Policewant a ban on the anonymous purchase of pay-as-you-go mobile phones to help tackle county lines drug dealers, a report reveals.
The report by the police inspectorate says criminals get round laws meant to restrict their activities by being able to buy phones or sim cards without the need to prove their identity.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in the report on the law enforcement response to county lines says the government should start a review.
As part of county lines, phone lines are set up by drugs gangs for users to call and also involves urban drug gangs operating in smaller towns and rural areas to boost their profits.
Like the rest of Britain’s drugs trade it relies on exploiting vulnerable youngsters and sometimes extreme violence.
The report reveals that laws to restrict mobile phone use by suspected drugs criminals are barely being used because they are difficult to enact and criminals find it easy to get round.
The police inspectorate said: “Interviewees told us that county lines organizers are likely to keep lists of their customers’ contact details so they can simply transfer them to a replacement phone.
“It is easy for anyone (including drug dealers) to anonymously get a replacement mobile phone and number through‘ pay as you go ’services. We were told of one example where a county lines network received and shared a new number within an hour of the service provider acting on the order. ”
For the report inspectors talked to police officers and others trying to combat county lines.
One solution was offered up by police: “Interviewees often suggested that people should have to register personal details when buying a mobile phone or replacement sim card.
“Those seeking to open a bank account must present official documents to prove their identity first. This safeguard makes it harder for criminals to launder money or commit fraud. ”
HMIC said: “The present arrangements that enable criminality by allowing the anonymous acquisition of phones and numbers, should be re-examined.”
One flaw in any crackdown would be criminals moving to internet phone services via Skype or WhatsApp, which are encrypted. Law-abiding people who prefer contract-less mobile phones would be inconvenienced.
Elsewhere, the report says police need to be more joined up in tackling county lines with the forces in England and Wales needing to improve how they share information and work together.
The report said in some cases vulnerable children were placed on trains on their own after being caught by police away from where they live, and sent back to their home area.
The report also said that school exclusions expose children to exploitation, and in one case an excluded child settled into a new school where he then tried to recruit other children into county lines.
The truth is that police rely on other public services to help protect children, such as social services, which are overwhelmed by demand and cuts from austerity.
HMIC’s chief inspector, Sir Tom Winsor, said social workers are dealing with enormous caseloads and the state has not got enough resources for services to protect the vulnerable, who are preyed on by drug dealers. “Children’s services are under extraordinary strain,” he said.
“It would require an enormous devotion of resources of the state – not just talking about the police, but social services, housing, etc, to protect every child.”
Mark Russell, the chief executive at the Children’s Society, said: “Too many children experiencing horrific criminal exploitation through county lines continue to be let down by the frontline services best placed to protect them.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for county lines, deputy assistant commissioner, Graham McNulty, said: “We know there is room to improve and the report has outlined some areas which we are already working towards.”
He said police were “reviewing the use of orders that can disable a dealer’s phone.”