Primary school pupils running drugs for gangs have become the “norm”, a report warns.
County lines operations are being led by 14-year-olds and grandmothers are used as mules, the former children’s commissioner has found.
Anne Longfield, who is now leading the Commission on Young Lives, implored the government to treat the exploitation of children as seriously as terrorism. She said thousands of young people in England were being groomed, harmed and even killed because the systems to keep them safe were not fit for purpose.
She told The Times: “We’re looking at an epidemic of violence against young people. It’s happening night after night and in the daytime as well. We’ve vacated communities and allowed exploiters and criminals to come in and find those kids.
“The age of children, even during the period we’ve been doing this commission, has dropped. We’ve found a county line being run by a 14-year-old, with a group of 13 and 14-year-olds. They are managing the line. They are wearing balaclavas on their local estate, intimidating residents and carrying knives. With these kids, I’ve been told they’ll either be dead or in jail in three years.
“I think there is a responsibility to stop that happening and at the moment there’s no clarity on which part of the state has that responsibility.”
Longfield said that younger children had been targeted when the drug market opened up again after the pandemic lockdowns, saying the issue had been “rocket-boosted by Covid”.
She described the use of children aged nine or ten to run drugs as the “norm” in county lines operations, named after the mobile phone lines used to co-ordinate the transport of drugs from one area to another, often across police boundaries.
The fallout is not restricted to poorer communities, Longfield emphasised. “We’ve talked to middle-class families in leafy suburbs where those young children are coming to harm as well,” she said, adding that some girls were subjected to horrific sexual violence.
Her commission is urging the government to launch Sure Start Plus, a national plan to prevent teenagers becoming involved in criminal exploitation, gangs and serious violence. It also wants a £1 billion mental health recovery programme for children, to be part-financed by a levy on social media companies and mobile phone providers.
The commission also called for regular Cobra meetings on the subject, as with terrorism and other emergencies.
The commission’s report, Hidden in Plain Sight, said that those most at risk were growing up in poverty and were disproportionately from minority ethnic backgrounds
Longfield expressed concern about the impact of the cost of living crisis on young people trying to provide for their families. “This is a threat, not only to the nation’s productivity but also our security,” she said. “I think government should be treating this as such, holding the kind of high-level meetings that we see in emergencies of Cobra [the crisis response committee], and pulling together a strategy across government to really intervene and fight back.”News