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New report identifies failings in police treatment of modern slavery victims

The National Crime Agency (‘NCA’) estimates that there are tens of thousands of victims of modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK. Modern slavery means knowingly holding another person in slavery or servitude, or forcing them to perform forced or compulsory labour; human trafficking involves arranging or facilitating travel of a person with a view to exploiting that person.

A report published in October 2017 by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services identifies failings in police treatment of victims in a number of areas.

Understanding the problem of modern slavery and the legal responses

The report found ‘only limited understanding’ of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA) among officers. In many forces, training programmes were still at an early stage of development, with few having evaluated their training programmes or assessed requirements. Furthermore, even where forces had made it a strategic priority to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking, in most cases this was not reflected in coherent and consistent operational practice, and a few senior officers stated their reluctance to be proactive in looking for modern slavery.

Some neighbourhood officers interviewed ‘said that they avoided raising the issue of modern slavery and human trafficking with local communities because they did not believe the public were either interested in or sympathetic to victims of these crimes.’ This is concerning on several levels. Firstly, if beliefs about public views are well-founded, this would seem to represent a major failure of communication of these crimes and / or an ‘othering’ of the (often immigrant) communities from which these victims are drawn. In particular, one view given as an example of views on public lack of sympathy is ‘the public view is, they are not our girls’, demonstrating this ‘othering’ and raising the question of who ‘the public’ are deemed to be, and whether this includes only British citizens.

Secondly, discussions around crimes should not be determined by projections about likely sympathy of the public to victims. As the report notes, ‘if this perception limits the level of engagement officers initiate with their communities, this potentially also considerably limits the amount of intelligence gathered about this kind of offending’. The need for public engagement is therefore highlighted in the report, with Greater Manchester Police cited as an example of good practice for various efforts including an awareness campaign about recognising the signs of slavery entitled ‘Would you?’. Conversely, in several forces there had not yet been any significant efforts to raise public awareness.

Victim identification and support

The report noted that increasing national and regional momentum to improve law enforcement in the area of modern slavery and human trafficking, but also identified the need for rapid and substantial improvement in identifying victims, which was inconsistent and sometimes ineffective. There were also delays in speaking to and poor communication with victims in some cases, with many receiving ‘a wholly inadequate service’ from the police. Examples of good practice in care once a victim is identified were noted in Greater Manchester and South Wales police, but elsewhere the use of victim care plans was observed as being inconsistent, including with regard to updates on investigations. Likewise, while some areas had strong partnership arrangements with charities to help support victims, in others such joint approaches were more or less absent.

Many frontline officers were not confident about identifying indicators of modern slavery and human trafficking, and / or were unaware of their responsibilities to explain available support. Some control room staff said they would need a caller to explicitly refer to slavery or trafficking in order to identify a case of this nature. Bearing in mind that victims may not be familiar with the terminology, or may have other reasons to avoid using it, this is a significant gap in understanding. Furthermore, even where the specific phrase was used, this was not necessarily enough: an incident was observed in which ‘the front desk turned away a clearly identifiable victim of modern slavery and human trafficking despite his having stated that he was a victim’.

This appears to suggest not only a lack of training or understanding but also, in some cases, a culture of disbelief. As noted in the report, this may reflect ‘a mindset that remains essentially closed to the possibility of modern slavery and human trafficking’. In particular, while some officers lacked awareness of a defence available to those who commit offences under compulsion, others knew about it but took a view that it was used routinely by offenders who had been trained to do so by employers. Rather than make assumptions, the report rightly states that officers must ‘consider each case with an open mind, explore fully the circumstances and question people sensitively’.

Another key issue is a frequent focus on immigration status, which means some victims are not identified while others are arrested as offenders or illegal immigrants or referred to immigration authorities instead of investigating modern slavery or human trafficking offences. Many victims are not being told about support that may be available to them under the MSA, which includes a 45-day period of reflection and recovery if a positive determination of their status is made. In turn, this may prevent evidence being given against offenders because the victims do not have adequate support. An example is given of a woman of Chinese citizenship found in a brothel, who was arrested on suspicion of immigration offences. When she was later revealed to be lawfully in the UK, she made officers aware she was afraid of the man running the business, but was left outside its premises. Later, other officers noted she might be a victim of modern slavery and human trafficking, but when the address was re-visited to investigate there was no longer anyone present.

Beyond the points made in the report, is also important to acknowledge that this is also driven by the Home Office’s push to create a ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented migrants, leading to a focus on this area at the expense of protecting vulnerable persons. In addition, the fear of immigration authorities facilitates exploitative work conditions since victims may be unwilling to report abuse for fear of detention and / or deportation.

The Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill, which was introduced as a private members’ bill, would go some way to tackling these issues by creating an entitlement to support during the period where authorities are deciding whether a person is a victim of modern slavery, and providing confirmed victims with ongoing support and leave to remain for 12 months. As the bill was debated in the House of Lords in September 2017, its proposer noted that the current situation in which victims are not automatically entitled to leave to remain means that some victims are pushed out onto the streets while awaiting a decision, while others are reliant on police forces to make an application for leave to remain on their behalf – a requirement the police force may not be aware of, and which takes time away from investigation to comply with.

Crime recording and Investigations

The report finds under-recording both of modern slavery and human trafficking offences and of associated crimes such as rape and other serious sexual offences in many forces, sometimes leading to serious delays. For example, a report by a woman that she had been forced into prostitution, trafficked and raped led to recordings of a modern slavery crime but not of the reported rapes. The report also notes the incorrect cancellation of crime reports, giving an example of five unaccompanied minors from Vietnam: three girls were identified as potential trafficking victims but not the two boys with them, and the force’s crime registrar subsequently asked that the report be cancelled on the basis that there was no allegation of modern slavery.

Larger investigations and those managed through serious organised crime structures tended to be handled better, with specialist teams having a positive effect, but good practice was found to be exceptional rather than common. Concerns about the quality of investigations included premature closing of cases where lines of enquiry had not been followed or victims had not been spoken to, serious delays in starting to investigate, poor supervision, failure to prioritise safeguarding victims, and poor coordination between forces. Many failings related to basic investigatory skills rather than any specialist knowledge – for example, missing recording of investigative decisions and of victim statements, and inconsistency in evidence gathering. Some issues also arose with CPS liaison and with coordination across forces. There was also low usage of, and in some cases awareness about, Slavery and Trafficking Prevention and Risk Orders .

During some investigations, the police did not speak with victims, especially when they were not willing to support prosecutions and / or were being held in immigration detention. For example, fourteen Romanian workers who reported exploitation on a building site were repatriated after declining to support a prosecution, without formal statements being taken. This shows that the focus on immigration status and potential immigration offences is damaging not only to the individual victim but also to the wider development of intelligence to assist in effective and proactive prosecutions.

Leadership and Information sharing

It was also found that co-ordinating and sharing information and intelligence between the NCA and police forces needed to be more consistent and timely. Positive recent changes were identified in the NCA’s commitment to the area, but at the time of the inspection fieldwork in January to March 2017, other parties including police forces were still noting a lack of clarity about the exact role of the NCA and, in some cases, its level of engagement and leadership. The NCA had reportedly failed to prioritise or effectively manage data and intelligence that could assist wider enforcement of the area or the development of national intelligence, or to promptly share referrals to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) from non-policing agencies, depriving police forces of knowledge of allegations of modern slavery and human trafficking, although plans were underway to tackle this.

Backlogs of investigations had resulted from delays in sharing intelligence and information. Regional Organised Crime Units were found to have a good understanding of the issues and to show willingness to develop investigations. At the force level, problems included a lack of detail within strategies and action plans to deal with modern slavery and human trafficking, failure to use evidence from communication plans to constructively engage with communities and workforces, and a lack of lessons learned from investigated cases. Single points of contact that existed to deal with modern slavery in each force were generally found to be ‘committed and passionate,’ but their work was hampered in some cases by a lack of support / specialist training and high turnover.

Conclusions / recommendations

Despite progress having been made and further developments since the inspection took place, the report found that ‘the police service has much to do if it is to develop an effective, coherent and consistent response to modern slavery and human trafficking’. Furthermore, many of the problems identified in the report had also been noted by previous reviews and audits, emphasising the importance of responding to such findings.

The report makes a total of 11 recommendations across the areas of leadership, intelligence, victim identification and initial response, crime recording, investigation, prevention and learning. These include:

Immediate recommendations:
– Ensuring that the available defence is considered in relation to all victims and that steps are taken to comply fully with notification requirements; and
– Ensuring that allegations or indications of modern slavery and human trafficking are thoroughly investigated and effectively supervised.

Within six months:
– Introducing a process to maximise use of data from the NRM as well as active information-sharing agreements.

Within a year:
– Reviewing leadership and governance to ensure the appropriate prioritisation of cases, allocation of resources, development of partnership arrangements and establishment of performance and quality assurance measures;
– Ensuring forces are provided with high-quality, legally-validated learning products; and
– Working to improve knowledge and expertise in investigators up to senior investigating officer level, drawing on the experiences of all police forces.

These are all important recommendations. To introduce them effectively, it will be crucial not only to increase attention and resources expended on this area, but also to tackle the culture of disbelief that the report identifies in some parts of the police, and the wider framing of this suspicion in the aim of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented migrants. Just as the recently published Angiolini review found that racial stereotyping may be a ‘significant contributory factor’ in deaths in police custody, it cannot be ruled out that some of the weaknesses in tackling modern slavery reflect racial or xenophobic prejudices both among the police and other public authorities and in wider society.

Natalie Sedacca is a PhD Candidate in the UCL Faculty of Laws writing on behalf Hodge Jones & Allen.