A joint investigation by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS), the College of Policing and the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) warns that trafficking survivors are deterred from engaging with police because forces are failing to support them as they should.
It reveals that foreign victims are sometimes wrongly treated as immigration offenders, with their details passed onto the Home Office, deterring them from supporting any investigation.
The probe was prompted after a police super-complaint submitted by charity Hestia raised concerns that modern slavery victims were not receiving the support and understanding they needed from the police, in some cases leading to a failure to successfully prosecute traffickers.
The report, formed of fieldwork in six police forces, discussions with experts and organisations and a wider review, finds that some victims have “action taken against them by police for the offence they have committed, rather than be recognised as a victim”.
The watchdogs found that while there had been improvements in the police’s approach to tackling modern slavery in recent years and that there was now “a lot more information” to help officers recognise the crime, not all the officers were aware of this information.
They said quality support for victims was “inconsistent” across forces, with victims not consistently receiving the support they were entitled to” and “not always be kept safe or made to feel safe following their first contact with the police”.
It also found that officers did not always have “clear priorities on how to safeguard victims balanced against their immigration enforcement responsibilities”, with personal data sometimes shared with the Home Office when the police suspect they may be an immigration offender.
This, and the failure to support victims, in turn deters victims from continuing engagement with the police and supporting any investigation, the report found.
Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Wendy Williams, told The Independent the current system “plays into hands of traffickers” and called for “swifter progress” and “far better consistency” on the part of police officers dealing with these cases.
“It is a serious situation As long as police and prosecutors are not prosecuting these cases, the crimes will continue to be committed and vulnerable people will continue to be coerced into committing offences,” she said.
“Victims will continue to go unprotected, they will continue to be at risk of criminalisation, they will continue to potentially fear that they will be treated as immigration offenders or be prosecuted for the offences they were coerced into committing, and that is of concern to all communities.”
The report found that the protection from prosecution for modern slavery victims – known as Section 45 - was not always considered, and that there were “significant challenges” to ensuring it operates in the correct way.
In the year ending March 2019, around three in ten prosecutions for modern slavery offences didn’t result in a conviction (103, 32 percent of the 322 prosecutions). Of these, 22 had a problem related to victim engagement, such as retraction, non-attendance at trial or evidence that the complainant didn’t support the case.
The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s office has recently undertaken work to explore the barriers to successful prosecution, which found a lack of effective support for victims as prosecution witnesses was a key concern.
In a joint statement responding to the report, Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Dame Sara Thornton and Dame Vera Baird QC, Victims’ Commissioner, said “more needs to be done”, adding: “Unless victims receive the care they require at first point of contact with the criminal justice system, we’ve got no hope of victims supporting a case through court.”
The commissioners expressed “disappointment” that the report failed to hear directly from victims about their experiences, saying it was a “missed opportunity”.
“We must incorporate the expertise of survivors and ensure that practices and policies reflect the needs and views of those they seek to serve,” they added.
In its recommendations, the report said police forces must ensure that staff have access to the right training and specialist knowledge to enable them to identify and protect victims of modern slavery, as well as refer them to prosecutors so they can be properly investigated.
It also said the Home Office should “better understand” the victim experience of the police response to modern slavery and the wider response from immigration and other law enforcement agencies.
Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for modern slavery, said the police service was “committed to combating modern slavery” and that it would “take time to carefully consider the recommendations made by the inspectors”.
“When someone reports a crime police will always, first and foremost, treat them as a victim. The police priority is to protect victims and investigate crime, and we are extremely careful about doing anything to deter people from reporting to us,” he added.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The police have made significant progress in responding to modern slavery since the inspection by HMICFRS in 2017, however, we recognise there is more do and welcome the Inspectorate’s report following Hestia’s super-complaint.”
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