More than 1,000 slavery and trafficking crimes in West Yorkshire unsolved since Modern Slavery Act passed
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The Modern Slavery Act 2015 was designed to crack down on the crime – which ranges from forced prostitution to labour exploitation and domestic servitude – with its simplified offences and tougher punishments.
But a JPIMedia investigation has exposed the extent to which perpetrators are escaping justice, with just 4.4 per cent of modern slavery offences recorded by English and Welsh police forces between 2015 and September 2020 resulting in a charge.
In West Yorkshire, only 52 of the 1,150 offences recorded in that period have resulted in a charge – a rate of 4.5 per cent.
The Human Trafficking Foundation, which brings together charities, public bodies and parliamentarians working to tackle slavery, has now said “radical” change is needed to how UK authorities pursue offenders and support victims.
Home Office figures show police forces in England and Wales have recorded 19,632 offences under the Modern Slavery Act to date, yet only 864 saw a suspect charged.
The proportion of cases resulting in a charge has fallen every year since 2015 as the volume of offences has increased.
In 2015/16, 23.7 per cent of cases saw charges brought but this rate had fallen to 2.9 per cent by 2019/20.
And figures published since the coronavirus pandemic began reveal the charge rate has plummeted further still, to just 2 per cent between April and September last year.
The figures refer to the period in which an offence outcome was recorded, not when the offence took place. Cases are not recorded until they have been closed or a charge brought.
It means a total of 19,175 cases across Britain have seen no action taken, including 1,098 in West Yorkshire.
Mark Burns-Williamson, West Yorkshire's Police and Crime Commissioner, said he was not surprised by the charge rate given his time as modern slavery lead for the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners as well as his role in setting up local and national anti-trafficking networks.
"These are human rights abuses committed against the most vulnerable in our communities and society, and that's whether they're trafficked from abroad or, increasingly, from within the UK," he said. "What we've seen certainly in the last two or three years is connectivity with things like county lines crimes and other legislation that can be used to tackle these perpetrators.
"I don't always take these statistics from the Home Office on face value because I know of the complexity of investigations that take place and the links to other types of crimes."
For the small proportion of cases that do make it to court, analysis of Ministry of Justice figures shows just 21.5 per cent end in a conviction, with only 74 successful cases out of 344 court proceedings in England and Wales between 2015 and 2019 where modern slavery was the principal offence.
Tamara Barnett, director of the Human Trafficking Foundation, said modern slavery cases were often “very, very difficult” to investigate and that a lack of wider support for victims means they are often distrustful of and unwilling to work with police.
Mr Burns-Williamson pointed to the crucial role of interpretation services and advocacy organisations such as Hope for Justice when it comes to securing victim testimony.
"Some of them don't even recognise or realise that they are victims," he said. "Obviously there's intimidation and threats to those victims around their families back in their home countries or indeed in this country.
"It's making sure that you can gain the trust of those victims to then have the confidence to give evidence, making statements and work with those advocates and police and others to ensure there's an outcome at the end of it."
But while the Home Office figures show police in England and Wales most commonly cite failure to identify a suspect and victims not supporting action as reasons for not bringing charges, there have also been 2,697 cases where a suspect was identified and the victim was on board.
Ms Barnett said that “there are definitely better police forces unfortunately” which she put down to a lack of leadership in some constabularies, adding: "It’s a bit like with drug problems, if you don’t lift the lid, you don’t have a drug problem."
West Yorkshire - the fourth largest force in England and Wales - recorded the third highest number of offences during the period studied and has a dedicated modern slavery taskforce.
Mr Burns-Williamson said: "From a West Yorkshire perspective, you'll see that in terms of volume we do record relatively higher numbers than pretty much every other force which in a sense demonstrates the proactivity."
Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Dame Sara Thornton – whose role was created by the 2015 Act – said the current lack of risk to criminals “fails to counter the economic reward of trafficking in people, or prevent organised crime groups acting with impunity”.
She called on police to “take advantage of the full spectrum of evidential opportunities to reduce reliance” on victims’ testimony, adding prosecutions should be “victim focused but not victim reliant”.
Responding to the figures, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said it recognised charges and referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service had not kept pace with the increase in crimes.
Sheon Sturland, head of the NPCC modern slavery and organised immigration crime unit, added: “Police are identifying more victims of modern slavery than ever before, ensuring they get the support they need and exploitation is stopped.
“We continue to work with forces, partner agencies and charities to support victims of modern slavery and to bring perpetrators to justice.”
Safeguarding Minister Victoria Atkins said the Home Office has allocated £2m to support police with modern slavery work this year and had invested £11.3m over the past three years into the Modern Slavery Transformation Programme to boost prosecutions.
West Yorkshire Police was invited to comment.
The Modern Slavery Helpline can be called on 08000 121 700.
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