Following a super-complaint submitted by Hestia, a charity supporting adults and young children in times of crisis, including victims of modern slavery in the capital, in March 2019, Underground Lives – Police response to victims of modern slavery (the 'Super-Complaint'), HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services ('HMICFRS'), the College of Policing and the Independent Office for Police Conduct undertook a joint investigation and responded in the recently published report entitled The hidden victims: Report on Hestia’s super-complaint on the police response to victims of modern slavery (the '2021 Report'). The 2021 Report has found that while the police response to modern slavery has broadly improved since the last HMICFRS investigation in 2017, more progress is needed as victims of modern slavery still do not receive the treatment and response they deserve, nor effective support, and much inconsistency in terms of how victims are treated across different forces remains.
The Super-Complaint raised various concerns about the police response to victims of modern slavery, particularly that victims were not receiving effective support and often received poor treatment which dissuaded victims from engaging in investigations. The Super-Complaint also noted that non-specialist police officers routinely failed to recognise signs of exploitation, often due to a lack of adequate training. In addition, the Super-Complaint noted that many victims of modern slavery were treated as immigration offenders or criminals, despite the safeguard in section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 which provides a defence for victims of modern slavery who are forced to commit criminal activities.
In 2017, HMICFRS carried out an examination into how the police were tackling modern slavery and human trafficking crimes, Stolen freedom: the policing response to modern slavery and human trafficking (the '2017 Report'). The approach of the 2021 Report, and the investigation carried out into the police response to victims of modern slavery, is to benchmark the progress made since the 2017 Report. The 2017 Report concluded that the police service did not yet have an effective, coherent or consistent approach to modern slavery.
Whilst the 2021 Report notes that the overall police approach towards tackling modern slavery in England and Wales has been strengthened since the 2017 Report, it also notes that improvements are needed. The 2021 Report focuses on five key areas:
- The approach taken by forces to planning and prioritising their response to modern slavery – the 2021 Report notes that modern slavery has become a priority and many forces have strengthened their leadership and investigation capabilities in this regard.
- The initial response to victims of modern slavery – the 2021 Report notes that modern slavery is a largely hidden crime which can be very difficult for non-specialist officers to recognise. Whilst the response from frontline officers has improved as more information has been provided to them since the 2017 Report, further improvements in the initial police response are needed as non-specialist officers continue to have difficulty identifying victims of modern slavery. In addition, non-specialist officers’ knowledge of the National Referral Mechanism is often lacking so that some victims of modern slavery are not referred when they should be.
- How victims of modern slavery are treated for offences they have committed – the 2021 Report notes that while police officers understood the importance of dealing with victims sensitively, evidence in the Super-Complaint suggested that foreign victims of modern slavery were at times treated differently to UK citizens. The 2021 Report notes that the police do not always have a consistent approach on how to safeguard victims, and it continues to be a challenge to ensure that the safeguards in section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 are appropriately engaged.
- Investigations into Modern Slavery – the 2021 Report notes that the number of prosecutions for modern slavery crimes remains low. Whilst police forces recognise the importance of supporting victims, there is a lack of support for victims during investigations which may lead to a lack of engagement by victims.
- Training – the 2021 Report notes that training has increased significantly since the 2017 Report, but it remains inconsistent across forces.
Overall, the 2021 Report concludes that the police response to modern slavery has improved since the 2017 Report. However, further improvements are needed to ensure that victims of modern slavery receive the support and assistance they are entitled to under the Modern Slavery Act, and that a consistent approach across the police force is required.
The 2021 Report recommends the following:
- The current guidelines for police officers should be updated to include further detail on investigation and public protection in modern slavery cases.
- The Home Office should (1) commission work to better understand the victim experience with a view to drafting recommendations for specific actions to further this, and (2) ensure that government-funded agencies appropriately provide for victims of modern slavery.
- Chief Constables should ensure that all police officers and staff have training to enable them to identify possible victims of modern slavery. They should also ensure that officers and staff understand that victims of modern slavery should not be treated as criminals, ensure that the statutory defence is considered where appropriate and understand their duties under the National Referral Mechanism. In addition, Chief Constables should ensure that resources are deployed to enable effective investigations into crimes of modern slavery, and that they work together with police and crime commissioners to understand the support needs of victims of modern slavery.
The 2021 Report is helpful in its conclusion that further improvements are needed to ensure that victims of modern slavery receive the response they deserve. It is concerning, but perhaps unsurprising, to hear that children and young people are often not recognised as victims of modern slavery, and afforded the protections that the Modern Slavery Act provides. The instances detailed in the Super-Complaint of police officers (1) not recognising victims of modern slavery, (2) not referring victims of modern slavery under the National Referral Mechanism, and (3) treating victims of modern slavery as criminals and / or immigration offenders are deeply troubling. Practitioners in this area regularly deal with cases where young victims of exploitation are criminalised and denied the safeguards under section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The 2021 Report highlights for greater investment in interventions to support victims of criminal exploitation. It also emphasises the need for training for police officers and all criminal justice professionals to ensure that all professionals involved have an appropriate awareness of the issues and can provide children and young people who have been victims of modern slavery with the support they need.
Euan Gillies, Trainee Solicitor, Paul Hastings (Europe) LLP