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New figures reveal extent of UK modern slavery and human trafficking

The extent to which modern slavery and human trafficking are taking place in the UK is far wider than previously thought, according to the National Crime Agency (NCA).11 Aug 2017

There are currently more than 300 live policing operations targeting modern slavery in towns and cities in the UK, with more than a dozen of the highest risk operations targeting organised crime groups being led by the NCA, the national law enforcement organisation said. Additionally, the number of potential victims of modern slavery being reported via the National Referral Mechanism is continuing to increase.

The NCA has launched a campaign highlighting the signs of modern slavery that members of the public may encounter in their everyday lives, and encouraging them to report it. These signs may include someone seeming afraid, vulnerable or being controlled, visible injuries and indications that they are being forced to work against their will.

'Modern slavery' is an umbrella term which includes the offences of human trafficking, slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour, including sexual or criminal exploitation.

Regulatory law expert Sean Elson of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the new campaign "illustrates the heightened awareness of this serious issue among law enforcement agencies, who are taking an increasing interest in addressing it through a strategic and often intelligence-led response".

"The UK Modern Slavery Act was a landmark development seeking to codify offences of this nature as well as introducing obligations on some organisations to produce a modern slavery statement each year," he said. "Many organisations have recognised and acted on that obligation, while some have not."

"As seen from this announcement, organisations need to take this issue seriously, especially in relation to the potential risks within supply chains," he said.

Enacted in 2015, the Modern Slavery Act consolidated and simplified existing anti-slavery laws, as well as introducing new reporting requirements for businesses. Organisations with a turnover or group turnover of £36 million or more which are either incorporated in the UK or carry on a business in the UK must now report annually on the steps that they have taken during the financial year to ensure that slavery and human trafficking are not taking place in their own business or in their supply chains.

A Modern Slavery (Transparency in Supply Chains) Bill was introduced in the House of Lords last year. The bill seeks to extend the requirement to produce an annual slavery and human trafficking statement to public bodies in England and Wales, and also proposes requiring contracting authorities in England and Wales to exclude from procurement procedures economic operators that have not produced such a statement.

A high-profile NCA operation focusing on labour and sexual exploitation in May and June of this year led to 111 arrests in the UK and 130 potential victims uncovered. Linked operational activity also took place on mainland Europe, resulting in around 40 further arrests and the launch of 25 further investigations.

Recent examples of successful operations provided by the NCA include the arrest of three men in north east England with suspected links to a Romanian organised crime group, and the safeguarding of 10 women. The group is accused of using the internet to advertise the services of victims trafficked for sexual exploitation, and then forcing them to launder the proceeds through criminally-controlled bank accounts. Five Slovakian men were also rescued following an investigation into allegations of forced labour in the Bristol area, for which a man and a woman with links to a car wash business were arrested.

Modern slavery legislation is continuing to develop in both the UK and globally, according to regulatory law expert Neil Carslaw of Pinsent Masons.

"In the UK, the Modern Slavery (Transparency in Supply Chains) Bill was initiated in the House of Lords and is continuing its journey through that chamber," he said. "If enacted as drafted, it would exclude companies from public procurement processes if they had not published a modern slavery statement if obliged to."

"In France, a 'Duty of Vigilance' law was passed in March 2017, which requires certain companies to establish plans to prevent serious human rights violations which result from their activities or those of related companies. Also, in Australia, the establishment of a Modern Slavery Act was subject to an enquiry and continues to be debated," he said.