Lambeth Council are facing questions tonight about its failure to intervene earlier to help the women allegedly held as slaves for three decades, as it emerged that police had contacted officials with concerns about the family 15 years ago.
The three women – a 69-year-old from Malaysia, a 57-year-old from Ireland and a 30-year-old Briton – are alleged to have been held against their will, beaten and subjected to psychological abuse after the older two joined what police called “a collective” organised around a shared political ideology more than 35 years ago.
A man and woman, both 67, of Indian and Tanzanian origin, were arrested on Thursday.
Police have not confirmed the relationship of the younger women to the others, but it has been suggested she is the daughter of the Irish woman, while the 67-year-old head of the household is reported to be her father.
The five are thought to have lived in a former housing association flat in Brixton, south London, since 2005.
According to reports in The Guardian this morning, police have identified as many as 13 separate properties in London linked to the two suspects. The sheer number suggests that the alleged victims may have been moved around several times over the course of the last three decades.
During her ordeal the youngest woman sent a letter to a neighbour saying she was “a fly trapped in a spider’s web”, it was claimed yesterday.
The woman reportedly told Marius Feneck, 26, that she could not flee because the windows and doors were locked. She said that she arrived in Britain as a baby and the couple who allegedly kept her captive viewed her as their daughter.
In one letter obtained by the Sunday Express and published yesterday, she is alleged to have written: “Do not try to do anything for me. Nothing I said or did made any difference.
“I can’t get out on my own. My life is not worth living if I let harm come to you. So I am like a fly trapped in a spider’s web.”
Lambeth Council has already begun trawling its records for any information about its contact with those living in the flat. Today it emerged that the local authority may have been alerted to concerns about the family at least 15 years ago, after a member of the public reported suspicions that the youngest woman, then aged 15, was not attending school. Police are understood to have passed on the report to Lambeth Council but it is unclear what, if anything, was done.
One councillor, speaking to The Independent on the condition of anonymity, said the local authority was “effectively ‘playing catch-up’ with police investigations”.
“That this family was already known to them is not something that the council has chosen to refute. But something as basic as not following-up on school attendance for such a long period of time invariably asks difficult questions.”
Ashley Lumsden, leader of the Liberal Democrats in Lambeth, called for a nationwide investigation. “We are extremely concerned at the reports we have seen and are looking to the council to explain its involvement from a housing, educational and social services perspective. We want a review conducted promptly and to be published so that we can consider it and so that lessons can be learnt.”
A spokesman for Lambeth Council said: “It is vital that the police conduct a thorough investigation into these extremely complex and serious allegations and that the women receive support following their appalling ordeal. We will offer any assistance the police require to ensure there is justice for the women."
The Home Secretary Theresa May said slavery had a “shocking presence in modern Britain” and that tackling it was her “personal priority”.
Calling for the investigation to be “allowed to take its course”, she said slavery had become endemic in Britain. “It is walking our streets, supplying shops and supermarkets, working in fields, factories or nail bars, trapped in brothels or cowering behind the curtains in an ordinary street,” she wrote.
Aneeta Prem, a magistrate and founder of the Freedom Charity, told The Independent that the case was “the tip of the iceberg” and that since news of this case broke last week, the charity had been inundated with cases of people in “similar situations”.