New law on child exploitation by drug dealers in Labour crime crackdown

<span>Police search a suspected drug dealer in the northern quarter of Manchester. A neighbourhood policing guarantee with increased visibility of officers will also be announced in the king’s speech.</span><span>Photograph: Chris Bull/Alamy</span>
Police search a suspected drug dealer in the northern quarter of Manchester. A neighbourhood policing guarantee with increased visibility of officers will also be announced in the king’s speech.Photograph: Chris Bull/Alamy

Drug dealers who exploit children will face punishment under a new law as part of a crackdown on crime planned by the new Labour government.

The king’s speech, due on 17 July, is expected to outline measures including a new offence of child criminal exploitation, Labour sources confirmed, among a series of new laws and reforms across the policing and justice system.

The new law is designed to help combat the use of children in “county lines” drugs running, in which they are used as mules and sometimes asked to hide illicit substances in their bodies.

Related: From low-level drug dealer to human trafficker: are modern slavery laws catching the wrong people?

But despite Labour’s pledge to prioritise law and order and clamp down on antisocial behaviour, police chiefs have been told there is no prospect of new money for at least the first two to three years of the new government, the Guardian understands. Law enforcement leaders, who collectively have a £18bn budget, claim they face a shortfall of £3.2bn.

A new national police savings board will instead be crucial to finding the money to fund 13,000 extra promised constables, made up of warranted officers with full powers, police community support officers and volunteer specials.

Among its aims is to end differences in the cost of equipment among the 43 police forces in England and Wales – for example, a baton costs the taxpayer about £20 in Leicestershire but over £120 in Northamptonshire.

Also included in the king’s speech will be a neighbourhood policing guarantee; increased visibility of officers is seen as key to boosting confidence and improving the intelligence that helps detect crimes. Some chiefs would rather use any money to upgrade crumbling IT systems so that existing officers can work more effectively, however.

New powers will be given to the police inspectorate to order chiefs to correct failings following their inspections. The use of the new powers by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary will need sign-off by the home secretary, Yvette Cooper. The inspectorate has complained that some forces, especially the Metropolitan police, are repeating the same failures.

Labour will also pass a new law making it mandatory for those under 18 caught with a knife to be assessed by a youth offending team.

One police source said the new law on the criminal exploitation of children would make it easier to prosecute such offences. Investigators currently have to use “clunky” laws on modern slavery to punish those coercing or forcing children to move drugs.

The source said it would help police and social workers to spot telltale signs, in the same way that a law on child sexual exploitation signalled that this specific offence should be taken seriously and allowed for longer jail sentences. “It is long overdue for children pressed into gangs and also changes the mindset of police, social and youth workers,” they said.

The new government also plans to push for police to be allowed to charge some lower-level domestic abuse cases. It will not need a new law, and a pilot by West Yorkshire police has been hailed by the force as a success. Cooper will allow six more police forces to further pilot the power.

West Yorkshire police said its trial had sped up bringing offenders to justice, rather than waiting for the overwhelmed prosecution service to act. “We can ensure the most dangerous offenders are brought to justice more swiftly whilst at the same time shielding communities and victims from further harm. In the last 12 months we have used our emergency charging powers on 304 occasions for a variety of offences, including high-risk domestic abuse cases,” a force spokesperson said.

Cooper is planning a more interventionist Home Office in policing, a so-called “mission control” approach, as opposed to what critics described as a hands-off and disjointed approach under the Conservatives. Key challenges include improving detection rates – currently at 6% – and no new money is available.

Labour has also vowed a crackdown on violence against women and girls, and the king’s speech will contain a series of other measures tackling knife crime and antisocial behaviour.

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