SHAUN SAWYER QPM, CHIEF CONSTABLE OF DEVON & CORNWALL POLICE AND NATIONAL POLICE CHIEFS’ COUNCIL LEAD ON MODERN SLAVERY
"Over the last year police officers and others working in modern slavery and human trafficking have achieved real breakthroughs in tackling this pernicious form of organised crime. The numbers of victims safeguarded, crimes recorded and live investigations continues to increase. Although the volume of prosecutions and convictions are still comparatively low by comparison to incidents, there are positive signs that the criminal justice system as a whole is starting to see greater success in bringing offenders to justice.
In 2019, West Midlands Police and the Crown Prosecution Service, along with the NCA, delivered the largest modern slavery investigation and trial in Europe to date with the conviction of an organised crime gang who had trafficked and exploited up to 400 vulnerable Polish and Eastern European workers.
In 2019-20, a multi-agency modern slavery Prosecutions Oversight Group was established to ensure that police forces, the Crown Prosecution Service, Home Office, National Crime Agency, GLAA and other partners work together to consistently apply the lessons we are learning about how to tackle these cases and bring offenders to justice.
There have been low points too, amongst which the tragic loss of life in Essex where 39 individuals died, having been brought into the UK in a refrigerated lorry. While not resulting in such tragic outcomes, each week we discover more similarly desperate and vulnerable people entering the UK within all manner of vehicles and small boats. Meanwhile, the greater numbers of primarily British children exploited, particularly through involvement in ‘County Lines’ drugs distribution networks, provides a further cause for concern.
Victims of modern slavery present unique challenges to law enforcement and support services. They are vulnerable for a variety of reasons and may either be reliant upon their exploiters, in fear of them, in fear of authorities or simply fail to appreciate that their circumstances are exploitative. Developing trust and providing victims with care and support provides tangible results both in terms of safeguarding of victims and engagement with investigators. It is often the key to obtaining crucial evidence to support prosecutions.
Policing, the NCA, Immigration Enforcement, Border Force and wider law enforcement has invested heavily; the support of the Home Office in this has been vital. We are now better equipped to recognise and respond to this type of exploitation than ever before. We have a comprehensive picture of modern slavery and human trafficking across the UK and have broadened awareness of how the offending works. This past year has seen a greater emphasis on achieving effective investigations to deliver criminal justice outcomes to sustainably safeguard victims of modern slavery and human trafficking.
We also know what works best in the approaches needed to dismantle the organised crime gangs that exploit vulnerable people through criminal, sexual and labour exploitation. The learning has been developed into a range of guidance products, training materials and networks of experienced investigators and other experts that police forces can call on as they tackle the growing number of cases being uncovered. The support of the College of Policing has been invaluable.
There is however, no one solution as this is an area of complexity where criminality evolves rapidly in response to business opportunity and the actions of law enforcement. Our own work and the expert work of the Prime Minister’s Implementation Unit (instigated at the request of the former Prime Minister Rt Hon Theresa May MP) has shown that successful investigations often require significant resources, experienced investigators and specialist expertise committed to them. The best frontline practitioners are amongst the most able, committed and impressive policing colleagues I have had the privilege to meet. I am aware that Chief Constables, supported by Police and Crime Commissioners, make these operational decisions on the basis of local policing needs as well as national policing requirements in what is a budget with many demands.
We should all be proud of the progress we have made in our ability to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking but we cannot rest on our laurels. The role of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton DBE QPM, has been vital in ensuring that we develop best practice, work collegiately, consistently and develop our knowledge base to assist in the next stage of our journey, in preventing future generations enduring the horrors of this form of exploitation.
Our achievement so far, has been ably supported and progressed with the endeavour of many Police and Crime Commissioners and local anti-slavery partnerships. We also now see steps being made to improve the tools, processes and capabilities needed to underpin the improving response across all 43 police forces in England and Wales.
With the welcome extension of our Programme through the investment of the Home Secretary, the Rt Hon Priti Patel MP, announced last month, this is an opportunity to build on our strengths, bringing offenders to justice, safeguarding victims and preventing future criminality. Supported by the Home Office, we will use the funding to achieve tangible outcomes and continue to establish the United Kingdom as one of the world leaders in combatting modern slavery".