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The law enforcement response to modern slavery in the United Kingdom

Law enforcement plays an essential role in tackling modern slavery in the United Kingdom.  But it has not always fulfilled its potential, even as legislation gave police more responsibility. This has started to change with the Modern Slavery Act, and the creation of a new, nationwide police network will only continue to strengthen the police response. In contrast to other forms of policing however, the response to human trafficking is much more diverse and needs to engage both with victims and NGOs.

This role goes beyond traditional criminal justice functions of investigating cases of modern slavery, arresting suspects and assisting with prosecutions. UK police officers are also involved in prevention activities that seek to raise awareness of the issue of modern slavery within Britain, and some might be involved in prevention activities that take place upstream in countries of origin.  Protecting victims is also central to police work as modern slavery entails significant human rights abuses.  Finally, police forces increasingly work in partnership with a wide variety of statutory and voluntary agencies in order to provide an effective, efficient and victim-centred approach to modern slavery.

Police have had a clear role to play in tackling human trafficking since the Palermo Protocol on human trafficking was transferred into UK law through the 2003 Sexual Offences Act which criminalised trafficking for sexual exploitation and the 2004 Asylum and Immigration Act which criminalised trafficking for labour exploitation.  The UK government’s adoption of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings in 2007 and later the EU Directive on Trafficking in Human Beings enhanced the role of law enforcement to include protection of victims, prevention and partnership working.  However, the number of cases of human trafficking identified remained small.  Police officers’ lack of understanding about the crime of human trafficking and how to identify potential victims, as well as the invisibility of victims were identified by the government in its human trafficking strategy documents, and by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group and the Centre for Social Justice, as reasons for limited criminal justice outcomes. Law enforcement in general were not seen as providing an effective response to human trafficking, particularly as a low risk and high profit organised crime. 

There has been change in the policing response to human trafficking and to modern slavery over the last few years, which can in part be attributed to it being pushed up the political agenda. As Home Secretary, Theresa May promoted new legislation in the form of the Modern Day Slavery Act 2015, and a more concerted response by national agencies. Now as Prime Minister, backed by her Home Secretary Amber Rudd, Theresa May has reiterated the priority attached to tackling modern slavery as the biggest human rights abuse of the 21st century. But decisions about policing are actually taken at a local level.

Police have been given a clear signal by the Conservative government that they expect action to tackle modern slavery.  This has been enhanced by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary’s inspection of all 43 English and Welsh police forces in relation to their responses to modern slavery.  This report, to be published later in 2017, will provide the most comprehensive picture of local police engagement.

What is evident is that police force responses will be varied.  One of the key drivers of variation is the way in which local priorities are determined by Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC).  Thus the devolution of power from the Home Office to local authorities to determine police priorities means there can be significant variation in whether and how modern slavery is dealt with in local police and crime plans which determine the use of police resources and the focus of police work.  In some places like London, Greater Manchester and Wales, where support from the chief constables and relevant politicians has been high, modern slavery initiatives have been encouraged and supported. However, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight illustrates what can happen with a change in PCC. In this case modern slavery seems to have fallen off the agenda, and the anti-slavery partnership model being developed with the aid of a modern day slavery coordinator has disappeared from view.  At the local level there is also the possibility that if few cases of modern slavery have been identified then it will not be given priority and adequate resourcing which means that it is likely that fewer cases will be identified in the future and thus a cycle of limited engagement will ensue.  As police forces face continued cuts to their budgets they will have to decide which areas of policing to fund.  Police officers involved in tackling modern slavery have pointed out these cases can be complex, time-consuming, lengthy and costly, making them an easy target for cuts when there is no champion.

Resource constraints will continue to shape the police response to modern slavery. For example, some police forces may focus more attention on the rescue of victims and the disruption of the criminal business, which is a cheaper option then pursuing a comprehensive investigation that may in time result in prosecution of key individuals.  But as with other forms of organised crime, disruption often displaces criminal activity. For instance, closing brothels in rented accommodation due to breach of tenancy agreements may just push venues for sexual exploitation across county boundaries.  Police partnerships with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) may shift responsibility for enforcement to HMRC where businesses seen as linked to modern slavery may be subject to sanctions in relation to the infringement of minimum wage legislation or tax evasion.  However, while limited police budgets may lead to more innovative police responses, it may also curtail police engagement.

At the heart of the police response to modern slavery is their ability to carry out their job. Understanding what constitutes human trafficking, or more recently modern slavery, and indicators that can be used to identify victims of sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, domestic servitude or forced criminality, are essential knowledge requirements for police officers.  Many front-line police officers have limited awareness of these areas and thus are unable to respond appropriately.  Nevertheless, it is also evident that some police forces have contributed to knowledge development around human trafficking in relation to its three elements: means, action and purpose.  Human trafficking legislation has been used to charge men moving British young women across town or towns, emphasising that this crime does not have to cross borders. Police officers have referred to ‘position of vulnerability’ as a method of control rather than the more traditional focus on coercion, threats or abuse.  It is also apparent that police forces are recognising new forms of exploitation and sectors where exploitation takes place.  Police have acknowledged modern slavery in relation to sexual exploitation, labour exploitation, forced criminality, sham marriages, benefit fraud, domestic servitude and begging. Agriculture and food processing has been seen as the location of much modern slavery, perhaps because of police cooperation with the Gangmasters Licencing Authority (GLA), but increasing attention is being paid to nail bars, car washes, and the care, cleaning and construction industries. 

There are five core skill areas that underpin an effective response to human trafficking: people skills; detective skills, intelligence gathering skills; work related skills; and management and leadership skills.  People skills are essential for building trust and a relationship with victims. Police officers recognise that victims have to be treated with respect. It is also important for officers to believe victims’ stories no matter how fantastical they might seem.  Officers need to demonstrate patience and, where possible, work at a pace acceptable to the victim. Where exhibited by police, this care for individuals stands in sharp contrast to their treatment by those holding them in conditions of modern slavery. It produces the kind of victim testimony necessary to identify and rescue other victims, and to aid an investigation.  In addition, it helps build a successful prosecution case against offenders.  Police forces that have adopted a victim-centred orientation in the way they respond to modern slavery put care first.  This may be challenging for police officers who expect police objectives to come first. 

Front-line police officers need the knowledge and skills to respond appropriately to victims of modern slavery that seek help at a police station or they come across as a result of a call for assistance or are identified during a police operation.  In addition, it is apparent where police adopt a victim-centred approach they are able to work more effectively with organisations that support victims of modern slavery. NGOs have indicated that they are reluctant to engage with police officers if they feel the police response will be poor or may harm their clients. 

Police forces cannot have an effective response to the crime of modern slavery if they do not identify victims.  Police rely on learning about victims from a variety of sources.  Public awareness raising campaigns are seen as enabling the public to become a potential source of information.  Stop the Traffik has indicated that police involvement in their awareness raising events make them more impactful as the public are more responsive to an issue which is endorsed by the police. It can be argued that police forces are more effective where they have the capacity to engage in prevention/awareness raising events, for example the week long modern slavery events in Greater Manchester combine awareness raising with police operations.

It is apparent that working in partnership with voluntary and statutory organisations has also enhanced police capability. Partners have referred victims to the police and later support victims through a police investigation and prosecution.  Police officers have spoken of the value of NGOs in enabling them to do their job, knowing victims are in good hands after talking about traumatic events. Thus, protection and justice go hand-in-hand. This is evidenced by outcomes from the Modern Slavery, Human Trafficking and Kidnap Unit of the Metropolitan Police Service. The number of referrals grew quickly as a result of its partnership work, and an easier process for partners to refer possible victims through a simple on-line process.  In addition, the number of operations, arrests, charges and prosecutions increased.

An increasing number of potential victims of modern slavery are being referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for support. Anonymous intelligence reports being lodged with the Home Office where potential adult victims do not consent to being referred have also increased. However, the numbers remain well below the 10,000-13,000 victims estimated by the Home Office’s chief scientific advisor.  Statistics reported by the National Crime Agency, derived from NRM data, indicate that police forces in 2015 referred less than a quarter of all victims. This suggests that police are not the only agency with a role to play in tackling modern slavery. While the number of potential victims has increased significantly for the past four years, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner identified that many of these referrals did not result in a local crime report and thus the relevant police forces were not engaged in an investigation.  As a result of this omission information about all victims is now being referred back to local police forces. 

Ensuring that police are aware of cases of modern slavery within their force area is important for local risk assessment.  In addition, this information and intelligence can be used to undertake investigations which might lead to operations, arrests or prosecutions, particularly if undertaken in conjunction with victims who can act as witnesses.  However, the large number of cases, more than 2000 linked to reports to the NRM in 2015, may place a strain on some police forces due to the volume and nature of cases. Many cases are historic while others took place in a country other than the UK. Both factors make police investigations difficult and yet are currently requiring some sort of police response.

It is apparent that police forces are using a variety of traditional law enforcement responses.  Police officers react to intelligence about a missing person or possible victim. They also take proactive measures to identify organised crime groups involved in modern slavery.  Disruption is also being used as a tactic.  However, what is evident is that police forces are increasingly working with partners in order to develop a range of strategies to deal with modern slavery and to access a wider range of powers in order to enhance investigations into modern slavery or utilise different methods of enforcement. They are partnering with the fire service, housing officers, environmental health staff, social service staff with safeguarding responsibilities, immigration enforcement officers, GLA and HMRC.

Evidence from modern slavery partnerships also suggests that new ways of working are being devised, for example the welfare model developed by Rahab and specialist officers in the MPS.  This approach has yielded useful police outcomes, but it has also benefitted women caught up in prostitution or trafficking for sexual exploitation in terms of wellbeing and empowerment. Elsewhere police partners refer to the positive outcomes resulting from their work which might be improved housing, access to local authority services, new job opportunities or improved working conditions.

The police response to modern slavery is evolving. It is clear that police have accepted that they need to work with a variety of different organisations if they want to be more effective and enhance both criminal justice and well-being outcomes. Continued engagement therefore in necessary to ensure that this evolution continues.

Ruth van Dyke

Ruth van Dyke is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy in the Department of Social Sciences at London South Bank University.