Two centuries after William Wilberforce, exploitation and forced labour are back on the rise in Britain

In its modern form, victims of slavery are physically, psychologically or financially trapped and then forced into labour

There is much that is shocking in the allegations about three women kept in slavery for 30 years in an apparently ordinary house in south London. If true, how could such barbarism go undetected for so long that the youngest of the trio – now aged 30 – is thought to have lived her entire life in captivity? How was it that the situation came to light only through the auspices of a charity?

Yet what is more appalling even than this particular case – much of which is, as yet, unclear – is that slavery is not as rare as might be assumed. Only last month, an 84-year-old man was sent to prison for 13 years for the repeated rape of a girl whom he and his wife (also jailed) trafficked into the UK and then kept in a cellar for nearly a decade. In May, a father and son were jailed for holding destitute men as slaves at a caravan park in Leighton Buzzard. And yesterday, a Home Office minister admitted that the number of such cases is expected to keep rising.

Slavery – to our shame – is back. Historically, it was about ownership; in its modern form, victims are physically, psychologically or financially trapped and then forced into labour – be it manual, domestic or sexual – with no pay and little chance of escape. According to the Centre for Social Justice, such exploitation can be found everywhere from factories to fields, brothels to construction sites – and, of course, in houses.

What is not known is the scale of the problem. Indeed, modern-day slavery is still little understood – not least, as is clear from the cases cited here, because it manifests in so many different ways. Some victims are trafficked into Britain and turned over to gangmasters to pick cockles or work on farms. Some – adults and children – are trafficked and forced into prostitution. Some come as domestic help and are then confined and abused. Nor are all victims of slavery migrants; Britons are also at risk.

As if the crimes themselves were not complicated enough, the official response is hardly less so. Between the lack of reliable data, the often blurred lines between legal employment and slavery and the national neurosis over immigration, it is perhaps little wonder that even such gross practices as slavery appear to be slipping through the net.

There are moves to get to grips with the phenomenon. In August, the Home Secretary set out plans for a Modern Slavery Bill (to go before Parliament this year) which will toughen up penalties for trafficking and, no less importantly, create an Anti-Slavery Commissioner. Both are a sure step in the right direction. But it is not enough to tighten up the laws governing gangmasters, say; the inspection regime must also be improved. Equally, moves to shift the focus from a trafficked person’s immigration status to their position as the victim of a crime is both morally and practically vital, but the authorities – police, social workers, local councils – must also be trained in what to look for and how to respond.

Finally, there is a role for the rest of us here, too. For business, that means taking proper care over suppliers. For citizens, it means paying more attention to those around us. According to the police, the three Lambeth women are Britain’s worst case of modern slavery. It is not enough to be shocked. We must act.