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Ensuring we do not exploit the most vulnerable in our society

This week PCC Alison Hernandez talks about her recent visit to the modern slavery police transformation unit in Exmouth and how we all need to do more to protect the most vulnerable in our society.

Ensuring we do not exploit the most vulnerable in our society

Last week I had the pleasure of hosting a visit by Teignbridge MP Anne Marie Morris to the modern slavery police transformation unit in Exmouth.

I am incredibly proud of the fact that I, as police and crime commissioner for Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, have overseen the establishment of the national modern slavery unit which is funded by £8.5m of Government funding and led by our own Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer.

The unit is at the absolute forefront of the battle against modern slavery. It identifies best practice in intelligence gathering and investigation of crimes against the most vulnerable people and delivers training to those involved in prevention, prosecution and safeguarding, throughout the country, to ensure there is a coordinated response. Around 300 detectives have been trained in the first six months.

Anne Marie’s visit was planned to give her a full brief on the unit’s role, and its’ first year successes as part of her role as a member of the Public Accounts Committee. She heard about the importance of creating a consistent approach to dealing with modern slavery and the unit’s work with forces and other agencies across the country to create a ‘best practice’.

One of the speakers was Anthony Jefferson, head of the Joint Slavery and Trafficking Centre who outlined how, as a result of the unit’s work with agencies like Europol, intelligence has improved and there is now a clearer picture of threat posed by modern slavery, but that there is still lots to be done.

Modern slavery, like other crimes which prey on vulnerable people, is hidden in plain sight and often relies on incredible bravery from the victim to both bring it to an end and to prosecute the perpetrator. More often than not it is the victim’s nature to try to appease the offender, someone who is likely to be an incredibly manipulative, plausible person. In fact, in many cases, a person may not consider themselves to be a victim of this horrible crime.

These factors make prosecution difficult – but would anyone really say that the police shouldn’t try to end that victim’s suffering. If the authorities have intelligence that this sort of criminality is occurring it has to be investigated – even if no charges result. Where victims are trafficked into and out of the UK, treated as commodities, forced to live in often squalid and inhumane conditions, and are put to work to pay off imaginary debts – the police and partners must act. Those who seek to demean and exploit others in this way should know that there are people who will do everything in their power to bring them to justice.

The police are often left trying to prosecute or disrupt well-organised, often close-knit family run gangs, who promise vulnerable victims a better life but instead subject them to appalling, oppressive and subhuman conditions for their own benefit. This can often, but not always, include deprivation of liberty but in many cases victims are not forced to stay, they could leave at any time but choose to stay because they either feel their old life was worse, are too frightened to leave or could not afford to. They have no idea of UK culture, sometimes don’t even know where they are in country, speak little English, are oblivious to the laws that protect them and even how much they should really earn here.

The criminals behind modern slavery are experts at creating an environment where victims are wholly dependent on them for shelter, food and work.

So how big is the problem in this country and who does it affect most? You might be surprised at the answers.

It is estimated that there are 13,000 modern slaves in the UK at the moment and the national unit is aware of around 550 cases currently being investigated across the country. A report by the National Crime Agency this week shows that more than 5,500 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to UK authorities last year – a record number.

It is important to say that this crime does not just involve abuse of foreign nationals. For the first time, British nationals made up the highest number of cases referred to authorities followed by those from Albania and Vietnam. In the case of UK nationals organised groups cynically target vulnerable people from the fringes of what could be regarded as mainstream society – people who perhaps might not immediately be noticed as missing.

The police aren’t involved in this fight alone – the Gangmaster Labour Abuse Authority, local councils, the Crown Prosecution Service, charities like the Salvation Army and good employers, all play their part.  

Many of the newspaper reports I have seen relating to slavery over the past months have focused on certain industries like car washes, nail bars and farming but this terrible crime is not exclusive to particular jobs or industries. It is important to note that most are law abiding and responsible employers - and I would urge them to work with the authorities to help us to spot slavery where it occurs and take swift and decisive action.  

I think we all need to do more to make it easier for the public to make good choices when it comes to purchasing our goods and services. I would like to see businesses be proud to promote that all the products they sell or use come from suppliers who don’t use slave labour and which pays employees a living wage.

I would like to work with businesses and Trading Standards to see how we can all get involved with helping businesses show that they are ethical in the way they trade. By doing that we make it easier for us all to ensure we are not supporting criminals and not exploiting the most vulnerable in our society.

People can seek help or report modern slavery by contacting the modern slavery helpline on 0800 0121 700 or contact the police on 101.

I will be launching a Business Crime Strategy in the coming weeks where I will be seeking to help businesses play a greater part in tackling modern slavery. If any businesses would like to get involved with ideas contact Richard Martin in my office on 01392 225555.

Alison Hernandez