County Lines

Definition of County Lines - The Home Office

“County lines is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of “deal line”. This activity can happen locally as well as across the UK – no specified distance of travel is required. Children and vulnerable adults are exploited to move, store and sell drugs and money. Offenders will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons to ensure compliance of victims.”


"County lines" refers to networks that operate in rural locations which are predominantly focused on illegal drug dealing. These criminal networks use threats, violence, coercion and intimidation to exploit children and young people into transporting and selling drugs, cash and weapons. The term county lines actually refers to the mobile phones the network provides to young people in order to set up and dictate the drug 'deal'.


The risk of physical and emotional harm to children and young people who become caught in county lines networks is acute and potentially life-changing. In order to protect themselves, the ringleaders use people they think will go unnoticed.  Any child or young person is vulnerable but those who are excluded from communities, systems and families are most at risk of being targetted. 


Leaders of the networks, may seek to secure a base in the home of a vulnerable person, they may create a sense of dependancy by convincing young people they are in loving relationships. This may lead to sexual exploitation and physical abuse. The network can stage a theft of county lines drugs or money to create a debt bond, forcing the young person to continue to 'work for the line' to pay their debt back.  


If you have any suspicions that a young person is being groomed or exploited by a county line, we urge you to contact the police on 101 (or 999 if you feel they are in immediate danger).




Child Criminal Exploitation


This is another term used to describe exploitation where children & young people are involved in any criminal activity without having full control over their actions. 


The Home Office defines child criminal exploitation as:


"Common in county lines and occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child criminal exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology."


Child criminal exploitation is far wider than county lines, for example child sexual exploitation, modern slavery and trafficking, the common theme is the imbalance of power.



The Extent of County Lines


In its 2021 overview of the County Lines Programme (launched in 2019), The Home Office says the police have:


 - closed more than 1,500 lines;


 - made over 7,400 arrests;


 - seized £4.3 million in cash and significant quantities of drugs;


 - safeguarded more than 4,000 vulnerable people;


 - engaged more than 4,000 individuals through safeguarding interventions.


Criminal gangs seek out vulnerable children and young people to exploit, manipulating them into thinking the gang / group can meet their needs.


Children and young people have often said they joined gangs / groups for the sense of belonging and protection that they could not find elsewhere.