THE Home Office has insisted it is working closely with police forces and other agencies to combat county lines gangs “devastating” communities like St Helens.

Last week BBC News ran a string of reports on county lines, which is where drug gangs from big cities expand their operations to smaller towns.

The gangs often use violence to drive out local dealers and exploit children, often those in care, and vulnerable people to sell drugs.

READ > Vulnerable children in St Helens being exploited by drugs gangs

One of the headline reports on BBC News saw a reporter accompanying Merseyside Police officers in St Helens on the search for a missing boy, who was discovered in North Wales with 20 grams of crack cocaine and heroin.

The BBC report said it was unclear how many children were being exploited in St Helens, although no-one has been prosecuted for trafficking children.

Earlier this month, Merseyside’s Police and Crime Commissioner Jane Kennedy was awarded £3.37 million to set up a Violence Reduction Unit.

The cash will be spent on a number of short and long-term projects aimed at diverting people away from violence, including working with charities to support children at risk of being excluded from school, criminal exploitation or committing serious violence.

St Helens Star:

Merseyside’s Police and Crime Commissioner Jane Kennedy

The Home Office said the money is in addition to £4.2 million surge funding allocated to Merseyside PCC for police activity to tackle serious violence.

A Home Office spokesman said: “We are working closely with law enforcement and a range of agencies to disrupt the county lines gangs that are devastating our communities and exploiting vulnerable children.

“Through the serious violence strategy, we have provided £3.6 million to establish the National County Lines Co-ordination Centre, whose work since September 2018 has resulted in 1,600 arrests and 2,100 individuals protected.

“We are giving the police the support, resources and powers they need to confront threats such as county lines – including by recruiting 20,000 new officers over the next three years.

“We are also investing more than £220 million to support early intervention projects, which will support those at risk of being drawn into county lines gangs.”

The majority of Labour councillors were made aware of St Helens’ involvement in the BBC’s investigation last Monday.

A leaked email from the Labour group’s chief whip, Pam Howard, has revealed the council’s leadership attempted to gag councillors from commenting on the coverage.

Cllr Howard said in the email: “The council have been made aware that the BBC intend to run a series of items during this week in relation to county lines and children in care.

“I am emailing to inform all Labour members that under NO circumstances should any of us make any comment/posts on the programmes to be shown, or anything in relation to our children in care and county lines, via any form of social media or direct to the press, if contacted for a quote.”

St Helens Star:

Cllr Pam Howard (pictured) banned councillors from commenting on the BBC's report into county lines 

St Helens Council leader David Baines said the ban was given to ensure that information was accurate.

However, it is understood the ban was due to fears that it could negatively impact the outcome of an incoming Ofsted inspection of children’s services.

Cllr Baines said: “The email from our chief whip to Labour group members on Monday asking them to not comment was because at that point we were unsure what exactly was going to be broadcast, and when dealing with an issue as sensitive as vulnerable children it is important that what we say is accurate.

“On Tuesday I contacted the Labour group to clarify the situation further and I also instructed council officers to make sure all councillors from all parties were aware of the impending broadcast.”

Cllr Baines said the council agreed to assist the BBC because it believes it is important to raise the profile of county lines, which is happening across the country.

The Labour leader stressed that the council’s top priority is the protection of young people in its care, and added that proper constructive scrutiny of council staff, senior councillors, and services is “vital”.

Cllr Baines said on a day-to-day basis, councillors from all parties are able to challenge and query decisions and fulfil their duties as corporate parents.

St Helens Star:

St Helens Council leader David Baines

“As leader I will always be honest about the challenges our children’s services face, and the work we are doing collectively to improve the service,” Cllr Baines said.

“We will never shy away from being honest about this. In fact, at a recent cabinet meeting in July we agreed new edge of care and complex safeguarding proposals, which refer to children at risk of exploitation.

“This is therefore an issue we are addressing publicly, and the fact that the council has engaged with the BBC in highlighting the county lines issue is of course further evidence of this.

“As leader I have an open-door policy, and all members are able to raise concerns and debate issues with me directly.

“Nothing will distract me or this council from focusing fully on protecting young people and improving standards in children’s care.

“County lines is an example of the challenges we as a society face, and as a council we will continue to do all we can to tackle these issues head on.”