Shocking number of modern day slaves in Lancashire
More than 100 potential modern slavery victims were referred to police in Lancashire last year, figures reveal.
The Human Trafficking Foundation said a national increase in the number of identified potential cases demonstrates better awareness of the problem, but warned the UK figure could be a "serious underestimate."
The number of suspected modern slavery victims in the UK hit a record high last year, with more than 10,000 potential sufferers of trafficking, slavery and forced labour identified.
Home Office data shows that 135 potential cases were referred to Lancashire Constabulary in 2019.
This was up on the previous year, when 87 were recorded.
Modern slavery was introduced as an offence under the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, and can involve domestic servitude, forced sex work or labour exploitation.
Suspected victims can be flagged to the Home Office via the National Referral Mechanism by government agencies, police forces, councils and other organisations.
They are then assessed and can receive support including accommodation, legal aid and counselling.
The rise in referrals to Lancashire Constabulary reflected the trend across the UK, where 10,627 referrals were made last year, a 52 per cent increase from 2018.
However, just seven per cent of referrals made in 2019 received a "conclusive grounds" decision – meaning they were positively identified as modern slavery victims and could access specialist services and support.
In a report accompanying the data, the Home Office said: "this is a result of the current length of time taken to make conclusive grounds decisions".
But Tamara Barnett, of the Human Trafficking Foundation, said there is "no adequate excuse" for the delays.
She said: "With 80 per cent of all survivors still waiting for a final decision on their case at the end of 2019, it’s clear that many wait over a year, with some waiting several years from well before the Act was even passed.
"This has to change. Not only does it cost the state a huge amount, but survivors are left in limbo during this time, usually not allowed to work and unable to plan for their futures, with some, we know, becoming suicidal as a result."
Ms Barnett added that although a rise in cases is "encouraging", some victims who are exploited to carry out criminal activity can end up being prosecuted, and fall prey to exploitation again.
"We also still have no record of outcomes – what befalls these individuals after they exit the National Referral Mechanism? We have no idea. It needs to be more than just a data mechanism. It needs to focus on outcomes," she added.
During the coronavirus lockdown the National Referral Mechanism is continuing to take referrals and support workers will deliver services remotely where possible, the Home Office said.
A £76m package to support people who are unsafe in their homes during the lockdown period was also announced by the Government at the start of May.
It followed assurances from Safeguarding Minister Victoria Atkins that the safety of modern slavery victims across the country, and the frontline staff supporting them, remained "a top priority".