DOZENS of potential modern slavery victims were referred to Cheshire Police last year – but a charity warns they might not receive the support they need.

New figures from the Home Office show that 56 potential cases of modern slavery were referred to Cheshire Police in 2019 – an increase on the previous year, when 41 were recorded.

The number of suspected modern slavery victims in the UK hit a record high last year, when 10,627 potential sufferers of trafficking, slavery and forced labour were identified, a 52 per cent rise from 2018.

The Human Trafficking Foundation says the increase demonstrates better awareness of the problem, but warns the UK figure could be a 'serious underestimate'.

Speaking after a safeguarding training event in Cheshire earlier this year, David Keane, police and crime commissioner, said: "Crimes that involve exploitation affect the most vulnerable people in our communities but they often happen out of sight so it’s difficult for police and other authorities to intervene.

Winsford Guardian:

"We rely heavily on community intelligence to help us tackle these crimes and we need local people to understand how to spot common signs of these crimes in order to protect vulnerable people from becoming victimised."

Modern slavery was introduced as an offence under the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, and can involve domestic servitude, forced sex work or labour exploitation.

Suspected victims can be flagged to the Home Office through the National Referral Mechanism by government agencies, police forces, councils and other organisations.

They are then assessed and can receive support including accommodation, legal aid and counselling.

However, just seven per cent of referrals made in 2019 received a 'conclusive grounds' decision – meaning they were positively identified as modern slavery victims and could access specialist services and support.

In a report accompanying the data, the Home Office said: "This is a result of the current length of time taken to make conclusive grounds decisions."

But Tamara Barnett, of the Human Trafficking Foundation, insists there is 'no adequate excuse' for the delays.

She said: "With 80 per cent of all survivors still waiting for a final decision on their case at the end of 2019, it’s clear that many wait over a year, with some waiting several years from well before the act was even passed.

READ > Holmes Chapel Comprehensive will not reopen before September

"This has to change. Not only does it cost the state a huge amount, but survivors are left in limbo during this time, usually not allowed to work and unable to plan for their futures, with some, we know, becoming suicidal as a result."

Ms Barnett added that although a rise in cases is 'encouraging', some victims who are exploited to carry out criminal activity can end up being prosecuted, and fall prey to exploitation again.

She added: "We also still have no record of outcomes – what befalls these individuals after they exit the National Referral Mechanism? We have no idea."

During the coronavirus lockdown the National Referral Mechanism is continuing to take referrals, while support workers will deliver services remotely where possible, the Home Office says.

A £76 million package to support people who are unsafe in their homes during the lockdown period was also announced by the Government at the start of May.

It follows assurances from Safeguarding Minister Victoria Atkins that the safety of modern slavery victims across the country, and the frontline staff supporting them, remains 'a top priority'.

For more information on the signs of modern slavery, visit the Cheshire Police website.

Reports can be made to police by calling 101 or call the 24-hour Modern Slavery Helpline confidentially on 0800 012 1700.