There has been a substantial growth in the number of children being identified as potential victims of modern slavery attributed to county lines gangs, it has emerged.
Figures published by the National Crime Agency on victims of trafficking and exploitation found a 48% increase in minor exploitation cases from 2,118 in 2017 to 3,137 in 2018.
"This increase is due, in the majority, to a continued increase in the recorded NRM referrals related to the county lines criminal business model of exploiting vulnerable individuals and other forms of criminal labour exploitation," said the report from the National Crime Agency on National Referral Mechanism statistics.
The Local Government Association warned that referrals of potential child victims of modern slavery made by councils in England have soared by 800 per cent in five years.
The latest statistics reveal that the number of council referrals of suspected child victims of modern slavery in England to the National Referral Mechanism has risen from 127 in 2014 to 1,152 in 2018, a staggering increase of 807 per cent. The rate of these child referrals has increased by 67 per cent in a year alone, from 690 in 2017, with children accounting for 92 per cent of all referrals (child and adults) made by councils in England in 2018.
Estimates of the number of victims of modern slavery in the UK range from 13,000 to more than 130,000. The overall costs to UK society of modern slavery are estimated to be between £3.3 billion and £4.3 billion.
The National Crime Agency report is a summary of the potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking referred to the National Referral Mechanism in 2018.
There were 6,993 potential victims submitted to the National referral Mechanism in 2018, a 36 per cent increase on the 5,142 referrals in 2017.
Of the 6,993 potential victims, 2,728 were female, 4,261 were male and four were transgender. Of the victims 3,856 were adults and 3,137 were minors.
The report attributes the 48 per cent rise in minors from 2017 on the rise in county line gangs.
The Metropolitan Police Service had the highest number of referrals - 263 - followed by Thames Valley with 139 and 121 in West Yorkshire.
Potential victims of trafficking came from 130 different nationalities in 2018. The most commonly reported potential victims were from the UK, Albania and Vietnam with referrals involving UK nationals rising nearly 100% from 820 referrals in 2017 to 1,625 in 2018.
The most common exploitation type for both adults and minors was labour exploitation, a category which includes criminal exploitation.
Of the 6,993 potential victims 6,462 were referred to English police forces, with the remainder being passed to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Police Scotland and Welsh police forces.
The statistics showed that in 2018, 1,986 of the referrals reported that the location was overseas only.
The LGA said the spiraling referral rates are being fuelled by an increasing awareness of modern slavery and the growing issue of young people being exploited by county lines drugs gangs, which is putting council services under increasing and significant pressure.
The LGA is warning that the rapid year-on-year increase in child referrals is further evidence of the current huge pressures on children’s services. Alongside that, the rising number of adult victims is adding to demand for housing and adult social care.
No specific funding is given to councils to support victims of modern slavery, who may have suffered terrible abuse, been forced to live in squalor and, in the case of many adult victims, paid shockingly low wages as a result of exploitation by criminal gangs.
The LGA, which is working with the Home Office on reforms to the NRM, and has recently published updated guidance for councillors on modern slavery, is urging the government to use next year’s Spending Review to ensure there is long term and sustainable funding to help tackle modern slavery and support its victims.
This means investing in specialist support for adult and child victims after they are identified and referred to the NRM, as well as ensuring mainstream services are properly funded, to enable councils to provide support to victims who are eligible for them.
Cllr Simon Blackburn, Chair of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said “Councils are committed to tackling the despicable crime of modern slavery, which is a rising threat to our communities. It can destroy the lives of vulnerable people working in fear of physical violence from ruthless gangmasters for little or no pay.
“The spiraling rate of council referrals, especially relating to children who face specific risks through county lines drug trafficking or child sexual exploitation, is having a huge impact on overstretched council services, particularly children’s services.
“Extra funding next year will help but government needs to ensure councils have adequate long-term resources to tackle this abuse and support its victims, as well as creating a sustainable NRM system in the long term.
“Everyone needs to be alert to modern slavery wherever they live, particularly at hand car washes and nail bars, which are high risk sectors for exploitation, and to look out for people living in poor quality, overcrowded accommodation.
“Any suspicious behaviour should be reported to help rescue people living grim lives at the hands of heartless profiteering criminals," he concluded.
Anyone who believes someone is in immediate danger due to modern slavery or exploitation should call police on 999, or 101 if there is no immediate danger. Alternatively, call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700.
Report available here.