Modern slavery and human trafficking are affecting “every large town and city in the country”, the National Crime Agency (NCA) has said, revealing there are tens of thousands of victims.
The immense scale of the problem, revealed on Thursday, was branded a “national scandal” and Labour’s Diane Abbott has said Home Secretary Amber Rudd has “serious questions to answer”.
The NCA is currently assisting on 300 live police operations targeting modern slavery, with alleged victims as young as 12 being sold to families in the UK from Europe.
Former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said: “This shocking report shows that modern slavery is alive and well in 21st Century Britain. It’s a hidden national scandal.
“People are being bought and sold like cattle across the UK right under our noses.
“The government must step up efforts to stamp out this vile trade. Local police forces across the country need to be trained to spot the signs, and victims need to know that they’ll be fully supported and protected if they come forward.”
Will Kerr, director of vulnerabilities for the NCA, said: “The more that we look for modern slavery, the more we find evidence of the widespread abuse of the vulnerable.
“The growing body of evidence we are collecting points to the scale being far larger than anyone previously thought.
“This should not be acceptable in any way, shape or form.”
Kerr estimated there were tens of thousands of victims in the UK, adding: “People are being exploited on an hourly and daily basis.
“The full scale and extent of it, we don’t know. But what we have found is that in every medium-to-large town and every city in the UK, we have found evidence of vulnerable people being exploited.”
Diane Abbott MP, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, said: “The criticisms of the National Crime Agency’s failure to tackle slavery are very serious.
“The claim that modern slavery offences are just lying dormant on the NCA database because these crimes are not taken seriously is deeply troubling. The NCA is accountable for its performance to the Home Secretary, so Amber Rudd has serious questions to answer.”
Kerr’s comments come as the NCA launches an advertising campaign raising awareness of the signs of modern slavery in everyday life.
He said there were “lots of different outlets” for people trafficked into the UK to be working illegally and against their will. His examples included those working at car washes and in construction as well as in agriculture and food processing.
Others sold into slavery could be kept in pop-up brothels, where sex workers promised a better life are left penniless with few clothes other than underwear, while some can be working at cannabis factories, he said.
“As you go about your normal daily life and as you’re engaged in a legitimate economy accessing goods and services, there is a growing and a good chance you will come across a victim who has been exploited in one of those different sectors,” he said.
“That’s why we are asking the public to try and recognise the signs and to report their concerns and suspicions to us.”
Kerr said signs of slavery included visible injuries, a distressed appearance and any indication they are being controlled by another person.
He said the most common nationality of victims brought into the UK were people from Eastern Europe, Vietnam and Nigeria.
But he also cited one example of a 12-year-old Roma girl being stopped at border control, bound for a life as a domestic slave.
He said: “She was being brought in to work for a family in part of the UK, where she had effectively been sold by her father - or it had been facilitated by her father - and she was being brought in to take this family’s children to school and pick them up every day, and clean the house in between. Twelve years old, same age as my youngest son.”
Kerr said criminal charges were pending against those involved in the case.
Anyone with information about possible slavery gangs is asked to contact the NCA on 08000 121 700.