The Victims' Commissioner and Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner issue a joint statement: "Unless victims receive the care they require at first point of contact with the criminal justice system, we’ve got no hope of victims supporting a case through court."

Modern slavery victims are being criminalised by police rather than recognised as victims, hindering attempts to tackle the crime and leaving vulnerable people at risk, a new report has found.

A joint investigation by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS), the College of Policing and the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) warns that trafficking survivors are deterred from engaging with police because forces are failing to support them as they should.

It reveals that foreign victims are sometimes wrongly treated as immigration offenders, with their details passed onto the Home Office, deterring them from supporting any investigation.

The investigation follows a 2019 super-complaint from the charity Hestia. This concerned itself with how police identify, deal with and support victims and how modern slavery crimes are investigated.

A super-complaint is a complaint that “a feature, or combination of features, of policing in England and Wales by one or more than one police force is, or appears to be, significantly harming the interests of the public” (Section 29A, Police Reform Act 2002). The system is designed to examine problems of local, regional or national significance that may not be addressed by existing complaints systems.

Responding to the joint investigation, Dame Sara Thornton, Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, and Dame Vera Baird QC, Victims’ Commissioner, said in a joint statement:

“Victims of slavery and exploitation require specialist support: from identification through to recovery and reintegration. We must provide victims with robust and professional support that gives them a pathway from being a victim to being a survivor. Providing the right support helps to bring traffickers to justice and ensures that perpetrators cannot continue to exploit and abuse vulnerable people for profit.

“Hestia’s super-complaint raised concerns that the police response to modern slavery undermines the confidence of victims and hinders successful prosecutions. This response from HMICFRS, the College of Policing and the Independent Office for Police Conduct finds that whilst improvements have been made since the 2017 HMICFRS modern slavery inspection, a lack of specialist knowledge, training and resource for investigations remains a barrier to a consistent response where access to justice for victims and survivors is assured.

“Prosecutions for offences under the Modern Slavery Act remain low. The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s office has recently undertaken work to explore the barriers to successful prosecution. Lack of effective support for victims as prosecution witnesses was a key concern. We welcome the recommendation made by the report for chief constables and police and crime commissioners to ensure that there are options for support available pre-NRM, post-NRM and for those who do not consent to the NRM process.

“The Act contains a defence for victims who have offended as a result of their exploitation, and the report finds that this defence is not always considered. A review by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s office on the use of the defence published last year identified similar findings: that police are not identifying victims early enough or proactively considering whether this defence may apply. Consequently, the protection for victims is not yet adequate and this needs to change. Unless victims receive the care they require at first point of contact with the criminal justice system, we’ve got no hope of victims supporting a case through court.

“We are disappointed that the report failed to hear directly from victims about their experiences. The report calls for research to be undertaken to better understand victim experiences, and this is something we would support. But it was a missed opportunity not to engage as part of this super-complaint. We must incorporate the expertise of survivors and ensure that practices and policies reflect the needs and views of those they seek to serve.

“Overall, more needs to be done. Last year the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner formally requested HMICFRS to undertake a new inspection of forces’ response to modern slavery. HMICFRS did not feel able to accommodate this within their inspection plans. This must be reconsidered if we are to ensure this report’s recommendations are being taken forward. Victims and survivors of modern slavery deserve access to justice and we must ensure that the police response continues to improve.”