Britains's largest dedicated human trafficking police unit is being shut down just a year after it was set up because of Home Office spending cuts, The Independent has learnt.
The Metropolitan Police's Human Trafficking Team will cease work next year because its budget has been withdrawn following the decision by the Home Office to cut its yearly funding for human trafficking investigations from £4m to £1.7m.
Politicians and trafficking experts expressed anger at the Home Office's decision, saying it will leave a "gaping hole" in the policing of the crime. Privately, the police themselves are said to be furious about the decision.
The Met's Human Trafficking Team was set up in March 2007 and was designed to actively target gangs who bring women to the UK as sex slaves and children as forced labourers. It is estimated that more than 4,000 people are currently in the UK as a result of having been trafficked.
Britain is considered to be the destination of choice for gangs bringing women into the country from eastern Europe, China, Malaysia, Africa and South America to work in brothels.
It is notoriously difficult to convict criminals for human trafficking, but as the only specialist operational team in the country, the Met's dedicated human trafficking centre had claimed a series of successes.
News of the closure came as the unit claimed another major success last week which saw six sex traffickers jailed for a combined total of 52 years for deceiving a Slovakian teenager into a life of prostitution.
The Home Office yesterday insisted that the funding for the unit was always intended to be time-limited. However, when it was launched last year, the Home Office made no mention of this. Instead, the Home Office minister, Vernon Coaker, said: "This new team will be a specialist unit dedicated to targeting the global criminal networks that profit from this modern day slave trade. Those involved in the trafficking of men, women and children can expect to feel the full weight of the law."
The closure of the Met team has been met with anger. Critics say that it shows the Government is neglecting to take the proper steps to combat those involved in the trafficking trade.
The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, said he was "appalled" by the news, adding: "This is going to leave a gaping hole in investigating crimes that cause untold hardship to many thousands of people. Just as the unit was beginning to have real successes, the Home Office has pulled the rug out from under it. This is a terribly sad and foolish decision."
Christine Beddoe, director of End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking UK, said that as the entry point for the majority of trafficked people into the UK, London needed a dedicated team to combat the crime nationwide. "It's not just a local issue; London is an important gateway for traffickers across the UK.
"It's a really big blow and it contradicts so much of what the Government is saying about safeguarding victims of trafficking," added Ms Beddoe. "It's the only specialist operational team on human trafficking we have had."
Many anti-trafficking organisations say they are baffled by the timing of the team's closure, so soon after they had secured such notable prosecutions. Simon Chorley, of the pressure group Stop The Traffik, said: "The team were highly respected in terms of human trafficking; to close them down now is unfathomable."
The shadow Home Secretary, Dominic Grieve, said: "This is more evidence that despite the Government's rhetoric, they are not serious about tackling the scourge of human trafficking which ruins too many lives and shames our nation."
A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police said: "The Met's Human Trafficking Team was launched in March 2007 as a result of being fully funded by money from the Home Office. From April 2009 that money will no longer be available and the Met does not have the additional funds to keep the team running in its current format whilst meeting other policing requirements."
A Home Office spokesman confirmed the unit was shutting but insisted that combating human trafficking remained a key priority. "The Association of Chief Police Officers has been able to administer a pot of some £4m last year and £1.7m this year to cover spending by forces," he said.
"This funding was always intended to be time-limited to support forces in mainstreaming organised immigration crime work, including that on human trafficking."
Case study 'I was kept locked in at all times'
*Ada, from Sierra Leone, was 23 when she was trafficked to the UK and forced into prostitution. She had been disowned by her parents in Africa after converting to Christianity and planned a new life in Britain with her boyfriend.
The couple moved to London. Ada, not her real name, said: "I was very happy. I thought I was leaving the past behind me and starting again." But she was met at the airport by three men and taken to a house where she was raped by one of them. Her boyfriend left and went back to Africa while Ada was forced to work in a brothel for the next six months.
She added: "There were five other women there. I had to have sex with two or three men a day and I was kept locked in at all times. I was completely exhausted as I had to see customers at whatever time they came to the brothel, so I was often woken up in the middle of the night.
"The men had guns and I was threatened a lot with physical violence, so I was afraid to say no. I was also too afraid to ask the customers for help because the men told me they would find out and kill me."
Eventually Ada escaped during a New Year party. She added: "I find it very hard to trust people now and I do not like myself. I can't believe my boyfriend did this to me."
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies