ST HELENS Council will look to ramp up awareness of child exploitation at the hands of county lines gangs after a review shone a spotlight on the growing issue.

A cross-party task force carried out the spotlight review into county lines activity last year after the borough featured in a special BBC News report.

The report aired in August 2019 and 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.

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During the review, councillors were provided some shocking statistics that hinted at the true extent of the problem in St Helens.

The task group made a series of recommendations for the council to consider, which were reviewed by the council’s cabinet in September.

Officers were then instructed to develop a detailed action plan in response to the recommendations.

This action plan was presented to cabinet this week.

Speaking at the meeting, Cllr Nova Charlton, cabinet member for children and young people, said: “What’s really important when you look at the action plan is about raising the awareness of county lines.

“And I think what we need to do going forward is, we all need to be vigilant when it comes to county lines and we all need to take responsibility to mitigate this problem.”

St Helens Star: St Helens featured in a special BBC News report on county lines in 2019St Helens featured in a special BBC News report on county lines in 2019

The recommendations of the review have prioritised communication, training and engagement.

In response, councillors will receive child criminal exploitation training, while a communications campaign will look to raise awareness with the wider public.

Refresher training on child criminal exploitation training will also be offered to school staff and governors.

Labour’s Michelle Sweeney, a former probation officer, led the original spotlight review and said more information needs to be given to schools and parents to make them aware of the dangers.

During the review, councillors were told there were 111 child sexual exploitation victims and 78 child criminal exploitation victims in St Helens between April 1, 2018 and March 14, 2019.

In that same period, 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.

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

Councillors were also informed about the growth in numbers of unregulated, residential establishments in St Helens.

Speaking on Wednesday, Cllr Sweeney also highlighted a common misconception around county lines gangs.

St Helens Star: Cllr Michelle Sweeney led the spotlight review into county lines activity in St HelensCllr Michelle Sweeney led the spotlight review into county lines activity in St Helens

She said: “Evidence is coming to the forefront of gangs grooming children from affluent areas who may not be perceived as children who would normally get involved in this.

“However, as we’ve said previously, this is about grooming, and the same mechanisms are used for grooming children.

“Whether you be a sexual predator, whether you be someone who wants a child to carry drugs, whether you want them to carry money, firearms.

“This is something that is prevalent in all of our areas, and the methods that are used are very, very similar.”

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Cllr Sweeney said she was “grateful” for the cabinet repose to the review, and said the actions will yield some “positive outcomes for our young people”.

The Town Centre ward councillor added that work was already “going at pace” to raise awareness of the issue.

St Helens Borough Council’s cabinet approved the action plan.