Home Secretary Sajid Javid is under pressure to tackle county lines drug gangs after it emerged they are fuelling an extraordinary rise in British children being used as slaves.
New data, published by the National Crime Agency (NCA) on Wednesday, has revealed the number of modern slavery cases involving UK minors has more than doubled, from 676 in 2017 to 1,421 in 2018.
Almost two-thirds of last year’s cases (987) were linked to labour exploitation, which encompasses county lines and other criminal gangs.
Across all nationalities, the number of modern slavery victims went from 2,118 in 2017 to 3,137 in 2018, an overall rise of 48%.
Around 1,500 county lines networks are thought to be operating in the UK. Gang leaders are known to force children to act as couriers that take drugs from towns and cities to customers in rural areas.
Police believe county lines gangs are a key driver of knife crime as well as modern slavery.
Opponents blamed the stark increase in exploitation on austerity, which since 2010 has seen police officer numbers slashed by around 22,000.
Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said: “The sharp increase in the number of victims of these terrible and brutal crimes under this government is disgraceful.
“Conservative cuts to police numbers have damaged their ability to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society. The government needs to get a grip on the true scale of the problem.”
Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, Ed Davey, said: “The appalling scale of slavery in 21st Century Britain shames our country.”
Prime Minister Theresa May made cutting modern slavery a central plank of both her premiership and her time as Britain’s longest-serving home secretary.
The figures also showed that 6,993 potential victims were identified in 2018, up from 5,142 in 2017.
The most common nationalities were British, Albanian and Vietnamese, although people from 130 countries were victims.
For 2018, 1,625 cases involving UK victims were identified, compared with 819 the previous year.
The causes of the slavery included labour, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and organ harvesting.
Two adults and four children were identified as potential victims of organ harvesting, although the NCA said no procedures had occurred.
The annual figures come from the number of cases submitted under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), used to identify instances of modern slavery.
Among the 6,993 referrals, 52 were referred to police in Northern Ireland, 228 to Police Scotland, 251 to Welsh forces and the remaining 6,462 to English forces.
NCA deputy director Roy McComb said: “The increase is undoubtedly the result of greater awareness, understanding and reporting of modern slavery and that is something to be welcomed.
“However, the more we look, the more we find, and it is likely these figures represent only a snapshot of the true scale of slavery and trafficking in the UK.
“Of particular concern is the increase in referrals made for county lines-type exploitation. These are often vulnerable individuals - often children - who are exploited by criminal gangs for the purposes of drug trafficking.
“Our understanding of the threat is much greater than it was a few years ago, and modern slavery remains a high priority for law enforcement, with around 1,500 criminal investigations currently live in the UK.
“But we cannot stop modern slavery alone, we need support and assistance from across the public and private sectors, NGOs and most of all the public themselves.”