The three women thought to have been held as slaves for more than 30 years were beaten and brainwashed into a life of servitude but presented to the outside world as a “normal family”, police said today.
Officers described the case as a “complicated and disturbing picture of emotional control” and have admitted that they may have come into contact with the women during their lives in captivity. One minister yesterday warned that there could be thousands of people held in similar conditions.
As almost 40 officers try to determine what “invisible handcuffs” were used to confine the women to the house in south London until their release last month, Scotland Yard confirmed that the married couple suspected of holding them had been arrested in the 1970s.
The couple, both 67, were released on police bail early on Friday but are not to return to the otherwise “unremarkable” house in Lambeth. Detectives said that 55 bags of evidence, containing more than 2,500 items, had been taken away from the house for investigation. Experts said that it could be the most enduring case of modern-day slavery in Britain, and that it represents just a small part of a hidden netherworld that police are ill-equipped to deal with.
Aneeta Prem, the founder of Freedom Charity, which facilitated the rescue of the women, told The Independent that her group had been “inundated” with calls since the case came to light, while James Brokenshire, a Home Office minister, said that there could be as many as 6,000 people being held as slaves in Britain.
Describing the duress that the women were apparently under while in captivity, Commander Steve Rodhouse, head of Scotland Yard’s specialist crime directorate, said: “Brainwashing would be the simplest term, yet that belittles the years of emotional abuse these victims have had to endure. To the outside world this may have appeared to be a ‘normal’ family. Over the course of many decades the people at the heart of this investigation ... will probably have come into contact with public services, including our own.”
One of the few details that police were prepared to release was that the two suspects, who are not British citizens, have been in the UK for many decades and were arrested in the 1970s. Why they were held, or whether they faced charges at that time, was not divulged.
The three women released from the house – a 69-year-old Malaysian, a 57-year-old Irish woman and a 30-year-old Briton who is believed to have spent her entire life in servitude – were rescued on 25 October after a week of clandestine conversations with welfare workers. The Independent has been told that the women were only allowed to leave the house to put out washing or go shopping under the close supervision of one of the couple. It is understood that the youngest, who is believed to be unrelated to any of her fellow captives, was not sent to school.
All 37 officers in the Yard’s human trafficking unit are now working on the case. The couple have also been detained on suspicion of immigration offences and assault. Their passports have been confiscated and their bail agreement does not allow them to return to the Lambeth house.
The rescued women have told medics that they suffered sustained physical abuse – described as “beatings” – from their captors, whom they called the “heads of the family”. No allegations have been made of a sexual nature.
Cmdr Rodhouse said: “It is not as brutally obvious as women being physically restrained. What [we] are trying to understand is what were the invisible handcuffs that were used to exert such a degree of control.”
Experts said the case highlights a wider problem that police are unable to tackle.
A report published in June by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group found “countless” examples of slavery where the police “did not recognise the crime at all”.
And Andrew Boff, leader of the Conservative group in the London Assembly and the author of a report on trafficking in the capital, said only 36 out of 389 cases identified this year had been originally detected by police. In one instance, three police stations turned away a trafficked man who had escaped his captors, while one local authority told a Chinese boy, believed to have been trafficked for sex, to look on the Gumtree website for help.
Mr Boff said: “Sadly authorities are blind to this and things need to urgently change. An over-stretched anti-trafficking unit in the Met is neglecting the informal trafficking cases that take longer to find – but are sometimes more serious.”
Scotland Yard denied that it did not have the resources to tackle the issue. The country’s only dedicated human trafficking unit, Operation Maxim, was closed in 2010 after arguments over funding. Responsibility now falls to the less-experienced vice squad known as the Human Trafficking and Prostitution Unit, which has a broader remit including the mounting of brothel raids. Its Paladin team, which specialised in child trafficking, is now comprised of just two people.
A recently retired senior detective who specialised in trafficking cases said of the newer unit: “Their work is normally focused around brothels. Domestic servitude is not high on the list for the team.”
A senior police source told The Independent that the case had been a PR coup for the Met but that it was not indicative of their investigative powers. He said: “This has fallen into their laps – they haven’t had to work for it. Nine times out of 10 the victims are more likely to go to an NGO than the police.”
Paul Whitehouse, former head of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and now chair of Anti-Slavery International, added: “If you get terrorism policing wrong you get hammered by voters, but if you get trafficking wrong it won’t get noticed.”