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Seven UK police forces report zero charges under anti-slavery law

Experts concerned that despite rising number of reports under Modern Slavery Act 2015 few cases lead to charges

At least seven police forces in England have not charged a single person under modern slavery legislation introduced over two years ago, the Guardian has learned.

The Modern Slavery Act was put in place in May 2015 to make the prosecution of modern slavery easier and help protect victims. But despite rising reports under the act, a number of police forces have not charged anyone while many others have brought only one or two cases since it has been in place.

Data obtained from about two thirds of police forces through freedom of information shows that across England and Wales the number of reports under the act rose from 469 in the financial year March 2015 to March 2016, to 1,214 for the year afterand reached 1,042 by November 2017.

But during this period the total number of charges declined, from 94 to 43, with 4.13% of cases leading to formal action in 2017 – down from 7.58% the year before.

Thames Valley police is one of seven forces that made zero charges, despite receiving 203 reported cases under the Modern Slavery Act from April 2015 to November 2017. Another force with a similar record was Dorset, which only supplied figures up to October 2017. It made no charges although there were 45 reports.

Charities, experts and politicians have expressed concern, although they noted that bringing charges is complicated due to the fact witnesses often withdraw from proceedings. It was also noted that forces could be bringing charges under different offences, such as conspiracy or rape.

Jakub Sobik from Anti-Slavery International, said the low number of charges was a sad reflection of the shortcomings of the government’s response to the issue: “The main point of the Modern Slavery Act was to make prosecution simpler, so if the number of charges under it aren’t growing, that’s concerning,” he said.

He added: “Anti-Slavery has been saying for years that one of the biggest obstacles to successful prosecutions is the lack of a comprehensive victim protection system. If you don’t offer a long term support for victims to rebuild their lives, they will be less willing to work with the investigators and act as witnesses in court.”

A CPS spokesperson said: “Charges can be brought under a variety of legislation, including the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the Sexual Offences Act 2003, the Asylum and Immigration Act 2004, and others. In 2016/17, we received 271 referrals from police and charged just under 70% of those cases, a charge rate only slightly below the national average for all crimes.”

They added: “These crimes are some of the most complex handled by the CPS, but we work closely with investigators to build robust cases, while ensuring victims are protected.”

Thames Valley police said: “Frequently, cases of modern slavery require further evidence in order to bring an offender to justice.”

Kent police recorded just nine charges out of 280 reports over that period. West Midlands police had 547, the highest number of reports, leading to just nine charges. Some police forces also noted that cases were still under investigation.

Det Supt Andy Waldie, from the Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate, said: “The absence of a criminal charge does not mean a victim has gone unsupported or indicate a lack of enforcement action as offenders may be charged with associated offences, such as assault.”

Other forces noted that a big challenge was getting victims to confront perpetrators. Dorset police said: “The CPS is responsible for charging decisions and, while our officers investigate these offences and support victims, modern slavery is often well hidden and there is a difficulty in ensuring victims come forward.”

Greater Manchester police brought 63 formal accusations out of 119 reports. Cheshire constabulary made 51 charges based on 61 reported cases.

David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, said: “This legislation is absolutely crucial to tackling trafficking, but also in cracking down on organised crime and criminal gangs. Knife crime, for example, is not being driven by minors but by the gangster and kingpins who are trafficking drugs across borders ... If we want to get to grips with serious, organised crime and the people who perpetrate it then the Modern Slavery Act must absolutely be used to its fullest”.

Justine Currell, executive director of Unseen, an anti-slavery and anti-trafficking charity, said: “There is clearly not enough work happening in some forces and we do need to raise that awareness but to get a rounded story we would have to be cognisant of what is happening on the ground.”

Sobik, from Anti-Slavery International, said: “The police and prosecutors need more resources to do their jobs properly. It’s one thing to carry out anti-trafficking raids in the media spotlight, but it’s another to spend months afterwards gathering evidence to support the prosecutions.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are now seeing the first convictions for the new offences prosecuted under the Modern Slavery Act. These are often highly complex cases ... Given the significant increase in operational activity directed against modern slavery over recent months, we expect to see more prosecutions commenced as investigations reach the point of charge.”

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