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PARTNERING WITH RETAILERS

The Frontiers of a New and Darker Industrial Revolution

by John Wilson, Executive Editor

In his quintessentially English hymn “Jerusalem,” William Blake’s reference to “dark Satanic Mills” has long been associated with the physical dangers and abuses of vulnerable young workers in the flour and cotton mills of the early nineteenth century. In an era before health and safety regulations, children as young as five were killed or maimed in the pursuit of economic progress and industrial-scale profit.

Written at the tumultuous time of Britain’s first industrial revolution, the Southwark flour mills, located close to Blake’s London home, were thought to have provided the spark of inspiration for his timeless opus celebrating England’s green and pleasant land harking back to the time when the country had a largely agricultural economy.

However, that spark may have had a more prosaic meaning as when the same stream-powered mill was deliberately burned to the ground and celebrated by the general population, it was not, as many historians believed, a moral reaction to the abuse of workers. Instead, it was a response from independent flour producers to the fact that the mill’s product was adulterated with other produce and cheap imports that were undermining their business and the health of early nineteenth-century consumers. It was such widespread adulteration that led to the formation of the early co-operative movement, the forerunner of today’s Co-op shops that were established to ensure that communities were protected from poor-quality food produced by criminal racketeers who operated with impunity.

Fast forward 200 years, and we face a new digital revolution and a darker, albeit criminal business model utilising social media platforms to drive industrial-scale profit at the expense of young people. Replace the poem’s dark Satanic mills with “drug-stained mules,” and you build a picture of modern Britain’s narcotics supply chain that uses vulnerable, forgotten young people to sell drugs across so-called “county lines” so as to be out of reach of law enforcement and rival drug gangs.

The trade is worth millions of pounds, and the drugs barons running the racket are free to adulterate their product with whatever noxious substances come to hand—not unlike the industrial mill owners of old. In other words, there is nothing new about industrial-scale greed built off the back of the subversion of the universally recognised models of supply and demand through the manipulation of the moral order or the cutting of commercial corners to make money through the exploitation of young and vulnerable people.

According to an investigation from Sky News, there are now more than 2,000 county lines routes with a net worth of £3 million per day running out of the UK’s major cities. Children as young as eleven are being exploited by gangs running these drug networks.

“County lines” are a tactic whereby gangs in large urban conurbations, including London, Liverpool, and Birmingham, introduce untraceable phones to a different area to sell drugs at street level. Local runners, often teenagers, are used to transport the drugs, often using the rail network.

According to the Sky investigation, county lines are also fuelling the rise in knife crime across the UK. They interviewed a gangmaster who was brandishing a Rambo-style knife and boasting that it was something that he gave his young mules to protect themselves, a claim supported by British Transport Police who have recovered a series of knives as part of their crackdown against violence on the rail network.

On 31 January this year, Network Rail staged its Railway Children charity initiative—a sleepout on the concourse of four of the UK’s largest railway stations—to raise awareness of the plight of vulnerable youngsters. The railway is one of the easiest ways to travel for runaway children, and this year the British Transport Police estimates it will deal with 10,000 child safeguarding incidents on Britain’s railways, a 20 per cent increase from 2017–18.

Martin Frobisher, Network Rail’s route managing director for the London North Western route, who spent the night at Manchester Piccadilly station, said, “As an industry, with thousands of staff in stations across Britain, we are often the eyes and ears who can spot distressed children and young people and help get them the support they need.”

Network Rail staff were joined by West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, the former managing director of John Lewis, as part of the awareness campaign.

Andy Street said, “The commitment to help tackle this growing problem here in the West Midlands by Network Rail and wider rail industry is to be admired. It highlights that we all need to focus on protecting and supporting vulnerable children and young people who decide to run away from home but often inadvertently put themselves at further risk.”

It is these individuals who are vulnerable to exploitation from organised grooming gangs, such as those behind county lines.

Members of Parliament (MPs) were told in January by the National Crime Agency (NCA) that there had been a rapid rise of city-based gangs exploiting young people to sell drugs in smaller towns. The agency told the Commons Home Affairs Committee that more than 2,000 phone lines are being operated by gangs across the UK, up from 720 a year ago.

A total of twenty-three Police force areas were now involved, representing 50 per cent of all Police resources in the UK, although it is believed that most constabularies are experiencing the problem that involves exploited children aged between fifteen and seventeen years of age. Nikki Holland, director of investigations at the NCA, told MPs that the latest assessment showed law enforcement agencies had “greater awareness” of the problem.

In October last year, British Transport Police (BTP) officers made ten gang-related arrests and seized four weapons during a week of action that targeted county lines drug trafficking across the nation. Using both undercover and uniformed officers, the week focused on pursuing offenders from drugs networks that exploit children and vulnerable people. Working closely with other Police forces, including the NCA, officers identified and arrested gang members as they travelled on the rail network to drugs markets in county towns outside of London. Other forces included the Met, Northampton, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, West Mercia, Hampshire, Lancashire, Kent, Surrey, and Norfolk Police. The arrests were made at Clapham Junction, Peterborough, and Waterloo stations. During the arrests, twenty-eight drug seizures were made including heroin, crack cocaine, cocaine, and cannabis.

Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) Paul Furnell said, “We know that criminal networks are exploiting young children and vulnerable adults by coercion, the threat of violence, and sexual exploitation as a means to control people into trafficking drugs. The harm that county lines gangs inflict is significant, which is why we are focusing our resources to spot these offenders and tackle them as they use the national rail network.

“Disrupting this toxic gang activity also helps us develop detailed intelligence of offending, but also ensures that vulnerable people are safeguarded from harm. Working with our policing and rail partners to tackle all exploitation and county lines activity is a priority for us. We are sharing intelligence, delivering joint operations, and we are determined to safeguard vulnerable people targeted by these criminals.”

The issue raises awareness of the problem of children that the system has failed so that they have disappeared from view.

“Of course, the public can also play a vital role in helping us safeguard vulnerable individuals who are caught up in this activity. If you see someone travelling who is showing signs of mistreatment, or a child who is travelling long distances by themselves, or is unfamiliar with where they are, please text us on 61016 or call 0800 40 50 40,” added DCS Furnell.

Charities and the Retail and Hospitality Sectors

Because the task of protecting children from county lines exploitation and/or child sexual exploitation (CSE) is such a broad societal challenge—and the issues are not mutually exclusive as CSE could be a coercive control method to make young people comply with their county lines gangmasters—the issue is too big for just the Police. Retailers and hospitality companies have been training their staff on signs to look out for in the fight against CSE.

These signs include youngsters with older men in fast food restaurants or hotel lobbies or in retail outlets being bought expensive trainers, for example. The youngsters may look quiet or withdrawn or may be with people who do not seem like family members or are drinking alcohol. They may look towards the older person they are with as their boyfriend or girlfriend. Many of these organisations are providing training on these tell-tale signs so as to inform and empower their staff to raise the alarm if they suspect the children are there against their will or are being groomed or trafficked.

One charity at the forefront of this training is Barnardo’s, the UK’s leading children’s charity and the country’s biggest single provider of CSE support. Through its brand new Nightwatch programme, Barnardo’s is providing guidance and training for professionals who deal with the public to become CSE “advocates”—those who provide a safeguarding voice around the capital after dark. This could be retail or hotel staff, professional door supervisors, taxi drivers, fast food counter staff, paramedics, accident and emergency staff, and petrol station attendants—those who could more easily identify illicit activities as the perpetrators prefer to hide in the darker shadows of the “night-time economy.”

The idea behind the scheme is that, once trained, the Nightwatch advocates then cascade the learning by teaching colleagues and those around them to also become part of the programme. Nightwatch is part of Barnardo’s TIGER (Trauma Informed Growth and Empowered Recovery) services, which is the charity’s unique evidence-based and informed approach. Since it began operating in 2017, it has worked with over 500 children and younger people.
Reanna Vernon, Barnardo’s full-time Nightwatch worker and an expert in CSE identification, said, “There are many faces to child sexual exploitation, including those who have been groomed or coerced into criminal activities including county lines. We are particularly interested in working with businesses that operate in the public area after 5 p.m. as they are able to spot signs of vulnerability just by doing the jobs that they do.”

Nightwatch, which has funding until October of this year, wants to reach as many businesses as possible in order to recruit more advocates to the cause.

“We want to make the model as sustainable as possible,” continued Reanna. “We train the supervisors, and they cascade it down within their own businesses so that everyone is aware of the risk and what to do. We are working with street pastors, convenience stores, and the Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) as they include many businesses working in the night-time economy.

“The idea behind the scheme is to get vulnerable children into safe spaces by contacting the relevant authorities including the Police by dialling 999 if trained advocates suspect the child is in imminent danger. Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility, so when anyone has a suspicion, they should report it. We want businesses to attend the training so that they can recognise the tell-tale signs affecting anyone under the age of sixteen.

“Nightwatch is being piloted in London, but many of the businesses we deal with are national organisations. This is important because CSE can take place in any postcode, county, or demographic, but we simply might not believe it to be an issue that affects us or our community. Quite often it is not until such crimes come to light that people realise that there may have been a problem.

“But by joining together to create a strong Nightwatch community, the staff that sit within these different industries can offer vital protection for children and young people at risk of or affected by CSE.”

Any businesses interested in the Nightwatch programme can call 0207 790 4621 or email tigerservices@barnardos.org.uk.

Blake’s prophetic poem and hymn is still relevant today. This is not as a throwback reminder of a Britain long departed, but a reminder of the criminal by-product of unfettered growth in an unregulated world. This could equally refer to Dickens’ Oliver Twist with vulnerable young pickpockets in southeast London run by a greedy gangmaster or today’s county lines organised gangs or CSE groomers who use young people as a currency for their own gain. Responsible and regulated businesses therefore have an opportunity and responsibility to help close these illicit enterprises down by simply reporting what they see. 

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