LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A record number of people were charged with modern slavery offences in Britain this year, prosecutors revealed on Thursday, but activists said the number of convictions had not increased significantly since a tough new law was introduced in 2015.
Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said 239 suspects had been charged with modern slavery offences over the past year - up 27 per cent on the year before.
Yet the number of convictions did not increase significantly - 185 people were found guilty over the same period, four more than last year, but down from 192 in 2016.
“We have yet to see any significant increase in the rate of convictions of those who traffic and enslave people,” said Kate Roberts, head of the Human Trafficking Foundation.
“This underlines the importance of empowering and supporting victims to speak out and come forward to the authorities.”
Britain has been regarded as a world leader in the fight against trafficking since passing the 2015 Modern Slavery Act to fight a crime estimated to affect 40 million people worldwide.
The legislation introduced life sentences for traffickers, measures to protect people at risk of being enslaved, and made large companies inspect their supply chains for forced labor.
But activists say it has not yet made a serious dent in the trade in Britain. The government last month ordered a review of the law as it released data showing that modern slavery costs the country up to 4.3 billion pounds ($5.6 billion) annually.
The CPS said slavery cases were often complex, with investigators facing hurdles from language barriers to victims not recognizing they are slaves, or being scared to speak out.
The average time to complete a slavery prosecution has doubled to almost three years since 2015, according to the CPS.
“These cases are growing in size and complexity – that’s why we have given our prosecutors extensive extra training,” said the director of public prosecutions Alison Saunders in a statement.
Government cuts to resources for police and prosecutors have also hampered the pursuit of justice, said Klara Skrivankova, UK and Europe program manager for Anti-Slavery International.
“The government needs to reverse these cuts and increase investment into tackling modern slavery to see any significant increase in traffickers being sent to jail and their victims being free for good,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Britain is home to about 136,000 modern slaves, Australian human rights group Walk Free said last month - a figure about 10 times higher than a 2013 government estimate.
Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org