Police are failing to identify victims of trafficking and modern slavery, allowing offenders to go unchecked, a watchdog report has warned.
Inspectors found that cases were being shelved prematurely, with officers having only a “patchy, inconsistent understanding of signs and indicators” of human trafficking.
Investigations were being delayed by several months and those suffering at the hands of perpetrators were not always recognised as victims.
The report from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) found that: “Some officers primarily treat potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking as immigration offenders.
“Forces also need to improve the initial safeguarding that they should provide to all victims of modern slavery and human trafficking.”
HMICFRS also found that there was “variable commitment” among police leaders to tackling human trafficking and modern slavery, which are thought to affect tens of thousands of people in the UK.
Some senior officers openly expressed a reluctance to “turn over the stone” and proactively look for offences in the categories, citing concerns about the “potential level of demand”, the report said.
HM Inspector of Constabulary Wendy Williams, who led the probe, said police have a “crucial role” to play in protecting thousands of men, women and children who are being “degraded and dehumanised” every day.
She said: “Whilst modern slavery cases can be complex and require significant manpower, many of the shortcomings in investigating these cases reflect deficiencies in basic policing practice.
“As a result, victims were being left unprotected, leaving perpetrators free to continue to exploit people as commodities.”
Investigators said that forces needed to take more action to disrupt criminal activity and prevent harm.
“Many forces take only a reactive approach to modern slavery and trafficking and much more work is needed to understand the nature and scale of local threats,” the report added.
Modern slavery and human trafficking can cover a wide range of offending, including forced labour, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude.
An official estimate previously suggested there are up to 13,000 potential modern slavery victims in the UK, but last week the anti-slavery commissioner described this figure as “far too modest”.
Premises targeted as part of police activity include nail bars, brothels and car washes.
The HMICFRS report said victims are being let down “at every stage”.