Police failures undermine UK slavery fight, says commissioner

October 12, 2016 4:39 AM EDT

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By Timothy Large

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Poor coordination and a failure to prosecute traffickers is undermining progress in Britain's fight against modern slavery, even as groundbreaking legislation starts to bite, the UK's anti-slavery tsar said.

Kevin Hyland, appointed independent commissioner two years ago as part of Britain's widely lauded Modern Slavery Act, said early in the job that he would measure success by a rise in the number of traffickers put behind bars.

Data released on Wednesday in his first annual report showed police had a long way to go with only a quarter of reported cases of potential slavery officially investigated.

"There aren't enough prosecutions, and that's in the UK and internationally," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview before the release of the 2015-16 review.

"There aren't enough resources being allocated to this, and there isn't enough coordination. The criminals are very much operating with impunity."

Activists have hailed the Modern Slavery Act as a milestone in the struggle against a crime affecting 46 million people worldwide, according to the latest Global Slavery Index by Walk Free Foundation. An estimated 11,700 are enslaved in Britain.

The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner's Annual Report showed that between August 2015 and September 2016 police forces across Britain recorded 956 modern slavery crimes. Just 127 resulted in a charge or summons.

That compares with 3,359 potential cases of trafficking referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), established to identify trafficking victims, during the same period.

"So that means only really one in four crimes are being properly investigated or ending up on a crime report," he said. "So what's happening to the other 75 percent?"

Hyland blamed a lack of police systems to store and manage NRM referrals and link them to crime records, as well as poor leadership in bringing together efforts to combat a scourge that Prime Minister Theresa May recently called a "barbaric evil".

"I think the frustration has been that we haven't had the right people doing the right job," he said.


In July, the government pledged to spend 33.5 million pounds ($42 million) of the overseas aid budget to tackle the issue in countries that are the source of proven trafficking routes to Britain.

May also set up a cross-government task force, adding muscle to legislation that requires British companies to publish what they have done to ensure their supply chains are free of slave labor.

Hyland, who has 30 years experience in investigating organized crime, welcomed the extra money to take the anti-slavery fight to "source countries" such as Nigeria, Vietnam and Albania, but said greater international coordination was key.

"In a lot of ways this hasn't been a fair fight because the criminals are making $150 billion a year and there's about $1 billion invested in this from the global community," he said.

"I think what we've been doing for too long is not looking at it as serious organized crime, not having the organizations that have the skills and the ability to pursue these crimes.

"Once we start using those resources and tactics and strategies and working more with countries of origin, we will see a change in the prosecutions."

Asked if Britain's decision to leave the European Union would compromise international cooperations against a borderless crime, Hyland said it would not have "a great deal of effect".

"But what we do need to do is make sure the relationships that are there with law enforcement and prosecutors within the EU are developed, are trusting and look at serious and organized crime," he said.

Hyland stressed that since becoming law in March 2015, the Modern Slavery Act was already proving to be a model of legislation that other countries could learn from.

But his report noted a lot of the work was just beginning.

"While the Modern Slavery Act has undoubtedly pushed modern slavery up the agenda and into the boardrooms of large businesses, this is just the first step," Hyland wrote.

"There is still much more to be done to ensure that companies produce statements that both comply with the Act's obligations and point to decisive action begin taken, as opposed to merely being a 'tick box' exercise. Here the role of consumer and investor pressure is crucial."

(Reporting by Timothy Large, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)

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