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County lines criminal activity - 525/18

Date Responded 25 June 2018

Provision of information held by Northumbria Police made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (the 'Act')

As you may be aware the purpose of the Act is to allow a general right of access to information held at the time of a request, by a Public Authority (including the Police), subject to certain limitations and exemptions.

You asked:

I am seeking to source information relating to 'County Lines' criminal activity. For the purpose of this request I am defining County Lines activity as described in the NCA's County Lines Violence, Exploitation & Drug Supply 2017 national briefing report. I provide a link to the report here  for reference

The report describes County Lines as scenarios with the following components:

 A. A group (not necessarily affiliated as a gang) establishes a network between an urban hub and county location, into which drugs (primarily heroin and crack cocaine) are supplied.

B. A branded mobile phone line is established in the market, to which orders are placed by introduced customers. The line will commonly (but not exclusively) be controlled by a third party, remote from the market.

C. The group exploits young or vulnerable persons, to achieve the storage and/or supply of drugs, movement of cash proceeds and to secure the use of dwellings (commonly referred to as cuckooing).

D. The group or individuals exploited by them regularly travel between the urban hub and the county market, to replenish stock and deliver cash.

E. The group is inclined to use intimidation, violence and weapons, including knives, corrosives and firearms.

The information I seek is:

  1. How many cases of county lines activity did your force investigate between April 2017 and April 2018?
  2. How many county lines are currently operating within the area of your force’s jurisdiction?

 Additionally, I seek the following information. If it is impossible to deal with question 3 and 4 below within the statutory limit on staff hours which can be dedicated to the request, please discount them.

  1. How many arrests have been made in relation to county lines activity between April 2017 and April 2018?
  2. How many arrests of under 18 year olds have been made in relation to county lines activity between April 2017 and April 2018?

In Response:

We have now had the opportunity to fully consider your request and I provide a response for your attention.

Northumbria Police shall neither confirm nor deny that this information is held and by doing so engage the following exemptions: 

S30(3) Investigations

S31(3) Law Enforcement

S24(2) National Security

 Overall harm

Although every effort should be made to release information under the Freedom of Information Act, to confirm or deny whether information is or isn’t held relating to county lines at a force level could not only undermine ongoing investigations, but also the National Security.

Whilst there is a public interest in the transparency of policing, providing assurance that the Police Service is appropriately and effectively engaging with the threat from criminals, this should be countered against the need to protect vulnerable areas, and ongoing Policing operational activity.

The security of the country is of paramount importance and the Northumbria Police Force will not divulge whether information is or is not held if to do so would undermine national security. Whilst there is a public interest in the transparency of policing operations and providing assurance that the Police Service is appropriately and effectively engaging with the threat posed by county lines activity, there is a very strong public interest in safeguarding both national security and the integrity of police investigations and operations in the highly sensitive areas of which they work.

Confirming or denying whether any information is held relevant to the request would show where policing interest has or has not occurred in any specific area which would enable those engaged in criminal activity to identify the focus of policing targets and identify vulnerable parts of the UK. 

Factors favouring confirmation or denial - Section 24

Confirmation or denial that any information exists relevant to the request would lead to a better informed public. The public are entitled to know how public funds are spent especially with regards to safeguarding National Security.

Factors against confirmation or denial - Section 24

Other organisations outside the Police Service may, or may not, have an active interest in the subject of the question above.  By confirming or denying that any information exists relevant to the request would harm the close relationship that exists between the Northumbria Police Force and other organisations. To confirm or deny whether the force hold any information relevant to the request would allow inferences to be made about the nature and extent of national security related activities which may or may not take place in a given area. This would enable criminal groups to take steps to counter intelligence, and as such, confirmation or denial would be damaging to National Security.

By confirming or denying any policing arrangements of this nature would render national security measures less effective. This would lead to the compromise of ongoing or future operations to protect the security or infrastructure of the UK and increase the risk of harm to the public.

Factors favouring confirming or denying whether any other information is held for Section 30

The public are entitled to know what their public funds are spent on. Investigations may be closed and any proceedings may have been completed, and the investigations may have been high profile and had national implications.

Factors against confirming or denying whether any other information is held for Section 30

The force’s future law enforcement capabilities would be affected and this would hinder the prevention and detection of crime.

Factors favouring confirmation or denial – Section 31

Confirming or denying whether any further information is held would allow the public to see where public funds have been spent and allow the Police service to appear more open and transparent.

Factors favouring neither confirming or denying – Section 31

To confirm or deny that law enforcement holds this information could compromise law enforcement tactics which would lead to a hindrance on the Police Force’s ability to prevent and detect crimes. Vulnerable areas could be identified by force level disclosure leading to more criminal activity placing the public in harm’s way. If information is released confirming or denying that requests have been made this may impact police resources as vulnerable forces may need to increase their resources to reassure the public and protect the surrounding community.

Balance test

The security of the country is of paramount importance and the Police service will not divulge whether information is or is not held if to do so could undermine National Security or compromise law enforcement or investigations. Whilst there is a public interest in the transparency of policing operations and in this case providing assurance that the police service is appropriately and effectively engaging with the threat posed by the criminal fraternity, there is a very strong public interest in safeguarding both national security and the integrity of police investigations and operations in this area. 

As much as there is public interest in knowing that policing activity is appropriate and balanced in matters of national security this will only be overridden in exceptional circumstances. Therefore it is our opinion that for these issues, the balancing test for confirming or denying whether any other information is held regarding county lines criminal activity, that in our opinion that the balance lies in favour of non-disclosure of the information and it is therefore felt that the decision to exempt the information outweighs the public interest.

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