For years, drug dealers have been taking over the homes of vulnerable people and using them as off-street bases by young out-of-town dealing crews.
It's a process that's been given the name “cuckooing”, after the habit of some species of the bird that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.
This month cuckooing reached the mainstream when it formed a plot line of the latest series of BBC1's cop drama, Line of Duty. Now, crime and housing experts tell VICE World News the practice is more pernicious and widespread in the UK than ever before, and becoming more exploitative, harder to find, and affecting a broader range of people.
It is a trend being fuelled by a mix of rising debt, social exclusion, lockdown and criminal gangs “ruling the roost” in some parts of the country. From local dealers to county lines crews, drug gangs are using intimidation and the cover of lockdown to hijack a wider variety of homes. Even when police are able to close drug dens and safeguard tenants, drug crews just target new and more varied victims.
“The younger ones liked to hold their knife and pretend to stab me. They thought it was funny. They were sticking me with a knife, I got lots of small cuts, it wasn’t too bad though.”
Andy, in his late 40s, was effectively cuckooed at his council flat in a crumbling estate in north west London by a gang of local dealers. It started off when members of the estate’s drug crew asked to use Andy’s toilet. A carpenter and long term heroin user, Andy had been buying drugs from them regularly. Although he knew they could be volatile, he let them in and within a few months they were using his small, well-kept council flat as a drug dealing base. The crew – aged 12 to 25 – hung at Andy’s place in between selling heroin and crack on the stairwells.
Andy says he trod the fine line between conspirator and victim. He got free drugs and let them use his place to relax, store their huge Rambo knife and charge their phones, but he said he sometimes did what they wanted to “keep the peace”. Some days the crew were polite, but other days they were menacing. “The younger ones liked to hold their knife and pretend to stab me,” said Andy, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They thought it was funny. They were sticking me with a knife for a laugh, I got lots of small cuts, it wasn’t too bad though.”
Once, when they wanted to come in and Andy said he was busy, they threatened to kill him, brandishing knives, and tried to kick the door down. Later, one of the gang’s associates kidnapped Andy and forced him to register a car in his name which was then used to sell drugs before being written-off, with the debt falling on Andy. Eventually the police had enough of the cuckooed flat and decided to shut it down, instructing the council to put Andy in emergency accommodation. But at least Andy had some control over his situation. Victims of this phenomenon increasingly do not.
“Cuckooing now is about wider vulnerability, not just people with drug and alcohol problems,” said Sir Peter Fahy, former Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police and current chair of Plus Dane, a social housing association with 13,000 properties in Cheshire and Merseyside in northwest England. “We’ve seen a rise in more exploitative cuckooing of housing tenants, such as the disabled, the elderly and people with learning difficulties and the long term unemployed, people who are lonely, isolated and finding life a struggle.”
In one case in Cheshire a Plus Dane tenant with a history of PTSD after serving in the army was befriended by another man who eventually moved into his one bedroom flat as his unofficial carer. It transpired the man was involved in large scale drug dealing operations into the area and was stashing weapons at the man’s property. Eventually police enforced a closure order and the tenancy was terminated.
“It is not just about being threatened,” said Fahy. “Young women are being groomed by ‘lover boy’ situations where they think someone really loves them but is exploiting them to hide guns and drugs. People with learning difficulties are incredibly vulnerable because they don’t know what they can do about it.
A lot of cuckooing is still hidden, said Fahy, because of the “very high levels of intimidation” involved. Despite this, across the country police and housing agencies are unearthing cuckooed properties at alarming levels.
As part of a national crackdown on county lines drug networks carried out by police forces in September last year, 861 cuckoo homes were identified in just one week. In three years, the number of reports about cuckooing logged by Crimestoppers, a charity that enables people to report crime anonymously, has risen more than four-fold, from 75 in 2018 to 330 in 2020.
“The more the police and other organisations look for cuckooing cases the more they find. Disrupting cuckooing scenarios has not got rid of the problem, but appears to have spread it to other homes, meaning more people become affected.”
Between April and December last year police in Norwich in the east of England, a city that has become one of many targets for county lines gangs, were issuing around two legal notices every week against suspected cuckooed addresses. In October, police discovered drug dealers from London had taken over the home of a disabled man and his carer in the southern town of Bournemouth, and used it to store knives, drugs and bundles of cash. The local police force, Dorset police, told VICE World News they have safeguarded 285 addresses where a vulnerable tenant needed support in the last five years.
In the West Midlands, police safeguarded 22 vulnerable people and visited 39 potential ‘cuckoo’ addresses during one week in February. The same month police in Hampshire visited cuckooed addresses and found 42 vulnerable people over a fortnight. Last summer police working with a housing association in Northamptonshire identified 50 cuckooing victims.
Yet it appears the more cuckoo homes the police identify, and the more vulnerable tenants they safeguard, like a game of whac-a-mole the more the tactic is spreading to new neighbourhoods and victims.
This is what University of West England criminologist Jack Spicer found when he analysed the policing of county lines cuckooing for research published last week in the British Journal of Criminology. He found that while police were helping cuckoo victims by throwing dealers out of their homes, enforcement had inadvertently caused cuckooing to spiral.
“This intensified focus on cuckooing paradoxically appears to make some aspects of it worse,” Spicer told VICE World News. “Cuckooing appears to have proliferated over the last few years. The amount of people being affected seems to have increased, and it’s also become more exploitative.
“The more the police and other organisations look for cuckooing cases the more they find. And the more they find and disrupt, the more they create in the future. Disrupting cuckooing scenarios has not got rid of the problem, but appears to have spread it to other homes, meaning more people become affected.”
“One elderly single man living at a Hyde property in Chichester, West Sussex was targeted by a gang of young London dealers after they spotted him regularly sitting alone at the local cafe they used.”
Spicer said his research showed while police have been uprooting the most common cuckooing model – where dealers give addicted drug users free heroin and crack in return for taking over their home – other cuckooing scenarios have increased.
“The success that the police might have in taking action against more longstanding reciprocal relationships between dealers and drug users also appears to lead to more exploitative scenarios, with dealers becoming more desperate to gain and obtain access to other homes.”
Nic Haig, anti social behaviour service manager at Hyde Group, which manages 50,000 homes across London, the South East and the Midlands, said over the last year the tenants most often targeted have been non-drug users. She said that over lockdown cuckoo cases had been harder to identify because tenants had become more isolated due to less visits by housing staff, contractors, family and friends.
“In our experience most tenants targeted [by drug dealing gangs] are not addicted drug users accepting drugs as payment, they are just frightened people threatened with violence or who have been physically beaten. Or they are lonely and they accept people into their homes who befriend them.”
One elderly single man living at a Hyde property in Chichester, West Sussex was targeted by a gang of young London dealers after they spotted him regularly sitting alone at the local cafe they used. They befriended him, gained his trust, moved into his home, which they turned into their drug selling base and kicked him out onto the street. Hyde took out injunctions on the six dealers, banning them from Chichester, but six more just took their place, so it was decided to issue a closure order on the property. The elderly resident, who had effectively been made homeless by the dealers, was put into emergency accommodation before being rehoused near his sister.
“There have been instances where we have found tenants with lots of cash and lots of drugs and I’ve made the decision not to prosecute, where 12 months ago we might have done.”
The difference between a tenant who has been exploited and threatened and one who is a willing participant is not always so clear. “There is a fine line between people being complicit and being cuckooed,” said Haig. Sometimes Hyde has had to re-possess homes “to give respite to the local community” after finding tenants are not under the duress they claim, and instead have been actively helping dealers. There is also little housing staff and police can do if a vulnerable person is convinced they have found a new friend, whom agencies suspect is exploiting them.
For police, navigating the fine lines around cuckooing has been a learning curve. Before, police raiding what used to be called a “crack house” would arrest everyone and the tenant would be charged with section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, allowing their home to be used for drug dealing. Now, as Spicer was keen to emphasise in his research, police are more likely to look at tenants as being potential victims. So how do they know who to help and who to punish?
Detective Chief Inspector Chris O’Brien, the Cambridgeshire force lead on drug policing, said officers need to dig into a situation in order to identify who needs to be helped and who needs to be charged. “A lot of people who have been cuckooed are seriously vulnerable to start with, hence them being susceptible to exploitation. It may appear on the surface they are willingly helping the drug gangs, but it’s about investigating it thoroughly and getting all the facts. That’s been the shift in Cambridgeshire Police, and other police forces, over the last 12 months, trying to find who is actually the true victim here and who is the true offender.”
The force hands cuckooed tenants a warning letter stating that police suspect they are breaking the law by allowing drug dealing in their home. In giving them a document that states their home is being watched by police, the police’s aim is to provide tenants unable to get rid of unwanted dealers with a document that could persuade cuckoo dealers to flee the nest.
“As the tactical lead for the force I’ve got no interest whatsoever in criminalising people who are being exploited, we want to go after the CEO of a drug line. I’m more interested in protecting them and going after the exploiters, which is the more adult and mature approach,” O’Brien said.
“There have been instances where we have found tenants with lots of cash and lots of drugs and I’ve made the decision not to prosecute, where 12 months ago we might have done. Just because they have drugs on them does not make them a criminal per se,” said O’Brien. His force has dismantled 30 county line crews in the last year, although he admits more gangs have taken their place.
Cuckooing is not just something that happens to people outside of the big cities via county lines gangs. Local dealers, like with the gang that targeted Andy, are using the tactic to exploit vulnerable people in their host cities.
“A lot more tenants are in arrears, and that makes them a lot more vulnerable to offers from criminal gangs, and this feeds into levels of social dislocation.”
A chilling case currently being heard at the Old Bailey features a crew of dealers who allegedly cuckooed the home of William Algar, a vulnerable jazz musician in his 50s, in Barnes, southwest London. Two people, including a teenager, stand accused of murdering and dismembering Algar last year when he allegedly complained after one of them had killed his beloved cat, Felix. Both men deny the charges.
But the context of cuckooing is important, and it says a lot about Britain’s hidden underclasses. It is, according to Fahy, about how drug dealers are taking advantage of “the fracturing of society”, made worse by austerity, the pandemic and entrenched crime. “A lot more tenants are in arrears, and that arrears problem is likely to grow and that makes them a lot more vulnerable to offers from criminal gangs, and this feeds into levels of social dislocation.”
“Fahy knows of housing staff who have tried to intervene to help cuckooed tenants but then been threatened by criminals.”
Fahy says criminals feed off this and have created a climate of fear in some areas. “It’s about alternative systems and economies that the police don't have the resources to tackle, where there are serious crimes happening that are not reported and where social services are overwhelmed. There are people living miserable lives and need an escape, that is the reality of addiction, and their relationship with their suppliers can make them vulnerable.”
Fahy knows of housing staff who have tried to intervene to help cuckooed tenants but then been threatened by criminals. “They have been intimidated by criminal gangs, because these housing workers live in these areas as well. They tell them ‘I know where your children go to school, what are you going to do?’ These are places where you have council staff trying to cut the trees around a CCTV camera and someone saying ‘if you do that I’ll shoot you’.
“If you are a victim of cuckooing you're going to have to think very seriously about becoming a witness,” said Fahy. “You have to guarantee that the person will be convicted, that the police will protect you, and you may have to move out of the area and sever contacts, because you will be a marked person.”
He said some cuckoo victims are being ignored by increasingly distant social landlords.
“Housing associations aren’t treating it as seriously as they should do. Some of the big housing associations can be quite distant from the places they serve. At the end of the day HAs should go into properties at least once a year, at least for a gas safety check, but this is not happening.
“Housing professionals and those people sitting on the board of housing associations are not living in these areas. They don’t have any direct experience of what it can feel like. How in these areas there is an overall distrust of authorities.” Fahy said many housing associations have closed local housing offices and moved to online communication. “They don’t have as many housing officers on the ground who know what’s going on.”
Is there anything that can be done to stem the seemingly endless cycle of people having their homes effectively stolen and repurposed in order to help fund a mid level city drug supplier’s elite watch and car collection?
Spicer concludes that, while the police’s recognition that there may well be a power imbalance with vulnerable tenants being exploited is valuable, effective responses to the problem of cuckooing lie outside of criminal justice.
“Rather than relying on policing activities that might actually make the situation worse, looking deeper at the structures that make people vulnerable should be at the forefront of considering what truly effective responses to cuckooing might be.”