THE number of children convicted of drugs offences has almost doubled since 2013.

Last year, 81 convictions were secured against Wiltshire under-18s, Home Office figures show. In 2013/14, the number was 43.

It came as Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, visited Swindon’s Gablecross Police Station to speak to officers and politicians about the growth of county lines drug gangs.

The term describes the city groups that have increasingly moved to take over the Class A supply in smaller cities and towns, often using children and vulnerable adults to sell their drugs.

In Swindon by the end of last year, more than 50 children had been referred to police by social workers and teachers over fears they were being exploited by gangs to peddle drugs and steal to order.

Mr Javid, who as Home Secretary is the minister responsible for policing, said the gangs would be best tackled through better collaboration between police forces and other agencies, like councils:

"What I heard today, which is very encouraging, is that Wiltshire Police is working very closely through what’s called the new National County Lines Coordination Centre, both with other police forces and also very importantly with the National Crime Agency.

“That’s leading to many more arrests but also better safeguarding of young people.”

He denied that a fall in police officers had helped make it easier for drug gangs to move into areas like Wiltshire. The county has lost more than 180 regular police officers since 2010, although a planned council tax rise will see more constables recruited.

Instead, the Home Secretary cited changes in international drugs markets: “I think when you look at why there’s been a rise in serious violence over the last few years, a rise in some parts of the county of drugs activity, there’s no one single answer.

“What’s happened worldwide, not just in the UK but globally there’s been a massive supply increase of class A drugs from other parts of the world. That has led to a significant fall in price and it has led in turn to gangs - whether it’s in Britain, France or Germany it’s the same phenomenon - trying to find new markets.

“As they look for new markets they look outside their major cities. That’s a global phenomenon. I don’t think anyone can point to any single government in the world saying you’re responsible in the global collapse in drugs prices. What is needed to tackle that are efforts on a number of fronts.”

But the explanation failed to impress Wiltshire Police Federation, the union representing front line officers in the county.

Gary Treherne, secretary of the federation, said: “The reduction in officers is obviously going to have an impact. If you don’t have the officers to stop these people, they are going to run amok.

“This is what we told the government and we were accused by Theresa May of crying wolf.”

A more positive tone was struck by Wiltshire's chief constable, Kier Pritchard: "The threat from county lines and exploitation of our communities is rife across Swindon, Wiltshire and the country." He was reassured the home secretary was pushing his colleagues in government to release more cash to tackle county lines and support children caught up in the drugs trade.

Both Mr Pritchard and police and crime commissioner Angus Macpherson stressed the need for county lines to be a priority for organisations like the council and not just police."Something like this needs to be a priority for us all," Mr Macpherson said.

On Wednesday, a council-owned bedsit-turned-crack den was sealed by police over fears the tenant was being exploited by county lines drugs dealers.