the police already suspected. The criminal gangs behind these enterprises have taken an increasingly sophisticated approach to avoid police detection as awareness of county lines drug dealing has increased over the past few years.
With the latest statistics from the National Crime Agency suggesting there are currently nearly 2,000 ‘deal lines’ controlled by criminal networks across the UK, what – if anything – can employers and HR directors do to help tackle the problem?
Though the issue may not appear to be something that employers can do anything about, there are essentially two fronts on which HR can take the lead.
Young adults, many of whom have just left school with little or no qualifications, have been recruited by these gangs. As a result, HR departments potentially have a significant role to play in tackling this scourge.
Mohammed Qasim, visiting fellow at London School of Economics’ Mannheim Centre for Criminology, says: “The first job a young person takes isn’t likely to pay that much. So he or she is at risk in particular areas of being enticed by gangs to start operating as a county lines dealer.
“But if that young person can see a [career] path that goes somewhere and that makes them think ‘I’ve been working in this job for six months but there’s a chance for me to work my way up the career path’, then that particular person would be less likely to want quick money.
“Looking at it from a vulnerability perspective, HR plays a vital role and could potentially support this young person and guide them away from any county lines involvement.”
The other key role HR can play is training staff to identify vulnerable people who might potentially be preyed on by county lines gangs.
“County lines is ultimately an issue of exploitation of young people and the most vulnerable,” says Emily van der Lely, county lines lead at the charity Crimestoppers.
“HR departments have a responsibility to review their policies and procedures to ensure staff and contractors are fully aware of the signs to spot, and then how to record and pass on that information.”
Some industry sectors are potentially more exposed to vulnerable people being caught up in county lines gangs than others, according to van der Lely.
“County lines [crime] happens across transport, such as coaches, minicabs and on the railway network. It’s also commonplace in short-term accommodation,” she explains.
It’s a view shared by Tilia Lenz, lecturer practitioner consultant for the Pan-Dorset and Wiltshire Social Work Teaching Partnership, based at Bournemouth University.
“Those industries where you have a more low-skilled and possibly more transient workforce are where you would potentially have a higher level of risk around modern slavery, and they would be even more at risk of criminal exploitation,” she says.
“Where there is transition of goods, people, money – whatever it may be – county lines may be in some shape or form influencing those [industries].”
Many affected industries are already putting measures in place to help identify where county lines gangs might be operating.
“In some parts of the country to get your taxi driver licence, or to renew it, you need to do a course on county lines and child sexual exploitation,” says Lenz.
“When the Rotherham child sexual abuse scandal came out [local authorities] worked an awful lot with taxi companies, so they would only get their licences if they had done some awareness training around it.”
A number of local authorities are also putting measures in place to help their own frontline workforce identify and tackle the problem.
In late 2019 Forbes Solicitors launched a Best Practice Partnership Network in West Yorkshire with the aim of improving collaborative working between registered housing providers, the police, firefighters and social care when dealing with anti-social behaviour and safeguarding issues like county lines.
“We’ve been really pushing the value of housing being the eyes and ears of the community,” says Darren Burton, head of housing consultancy service at Forbes Solicitors.
“So, getting into people’s homes, seeing how people live, seeing if people are struggling and if there’s any evidence of drug misuse in the property.”
He adds that registered housing providers have been the launchpad for the initiative, but the company hopes to eventually roll the network out to other UK regions, with an emphasis on providing training and building awareness of issues such as county lines across other local authority departments.
Another sector that has a crucial role to play in helping to identify county lines activity is education, argues Qasim.
“The HR teams at schools, colleges and universities need to work better with their staff to look out for early signs of their students, or even their young workforce, being enticed into drug activity,” he says.
“Early intervention is important, and HR needs to have good links with external organisations that will support the young person and look at ways of trying to get this young person away from this particular lifestyle.”
The good news for employers looking to take a lead on this issue is there is plenty of information freely available. In the first instance, Lenz advises HR directors to visit local children and adults safeguarding websites, which contain useful information about issues like county lines and criminal exploitation.
“That would be your go-to portal to get advice and guidance because the HR department can support the employee, but actually it’s not their duty to manage the issue of the exploitation,” says Lenz.
“They can’t keep the vulnerable adult or young person safe. Their job is to keep them in employment, if at all possible. But if you have an understanding HR department and a management structure that has a clue about the problem and has some understanding around how coercion and control works, then actually they [vulnerable employees] can be supported.”
Crimestoppers’ van der Lely adds that useful information and posters are also available to download from the Home Office website. These can be put on the walls of staff rooms or on the company intranet to drive awareness of the issue. “They [companies] could also consider holding training sessions to highlight the signs to spot,” says van der Lely.
Anecdotal evidence from police sources suggests that many businesses have already started to get to grips with the problem of county lines drug gangs, but it’s important that all companies take the issue seriously.
Ultimately employers play a key role in offering opportunities to young people seeking a way out of their current situation which can, in turn, help to steer them down the right path.
This piece appeared in the February 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk