A blog by Cumberland Lodge Research Associate, Caitlyn McGeer on the 'Eliminating Slavery: Enhancing the Police Response' conference at Cumberland Lodge on 21-23 April 2017

Published Date: 
Monday, 15 May 2017
Caitlyn McGeer

Over the weekend of 21 to 23 April 2017, almost 60 representatives from police, non-governmental, academic, private sector and government backgrounds gathered at Cumberland Lodge for the 36th annual police conference, on ‘Eliminating Slavery: Enhancing the Police Response’. The conference addressed the pressing issue of modern slavery, its implications for policing, and priorities for the police response.

Participants analysed the unique challenges that modern slavery presents for policing and highlighted the amount of progress that has been made in this regard over the last 10 years. Changes in the political landscape have brought modern slavery to the forefront of legislation, policy-making and policing. Whilst modern slavery used to be viewed chiefly in terms of sexual exploitation, it is now recognised to cover a range of exploitative offences, such as labour exploitation and forced marriage.  Although progress has been made in strengthening legislation, and in improving awareness of modern slavery amongst front-line service providers, the war against it has yet to be won. Much of the discussion focused on the challenges of policing modern slavery in terms of the complexity, scale and timeframes of investigations and how these differ from conventional crimes (such as theft or burglary). Delegates learnt, for instance, that there is no uniform defined starting point for modern slavery investigations; they differ according to the circumstances of the offence and the type of exploitation involved.  

Intersectional nature

One of the main themes of the conference that elicited consensus was the intersectional nature of modern slavery. In most cases, modern slavery occurs as part of a larger network of related circumstances, such as child sexual exploitation, drug trafficking, financial crime and organised crime (amongst others). Participants focused on organised crime and the need for responding agencies to be as organised as criminal networks are, in order to effectively detect and prevent cases of modern slavery. Delegates were provided with examples of just how sophisticated and organised these groups can be. Modern slavery also intersects with local, national and international borders. Whilst participants agreed that it is a borderless crime, it was clear that potential responses to the problem are complicated by the existence of borders in practice. For example, the UK is a source, destination and transit country for modern slavery. Responding to this landscape requires the sharing of information, collaboration and strategic planning, both within and across borders. Because modern slavery crosses borders, it also intersects with immigration policies. In fact, several delegates highlighted the fact that the inherent tensions in the relationship between the two pose particular challenges for police responses. Delegates underscored the fact that it is not the job of the police to enforce immigration law and that safeguarding considerations should instead be their priority.  Delegates also agreed that modern slavery intersects with business practices. In fact it is dangerously embedded within the supply chain. As a by-product of globalisation, consumerism drives a constant demand for cheap goods which, in turn, drives the growing demand for cheap labour. Labour exploitation – a sub-category of modern slavery – is all too often used to meet this demand. Participants collectively spoke of the need to change not only our business cultures to reflect the evils of modern slavery, but our consumer demands and expectations, as well.   

Partnership working

In responding to the intersectional nature of modern slavery, participants were clear that multi-agency working and partnerships are fundamental. These need to involve NGOs, law enforcement and the Crown Prosecution Service working collaboratively, as well as in partnership with organisations such as the National Crime Agency. These relationships should be premised on intelligent information sharing and led by modern slavery specialists. Participants also noted that there is a need to develop and nurture partnerships across borders, in order to facilitate significant global government engagement and improve the international response to modern slavery.  

The victim journey

Effective multi-agency work and partnerships were also agreed to be crucial to easing the journey of victims through the criminal justice system. Participants described modern slavery victims as being subject to a deplorable reality’: they are treated as commodities rather than as human beings. Although not everyone who is subject to modern slavery self-identifies as a ‘victim’, delegates agreed that most suffer significant adverse consequences. Victims of modern slavery are all vulnerable people because they have been exploited in a variety of ways. Delegates stated that awareness needs to be raised amongst front-line staff of the diversity of ways in which victims might present, and their associated needs and vulnerabilities. Participants raised concerns over the number of different agencies victims often have to tell their story to, for action to be taken. Research shows that it takes seven years, on average, for an individual to be able to talk about what happened to them without experiencing acute trauma. Largely, participants supported a move towards victimless prosecutions and other efforts to layer evidence around the victim, rather than via them.  

What’s next?

Throughout the conference, the commitment and passion of representatives of the various sectors was evident. There was an overall sense of energy and drive to bring about change and a willingness to improve practices. Whilst there is ‘buy-in’ at the top level, front-line staff also need to be empowered to make strategic decisions in modern slavery cases. This involves increasing the breadth and availability of training, as well as building a body of evidence-based research for them to draw upon.  Delegates were clear that there are many areas that need to be worked on to combat the scourge of modern slavery more effectively, including (but not limited to): 

  •  Understanding the links between modern slavery and business, and improving business accountability
  • Improving public education
  • Improving the recognition of victims
  •  Making the National Referral Mechanism more effective
  • Encouraging earlier police engagement with the Crown Prosecution Service
  •  Facilitating victimless prosecutions.

 However, barriers to progress on these fronts include factors such as competing priorities and demands on finite resources. Delegates voiced their concerns over the impact of Brexit and the changes it will make to EU structures, which could influence our responses to modern slavery, as well as alter human trafficking flows. There was also concern over what the political will to combat modern slavery will be if Theresa May – who is known to be personally committed to the eradication of modern slavery – fails to win the UK General Election on 8 June 2017.  Ultimately, participants agreed that effective responses to modern slavery must be embedded in the political agenda, regardless of party affiliation, at both the national and global level.