Children as young as seven have been recruited by "county lines" gangs to move drugs around the country, The Children’s Society has said.
In a new report, the charity said that a council worker it had spoken to said they were working with a seven-year-old victim, whilst a member of police staff confirmed they were working with an eight-year-old.
The charity also found the number of children getting sucked into county lines drug gangs is continuing to grow, which has prompted local authorities to admit they are struggling to deal with the problem.
It also criticises the haphazard response from local agencies, prompting the Local Government Association to say that government cuts have forced them to divert money away from children who are most vulnerable.
In November last year, Sky News revealed that police had identified around 2,000 lines which are operations to market drugs from metropolitan areas to more rural locations, often using children as runners.
The number of 10-17-year-olds arrested for intent to supply drugs outside of London has gone up 49%, rising from 338 in 2015-16 to 505 in 2017-18.
The number of children being trafficked to sell drugs outside their home area has nearly doubled.
The Children’s Society found many police forces and councils are not recording data about children who are exploited and nearly two-thirds of councils do not have a strategy in place for tackling child criminal exploitation.
Nick Roseveare, chief executive at The Children’s Society, said: This shocking report reveals how cowardly criminals are stooping to new lows in grooming young people to do their dirty work and in casting their net wider to reel in younger children.
Yet the response from statutory agencies is too often haphazard and comes too late and a national strategy is needed to help improve responses to child criminal exploitation.
This should mean better early help for children and training for professionals, access to an advocate to ensure all children are supported as victims, and a greater focus on disrupting and bringing to justice the perpetrators who are exploiting them.
Responding to The Children’s Society report Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: Councils’ youth offending teams have an exceptional record of reducing youth crime and making a real difference to young people’s lives, but they are under huge pressure after seeing their government funding halved over the last decade.
Children’s services are now starting more than 500 child protection investigations every day, but face a £3.1bn funding gap by 2025. This is forcing councils to divert funding away from preventative services such as youth work into services to protect children who are at immediate risk of harm.
To help stop young people being criminally exploited and drawn into serious crime, it is vital that government reverses years of funding cuts to local youth services, youth offending teams and councils’ public health budgets, which need to be addressed in the Spending Review.
Although boys are understood to be most at risk of child criminal exploitation, the report finds nearly one in six children referred to the National Referral Mechanism as suspected victims of child criminal exploitation, are girls.
The report quotes professionals saying perpetrators scout for children perceived as being naughty and children excluded from school are highly vulnerable. However, it finds that any child can be at risk of exploitation and some children from more affluent backgrounds and rural areas were also targeted.