The NSPCC and the Children’s Society have recently unveiled plans to enlist food delivery companies, plumbers and postal workers to look for signs of child abuse while visiting people’s homes.
The charities say the campaigns have been set up in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, which has left vulnerable children isolated at home while many schools and community centres remain closed.
On Friday, the Children’s Society launched a poster campaign in partnership with the National Police Chiefs’ Council, advising anyone concerned about a child being abused to reach out.
The training initiative set up by the NSPCC was announced last week, with 5,000 Deliveroo drivers already signed up to take part in a course designed to help workers detect child abuse.
Drivers who are concerned about a child being in imminent danger will be told to call the police, while queries about suspected abuse and more general concerns will be fielded to the NSPCC’s support line, where drivers can get advice and staff can make a decision about what to do next.
The NSPCC will then decide whether to call the police or a local authority for cases they think should lead to a referral.
Some experts fear Deliveroo’s involvement might encourage drug gangs and paedophiles to pose as drivers concerned about the welfare of children in homes, but who are instead looking to locate, groom and exploit young children.
On Monday, several national media outlets reported that county lines gang mules had been disguising themselves as Deliveroo drivers to sell cocaine and heroine during lockdown. Young runners groomed by gangs were used to smuggle the Class A drugs.
One such article, published by The Guardian on July 5, offered more details about how County Lines gangs had been using Deliveroo as a cover for drug dealing:
“Criminal gangs have been dressing young drug mules as nurses and Deliveroo workers to deliver cocaine, heroin and illegally acquired prescription drugs during lockdown, according to a senior officer in charge of tackling county lines dealing at one of the UK’s biggest police forces.
Supt Andy O’Connor of Merseyside police said Liverpool drug lords forced to return home during lockdown were operating a “click and collect” service for couriers disguised as key workers to travel in and out of the region with drugs.
He said the looming recession coupled with high unemployment could make it easier for criminal groups to recruit vulnerable people and their families as lockdown is eased.”
“People were dressed as key workers, we’ve got evidence to show there were people stop-checked purporting to be nurses or Deliveroo drivers. Crime groups are clever and ingenious. They still want to deliver their commodity, there’s still a significant amount of money to make,” O’Connor added.
The majority of Deliveroo’s drivers are male (93%), while 73% are young men between the ages of 18-34, making it easy for drug runners, and paedophiles in the UK who are mostly male (80-95%), to blend into the workforce without arousing suspicion. Some experts have expressed concern that county lines gangs might use the NSPCC’s scheme to target and groom young children.
A spokesperson for SPACE, an award winning organisation that protects children from criminal exploitation, said the scheme could make it much easier for criminals to target and exploit children.
“Whilst clearly well-intentioned, there should be alarm bells ringing with this initiative given the well-publicised, lockdown-driven adaptation by County Lines gangs of using drug runners as Deliveroo drivers,” they said.
“If it remains effective and lucrative, there is no reason why this diversification in operation won’t continue post lockdown, so we’re looking at individuals the public nor safeguarding professionals would want anywhere near vulnerable children and adults heading straight into the same space as them, with a view to recruiting, exploiting, abusing and trafficking.”
“Sexual exploitation also features within County Lines, and that becomes an additional concern. Such an initiative could create an easy bridge for criminal exploiters to access vulnerable victims with legitimacy and ease,” they concluded.
Helen Westerman, a local campaigns manager for the NSPCC, said she was not aware of the development in a conference call with this site on Friday, and did not know whether Deliveroo had taken steps to address the breaches. She was also unable to confirm whether Deliveroo’s drivers were CRB checked, DBS checked or were vetted before being hired.
We reached out to both the NSPCC and Deliveroo’s communications teams, and will update this article with any responses we receive.*
The NSPCC’s training, which Deliveroo drivers have yet to undergo, is provided through a free 15 minute video, entitled, “It’s Your Call”, which offers an introduction to the course, signs to look out for when trying to spot abuse, interactive tasks, and information on how to report concerns. Viewers can fast forward through some of the segments and pause the content as they move through the film.
The course is not accredited, but Westerman said the training had been developed by the charity’s staff and experts.
Westerman added that the decision to roll out the video training to Deliveroo drivers came after a driver called the NSPCC helpline, having grown concerned about a child at a property where he regularly delivered alcohol.
“During the pandemic the normal places where child abuse and neglect would normally be spotted were restricted, like schools and health and the community sector and social care, so we’re much more reliant on people like Deliveroo being the eyes and ears,” she explained.
“It’s great that we’re able to offer something, fairly basic, but helping people understand the signs of abuse and how to report it. I think the partnership is a positive one and hopefully we’ll save a lot more children,” Westerman said.
Emerging concerns about the impact of the scheme on the social care sector have also been raised by social workers who believe that Deliveroo drivers are not equipped to detect child abuse or respond appropriately in a potentially abusive environment.
Ed Nixon, co-founder and Chair of Every Child Leaving Care Matters said safeguarding should rest with local authorities.
“This role falls to Local Authorities and Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards until the new arrangements facilitated by The Children and Social Work Act come into force. I am also concerned that the trainer in this case does not have lead or any statutory responsibility for protecting the welfare of children,” Nixon observed.
Reacting to the training scheme on social media, one mother said, “What about SEND parents? Our children often have a meltdown for no apparent reason, and sound like they are being hurt, when in fact they are hurting themselves. This could be dangerous.”
A comment by a second social media user said,”This is becoming a police state,” and another person wrote, “Getting people to spy on others and report them, sounds like something the Nazis did, very worrying.”
Some social media users also felt that domestic violence victims would find the intrusion intimidating, while others said the initiative would put them off using Deliveroo in the future.
Westerman said the NSPCC was also open to working with other services who may want to engage with the training.
“We recognise that Deliveroo drivers are just one of a number of people that would be visiting properties, and could be the eyes and ears for their community,” she said.
Westerman said the free training, which anyone can access, was not funded by the government and did not involve targets or quotas. Data about the drivers registering for the course would be collated, but information about Deliveroo drivers calling the NSPCC’s helpline, and details about those calls which are usually bound by confidentiality laws, would not be recorded unless the driver chose to reveal their identity.
*A spokesperson for Deliveroo contacted this site on July 20 to say Deliveroo drivers were CRB checked.