A NEW report has shone a light on the scale of the exploitation of children in St Helens at the hands of county lines drug gangs.

St Helens Borough Council set up a cross-party task force last year to see how prevalent county lines was locally, and to see what was being done to tackle it.

The spotlight scrutiny review was triggered by a special report featuring St Helens on county lines that aired on BBC News last August.

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County lines is where drugs gangs from big cities expand their operations to smaller towns, often across police and local authority boundaries.

The ‘county line’ is the mobile phone line used to take the orders of drugs, with gangs often using violence to drive out local dealers and exploiting children and vulnerable people to sell drugs.

Criminals also use gifts and soft exploitation to engage young people initially, in a similar way to how people are radicalised by terrorist groups.

The BBC News report that aired last August followed Merseyside Police officers searching for missing teenagers from St Helens, most of whom were suspected of being linked to county lines drug dealing in North Wales.

The report suggested that authorities had no idea how many young people were currently involved in county lines in St Helens and, so far, no-one has been prosecuted for trafficking children.

During the council’s review, however, a number of worrying statistics provided to councillors hinted at the true extent of the problem.

Between April 1, 2018 and March 14, 2019, there were 111 child sexual exploitation victims in St Helens and 78 child criminal exploitation victims.

St Helens Star: Cllr Michelle Sweeney, St Helens Borough Council Labour councillor, led the spotlight review Cllr Michelle Sweeney, St Helens Borough Council Labour councillor, led the spotlight review

In addition, there were 1,382 cases of children and young people (under 18) missing in St Helens, although it is unclear how many of these are linked to county lines activity.

These missing episodes were shared between 312 individuals, 15 of whom came to physical harm and two who were victims of a sexual offence.

In addition, 16 committed a crime and one self-harmed.

Worryingly, eight of those who went missing were aged between eight and 10; 156 (11.3 per cent) aged 11 to 13; 532 (38.5 per cent) aged 14 to 15 and 684 (49.5 per cent) aged 16 to 17.

The vast majority, 1,009 (73 per cent), were in care.

During the review, the task group was informed that the growth in numbers of unregulated, residential establishments in St Helens is also an issue.

Currently, homes providing accommodation for older children (16 to 17) who do not require care are not required to be regulated by Ofsted.

Until recently there had been 29 unregulated homes in St Helens, however at the time the review was carried out, there were 55.

Currently, local authorities do not have powers under planning legislation to object to these homes opening when planning applications are submitted.

The task group, which was led by Labour councillor Michelle Sweeney, expressed concerns about the potential risks to children from out of the borough who are placed in private homes in St Helens.

Members were referred to a Parliamentary Select Committee review, which found that local authorities did not have the powers to deal with the issue of unregulated private homes.

Currently, there are protocols in place requiring directors of children services for each local authority to inform other councils when children were being placed in their area and informing them of the risk factors associated with each child.

However, councillors found this was not happening consistently for children sent to St Helens, although this is a problem nationally.

Councillors were told that it is cheaper to provide this type of accommodation in the North of England, so local authorities in the south were placing children here.

St Helens Star: A special report on county lines in St Helens aired last August A special report on county lines in St Helens aired last August

A pan Merseyside working group, chaired by a representative of Merseyside Police, was looking at the private homes in Merseyside and the placement of children in those homes.

Across Merseyside as a whole, county lines continues to be a growing issue.

In January 2019, the National Crime Agency published an Intelligence Assessment of County Lines Drug Supply, Vulnerability and Harm during 2018.

This concluded that Merseyside had the third highest number of county lines in the UK (140), equating to seven per cent.

During the spotlight review, the task group were told the number of county lines coming out of Merseyside was reported to be 300.

North Wales was the main place these drugs were being exported to however Merseyside Police informed the group that the links with the Isle of Mann were also in issue.

The review also suggested that the number of children referred to services in St Helens as at risk could be three times higher than those in Knowsley, although young people there were involved in much higher volumes of drugs and money.

Members were told the council was working with partners and other local authorities across Merseyside to develop a more consistent and uniform approach to tackling county lines.

Following the review, the task group made a series of recommendations, which will be reviewed by the council’s cabinet.

St Helens Star:

In conclusion, the report says: “The task group is concerned that child criminal exploitation is a major issue, not just for St Helens as a borough, but Merseyside and the country as a whole.

“It has been a challenge for local services to understand how best to tackle this issue which has a major impact on the lives of some of our most vulnerable children and their families.

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“The task group is reassured, however, that this issue is a priority for services and that improvements have been made to the way services are taking a partnership approach to tackle the issue.

“Despite the good work that has been done so far officers have acknowledged that there is still a significant amount still to do.

“The task group has confidence in officers to be able reach the point where services are tackling county lines issues as effectively as possible.”