Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter should face a new legal duty to report to police evidence of their platforms being used by “county lines” drug gangs to groom children, ministers have been told.
And new controls should be placed on sales of mobile phones to prevent the gangs covering their tracks by using untraceable “burner” devices.
The demands are central recommendations in a new “prospectus” for protecting children from involvement in county lines crime, drawn up by two MPs from an area of east London blighted by the violence and suffering which the gangs bring.
The document was produced by Newham borough MPs Lyn Brown and Sir Stephen Timms and unveiled in The Independent today ahead of its presentation to parliament.
It arose from a Solving Youth Violence conference bringing together children’s services, police, charities, and academics to seek a response to the county lines phenomenon, which has seen children recruited to ferry drugs from the cities to market and coastal towns.
Ms Brown and Sir Stephen – Labour MPs for West Ham and East Ham respectively – said that the cost-of-living crisis has increased the lure of supposedly “easy money” offered by the gangs to children in their early teens.
But the children can then become embroiled in the gang feuds which too often lead to knife deaths, or caught up in the criminal justice system, wasting years of their lives in jail.
“On a daily basis, many children today see their parents working several jobs and still struggling to pay rent and buy the basics,” said Brown and Timms.
“They can see that there is no money, and they are highly motivated to make this easier on their family in any way they can.”
Coupled with this, the closure of hundreds of youth centres under austerity policies of the past 12 years has deprived children of a “safe space” to get away from the street gangs and pursue more positive interests.
Ms Brown and Sir Stephen called for a duty on social media companies to establish an early-warning system to spot and report signs of grooming, in the same way they are required to report illicit financial activities.
“It’s not too much to ask that children and young people receive the same level of legal protection as the financial sector, where banks have similar duties to report suspicions about money laundering,” they said.
Meanwhile, a new requirement for anyone buying a mobile phone to provide a name, address and contact details would tackle gangs’ use of temporary “burner” devices which are used during a delivery and then immediately discarded to cover up their involvement.
And the MPs called for greater financial support for public services, schools and local authorities to fulfil their duties to protect children.
Writing in The Independent, Brown and Timms said: “These are just a few of the changes needed.
“The collective failure of society and government to protect children from criminal exploitation is contributing to a terrible toll of murdered youngsters, traumatised families and communities, and ruined lives.
“However, the new prime minister and her government now have the opportunity for a fresh start. Liz Truss could introduce these new protections for our children in a matter of weeks.
“There can be no excuse for failing to act to protect our children.”