The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has been accused of failing to use modern slavery legislation to pursue and convict criminals who traffic and exploit vulnerable people both into and within the UK.
Analysis of Ministry of Justice figures as part of a JPIMedia Investigation into modern slavery has revealed just one in five cases that make it to courts in England and Wales – already a fraction of the crimes recorded by police – result in conviction.
When approached for comment, a CPS spokesman said it should be taken into account that “in many circumstances perpetrators can be best prosecuted under different offences which can skew the figures”.
But Tamara Barnett, director of the Human Trafficking Foundation, said the admission 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 Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner also said modern slavery charges were “preferable”, not least because of a range of protections slavery legislation opens up for victims.
The 2015 Modern Slavery Act consolidated and simplified existing exploitation and trafficking offences under one umbrella offence, increasing the maximum penalty to life imprisonment.
James Brokenshire, the then security minister who brought the legislation to Parliament, said it would “send the strongest possible message to criminals that if you are involved in this disgusting trade in human beings, you will be arrested, you will be prosecuted and you will be locked up”.
The Ministry of Justice figures reveal 344 modern slavery cases were heard in court between 2015 and 2019, of which just 74 (21.5%) resulted in a conviction.
Of those convicted, only 62 received an immediate prison sentence. Three faced fines, and five were handed suspended sentences.
The average prison sentence was just over five years, despite carrying a maximum penalty of life, while two offenders were given between three and six months behind bars.
The Sentencing Council for England and Wales is currently consulting on the first guidelines for modern slavery offences.
It says current sentences may be low as judges are relying on guidelines for predecessor offences. The draft guidelines, published in October, suggest a prison sentence of 26 weeks as the starting point for sentencing the lowest level offenders.
When asked if the courts had yet seen the impact of the Modern Slavery Act, Ms Barnett replied “certainly not”.
'Life sentence deserving crimes'
“The Modern Slavery Act has a life sentence potentially and they’ve never used that on anyone, and yet one knows just from the survivors anecdotally that one’s dealt with that the things that are done to them are life sentence deserving crimes,” she said.
“We’re increasingly seeing police doing cases without a victim, which is very complex and one of the things it inevitably means is sentences are much, much lower to the point that they might not even be going to jail.”
Ms Barnett added that the Modern Slavery Act should now be amended to lower the threshold for a slavery offence to better reflect the use of non-violent coercion.
“Otherwise I can’t see this changing,” she said, adding: “We know traffickers increasingly use non-violent means because it can get them around some of the criminal aspects, so they might use threats of violence and not actually use violence.
“With domestic violence we now recognise domestic abuse because of that subtlety around domestic violence which is that often it doesn’t involve violence. That’s now recognised thankfully in the law.”
MoJ figures record court cases by principal offence. This means if a person is convicted of more than one offence, the case is recorded under the offence with the harshest punishment or maximum penalty in law.
The CPS says its own figures show a conviction rate of 74%. These figures include any case ‘flagged’ as modern slavery – if a person is charged with modern slavery and another offence but only convicted of the latter, it will still be recorded as a modern slavery conviction.
Lynette Woodrow, the CPS modern slavery lead, said prosecutors were receiving enhanced training to help them build stronger cases.
She added: “I am encouraged to see the number of modern slavery-flagged prosecutions increasing over the last year and an increase in the conviction rate.
“However, we know there is still more to be done and I encourage police to refer cases to us at an earlier stage in their investigations so we can provide our help.
“The CPS will continue to work tirelessly with the police and other partners to increase successful prosecutions and achieve justice for victims.”