“Going Country”…. The growing epidemic of ‘County Lines’ criminality & Modern Slavery


“Going Country”…. The growing epidemic of ‘County Lines’ criminality & Modern Slavery


By Emma Akuwudike
16 October 2020


County Lines is the term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks, transporting drugs into one or more supply areas within the UK and using dedicated mobile phone lines or another form of “deal line”. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.”1

An over saturation of the drugs market in larger cities and a need for organised crime networks to seek a drugs market further afield, has led to county lines. Gangs will target coastal towns and smaller rural areas where they can be anonymous and unknown to local police forces. There is a lower police presence and less competition from rival gangs, which may reduce the likelihood of serious violence being meted out against them.

County lines offending is still a comparatively new phenomenon. Much of the information published is from the National Crime Agency (NCA) and The Home Office. The creation of the National County Lines Coordination Centre (NCLCC) and awareness of the links to Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking (MSHT) within county lines, has resulted in better identification and reporting.

The county line or “deal line” is the dedicated mobile number given to customers and is used primarily to take orders for drugs. It is the line operated by someone higher up in the ranks and is a marketing tool, offering incentives and attractive deals to drug addicts. It is often an unregistered pay as you go. Criminal practitioners who deal in these types of cases will be familiar with the bulk text messages in a call schedule prepared for trial. It is common for operators of drugs lines to send bulk text messages to numerous customers in an effort to tout for new business. Some will use social media platforms to market their brand or to recruit, but this varies between different county lines.

From experience, a download of these mobile phones, and a statement from a drugs expert to interpret drugs messages is usually all that is required to establish that this is a drugs network’s county line. The NCA estimates that there are more than 2,000 individual deal line numbers in the UK linked to around 1,000 branded county lines. Gangs from larger cities such as London, Liverpool, Manchester and the West Midlands are operating all over England, Scotland and Wales. London remains the largest export location for county lines.2

The primary motive for county lines activity is financial3. In addition, there is a receptive consumer market, less capable or intimidated local suppliers and limited access to drugs supplies in contrast to urban locations4. The NCA estimates individual line profits in excess of £800,000 per year and some lines generate several thousand pounds profit from a single daily delivery trip. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) Practice Guidance suggests an annual turnover of £0.5bn in UK County Lines activity.5 It is perhaps understandable that the young, impressionable mind will be lured by the misguided appeal of this lucrative and comparatively “lower risk” aspect of the drugs trade.


Organised crime networks will recruit, force and traffic children, young people and vulnerable adults to transport their valuable commodities which are typically heroin and crack/cocaine. These are often wrapped in cling film and inserted anally (“plugged)”. A person of any gender or nationality can be recruited. Gangs have a perception that white British children are more likely to avoid detection. The most common group targeted are males aged 15-17 but children as young as 11 are also falling victim to drugs gangs. They are usually intimidated, groomed, threatened with serious violence or death or enticed by perceptions of a better lifestyle. Organised crime networks will often use vulnerable young people at the bottom of the chain known as “runners” to courier drugs, cash and weapons. Runners will also deal drugs at street level to the end users. There is still a hierarchy within the drugs business model with the “elders” overseeing and managing the drugs line from a safe distance therefore remaining under the radar to minimise risk and avoid detection from law enforcement.

Adult drug users will sometimes be used to deal drugs in order to sustain their own habit or to work off a debt, thus creating dependency and indebtedness to the gangs. Drug users can be spotted and recruited through their regular attendance at chemists to collect their methadone. It is very common for drugs gangs to invade the home of a vulnerable adult or drug user and use it as a base for their drug dealing activities in exchange for supplying them with drugs. (“cuckooing”). Drugs gangs will also book hotels and rent properties to store drugs, firearms and cash. There have been reports of gangs permanently relocating to these rural areas.

Role of females

The most common use of females will be the use of their premises. They will often be used as drivers, to book hotels, hire cars and launder cash. They are targeted because they are vulnerable and are often class A drug addicts. They are often coerced and subjected to physical, domestic and sexual violence. There have been reports of females being prostituted for sexual favours as payment for drugs. There remains the belief that women attract less attention and are less likely to be stopped by the police. I have often defended vulnerable women of good character who find themselves standing trial, alongside their boyfriends for firearms and drugs conspiracies because their properties have been used to store loaded guns, drugs and cash sometimes without their knowledge.

Role of children and young persons

Disenfranchised children with vulnerabilities are preyed upon by gangs. They usually face the following issues:

  • Poverty
  • Unstable home life
  • Social services intervention
  • Parental substance misuse
  • Looked after status
  • Behavioural issues
  • Developmental disorders
  • Missing episodes
  • School exclusion
  • Unemployment
  • Previous criminality.

Some gangs are bold enough to recruit directly from schools, Pupil Referral Units, care and foster homes or homeless units.6 Children with no criminal history (“clean skins”), can be targeted as they are perceived to draw less attention or may receive lighter sentences if caught. As a practitioner, it is heart breaking to see children barely out of puberty facing trial for such serious offences. Ordinarily, victims of child abuse would be the subject of social services intervention and would receive support and counselling, however the drugs dimension often leads to prosecution and criminalisation. These are the real victims and the unfortunate casualties of this multi million pound trade.


By Emma Akuwudike

Leading & junior counsel with over two decades of experience in criminal defence work. Emma’s specialism is in both legal aid and private work. She is extremely hard working and is a fearless and tenacious advocate who quickly gains the trust of her clients.

"She has a brilliant analytical mind."

"She has extensive experience of murder, sexual offence and drug cases."

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The government's approach

In an effort to enable those agencies who work with children and young persons to easily identify victims of criminal exploitation, the Home office has issued guidance as part of its multi-agency strategy to tackle county lines criminality. It is working with other government departments such as the National Crime Agency (NCA), National Police Chief’s Council, Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC)7.
Children and young people involved in county lines are often identified by the following factors:

  • Frequently missing from home for long periods of time
  • Regular trips out of town.
  • Unexplained items e.g. additional phones.
  • Expensive items/clothing
  • Truanting
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Being caught with large amounts of drugs and/or cash

It is imperative that parents, providers, educators, youth workers are equipped to recognise the signs. As a community, we all should. Sadly some parents may turn a blind eye because they derive some benefit from their son or daughter bringing extra money into the home. Many young people are forced into a parental role as they witness their single or vulnerable parent struggle to make ends meet. I accept that this may not always be the case but the narrative is all too familiar.

Modern Slavery

There is a correlation between county lines dealing, Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery. Modern Slavery and child trafficking legislation is being increasingly deployed to safeguard and protect children and vulnerable persons from being exploited by County Lines activity8.

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is a framework set up to identify and refer potential victims of modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support. The NRM collects data about victims for the Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit (MSHTU) and is designed to make it easier for all agencies that could be involved in a trafficking case (e.g. the police, UK Visas and Immigration, local authorities, non-governmental organisations), to share information about potential victims and facilitate their access to advice, accommodation and support. As part of the National Referral Mechanism Reform Programme, the Home Office launched the new Single Competent Authority (SCA) on 29 April 2019. From this date, the SCA became responsible for all NRM decisions regardless of an individual’s nationality or immigration status9.
Modern Slavery is a complex crime and may involve multiple forms of exploitation. It encompasses:

  • human trafficking
  • slavery, servitude, and forced or compulsory labour

Victims may still have been trafficked or exploited even if they have consented to elements of their exploitation, or accepted their situation. Whenever there is concern that a person may be a victim of Modern Slavery, the case should be referred to the NRM so that the SCA can fully review the case. You do not need to be certain that someone is a victim.
In court proceedings, the judge as well as the defence and prosecution must be conscious of the duty to ensure that an NRM referral and a full assessment is undertaken where there may be evidence of Modern Slavery or trafficking. In accordance with our duty to robustly and fearlessly defend our clients, it is important to bear in mind that vulnerable victims should not be criminalised in circumstances where they are forced into drug trafficking. The law recognises this and provides a defence for someone who commits a crime as a result of being trafficked if the requirements under s45 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 are satisfied and as long as the offence is not exempt under schedule 4 of the Act10. The issue as to whether someone is a victim of Modern Slavery still remains a matter for the jury.
The defence differs depending on whether the defendant is under or over 18. For someone aged 18 or over, the defence applies where the defendant:

  1. does the act constituting the offence because they are compelled to by another person or by defendant’s circumstances; and
  2. the compulsion is attributable to slavery or is a direct consequence of a person being, or having been, a victim of slavery or a victim of human trafficking
  3. a reasonable person in the same situation as the defendant and of the defendant’s age and sex, sharing any of the defendant’s physical or mental illness or disability characteristics11 would have had no realistic alternative to doing the act.

For a person who is under 18 when they do the relevant act which constitutes the offence the defence applies where:

  1. The defendant did the act as a direct consequence of being, or having been, the victim of slavery or having been a victim of human trafficking
  2. A reasonable person in the same situation as the defendant and having the defendant’s relevant characteristics12 would do that act. If the defence is raised on the evidence then it is for the prosecution to prove that it does not apply13

County lines during the pandemic

The lockdown has been a mixed blessing. A temporary decrease in other lower-level crimes has enabled the police to focus on targeted cross-county operations. This has led to a number of arrests and the dismantling of some county lines. Just how the pandemic has affected county lines is too early to determine. The pandemic has led to an increase in demand for drugs. Lockdown has meant some loss of anonymity for organised crime networks but has undoubtedly forced organised crime networks to change their business model and become more creative. There has been an increased use of cuckooing as drugs gangs are forced to distribute drugs literally from behind closed doors. Drugs gangs have also been able to capitalise on children not being in school, the reduced visits by social and care workers who have had to work from home. This creates an increased vulnerability for organised networks to capitalise on.


County lines activity and the associated violence, drug dealing and exploitation has a devastating impact on young people, vulnerable adults and local communities14. This thriving industry is primarily dependent on the recruitment and exploitation of the vulnerable.

There is no easy solution to tackling this complex and multi-layered problem. As with any commodity, as long as there is demand, there will be supply. The drugs industry is no exception. The safeguarding of the vulnerable should be placed on an equal footing to dismantling these organised crime networks. Quality education, parenting classes, early youth intervention/mentoring, family support, increased drug rehabilitation services for drug users, eliminating poverty and a multi-agency collaboration are some suggestions called for in tackling county lines offending. I have often thought that more resources need to be spent in targeting those at the helm of this miserable trade. After all, it is not the “runners” that have the financial resources to import these commodities from overseas.

  1. Home Office 2018
  2. NCA 2016 County Lines Violence Exploitation and Drugs supply
  3. Spicer 2019
  4. NCA 2016
  5. Ministry of Justice (2019)
  6. NCA 2019
  7. Criminal Exploitation of children and vulnerable adults county lines GOV UK
  1. Modern Slavery Act 2015
  2. Home Office Identifying people at risk (enforcement)
  3. Schedule 4 Modern Slavery Act 2015 lists 140 offences which are exempt from the statutory defence, many of which are common in child trafficking cases, for example, arson. murder, kidnap and false imprisonment, firearms offences.
  4. see s.45(5) Modern Slavery Act 2015
  5. see s.45(5) Modern Slavery Act 205
  6. Crown Court Compendium Pt I July 2020
  7. Criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: county lines- Gov.UK

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