Exclusive:Modern slavery in the UK: human traffickers and enslavers are getting away with lenient sentences

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Exclusive analysis has found only 23% of those prosecuted for slavery and trafficking offences are convicted - as a report warns lenient sentences are putting the public at risk.

Convicted traffickers and enslavers are getting away with suspended sentences, with the Crown Prosecution Service losing more than three-quarters of all modern slavery cases it has taken to court, NationalWorld can reveal.

Labour’s Jess Phillips, shadow minister for safeguarding, said our analysis shows “just how bleak the government’s failures on modern slavery are”, and that slavery and trafficking victims have “a shockingly slim shot at justice”. The government’s new Illegal Migration Bill – which will strip the right to support for many victims – will only make things worse, she added.

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Charities and experts meanwhile have warned the public is being put at risk by lenient sentences, which neither reflect the seriousness of crimes committed by “evil gangs”, nor deter them from reoffending. The landmark 2015 Modern Slavery Act grouped all forced labour and human trafficking for exploitation offences, such as trafficking people for sex work, under one umbrella with promises of tough new penalties. But a 2021 investigation by NationalWorld’s sister titles uncovered major failings in the criminal justice system’s response in the years following.

Now, new analysis of Ministry of Justice (MoJ) court data has found the situation has not improved, with the CPS losing the vast majority of the cases it has prosecuted in England and Wales under the 2015 Act to date. Many of those convicted have faced a mere slap on the wrist, with fines (in one case of under £50), community punishments and suspended sentences handed down. All in all, more than four out of five defendants prosecuted since 2015 have walked free from court – either acquitted, seeing their case dropped, or, if convicted, escaping without an immediate prison sentence.

The cases that make it to court are already a tiny minority, with our analysis of Home Office data showing the proportion of modern slavery and trafficking crimes that result in a suspect being charged has fallen to a new record low of 1.7%. Almost 37,000 offences have now been closed without a charge since 2015.

After NatonalWorld approached the CPS, it told us its internal data – which is not official or regulated – showed it secured convictions in upwards of 70% of prosecutions. However, it counts all cases it has flagged as being related to modern slavery, not just Modern Slavery Act charges – so convictions may be recorded as slavery successes even if the suspect was actually convicted of a lesser or alternative offence.

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In some cases perpetrators may be convicted of similarly serious crimes, such as in the case of the 2019 deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated in the back of a lorry, for which three men were jailed for manslaughter – a case the CPS cites as a major victory in anti-slavery prosecutions, despite the fact nobody was convicted of a trafficking offence.

A spokesperson for the CPS described modern slavery crimes as “shameful”, adding: “Our determination to bring these cases to court is strong.” They also added that prosecutors are more likely to pursue charges of ‘conspiracy to commit a Modern Slavery Act offence’ in complex cases, which would not be captured in NationalWorld’s figures –- although further analysis of the MoJ figures suggests the conviction rate may only rise to 25% once these are included.

What does the data on modern slavery prosecutions show?

MoJ court records show there were 1,607 prosecutions for modern slavery and trafficking offences under the Modern Slavery Act between 2015 and 2021, but only 367 successful convictions – giving a conviction rate of just 23%. An estimated 6,000 to 8,000 criminals are involved in these crimes in the UK, according to the National Crime Agency.

The data also captures the sentences handed down to those convicted, although this is only available when the modern slavery offence was the principal, or most serious, offence the defendant was charged with (in cases where they were prosecuted for more than one crime).

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Courts have recorded 526 such cases, resulting in 121 convictions. In almost 20% of convictions, the defendant escaped a prison sentence. While some were convicted of more minor offences – such as breaching court orders put in place to protect victims or prevent somebody committing a slavery offence again – there were also five cases in which suspended sentences were given to adults convicted of the most serious slavery and trafficking crimes.

Among these were Anna Janczy, 56, and her 32-year-old daughter-in-law Agnieska Burianska, members of a Nottinghamshire family convicted during a 2019 trial for trafficking a vulnerable 51-year-old man from Poland with the promise of a better life, before putting him to work in a car wash and confiscating his documents and earnings.

Janczy’s son and grandson were also convicted, and jailed for four and two years respectively. The family gave their victim two meals a day and £4 bus fare, and provided him with no clothes other than those he wore to his job, according to a BBC court report. The victim only came to the attention of police when he tried to take his own life.

The figures show those sent to prison so far have received average sentences of just 4.8 years, with over two-thirds given sentences of five years or less. The Modern Slavery Act introduced a potential maximum sentence of life behind bars – but this has never been used. Average sentences have fallen from 4.6 years in 2017, when the first convictions were secured, to 4.1 years in 2021. Prisoners in England and Wales usually serve just half of their sentence before being released on licence.

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‘A low-risk, high-reward crime’

A recent report by the charity Justice and Care and think tank Centre for Social Justice warned that the penalties imposed so far “appear not to reflect the harm done to [...] victims and fail to provide sufficient protection to the public by preventing offenders continuing to exploit future victims”.

“We have to make more of the punishments in place, consider new ones and deliver meaningful sentencing if this is to move from a low-risk-high-reward criminal market, to a high-risk-low-reward one for these evil gangs,” the report said.

Andrew Wallis, chief executive officer of the charity Unseen, which runs the UK modern slavery helpline, said the low conviction rates and lenient sentences would also discourage victims from reporting their ordeals, or cooperating with investigators. “If you’re a victim and you’ve got the courage to come forward, but you’re looking at something where someone may only get four years and they’re out within two, they’re on licence, and you perceive them to threaten your life, why would you go forward?” he said.

Some other cases resulting in lenient sentences include:

  • Between six and nine months custody for an adult man in Derbyshire convicted of trafficking with a view to exploitation – one of the most serious offences under the Modern Slavery Act. 

  • Between 18 months and two years custody for an adult man convicted in London of holding a person in slavery or servitude  – also one of the most serious offences under the Modern Slavery Act. 

  • A suspended sentence for an adult man aged between 18 and 20 convicted in London of trafficking with a view to exploitation

  • Fine of between £25 and £50 given to an adult male in Lancashire who breached a slavery or trafficking risk or prevention order. Prevention orders are only given to people already convicted or cautioned for slavery offences, while risk orders can be imposed on people who have not been. It is unclear which type of order this offender breached. 

  • A community sentence for an adult woman who breached a slavery or trafficking risk or prevention order in Surrey. 

  • Community sentence given to adult men who breached slavery or trafficking risk or prevention order in Avon and Somerset. 

‘Incredibly hostile system’

Maya Esslemont, director of the charity After Exploitation, said survivors often struggle to access housing, counselling or financial support while navigating the criminal justice system, adding that the Illegal Migration Bill will remove access to support for all people who enter the country through irregular means – even if they were trafficked and exploited – unless they are aiding a criminal investigation.

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“The system is incredibly hostile to survivors and, at worst, may increase survivors’ vulnerability rather than offer protection,” she said. “Victims of serious crime must always be free to pursue an investigation against perpetrators feeling fully supported and emotionally ready, not as a result of deportation threats by government.”

Also commenting on the bill, Jess Phillips MP said: “By denying many modern slavery victims the support they need through this new legislation, far more criminals will get away with it. Once again, victims are paying the price for Conservative failure.”

The CPS told NationalWorld it is “as determined as ever” for more slavery victims to see justice, but recognised there “is always work to do” to ensure the strongest possible cases are built. “In recent years, we have charged nearly 80% of cases brought to us by the police,” a spokesperson said. “These cases are handled by specialist prosecutors, equipped with robust guidance and expert knowledge of the law.

“In December 2021, we updated our legal guidance for prosecutors to reconfirm that, where there are suspicions of modern slavery, the full circumstances are investigated before prosecutors make a charging decision. In April last year, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner recognised the ongoing training provided to prosecutors and updated legal guidance to reflect changes in the law.

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“The role of the CPS is to make independent and objective assessments in every case that is referred to us and, if it passes our legal test, to present that case in court for a judge or jury to consider. Our role is not to decide whether a defendant is guilty or not, nor to decide the sentence a convicted defendant receives. Those are matters for the court.”

Responding to Phillips’ question about the Illegal Migration Bill in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “We have a proud record of supporting victims of modern slavery and thousands of victims are supported every year here in the UK, and that will not change as we grip illegal immigration.”

The UK Modern Slavery and exploitation helpline can be contacted on 08000 121 700. It is free, confidential, and available 24/7.