Modern slavery: people traffickers ‘emboldened’ as charges brought in fewer than one in 50 cases

Charge rates for modern slavery offences have dropped every year since the Modern Slavery Act was introduced

People traffickers, slavers and criminal exploiters are only charged by police in a tiny minority of cases, leaving victims “hugely dispirited” and potentially emboldening perpetrators, NationalWorld can reveal.

The 2015 Modern Slavery Act was introduced to crack down on people traffickers amid a growing awareness of the widespread nature of modern slavery and serious exploitation, allowing for judges to give out life sentences. Common offences include women being trafficked for sex work and fruit and vegetables pickers effectively kept in indentured labour.

But the charge rate for modern slavery offences has dropped to a new low of less than 2%, with almost 40,000 crimes since 2015 not resulting in charges being brought, according to our analysis of Home Office data for England and Wales.

NationalWorld’s investigation comes at a time of increasingly strong government rhetoric about small boat crossings and other irregular migration to the UK, with the Home Secretary pledging to smash the criminal gangs bringing people into the UK – whether through voluntary people smuggling, or trafficking for exploitation.

And Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said people who arrive in the UK illegally, like many asylum seekers and victims of trafficking, would not have access to the modern slavery system under the controversial Illegal Migration Bill.

Experts said this bill, and the Nationality and Borders Act which was passed last year, make things more difficult for victims of modern slavery, which has a major impact on authorities’ ability to prosecute criminal gangs.

The head of a leading modern slavery charity told NationalWorld that criminals involved in trafficking will be aware of the low chances of being caught and prosecuted, making them more likely to continue with their crimes.

Charges brought in less than one in 50 cases

The proportion of modern slavery offences resulting in a charge has dropped every year since legislation was introduced in 2015, reaching a low point in the most recent period (the six months to September last year) of just 1.7%. This leaves the total number of crimes that did not result in a charge since 2015 at almost 37,000.

The number of crimes under the Modern Slavery Act recorded in the first half of 2022/23 rose to a record high compared with the same period in previous years, of 5,173.

In the first half of this year, the majority of modern slavery cases were closed without a suspect being identified. The next most common outcome was ‘evidential difficulties - victim does not support action’.

Andrew Wallis, chief executive of Unseen UK, a leading modern slavery charity and designated first responder organisation, told NationalWorld that modern slavery cases are “notoriously difficult” to prosecute, in part because victims are often very vulnerable and hesitant to engage with authorities.

He said: “It’s critically important that victims are engaged with properly, and when they are fully supported what we see is far more prosecutions taking place.” Mr Wallis suggests part of the solution to this could be going ahead with ‘victimless prosecutions’ where there is “enough other evidence that the case doesn’t rely on the victim having to be stood up in court engaged with the judicial process”.


He also cited low charge rates and lenient sentencing as factors that discourage victims from cooperating with prosecutions, saying: “If you’re a victim and you’ve got the courage to come forward, but your exploiter may only get four years and they’re out within two, and you perceive them to threaten your life, why would you go forward?”

Victims may also be concerned about their information being shared with immigration enforcement if they come forward, according to Peter Wieltschnig, policy and networks officer at Focus on Labour Exploitation.

He said this empowers exploiters and means the ability to combat trafficking is severely hampered”.

He added: “We’re seeing a failure to gather essential intelligence, an increased distrust and fear of authorities, reduced identification of victims and perpetrators, and ultimately, the continued empowerment of exploiters.

“The safeguarding of victims must be prioritised and victims must be able to safely report abuse and exploitation to the authorities without fear of immigration enforcement action. Otherwise we’ll continue to see people being driven underground and into exploitation.”

There were also 475 cases in the first half of last year where a suspect had been identified and the victim supported police action, but officers failed to progress the case – a “hugely dispiriting” outcome for victims, according to Mr Wallis.

While it is not as simple as blaming just the police or Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for the failure to bring charges against people traffickers and exploiters,both institutions and the wider justice system could handle the cases more effectively, Mr Wallis added.

He said: “Police need to be not just looking for the crimes, but dealing with victims sensitively, and realising that they’ve got to put in the hard yards to get the sentence. They also need to start financial investigations from the get-go and understand this as an economic crime.

“Secondly, CPS don’t seem willing to prosecute modern slavery offences. They say ‘let’s go for a lesser offence here,’ which sends a message to policing as well. And then I think the judiciary needs training around both what the law says in terms of the level of sentencing that should be taking place, and understanding the vulnerabilities of the victim within these cases.”

The CPS - which is tasked with bringing charges against offenders after the police have investigated a crime and referred it to them - stressed that it can only bring charges where the investigating police force refers the case to them, which does not happen in every instance.

It also highlighted that, in many cases, perpetrators will be prosecuted under different offences than the Modern Slavery Act – although the Home Office figures analysed by NationalWorld count charges for an alternative offence in the group of slavery cases that resulted in a charge

This approach has previously been criticised by the Human Trafficking Foundation, which said it shows a “failure and demonstrates how hard they are finding it to use the Modern Slavery Act to get those higher jail sentences”.


The office for the former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has also said modern slavery charges are “preferable”, not least because of a range of protections slavery legislation opens up for victims.

Rishi Sunak was asked about this at PMQs by Jess Phillips, with the Labour MP saying a tweet from the Prime Minister about the Illegal Migration Bill would embolden traffickers. She said: “I’ve worked for years with women brought here illegally as sex slaves, raped by 30 men a day.

“Last week the Prime Minister tweeted that these victims would be denied access to support from our modern slavery system – a tweet that traffickers will hold up to these women and say ‘see, no-one will help you’.”

Sunak responded: “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.”

A CPS spokesperson said: “Modern slavery offences are serious, and whenever our legal test is met, we will prosecute those who exploit vulnerable people for their own gain. We can only consider cases that are referred to us by the police. Between April 2015 and September 2022, the CPS charged 78% of modern slavery cases that came to us from the police.

“The CPS will continue to work with the police and other partners to see more cases referred to us and to work together to achieve justice for victims.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Modern slavery is a barbaric crime and we remain committed to bringing perpetrators to justice. We have provided £16.5 million since 2016 to ensure the police have the capability needed to investigate these complex crimes.

“We are working with partners across the criminal justice system to increase the number of cases being charged and prosecuted, including by improving support for victims so they can engage with prosecutions and help bring their exploiter to justice.”