This month Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (‘HMICFRS) released a highly critical report of the current response to modern slavery in the UK.
Government estimates suggested there were up to 13,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK in 2013. However, the clandestine and highly mobile nature of the offending, coupled with ineffective detection methods mean this figure is likely to be a woeful underestimation of the true size of the beast.
Modern slavery, defined in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (‘MSA 2015’) encompasses slavery, servitude, forced labour, human trafficking.
HMICFRS have found that the MSA 2015 and the raft of powers that accompanied it have not yet led to significant improvements in the police response to this issue.
Some problems in detection and handling are inherent. Modern slavery is a shape-shifter: it can appear anywhere from nail bars to construction sites, manifesting as forced labour, organ harvesting and sexual exploitation. It disguises itself well to the untrained or wilfully blind eye.
Other problems are not inherent and must be tackled urgently. HMICFRS identifies that there are fundamental failings in “basic policing practice” which are leaving offences unaccounted for and offenders “free to continue to exploit people as commodities”.
There are also significant failings in identifying victims. In one example inquiries led police to a suspected brothel. Two Chinese women were arrested, and despite evidence to suggest that the women had been trafficked, both were treated as immigration offenders. Neither was given advice about support available through the National Referral Mechanism (‘NRM’).
In another instance eight workers in an Italian restaurant were found to be receiving insufficient food and no pay, and yet no modern slavery crimes were recorded by the police force.
The report also identified a worrying trend in officers “avoiding raising the issue of modern slavery” because they believed the public were not sympathetic to victims. The dangers of police giving weight to victim prejudice, perceived or otherwise, has been starkly brought to light in recent months in the context of the Rochdale child sex exploitation scandal. If such attitudes exist amongst the public or within the justice system they must be tackled. In any case, such concerns must not be allowed to dictate police investigations or charging decisions.
So where should the shift be? As a starting point, the following core areas for reform emerge from the HMICFRS report:
- The National Referral Mechanism is a key player in this arena and it is a resource that must be streamlined and properly utilised
- There must be continued investment in police training in detecting and handling modern slavery, and the powers brought in by the MSA 2015
- There must be an improvement in identifying, responding to and maintaining contact with victims and potential victims