More funding needed to tackle ‘void’ in youth services filled by dealers
- Credit: Neil Didsbury/Denise Bradley
Local authorities need proper funding to tackle the 'void' in youth services exploited by county lines drugs gangs, Norfolk councillors have warned.
The head of the UK's anti-slavery commission has called for efforts to tackle the criminal exploitation of children to be given to councils, who are better placed to provide ongoing services and support.
But a local government network has warned councils already face sustained financial pressure and a rising demand to protect victims.
And now Norfolk councillors have joined calls for improved resources to tackle the growing issue of the county's under-18s being caught up in drug crimes.
Labour councillor Emma Corlett said: "It's a crisis of public health. Councils are best placed to tackle some of the issues but only if the funding is provided to restore a genuinely county-wide service to support young people."
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It comes after a Freedom of Information request revealed that more than 240 young people, or around two per week, have been arrested in Norfolk for drug offences since January 2018, with police and Norwich youth charity the Mancroft Advice Project linking the rise to county lines.
The Town Close county councillor added: "We've got young people disappearing for weeks at a time and being moved to other parts of the county.
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"Vulnerable young people from other parts of the county have been found in cuckooed flats.
"At the moment it's more unusual to not see a drug deal when you're walking around. The police have said that cuts to youth services left a massive void and criminals moved into that space.
"It is so much easier to put preventative measures in than to help them leave. There's so much threat of violence, its incredibly difficult for them to leave safely."
While county council Liberal Democrat group leader, Ed Maxfield, backed calls for local authorities to receive more resources to tackle the issue of child criminal exploitation.
He said: "We would tackle this problem better if we gave local communities a bigger role but it would have to come with the money to do the job properly.
"We can't keep demanding that local councils take on vital tasks without giving them the resources they need."
He added: "Everyone involved - councils, the police commissioner, schools and charities - have to learn to work effectively together without creating a mountain of bureaucracy.
"But we also have to tackle the root cause of the problem.
"There needs to be a huge effort to educate those who buy and use the drugs about the damage they are doing to vulnerable kids who get drawn into county lines to feed their habits. If we don't, we will always be firefighting as dealers find new ways of getting drugs to people who want to buy them."
It comes as Dame Sara Thornton, the independent anti-slavery commissioner, told The Independent she would support a move to take systems for decision-making on child trafficking cases away from the Home Office (HO), and give the responsibility to local authorities instead.
But Simon Blackburn, Local Government Association (LGA)'s communities board chairman, issued a stark warning to the Guardian that underfinanced councils were already facing growing pressure on services.
"The exploitation of children and vulnerable adults by county lines drugs gangs is a significant and growing concern for councils, who take this issue extremely seriously," he said.
"Councils are working hard to identify and protect children and young people at risk of abuse through county lines activity, but this is increasingly difficult due to significant pressure on councils' budgets and soaring demand for urgent child protection work."
A Norfolk county council spokesperson said: "Norfolk is a safe county and the risk of exploitation is low compared to many other areas in the country.
"But we are not complacent. We have a system in place to enable early identification and support to children and young people at risk of exploitation and are working with our partners to ensure our support offer to vulnerable young people is strong."
A Home Office spokesperson added: "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 National Referral Mechanism aimed at improving the speed, quality and independence of the decision making, and offering the best possible support to victims."