Sharing information to safeguard against ‘county lines’ gang activity

Imogen Fuller, Engagement Manager
Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing

When we think about safeguarding, we often think about protecting vulnerable children from neglect or harm, focusing on shielding victims and tackling perpetrators.

In the world of gangs though, things are not quite as clear.  Often gang members can be victims themselves and both vulnerable adults and children with no previous connection to a gang can get caught up in helping, or providing space for organised gang operations in an area.

The potential for gang activity to impact on vulnerable people has been highlighted in the recent National Crime Agency’s (NCA) Intelligence Assessment; County Lines, Gangs and Safeguarding.  The assessment refers to a model used by urban gangs for street-level drug dealing in areas beyond their home base e.g. London gangs running drug ‘lines’ in towns within the surrounding counties of Kent, Sussex or Essex – an approach that almost always involves exploitation of vulnerable persons.

The NCA report aims to raise awareness among frontline practitioners of this gang activity, and in doing so it also flags up a need for more information sharing to take place between organisations. In particular, it highlights the lack of reporting pathways available to frontline staff as well as the issues caused by a resultant scattering of intelligence between different organisations and agencies.

The report calls for multi-agency approaches at a local, regional and national level, to help tackle the county lines problem.  However, to be effective, these multi-agency partnerships will need to be underpinned by the development of appropriate referral routes and processes to share information on criminal activity as well as on known and suspected perpetrators, gang members, and victims of county lines activity.

A broad range of organisations will need to work together to share information – going beyond police, probation, youth offending and social services, to include more peripheral agencies such as housing associations, drug and alcohol support services, mental and sexual health services, youth workers and schools.  In order to address the issue effectively, these organisations will need to share information on the identity, location, and risk levels faced by vulnerable adults, whose homes are often forcibly used as a base for operations and vulnerable children, who are often used as runners.

Information on known target groups, such as local drug users, individuals with mental health problems, looked after children, and vulnerable women or girls, will be particularly important, as well as knowledge of the locations where they may be approached e.g. local treatment centres, care homes or housing offices.

Partnership arrangements to share information will also need to support the flow of intelligence across potentially challenging transitions and geographic boundaries. Examples include:

  • Communications about possible teenage victims moving from the care of children and adolescent mental health services to adult mental health services;
  • Arrangements between county police forces, urban police forces and British transport police due to the extent of the travelling carried out by gang members, often along train routes, and the potential exploitation by them of associates and family members living in target areas;
  • Information across geographic boundaries between agencies about at-risk individuals and potential perpetrators or associates who are placed into one area from another, e.g. the relocation of looked after children due to safeguarding concerns or known gang connections, or the placement on release from prison of current and ex-gang members to an area they had previously not inhabited.

Separate administrative areas often record information in different formats using numerous systems, so work may also be needed, at a regional or national level, to support cross referencing of records and sharing of information between these multiple local places.

Building partnerships to tackle a form of exploitation which currently has no common definition will mean that organisations and agencies also need to ensure that all partners fully understand the issue and develop a common language so that relevant information is shared as effectively as necessary – to keep up with, and ahead of, the changing behaviour of gangs.

The full NCA report can be found at this link: Intelligence Assessment; County Lines, Gangs and Safeguarding

You can also read more about our work in this policy area, as well as our report, at this link.