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What does the County Lines Data mean?

03 April 2023
By Ellie Haworth, SCIE Head of Partnerships and Practice Improvement

I was intrigued to read the latest publication of County Lines data recently by the Home Office. County Lines has been a transformative concept in safeguarding terms, it has brought together numerous agencies and ideologies to focus on a substantial threat to children, young people and the vulnerable in our society.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) definition:

The 2018 Home Office Serious Crime Strategy states the NPCC definition of a County Line is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas [within the UK], using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of “deal line”. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move [and store] the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.

I think I speak for many in children’s social care when I say that this endeavour was enthusiastically welcomed for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that it moves from a victim blaming focus towards a more systemic understanding of the problem of criminally exploited children, young people and their families.

I also feel that data never actually tells a story, we have to read data in combination with our own experience and context. Asking a series of questions to understand what the data could mean. So what has the Home Office said?

The figures show that since the County Lines Programme launched in 2019:

  • 3,588 county lines have been closed
  • 10,209 people have been arrested
  • 5,727 individuals have been referred by police to safeguarding.

These sound like huge numbers and my first response was delight. What an enormous number of children made safer, what an important amount of control smashed, what a lot of people prevented from harming others.

Then I tried to stop and think a little more. Over ten thousand lines closed. The detail provided by the Home Office suggests that this combines two categories of lines. Phone lines disconnected (type 2) and phone lines reviewed and showed not to be usable for drug trafficking (type 1.) So, we would need to understand a little bit more to know what this data means. And does the public understand a line closure to mean a literal phone line, or would we have the greater expectation that a line closure really means the network disrupted and disbanded. The channel for harm taken away.

Similarly, the relationship to the numbers interested me. For each line closed, we have 2 (and a bit) people arrested. For each line closed we have 1 (not quite 2) people referred by the police to safeguarding.

Is this the right balance? Should each line closed result in multiple arrests, the whole network facing prosecution? Or do, in fact, the arrests show the extent of the impact that our work to prevent child criminal exploitation is achieving? How do we show the level of disruption? How do we measure childhood safety?

These figures do not tell the whole story, data needs narrative and we need to know whether we are making it so that exploitation is reducing. Is our community becoming safer? Will fewer people lose out? The only way we will get to this is a fully systemic response. And this is where SCIE comes in. SCIE seeks to support change, and this means focussing on people’s stories. We need to hear the voices of people to accompany this data to make sure we know what really counts. To find out more about SCIE’s support to safeguarding everywhere.

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