The government must crack down on growing county lines child exploitation
Recently, I visited a community project on a housing estate where families told me they were being terrorised by a gang of boys, excluded from school, who were delivering a county line to an area about 80 miles away.
They were around 14 years old, wore balaclavas, and they were dishing out acts of violence and torching vehicles.
In 2020, Boris Johnson promised to “bite the head off the snake” of county lines. Yet the snake outlives his premiership, and it costs lives, life chances, and billions in taxpayers’ money.
We hear of primary school children in criminal gangs, teenagers attacking each other with knives and machetes, homes where children involved in the drugs trade are the main breadwinner, and communities where organised crime groups seek out and groom very vulnerable children, almost with impunity.
The current system is failing thousands of teenagers
Every year, thousands of children are being referred to social services because of concerns they are being criminally or sexually exploited or involved with gangs. It's happening in leafy suburbs as well as deprived areas, and since Covid many of these problems are worsening. One in five children aren’t attending school and one in five teenagers are leaving education without even basic qualifications.
This is not what anyone would want for our young people, and we should fight back.
The lack of a proper government strategy to protect vulnerable teenagers and provide early help is why I launched the Commission on Young Lives. Our final report offers a joined-up national programme to tackle failures in the children’s social care, mental health, family support and education systems which allow many teenagers to fall through the gaps and into danger.
We start by calling on the Prime Minister to recognise the scale of the threat and hold COBRA-style meetings to drive change, and for responsibility for all young people policy to go to a renamed department for children, schools and families with leadership at Cabinet level. We also propose a child poverty unit to tackle a key driver of child vulnerability.
We recommend a one-off mental health recovery programme and urge the government to deliver the reforms proposed in the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. We set out plans for an army of youth practitioners to inspire and support young people, and we call for all school buildings to be opened before and after school, at weekends and during holidays to provide safe and appealing places for teenagers.
We propose a new era of inclusive education, ending the culture of school exclusions, extending SEN support to keep children in school and learning, and putting a greater focus on nurture and therapeutic support for vulnerable children, along with a new Ofsted inclusion measure.
At the heart of our plans is a new Sure Start Plus Programme - a Sure Start for teenagers. Placed initially in deprived areas, this would be a mechanism for bringing services together and providing bespoke help for families and children who need it.
Our vision is a network that is part of the fabric of a community, that offers not only help for young people and families – be that through parenting classes or mental health support – but is also knitted into the education system and is a place that provides routes into training. Established in and around schools, the hubs would be run by charities, public bodies, business, and philanthropic organisations.
As someone who helped deliver Sure Start centres in the early 2000s, I know how well-respected and valuable that programme was before it was dismantled.
Much of this is about co-ordinating existing services better, but it will need some additional money, so we have called on the government to be creative about raising funds – from using the confiscated proceeds of crime, to a windfall tax on social media companies and mobile phone providers, to using National Lottery money more effectively.
Fundamentally though, it requires government to reassess its priorities and to put education, schools, and the young people who are being so badly held back at the centre of its plans for levelling up and growth.
I’m encouraged by the growing political consensus that the current system is failing thousands of teenagers. We’ve worked closely with MPs on all sides. Translating that agreement into action is the next step.
Anne Longfield CBE, chair of the Commission on Young Lives and former children’s commissioner for England.
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