Rebecca Love reports on ‘Eliminating Slavery: Enhancing the Police Response’

Rebecca Love, Cumberland Lodge Scholar 2016 – 2018

The title of this year’s annual police conference was ‘Eliminating Slavery: Enhancing the Police Response’. Following a tradition that can be traced to the earliest years of Cumberland Lodge, representatives from the police, NGOs and the Government gathered to discuss the nature and extent of modern slavery in 21st century Britain and to explore opportunities for collaborative action to address the problem.

Globally, it is estimated that there are 45.8 million individuals in slavery, and people trafficking is worth approximately $150 billion. Considering the scale of the problem, there has been relatively limited international attention and action. Figures from the UK illustrate the dramatic and wide-reaching scale of the problem, with an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people living in modern slavery. Recent investigations suggest that these figures actually underestimate the scale of the problem, with both adult and child victims regularly, and increasingly, being trafficked into the UK.  Cumberland Lodge’s Briefing Document for the conference, prepared by Research Associate Caitlyn McGeer, illustrates the nature of the problem, indicating that the primary form of modern slavery is labour exploitation, followed by sexual exploitation. These markets are driven by the significant presence of well-established organised crime networks operating across the UK. Whilst there is a need for greater understanding of the trafficking trade, what is apparent is that modern slavery is a multi-faceted and escalating problem, which will require an equally complex response.

Leaders of UK anti-trafficking teams who attended the Cumberland Lodge conference stressed the need for local action on modern slavery to be standardised. An effective solution will require international collaboration and action, but must also be underpinned and driven by a local response, supported by efficient local systems. Participants also highlighted the operational challenges of co-ordinating responses across different regional forces in the UK, with some local police leaders in disagreement over the role and jurisdiction of local forces. Furthermore, the diverse forms of human trafficking, and hence variation in what constitutes an adequate and effective response means that, unlike with other crimes, there is often no straightforward or specific pathway of investigation. Each case needs to be approached independently and, crucially, to be supported by a strength of commitment across entire forces, from front line officers to police chiefs. Successful anti-trafficking units emphasised the need for law enforcement teams to watch out for the signs of slavery on a daily basis and during any routine investigations and duties.

Alongside effective local structures and services, there is a need for greater public and industry awareness of the presence of modern slavery across the UK and its links to the market for cheap goods and services.

Individuals from all levels of society need to be more aware of how everyday decisions can support exploitation and even perpetuate slavery.

Cheap commodities are cheap for a reason and are linked to inequitable economic systems that help to drive the slave trade. Ultimately, modern slavery is the commodification and exploitation of people for economic benefit. Like any other business, its primary motives are profit and margins. Consequently, a crucial component of a long-term approach to tackling modern slavery is the regulation of supply chains and changes to the broader economic system.

At the end of the weekend, there was clear agreement on the need for agencies to work together and to become more structured and effective than the highly organised crime networks that drive the exploitation trade. Participants agreed on the need to improve collaboration across  police, NGOs, government and community partnerships to develop an strong system that would remain an integral part of the establishment, even if political support wavered. Despite the complexity and challenges of modern slavery, an energy and drive to tackle the problem was evident amongst all the delegates. As one participant stated, ‘it takes a network to break a network. We know what the problem is and together we have the ability to take action’.