CHILDREN are not being protected from exploitation and grooming because of a huge “anti-grass” culture rooted in Merseyside, a worrying new report has found.

Work undertaken by Wirral Council’s child exploitation team found the county is one of the biggest exporters of children outside London, with kids being sent all over the country to sell drugs for gangs.

The report, produced by the local authority’s children and families scrutiny committee, said an “anti-grass” culture was one of the “main barriers” to protecting children, because it was “embedded and hard to break down.”

It said that culturally, people do not see drug dealers as child abusers, and kids dealing drugs are not seen as victims because the adults controlling them behind the scenes can’t be seen.

It said this and the geography of Merseyside made it an “excellent location for drug trafficking.”

The report said: “It was confirmed by officers that Merseyside is one of the biggest exporters of children outside the London boroughs with children being sent all over the country.

“Geographically Merseyside is an excellent location for drug trafficking; it has docks, airports, is close to the M6 and easy access to Ireland, Republic of Ireland and other major UK cities.

“Criminals in Merseyside have cultivated an excellent business model and ‘County Lines’ as a symptom of this.”

The child exploitation team, made up of officers from children’s services and Merseyside Police, said they needed to “get ahead of the curve” and look at “picking up patterns” to prevent children engaging in drugs.

The report suggested ruthless criminals could be preying on youngsters at McDonald’s branches due to the fast food chain’s popularity with teens, and said Merseyside Police is now looking to work with branches to prevent young customers from being targeted by exploitative criminal gangs.

Social media was also identified as a “huge issue.”

The report said there are currently no procedures in place to respond to social media and child exploitation with the seven local authorities within the Merseyside city region.

The horrific tactics used by gangs to pull children into crime have been brought into focus by a series of major operations across Merseyside in recent years.

Probes have revealed how vulnerable children can be lured into trouble by promises of cash, designer clothes, protection, friendship and even food by thugs who look to befriend them .

In reality those targeted often become trapped in a cycle of debt and criminality as they are used to stash, deliver and transport drugs and weapons by “elders” who do not wish to place themselves at risk of arrest and believe police are less suspicious of children.

A major grooming scandal in Birkenhead led to two brothers being jailed for a combined total of 32-and-a-half years and an overhaul of Wirral Council’s children’s social services.

“Reality check” visits were then introduced by the local authority’s children and families overview and scrutiny committee in 2017.

Members of the committee arrange visits with staff involved in safeguarding, such as Merseyside Police.

Councillors noted the feedback in the report at last week’s meeting.

Members agreed issues surrounding child criminal exploitation should be made a regional priority, and a message should be sent out from the top that “Wirral is not open for businesses.”

Detective Inspector Paul Parry, from Merseyside Police’s protecting vulnerable people unit, said: “We welcome these visits from Wirral local authority, working together to continually improve the partnership work we carry out in safeguarding young and vulnerable people across Wirral and the rest of Merseyside.

“Extensive prevention work takes place with other commissioned services at various locations across the force, of which this proposed initiative is just one. If we can focus on groups of young people congregating in fast food restaurants, coffee shops, parks and any other areas where they might be at risk, we can speak to them, understand any concerns and ensure they are protected from harm.”