Criminal gangs trafficking women and children into Britain will find it easier to escape justice because the Government is boosting funds to a "failing" bureaucracy while slashing money for frontline police work, critics said last night.
The UK's only full-time police team dedicated to combating human trafficking is threatened with closure, just as more cash has been pledged to the UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC), a multi-agency body which was last night lambasted for its failures.
The Metropolitan Police unit has not had its Home Office funding renewed, and Scotland Yard confirmed its future is under review. Axing the unit will result trafficking convictions "plumetting", experts warn.
Anthony Steen, the Conservative chairman of the parliamentary group on human trafficking, said: "The operational work of putting traffickers behind bars is where resources need to be focused. Instead they're being invested in a new quango, which means the money is being siphoned away from operational forces. After nearly three years UKHTC need to show results and it can't."
Critics claim the UKHTC is failing on its three major roles: to train people dealing with trafficking, to act as the "competent authority" to determine if a person has been trafficked, and to carry out research. It is still not certified to provide police training, and was criticised in a Government report in May for failing to produce crime statistics. The quality of its trafficking "expertise" has also been criticised.
The UKHTC and its Sheffield "centre of excellence" employs many staff with little or no experience of solving trafficking crimes or dealing with victims, detractors claim. "They're bureaucrats. Their only significant role is as the competent authority – and they're not that competent," one senior source said. "They're making life-changing decisions on an ill-prepared system. If the Met Police team closes victims are unlikely to be dealt with by someone experienced and convictions will plummet."
The Met police unit has successfully prosecuted 14 traffickers since March 2007 and has a further 12 awaiting trial. It is widely credited with helping to save hundreds of victims.
Nick Kinsella, head of the UKHTC, said: "Our primary work is around securing the safety of victims, which we've been doing successfully since we opened. We have continued to build on the significant experience at the centre, which has been acknowledged within the UK and elsewhere."