Greater collaboration and consistency needed to tackle 'county lines' drug offending, finds Inspectorate

Police forces and the National Crime Agency have successfully improved their understanding of ‘county lines’ drug offending, according to a new report. However, current policing models are too disjointed to allow for the most effective response.

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Both sides of the coin: An inspection of how the police and National Crime Agency consider vulnerable people who are both victims and offenders in ‘county lines’ drug offending

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) inspected how county lines drug trafficking is dealt with at local, regional and national levels. Although it identified many instances of good practice, the Inspectorate concluded there needs to be a more coherent and integrated system of national tasking, intelligence sharing and response.

The subsequent report, Both sides of the coin: The police and National Crime Agency’s response to vulnerable people in ‘county lines’ drug offending, highlighted the following achievements:

  • the establishment, in 2018, of the national county lines co-ordination centre (NCLCC);
  • effective use of modern slavery legislation by police forces;
  • the good use of ‘intensification weeks’, where the NCLCC co-ordinates law enforcement activity during dedicated weeks of action against county lines networks; and
  • good practice in relation to police bail.

HMICFRS warned, however, that the lack of a fully integrated, national response meant that investigations are often less effective than they should be.

The report also noted concerns regarding organised crime mapping, competing priorities and the limited use of telecommunication restriction orders.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Phil Gormley said:

“County lines offending is a pressing issue for law enforcement in the UK. It is a cross-border phenomenon involving criminals working across regions, to deal drugs and exploit vulnerable people.

“To tackle cross-border crime, there needs to be a cross-border response. Our inspection revealed that policing is currently too fragmented to best tackle county lines offending. Although we did see many excellent examples of collaboration, we concluded that the current approach does not allow for the level of coherence needed.

“Our report therefore contains a list of recommendations designed to facilitate the creation of a national, co-ordinated response to county lines offences.”

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Both sides of the coin: An inspection of how the police and National Crime Agency consider vulnerable people who are both victims and offenders in ‘county lines’ drug offending


  1. For the purposes of the report, ‘county lines’ was defined as “…a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas [within the UK], using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of “deal line”. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move [and store] the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons” Serious Violence Strategy, Home Office, April 2018, page 48.
  2. HMICFRS is an independent inspectorate, inspecting policing and fire and rescue services in the public interest. It assesses and reports on the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces and fire and rescue services.
  3. HMICFRS inspects all 43 police forces in England and Wales together with other major policing and law enforcement bodies. It also publishes data and thematic reports on areas of particular interest.
  4. Since 2017, HMICFRS has taken on responsibility for inspecting all 45 fire and rescue services in England.
  5. The Government published its Serious Violence Strategy in April 2018. This included a commitment that HMICFRS would conduct a thematic inspection into county lines.
  6. For this inspection, HMICFRS analysed a variety of documents and data. The fieldwork process included visiting the National County Lines Coordination Centre, three Regional Organised Crime Units and ten police forces, where HMICFRS interviewed relevant staff. In addition, it consulted with representatives from other bodies and organisations.
  7. For further information, HMICFRS’s press office can be contacted from 8:30am – 5:00pm Monday – Friday on 020 3513 0600.
  8. HMICFRS’s out-of-hours press office line for urgent media enquiries is 07836 217729