It is estimated as many as 46,000 children across the country could have been forced to take part in the so-called ‘county lines’ drug trade.
This includes gangs targeting youngsters and vulnerable people to transport drugs, cash and even weapons across the country.
After initially offering cash rewards, county lines gangs trap their victims in ‘debt bondage’ and are known to use violence and intimidation.
Although the practice is centred in the London area, National Crime Agency (NCA) data shows it is spreading into the North East – with recorded activity in Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough.
“At the moment Northumbria Police don’t have any intelligence to suggest we have county lines in South Tyneside,” said Jackie Nolan, business manager at the South Tyneside Safeguarding Children Partnership.
“As you can appreciate, it’s a hidden criminal exploitation and it’s very subtle and when I show you a [NCA] map further on, it’s common sense to conclude that it’s only a matter of time before it hits South Tyneside.”
Ms Nolan was speaking at a meeting of the Riverside Community Area Forum (CAF) on Tuesday, December 10, as part of a round of presentations to raise awareness of county lines.
The term refers to the phone lines set up by gangs to supply areas across the UK with drugs and other illegal goods.
Gangs have also been known to target children under 10 as, under English law, they are below the age of ‘criminal responsibility’ and can’t be prosecuted.
Work is already taking place across borough including awareness campaigns and safeguarding training alongside a specialist county lines police unit for the North East.
At the CAF meeting, Coun David Francis said people working with children should receive regular training updates on the issue.
Other councillors said school visits, events and theatre could help get the message out further to children and parents.
However, Coun Ed Malcolm told the meeting he was worried the county lines trade had “went to far.”
“This is now becoming endemic across the whole of the country, as you have said, it won’t be long before it arrives here,” he said.
“As a society, we have been woefully slow in trying to stem this, basically what we have, as has been said, is an almost mafia-style takeover of provincial towns .
“The £20 million that [home secretary] Priti Patel said was going to be put into [tackling county lines] in October isn’t enough to deal with this.
“This is modern slavery and child exploitation as we know, we have in place a modern slavery protocol.
“But this is a dirty dirty game and a danger and it’s up to us as a society to ensure that we try to stem this.”
Coun Malcolm, also a cabinet member for resources and innovation, told the meeting austerity and funding cuts had “fractured the whole of the public realm.”
“This is the result,” he added.
“But we have to do our little bit as a council and corporate body to ensure we try to stem county lines.”
If you have any concerns about criminal activity, contact the police on 101 or email [email protected]