Social media giants should cover the costs associated with policing drug dealing networks, Security Minister Ben Wallace has said.
Mr Wallace demanded that outlets such as encrypted messaging service WhatsApp “step up to the plate” and help crack down on county lines — the drug dealing networks connecting urban and rural areas across the UK through dedicated phone lines.
There are believed to be at least 700 of the “lines” operating around the UK, funnelling drugs from big cities into small towns.
In London, it is estimated that more than 4,000 children have been caught up in the phenomenon because gang bosses prefer to use accomplices with no criminal record to deal the drugs.
Mr Wallace told MPs that the “acceleration” in dealing and the violence associated with it was down to social media and the ability for drug users to purchase “a la carte”.
The minister, speaking in a Westminster Hall debate on the Government’s response to organised crime, said: “What is accelerating county lines, because organised crime has existed for many years and violence in some pockets has existed, has been social media and secure communication.
“A la carte drug buying by people who are posted, sometimes they are groomed and abused sometimes they are willing, they go up into these towns they go up into other boroughs and people order a la carte through WhatsApp, through Instagram.”
He added: “We have to take the social media on, that is we’re consulting including looking at regulating in this House – and if we can’t regulate I have, slightly gone freelance as one would say, talked about, well, the polluter can pay.
“If we’re going to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on police, I think I know where I’ll get that money if that’s what we might have to do.
“They need to step up to the plate, there is the technology and I think we can do more.”
Mr Wallace went on to hit out at those who exploited children as part of the county lines operation, he said: “They’re the same as paedophiles, they are dirty little rotten groomers, who are sacrificing young people”.
The minister also spoke of the need to better educate those in the “leafy suburbs” about county lines, saying they “don’t know that, that young person who suddenly appeared in a flat is actually the victim of trafficking”.
He added: “These nail bars up and down the country often manned by Vietnamese who only take cash, 99% of the time those people are trafficked, but everyone still goes in in middle class areas to get their nails done.”
Mr Wallace’s comments came during a debate secured by West Ham MP Lyn Brown on the issue, she called for urgent action to end the “cycle of exploitation”.
She said: “It’s adults grooming our children, mostly our young boys and sending them off to deliver and sell drugs all over the country.
“These people have created a cruelly efficient business model to distribute and sell drugs using our children as expendable and cheap labour to enable large profits.
“It’s a cycle of grooming, it’s a cycle of abuse, it’s a cycle of exploitation that has become an industry.”
Labour MP Dr Rosena Allin-Khan earlier told ministers how she had personally dealt with the consequences of county lines in her job as an A&E doctor.
She said: “I have treated teenagers, once full of bravado on the streets, lying there dying in front of my eyes with tattoos emblazoned ‘born to die’ on their chest.
“These children, crying out for their mothers in their final moments.
“I have been there with grieving parents who have arrived into the resuscitation room, only to see their child die before them, the scream, the echo of that pain, that audible anguish never ever leaves you.”
She added: “This has to stop minister, I implore you to listen.”