Fewer modern slavery victims identified in Bedfordshire

But charity warns of potential increase in victims following the pandemic

Fewer potential slavery victims have been identified to police in Bedfordshire amid the coronavirus pandemic, figures reveal.

Home Office data reveals a drop in modern slavery cases referred to Bedfordshire Police, with 227 recorded in 2020, 172 fewer than the 399 recorded in 2019.

They included 78 children – equating to around 34 per cent of all referrals.

Bedfordshire is in the top 10 force areas nationally in terms of the number of victims identified

But anti-slavery charity Unseen has warned of a potential increase in victims following the coronavirus pandemic, adding that the UK's economic downturn has created more vulnerable people who could be at risk of exploitation.

Across the UK, 10,613 potential victims were referred to police last year – broadly in line with the record 10,616 identified in 2019.

Between January and March this year, almost 3,000 further potential victims were flagged, a slight increase on the same period in 2020.

Of those, 48 were identified to police in Bedfordshire.

Modern slavery can involve domestic servitude, forced labour, sexual or criminal exploitation.

Unseen said the closure of recognised slavery hotspots – such as car washes and nail bars – during lockdown periods in the UK meant potential victims were less visible during the pandemic, when referrals linked to adults fell nationally.

But there was an increase across the UK in cases involving children, who are more likely to be exploited at the hands of drugs gangs.

Referrals linked to “county lines” activity, which sees gangs using vulnerable people to transport drugs from cities to small towns, rose by almost a third nationally in 2020, with male children identified as potential victims in four out of five of those cases.

Detective Chief Inspector Louisa Glynn from Bedfordshire Police said: “Bedfordshire faces huge challenges from all forms of exploitation linked to organised crime and high numbers of potential modern slavery victims are consistently identified in the county.

“While our numbers have fallen over the past year, we are still in the top 10 force areas nationally in terms of the number of victims identified, with four and five times as many victims identified in Bedfordshire compared to two of our neighbouring force areas.

“We have also made huge reforms to our processes with Yarl’s Wood Immigration Centre, which has significantly reduced the number of crime reports we are investigating linked to immigration cases.

“We use the national referral mechanism to safeguard victims as well as a whole host of other tactics to protect people vulnerable to exploitation.

“This includes launching the Bedfordshire Against Violence and Exploitation (BAVEX) campaign to raise awareness about things like county lines, forced labour and sexual exploitation.

“For more information on the signs to spot, where to report concerns or get help then please visit bavex.co.uk.”

Unseen's Justine Currel said: “Covid-19 and the subsequent economic downturn affected the visibility of the threat in such places as car washes and nail bars.

“And as you would expect, the proportion of calls from the general public declined during the lockdowns as fewer people were out and about.

“Now we’re emerging from lockdown, we’re seeing contacts significantly increasing.

“It’s too early to say how many of these contacts will result in victims of modern slavery being identified."

A Home Office spokesperson said the Government had intensified enforcement action to crack down on those exploiting young people and highlighted 1,000 arrests linked to county lines activity in May.

The spokesperson added: “Through the Modern Slavery Victim Care Contract, delivered through The Salvation Army, we provide adult victims in England and Wales with specialist support to help them to rebuild their lives, including safehouse accommodation, financial support and assistance in accessing health care and legal support.”