Over the last five months many people have asked me about the commitment of the new government to tackling modern slavery and human trafficking. In particular other countries which have looked to the UK for international leadership have questioned whether this will continue. It was therefore very encouraging to hear Prime Minister Johnson announce at the Conservative Party conference ‘we will continue with the work of tackling domestic violence and modern slavery’.
I very much hope that my strategic plan will be laid before Parliament by Home Secretary Priti Patel in the next few weeks. This will set out my strategic priorities for the next few years. One of those priorities is to support law enforcement and prosecution of traffickers. I have spent some time reviewing activity and meeting police officers and prosecutors. While protecting victims from exploitation is vital in the fight against modern slavery so is bringing traffickers to justice.
In the last month I have spoken at two major police conferences - one organised by Police Scotland and one by the National Police Chiefs Council lead for exploitation, Chief Constable Simon Bailey. And while they were organised by the police many partners were present illustrating the breadth of relationships that exist.
I had three main messages. Firstly, we need to ensure that we treat modern slavery and human trafficking as serious organised crime and ensure that operations are prioritised against those who traffick our fellow human beings as if they were a commodity. In particular we need to ensure that we treat trafficking as an economic crime and undertake financial investigation so that the traffickers’ assets can be seized.
Second, we need to increase the number of prosecutions. While the number of offenders prosecuted in 2018 was slightly higher than 2017 I am concerned that the number of new referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service is dropping. I will be writing to all Chief Constables in England and Wales highlighting my concerns and requesting that they do all they can to ensure that cases are thoroughly investigated to maximise the opportunity for prosecution.
Lastly I encouraged colleagues to recognise that in the vast majority of cases those involved in county lines are trafficking children and vulnerable adults. They are committing offences under S2 of the Modern Slavery Act and should be prosecuted for that. Not only would that reflect the seriousness of their exploitative actions but would also open up the opportunities for Slavery and Trafficking Prevention Orders post imprisonment.
I have been impressed by the enthusiasm of the officers and staff who are investigating modern slavery and human trafficking. The cases are often complex and complicated but the investigators are very persistent and committed to giving justice for victims. They are however few in number and I strongly urge chief constables to establish more dedicated and expert teams to tackle this egregious crime. The traffickers, whether they are running county lines or running brothels, regard the risk as low and the rewards high. That must be reversed so that the risk is high and the reward low.