Who are the slave masters of today? County lines, drug trafficking, and modern slavery policies

Insa Koch
Thursday, 5 December 2019

The use of modern slavery policies in regional drug trafficking cases - more often known as county lines - has been heralded as a positive step, one which moves away from criminalising vulnerable young people to recognising them as victims in need of safeguarding.

And yet, this good news narrative is not the whole story. Far from simply saving the foot soldiers of Britain’s illicit drugs economy, my on-going ethnographic research shows that the current policy agenda around county lines also implicates young people in new forms of state control, while further distancing the state from addressing its culpability in the history of actual British slavery.

The use of modern slavery policies in county lines cases

County lines is the name given to illicit Class A drugs networks that are spreading from metropolitan centres to rural, coastal and market towns. Since the National Crime Agency’s (NCA) mentioning of county lines violence in 2016, the media have consistently reported on the horrors of county lines, with images of debt bondage, violence and death looming large. Over  2,000 lines are estimated to be operating, with thousands of young people involved The model works by extracting labour from those at the bottom of the trade: typically, fourteen to seventeen-year-old, often black and ethnic minority boys – and to a lesser extent girls – living in Britain’s post-industrial neighbourhoods are used to transport the drugs and to sell them using a designated phone line.

To address the criminal exploitation central to county lines, government responses have come to rely on modern slavery policies, including the Modern Slavery Act 2015 which sets out both a defence for those who have committed offences (including for drugs) while enslaved, and a prosecution tool for individuals accused of human trafficking, slavery and servitude. While these policies were originally designed with international trafficked victims in mind, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which records victims of human trafficking and slavery, has reported an unprecedented increase in referrals of British-born individuals involved in county lines. A national centre for the coordination of county lines was set up with the oversight of the NCA in 2017 to further coordinate the government’s responses to county lines.

From criminalisation to victimhood?

It is precisely the young runners from Britain’s post-industrial housing estates who professionals are discovering as victims in need of saving. By treating these young people as vulnerable individuals rather than as perpetrators, professionals are now tasked to channel young people away from the criminal justice system and into social care. Thus, a positive NRM referral can result in criminal investigations being dropped against the individual concerned. It can also act as basis for appeal for certain previous convictions, including drugs offences. And finally, local authorities have started to put responses in place to support victims of exploitation, including in one case I came across moving a family affected into social housing out of the area.

And yet, the story is not so simple. Inconsistencies and lack of awareness still abound. All too often, young people are not entered into the NRM mechanism. And even when they are, the decision of whether or not to treat a person as a victim of modern slavery is discretionary. County lines gangs are organised around chains of command and professional judgement of when a person goes from being an exploited victim to becoming what the police call an ‘alpha victim’ – someone who exploits others – is not always clear. As a result, young people continue to be prosecuted, while cash-strapped local authorities and police lack the means to offer the support with welfare and youth work that victims desperately need. 

Expanding state control

But problems do not stop with the implementation of modern slavery policies. More insidiously, modern slavery allows for state control to be introduced into already stigmatised communities through the backdoor. Frontline workers tasked with the role of identifying modern slaves have invented a whole new repertoire, including categories like ‘cuckooing’ and ‘mate crime’. These teach professionals to read all sorts intimate relationships through the lens of exploitation. As the ‘chicken shop’ panic, which identified fried chicken shops as places of grooming amply illustrated, entire spaces of consumption and socialising that cater for those at the lower end of the market are now being reinvented as sites of exploitation into which the state can expand its gaze.  

The picture gets murkier yet, when the focus is shifted to a crucial question: who are the ‘slave masters’ lurking behind county lines exploitation? So far, only a handful of successful prosecutions have been brought under modern slavery legislation in county line cases. Of those found guilty, the perpetrators have all been young black and mixed-race adults. There is no doubt that the ‘top dogs’ can cause huge suffering to those made to run drugs on their behalf. Yet, by prosecuting these young men under slavery legislation, we are witnessing a macabre historical shift: the slave holders of today are not the white British masterclass but typically young, black men who come from the same disenfranchised communities as those they are said to exploit.  

While the use of modern slavery policies in county line cases has been welcomed across political parties and campaign groups as a positive step, critical voices have started to make themselves heard. These have tended to focus on the need to reform the NRM mechanism, to offer better training for frontline staff and court officials, and to put proper resources for supporting victims in place. While these are important suggestions, my research indicates that the problems are not only to do with implementation. Far from simply saving the vulnerable, the government’s modern slavery agenda further extends state control deep into the realms of civil society. Furthermore, by discriminating between victims and their slave masters, the law invokes the image of an enemy from within which further risks dividing already weakened collectives in disenfranchised neighbourhoods. 

These insights raise pressing questions about how modern slavery acts as an ideological tool to silence pressing concerns, including about other forms of slavery – both old and new. There is no doubt that the current focus on individualised exploitation distances the state yet further from its own culpability in the history of the actual Atlantic slave trade. It also silences what I have previously shown to be the slave-like conditions that some of the most vulnerable citizens confront both at the hands of a deregulated market that exploits them for cheap labour, and a government that has curtailed social security under austerity and introduced a highly coercive system of universal credit. Yet, it is precisely these structural conditions that drive the young into the illicit drugs economy in the first place and that need to be at the heart of meaningful reform.

Insa Koch is Associate Professor in the Law Department and Director of the Anthropology and Law Programme at the London School of Economics