‘County lines’: racism, safeguarding and statecraft in Britain

‘County lines’: racism, safeguarding and statecraft in Britain

Press Release

Written by: Institute of Race Relations


‘County lines’: racism, safeguarding and statecraft in Britain by Insa Koch, Lauren Wroe and Patrick Williams, three leading experts in law, criminal justice and legal and social policy, is published in the IRR’s journal Race & Class.

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‘County Lines’ refers to the government and police’s unique crime label for describing an ‘export mode’ of drug distribution based on ‘forced gang related activity’ and ‘criminal exploitation’ of children and vulnerable young people. In the report, it provides a damning critique of this new crime label, the multi-agency policing of the supposed problem and subsequent prosecution of young men under the Modern Slavery Act (2015). Despite often genuine intentions to safeguard on the part of professionals, the multi-agency approach to the county lines problem, they argue, builds on racialised tropes about black boys and young men as a ‘criminal problem’. At the extreme end, this can culminate in a new racialised trope of young black men as ‘the new slave masters of today’.

The three authors deploy a mixture of ethnographic and participatory research with policymakers, professionals, families and young people impacted by county lines and the multi-agency approach. Their method combines embedded research in local authorities, the study of safeguarding partnerships and court observations.

The authors find that safeguarding policies and procedures are not protecting young people in the manner proclaimed. Safeguarding professionals often deploy arbitrary distinctions between victim and offender, gang member and associate.

They argue that professional decisions enable ever more surveillance of individuals and communities that have historically been over-policed, and also act as a gateway for more criminalisation, as those identified as perpetrators of county lines can now be prosecuted for human trafficking under the Modern Slavery Act.

No statistical data regarding the ethnic and racial breakdown of those identified as involved in country lines, or of drugs prosecutions, or human trafficking prosecutions brought through the Modern Slavery Act, is available. Following the academics’ research findings, the IRR put in an FOI request to the Metropolitan police for statistical data regarding categories including ethnicity on the County Lines Intelligence Collection Matrix. The request remains unanswered.

Author Lauren Wroe, research lead on multi-agency safeguarding responses to child exploitation, said:

“Racially, socially and economically marginalised young people are facing multiple disadvantages. Whilst we don’t see enough action from government on child poverty, itself partly the result of austerity politics, we have witnessed rampant campaigns against so-called grooming gangs, child traffickers and now county lines gangs.

The government throws these issues into the spotlight in an attempt to ramp up support for policies that are tough on crime and tough on immigration, whilst it fails to address the entrenched inequalities it has created over the last decade.

Tragically, it is often the young people and families that the government claims to be saving from these ‘gangs’ and ‘traffickers’ that fall prey to harsher and more pervasive policing powers, while their communities, and the services in place to support them, remain devastatingly underfunded.”

The IRR’s director Liz Fekete said:

“This unique research should serve as a wake-up call to safeguarding professionals all over the country about the dangers of being drawn into racial profiling.

In the light of its findings, the IRR calls on all local authorities, social care partnerships, and all safeguarding professionals to urgently review policies, procedures and databases to ensure that they are not complicit in a new form of criminalisation of Black and minority ethnic children, particularly those excluded from school, and/or in care.”

Angélique Vassell, founder of WalkwithMeUK, a London-based grassroots organisation and community interest company working with many families of colour whose children have been exploited, said:

“Parents and carers deserve to have their voices heard as part of the solution to safeguard children and young people.

The overarching heartache for many families that we support is that they want to be protected as opposed to being neglected and criminalised.

There needs to be a positive change in the law to minimise the risks to the young kings and queens of colour to start the process of positive change, let’s all work together to make it happen.”

Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director of Release, a national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law who advocate for evidence-based drug policies that are founded on principles of public health rather than a criminal justice approach, added:

“Drugs law enforcement has long been a tool of racial and social control. Whilst drug use and drug supply is ubiquitous across society, it is Black and brown communities who feel the brunt of criminalisation and imprisonment.   

This ground-breaking and excellent research adds to the evidence that the drug war is a racist endeavour, that harms communities and fails to protect society as a whole. The “county lines” narrative has been used by Government and police as a contrived new threat, that falsely and cruelly legitimises the targeting of racialised communities, especially of young Black children and men, sometimes framing children as victims but inevitably treating them as perpetrators. 

As the researchers clearly demonstrate this framing is part of the broader apparatus of policing, allowing for the surveillance and harassment of communities of colour, especially of Black communities, and the maintenance of white supremacy in Britain.”

Key Findings:

  • A new piece of research in the journal Race & Class finds the development of drug policing strategies to identify those ‘at risk’ of involvement in ‘county lines’ targets and stigmatises young black men.
  • It finds that by 2020, of the 3,290 individuals suspected of ‘having a link or suspected link’ to county lines in London, 83 per cent belonged to a racially minoritised group and that a national child safeguarding review panel notes a concerning over-representation of Black boys in county lines cohorts.
    • Where data is available, young black people are up to six times more likely that any other ethnicity to be included in county lines safeguarding cohorts.
  • The government’s claim that county lines is now the ‘most violent and exploitative’ drugs distribution model that necessitates an enhanced multi-agency approach is not proven. ‘There is a dearth of evidence to support the contention of an increase in the use and supply of (Class A) drugs as a result of “county lines”.’
  • ‘County lines’ entered the UK policy agenda as the culmination of local ‘problem profiling’ and ‘mapping’ work carried out under the failed Ending Gangs and Youth Violence (EGYV) programme and other former drug policing and anti-gangs policies.
  • There is a similarity between such county lines cohort lists and the Metropolitan police’s discredited Gangs Matrix which the Met agreed to overhaul, removing over a thousand names, after the launch of a legal challenge last year claiming breach of private and family life rights and race discrimination.

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Feature image: Photo of young person walking inside a building with a shadow of lines. Credit: Oliver Cole 

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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