A 10-fold increase in the number of suspected cases of modern slavery reported by local authorities in just five years is having a “huge impact” on already stretched council services, their representative body warned on Saturday.
Figures collated by the National Crime Agency show that local authorities last year reported 1,306 potential victims of modern slavery to a government oversight system called the national referral mechanism, compared with 131 in 2013.
Councils last year accounted for 19 per cent of the 6,716 cases in England and Wales reported to the national referral mechanism, which decides whether someone is a victim of modern slavery.
The Local Government Association, which represents councils in England and Wales, said the rise was a reminder of the “current huge pressures” on services.
Modern slavery is defined by the National Crime Agency as human trafficking, slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour.
The LGA said the rise in potential cases of modern slavery reported by councils was a reminder of the “current huge pressures” on services for children and adults, as well as housing. Victims of modern slavery frequently have a right to such services.
Simon Blackburn, chairman of the LGA’s safer communities board, said the “spiralling rate” of cases was having a “huge impact” on local authority services that were already at tipping point.
“Supporting victims and creating a sustainable [national referral mechanism] system in the long term will require appropriate levels of funding,” he added.
Caroline Robinson, chief executive of Focus on Labour Exploitation, a charity working in the field, said local authority budgets had been cut by about 25 per cent since 2010, adding the government urgently needed to increase councils’ funding.
“If extra funds are not provided then there is a real danger that victims [of modern slavery] will not get the care and attention they require, leaving them at risk of further exploitation,” she said.
Part of the growth in the number of suspected cases of modern slavery reported by councils to the national referral mechanism reflects an increased tendency to treat young people involved in so-called county lines drug dealing as victims of coercion.
Until recently, nearly all police forces treated couriers forced into carrying drugs from London and large regional cities to the provinces as criminals, rather than victims of coercion.
The Gangmasters’ and Labour Abuse Authority, the government body charged with tackling modern slavery, attributed the rise in the number of suspected cases reported by councils to the national referral mechanism largely to greater awareness of the issue.
“In many respects, that has to be welcomed as it shows that an issue which has for too long gone under-reported and ignored is now beginning to resonate,” it said.