Officials and campaigners fear COVID-19 is hindering efforts to support victims and prosecute traffickers in Britain
LONDON, Sept 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Police and prosecutors in Britain are not bringing enough human traffickers to justice, the country's anti-slavery commissioner said on Thursday amid concerns that the coronavirus pandemic is preventing many victims from being identified or seeking help.
Modern slavery prosecutions have fallen during the last year despite a rise in police operations to combat the crime - whether labour abuse at car washes or children forced to deal drugs, said a report by Sara Thornton who took up the role in May 2019.
Thornton's report follows criticism that Britain's world-first 2015 Modern Slavery Act is being underused in efforts to jail traffickers, spur action from companies or help victims.
"The number of prosecutions under the Modern Slavery Act remains too low and organised crime groups continue to see the rewards as high and the risks as low," she said in a statement.
"There needs to be scrutiny of the low number of prosecutions and convictions under the Modern Slavery Act."
About 301 people were considered for slavery prosecutions under various laws in the 2019-20 period - down from 322 in the previous timeframe - government data shows. However, some of the defendants may have ultimately been charged with other offences.
Under the Modern Slavery Act alone, at least 67 people were prosecuted in 2019-20, against 82 in 2018-19. Yet the data does not include cases where more serious charges were also filed.
Thornton said training around modern slavery in the criminal justice system had improved recently but was still insufficient.
Police chiefs have previously cited getting victims to give evidence as a major obstacle to securing more prosecutions, and said slavery suspects were often charged for other crimes such as sexual violence as it may prove the simpler route to justice.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said its work with the police had led to more cases being referred for consideration.
"Modern slavery is an abhorrent crime and one we are tackling as hard as we can," a spokesman said. "We continue to work (with the police) to build strong cases for prosecution."
The National Police Chiefs Council declined to comment.
In a separate publication on Thursday, the Home Office (interior ministry) found that reports of suspected modern slavery had dropped for two consecutive quarters this year.
About 2,209 possible victims were referred to the British government for support in the second quarter of the year - down 23% from the previous three months - according to the data.
"COVID-19 has delivered unprecedented challenges in supporting victims and in many ways has increased vulnerability to exploitation," Thornton said.
"Many are concerned that work across the world to end slavery will be knocked back years as governments prioritise building economic activity above concerns for human rights."
A study in July said Britain was home to at least 100,000 modern slaves - 10 times more than the official estimate - and warned that 90% of victims may be going undetected.
(Writing by Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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