Criminal gangs are recruiting children into a life of crime by offering them free food.
The claim was made in written evidence submitted to the youth select committee as part of its investigation into the UK’s knife crime epidemic.
The criminals – also known as chicken shop gangs – persuade children to deal drugs for them, particularly targeting those who had been excluded from school.
The evidence said: “Some [young people] shared that their peers had been targeted by gangs outside of Pupil Referral Units, as well as outside sports centres.
“They also said that sometimes children are recruited through an offer of food (referred to as chicken shop gangs) and they felt that schools could do more to keep children in school as it could be a protective factor from gang involvement.”
Various video and poster campaigns are warning children and parents of the dangers, with one poster saying: “There’s no such thing as free chicken! Friends of friends who buy you things often want something in return.”
Mark Bentley, online safety and safeguarding manager at London Grid for Learning, said: “In terms of schools or parents who might think this wouldn’t happen in this leafy area, chicken shops are legion, and kids like to hit the chicken shop on the way home from school.
“It’s so easy for them to think, ‘oh, I can save a couple of quid’, and it’s easy to get sucked in.”
The news comes a month after The Children’s Society warned that drug gangs moving drugs and cash between cities and towns are recruiting children as young as seven.
Natasha Chopra, the charity’s London disrupting exploitation programme manager, said cuts to youth services have led to more children spending time in places where they could be targeted.
“Young people tend to go to places like fast food chains of a cheaper cost. Young people may use certain fast food chains as a place to socialise,” she said.
“In terms of exploitation, these exploiters know that these young people are going to be at a vast range of fast food chains.
“That’s when the ‘targeted’ stage comes in, because exploiters will actually watch and observe the young people.
“They will watch and they will check and think, ‘ok this particular young person comes in at this time, they leave at this time. Why are they not going home?’
“That’s the way it will start, with a conversation like: ‘hi, here’s some chicken or here’s some chips’ and that relationship can form quite easily.”
Ms Chopra said a child could then be offered around £20 to act as a lookout before becoming “hooked” on having access to money and feeling like they are part of a family or moving up the ranks.
Once they are part of the gang, children are stopped from leaving with threats towards family members and friends, or with videos of them performing sex acts or inserting drugs into their bodies, she said.
Ms Chopra said it is difficult to put a figure on the number of children being exploited in this way, but added: “It’s happening anywhere and everywhere… I think it can be any child that can be subjected to criminal exploitation.”
In January, the National Crime Agency warned as many as 10,000 children may be involved in “county lines” drug dealing, with profits estimated at around £500m a year.