In the Media

Connors family case shows that Britain must fight slave trade

PUBLISHED July 12, 2012

It says much about British society that a man can disappear, be kept as a slave in Bedfordshire for 15 years and have no one inquire about him. But as the Connors family knew, it is appallingly easy to find vulnerable adults in this country who can be kept in servitude and starvation. The couple's sentencing yesterday, for "brutally manipulating and exploiting" the destitute and desperate by promising them work then using them as forced labour, was the first slavery conviction for two centuries, for a crime that most people had thought extinct.

The original slave traders would buy abductees in Africa and ship them to the West Indies. Their heirs can pick up someone on welfare in Brighton and move them to a caravan park in Leighton Buzzard. We are witnessing a new variant of a very old evil.

When Tony Blair apologised for Britain's role in the slave trade, he said that we should all "express our deep sorrow that it could ever have happened, and rejoice at the better times we live in today". But even then, the trade was returning to Britain on a scale we are still trying to comprehend. Modern-day slave auctions were being held at Gatwick airport, as brothel-owners gathered to bid for the women who had made it through immigration. People hoping for a better life would offer to work in exchange for visa assistance, only to find themselves sold into sex slavery when they arrived in London.

Damian Green, the Immigration Minister, speaks about human trafficking as if it can be resolved by tougher border control. But as the Connors case shows, all manner of people slip through the holes in our broken society. The modern slave can be an Englishman forced to work in a scrap metal yard, or a Tanzanian cleaner terrorised by her employer. Over the past decade, the Home Office's estimate for the number of victims of human trafficking a year has soared from 142 to 4,000 - and the number is rising. British slavery is mutating faster than British laws can keep up. Even now, ministers can only guess at its true extent.

By nature, modern-day slavery is hard to measure, but it is easier to define. A slave is someone controlled by another person, under threat of violence. The United Nations estimates that there are 21 million of them globally, with almost a million in Europe. In this country, slaves tend not to run to the police. Immigrants may fear deportation more than anything else, and Britons may believe that their story sounds too fantastical to be believed.

Busting slavery means spending a great deal of time and money on a problem buried very deeply in our society - a problem that sounds as if it were from another country, or another era. Yet every now and again, a criminal case gives us a shocking glimpse into its rapid evolution. The Centre for Social Justice, on whose advisory board I sit, is preparing a substantial report, taking evidence from police, council workers and others involved in helping victims. The phrase heard more often than any other is "tip of the iceberg": from the Connors case, to the London doctor jailed for abusing her housemaid, they are getting glimpses into an underworld that has been kept from the public eye.

In so far as people think about slavery at all, they think of young women trafficked into bordellos, kept for a few months and then set free. But over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear that British slaves are entering the mix. The Salvation Army recently released a report on the victims that it helps; while most were foreign, there were eight Britons. Some had been transported within the country; others sent abroad. Even though 84 per cent of trafficking prosecutions are for sex offences, the Salvation Army found two male victims for every three women, suggesting that male slavery is being dangerously overlooked.

One of the main obstacles to tackling slavery is that the police have tragically few incentives to investigate it. Take Operation Ruby, which focused on a leek farm in Northamptonshire. Some 200 officers targeted 21 premises, arresting 13 people. They spent three years building a case - and yet there were no convictions. It was a signal, heard by every force in the country, that going after a suspected immigrant ring is one of the most expensive and potentially fruitless exercises in modern policing. Some of the officers later told the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that the cost of the operation "crippled the entire unit".

They might have secured convictions, they said, "if the legislation was there". But it isn't, not properly. The Connors convictions were under the Coroners & Justice Act 2009 - a new tool in the fight against slavery. But this is only one of the three types of offence under which a case may fall: sometimes, it is treated as an immigration issue; sometimes, as a sex crime. The police complain that they are not sure what type of conviction they are looking for, or what evidence they need for it. Indeed, many trafficked women still face being arrested themselves, rather than being treated as victims.

Just last month, ministers said that they would permit tougher sentences for human trafficking - which is a welcome signal. But the problem is that almost no one seems to get caught. Trafficking convictions come in at the rate of 17 a year. David Cameron speaks with passion about the subject, and has declared that he wants Britain to be a world leader "in tackling this terrible crime". But his Government is struggling properly to define it, let alone provide the right resources to those who fight it.

The Prime Minister is not speaking with confected anger. He cares enough to have recruited his nanny from a charity that helps immigrant domestic workers escape abusive employers. But in April, his Government abolished the Overseas Domestic Worker visa that allowed them to do so legally. Under the new laws (part of Mr Green's immigration crackdown), domestic workers no longer have the right to change jobs once they arrive in Britain. So if they do escape their employer, they will have to do so illegally. In this way, a whole new group of workers is pushed closer towards the criminal underworld.

Like poverty, modern-day slavery is horribly easy to ignore. It is part of a booming, yet invisible black market composed of a million-plus people who may work below the minimum wage or live in fear of the immigration police. These people tend not to vote, to complain or to show up in any statistical surveys. We only hear about them when they are found washed up in Morecambe Bay, or rescued by police from a "concentration camp" in a caravan park.

It is quite possible for ministers to write off each of these incidents as a freakish, isolated tragedy. The alternative is to admit that slavery is back in Britain, and is a more complicated problem than trafficking ever was. A new Slavery Act could close any remaining loopholes, make clear to police what they should be looking for, and give them the powers they need to act. The Home Office should also ensure that no force is left out of pocket by launching such an investigation.

Wilberforce may have outlawed the old slavery, but it was the Royal Navy that abolished it. That took muscle, as well as laws - but above all, it took political leadership. Today, there is much the Prime Minister can do. He can
start by calling this evil by its proper name.