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Child victims of human trafficking prosecuted despite CPS rules

Young British victims of human trafficking who have been forced to sell drugs in county lines operations are being charged and prosecuted despite guidelines against doing so, the Guardian can reveal.

The Modern Slavery Act gives young people and vulnerable adults the right to raise a “section 45” defence, which states they were trafficked and forced to commit offences.

The Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) internal policy states that where a child or young person might have been trafficked and exploited through criminal activity there is a strong public interest in stopping the prosecution.

But the Guardian has identified a series of cases where the CPS has continued to prosecute British children and young adults for county lines despite having a positive decision from the national referral mechanism (NRM) that designates them a victim of human trafficking, or being strongly suspected of being a victim of human trafficking.

What does the term ‘county lines’ mean?

The name ‘county lines’ refers to the phone numbers, or lines, that criminal gangs which traffic drugs from urban to rural areas use to organise the sale of their wares. Gangs in cities such as London, Birmingham and Liverpool use children to deal mostly heroin and crack cocaine over a network of dedicated mobile phones to smaller towns and rural areas.

Who are the victims and how are they recruited?

The majority of victims groomed into working for gangs are 15- to 17-year-old boys but children as young as 11 have been safeguarded and girls have been targeted.

Many victims are recruited over social media, with offenders luring them with images of cash, designer clothing and luxury cars, but vulnerable girls and women are being targeted by men who create the impression of a romantic relationship before subjecting them to sexual exploitation.

How big is the problem?

In 2015, about seven forces reported county lines behaviour. Now, 44 forces, including British Transport Police, have recorded county lines behaviour on their turf. 

No one really knows how many young people across the country are being forced to take part. Children without criminal records – known as ‘clean skins’ – are preferred because they are less likely to be known to detectives. The Children’s Society says 4,000 teenagers in London alone are exploited through county lines, while the children’s commissioner estimated at least 46,000 children in England were caught up in gangs.

How many children have been affected

The number of individual phone numbers identified by law enforcement officials as being used on established county lines networks is about 2,000 – nearly three times the 720 previously established.

Police estimate the phone numbers are linked to about 1,000 branded networks, with a single line capable of making £800,000 profits in a year.

As lawyers and campaigners expressed their alarm at the findings, a Guardian investigation found cases including:

  • A teenage boy with a learning disability convicted after being found to be in possession of drugs, despite the police finding threatening text messages on his mobile phones that showed he was being instructed by someone else. After he served his sentence, he was referred to the NRM and got a positive decision. The gang had, however, found the boy and retrafficked him and he was arrested again for offences relating to their drug-dealing operation. Despite the positive NRM decision and the fact he repeatedly told police the same gang had forced him to commit the offence, the CPS pursued a prosecution. He was acquitted.

  • A young adult, whose defence lawyer said had clearly been groomed by a gang, who went to court without an NRM referral. When asked why a referral had not been made, the prosecuting counsel stated it was not the police’s job to provide his defence. When raised in open court, the judge admitted he did not understand how the NRM operated and initially suggested defence lawyers should address their concerns to the jury. The CPS eventually dropped the case, but by then the boy had been in custody for several months with some of those involved in exploiting him.

  • A 17-year-old with multiple special needs arrested in possession of a large amount of cash and class A drugs. The boy was receiving a minimal education at a pupil referral unit, where one of the professionals working with him had raised concerns about his association with older people who were linked to drug-related activities. Several other agencies had also flagged the boy’s vulnerability to exploitation. Despite this, the first responding agency initially refused to make a referral to the NRM.

Sarah Collier, a public law solicitor at Simpson Millar, condemned the trafficking victims’ treatment, saying: “The Crown Prosecution Service has a duty to protect victims of trafficking and modern slavery, yet there is mounting evidence to suggest that in many cases those affected are being failed by the system.

“Instead of being granted access to vital care and support following what is often brutal and sustained abuse, vulnerable children and teenagers are being criminalised – resulting in lengthy custodial sentences, which have a devastating impact on the rest of their lives.”

James Simmonds-Read, of the Children’s Society’s exploitation prevention programme, said that the decisions were the result of ignorance and bad judgement. “The Modern Slavery Act recognises exploitation as a defence in cases where children have been found distributing drugs and where they are subject to other forms of criminal exploitation,” he said. “Yet too many children are nevertheless prosecuted by the CPS and then convicted in court due to a worrying lack of awareness of the law, and delays and poor decision-making in the NRM process.

“Some solicitors and judges seem unclear on how the Modern Slavery Act can be used to defend children in these cases and result in charges being dropped, and of who they can call on to offer expert evidence – especially in cases where a child has yet to be formally recognised as a victim of trafficking or a decision not to do so is being challenged.”

Collier pointed to CPS guidelines that state prosecutors must carry out a thorough investigation in cases where there is evidence to suggest that a child suspect could be a victim in their own right. “Despite this, we are handling many cases where it is clear that no investigation has been carried out, and that a prosecution has been progressed despite evidence that the child or young person has been involved in criminal activity after being manipulated and groomed by older gang members,” she said.

Benjamin Knight, a criminal barrister at Central Chambers, said: “When you ask law enforcement or the prosecution to look into this issue they perceive it to be a loophole for offenders.” He criticised the CPS for going after “low-hanging fruit prosecutions”.

Knight said he had met an 18-year-old in custody who explained in very simple terms how he had been coerced. “He didn’t mention anything of modern slavery because it was not in his vocabulary, but he is clearly a vulnerable young man with a mental health problem. The defence contacted the police and CPS to ask if they were aware of a NRM referral, but they told us he had not said he was a victim of modern slavery therefore they were not going to fill in a referral. But they have a duty to investigate, not to wait for them to give that information.”

A National Police Chiefs’ Council spokesman said: “There has been a substantial change in how police forces deal with modern slavery over the past several years.

“Thousands of officers have been trained to spot signs of modern slavery and more than 1,200 specialist investigators have also been trained to deal with complex modern slavery cases, including carrying out evidence-led investigations where victims may not be able or willing to participate in the process of bringing offenders to justice.”

A CPS spokesperson said that the exploitation of children and vulnerable adults for criminal purposes was “abhorrent” and would continue to be prosecuted.

“The identification of suspects as victims themselves can be challenging as many choose not to reveal the truth of their situations through fear, poor advice or other reasons,” the spokesperson added.

“While our guidance states it may not be in the public interest to prosecute someone who has been exploited, we must also take care that criminals are not able to unscrupulously use this as a defence.”

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