Children coerced into drug trafficking face cycle of exploitation due to failings in system, warns slavery tsar

Exclusive: In an interview with The Independent, Dame Sara Thornton says she has ‘grave concerns’ about rise in county lines gangs and calls for power to be devolved to curb soaring number of child slavery cases

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 01 March 2020 15:08 GMT
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The UK’s system for protecting youngsters who have been coerced into illegal county lines activity should be taken out of the Home Office, says anti-slavery commissioner
The UK’s system for protecting youngsters who have been coerced into illegal county lines activity should be taken out of the Home Office, says anti-slavery commissioner

Children who have been coerced into county lines activity are facing a cycle of exploitation because the current mechanisms in place to protect them are not working, the UK’s anti-slavery tsar has said.

Dame Sara Thornton, who was a police chief before taking up the independent anti-slavery commissioner post in May 2019, said Britain’s system for identifying and protecting youngsters who have been groomed and coerced into trafficking drugs should be taken out of the Home Office and devolved to a local level in order to curb the soaring number of cases.

County lines involves gangs in cities such as London, Birmingham and Liverpool using children as young as 11 to deal drugs, mostly heroin and crack cocaine, over a network of mobile phones.

More than 2,000 British children were referred to the Home Office as potential modern slavery victims in the year to September 2019 – a 66 per cent rise on the previous year – which is widely believed to be down to the growing number of youngsters exploited through county lines activity.

In an interview with The Independent, Dame Sara said she had “grave concerns” about the rise in cases, and called for an overhaul of the current system of identifying and protecting young people who fall prey to this form of exploitation.

Independent anti-slavery commissioner Dame Sara Thornton is calling for an overhaul of the UK’s system of identifying and protecting trafficking victims

“What I’m really worried about is whether we are putting enough protection around these children – whether they’re in care, or living with parents or grandparents or wider family members – because the worry is that they don’t just get trafficked once. We’ve got to stop it,” she said.

“I have heard cases where children end up in the very place from which they were groomed and trafficked in the first place, and have been put back into exactly the same situation where they’re trafficked.”

This oversight has stark consequences. Jaden Moodie, 14, became the youngest person to die of gang violence in London last year when he was targeted by rival drug dealers in London. One of his attackers, Ayoub Majdouline​, had been identified as a slavery victim just a year before.

Majdouline, 19, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for the killing in December, is reported to have lost his father to murder aged 14 and became a county lines victim a year later. Despite his exploitation having been recognised by the Home Office, he appears to have had minimal local support and fallen straight back into gang-related activity – with the murder of Jaden showing the devastating impact this can have.

The commissioner said that while progress had been made to ensure county lines victims were not being criminalised in court – primarily through the Section 45 defence, designed to protect youngsters who were coerced into criminal acts from being treated as perpetrators – not prosecuting children was “only half of the story”.

“It’s then about what do we do to protect them,” she continued. “And I think work around at-risk children and the preventative work that’s necessary is not always something that’s had the focus it needs.”

Dame Sara said efforts to curb the surge in child trafficking were also being hampered by the Home Office’s apparent unwillingness to provide data around the issue, notably on the number of child victims flagged to the system more than once, which she said was “key” to deciphering the scale of re-exploitation.

“I believe that policy and practice are much better if they’re driven by the data and the evidence. So I plan to encourage more data. I won’t give up, but it is difficult. I am constantly asking them for it. They’re not refusing, but it’s taking time. And it’s really important information,” she said.

In a radical move, Dame Sara called for decision-making on child trafficking cases to be taken out of the Home Office – which currently processes claims through a system called the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – and devolved to local authorities, which she said would be better placed to provide subsequent support for the child.

Modern slavery in the UK

The commissioner said councils would have to be adequately funded to take on the responsibility but that there was a “strong argument” for such a move, as children’s services would often already know the victim and have far better knowledge of their case than an NRM caseworker making a decision “100 miles away”.

She went on to say the Home Office should also consider localising decision-making for potential adult victims – of whom 5,254 were referred to the NRM in the year to September 2019 – in order to speed up a process she said was currently afflicted by “unacceptable” delays.

“The number of victims I’ve met who have been waiting two or three years, for a process that is meant to take 45 days, is very troubling. And when you talk to people you get this sense of life on hold, in limbo, but also the effect on their self-esteem, their health – both mental and physical. I’ve now got to the stage where I cannot continue to hear about victims waiting so long and not say anything about it,“ Dame Sara said.

“I am concerned that the system that is set up to support and have a positive impact is actually having a negative impact in certain cases.”

The former police officer said that in the short term the Home Office must put more resources into cutting waiting times, but in the longer term it should consider overhauling the NRM and introducing “expert panels” to make decisions locally – a recommendation made in a Home Office report published in 2014 but not implemented.

The commissioner also highlighted problems with the current system of banning potential victims from working while they wait for an NRM decision, and called on the government to “seriously consider” removing this ban, warning that it could be pushing people into re-exploitation.

“If we can equip people to be sustainably independent, and part of that is about work experience, then I think we would reduce the risk of them being re-trafficked and going back into exploitation,” she said, adding: “We need to do much more to help people to become survivors.”

Home Office leaves modern slavery victim ‘in limbo’ for five years

Asked whether some modern slavery victims were simultaneously being treated as immigration offenders, Dame Sara acknowledged that more needed to be done to prevent traffickers from seeking to exploit the government’s “hostile environment” for immigrants.

She said trafficking victims from non-EU countries were being subject to further trauma due to soaring delays in the asylum system, which saw 29,218 people waiting more than six months for a decision last year – an issue she said she was in an “active conversation” with the immigration service about.

“As the government prepares to bring in the newly announced immigration policy, we must ensure that we think about how will the traffickers try to abuse and exploit it,” said Dame Sara. “And when people are deported, often after every avenue has been exhausted, am I concerned that some victims of trafficking are having to go through that lengthy process? Yes I am.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK government is at the forefront of the global fight against modern slavery and is committed to stamping out this abhorrent crime.

“We are identifying more victims than ever before, and have already implemented a number of significant reforms to the NRM aimed at improving the speed, quality and independence of the decision-making, and offering the best possible support to victims.”

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