Half of all criminals convicted of modern slavery in Northern Ireland escape jail - critics say human traffickers must face deterrents

Up to half of people convicted of modern slavery offences under groundbreaking legislation enacted in 2015 have walked free from NI courts with non-custodial sentences, the News Letter can reveal.

By Philip Bradfield
Tuesday, 23rd February 2021, 6:30 am
Updated Thursday, 10th June 2021, 9:35 am

And after the News Letter also revealed that only one criminal is convicted here for every 40 victims rescued, a major public affairs charity says the approach of the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) to the misery-inducing crime is “highly concerning”.

While 344 potential victims of human trafficking have been rescued in NI from 2015-20, the Department of Justice (DoJ) revealed that of the seven to 10 convictions during that time, five resulted in a custodial sentence while the remainder were “non-custodial disposals”. That appears to mean that up to five out 10 convictions resulted in no jail time.

And while the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act – part of a UK-wide legislative crack-down on the crime five years ago – stipulates that anyone convicted of modern slavery should be given a minimum two-year custodial sentence, in practice the average sentence handed down was almost half that – 14.6 months.

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Laganside Courts, Chichester Street, Belfast. Picture: Diane Magill

The figures were released by the DOJ in response to freedom of information requests.

The News Letter put it to the Lord Chief Justice’s Office that the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act explicitly states that the minimum sentence for human trafficking in NI should be “a custodial sentence for a term of at least two years” except in “exceptional circumstances”, while the DoJ confirmed that none of those jailed got anywhere near that.

However, a spokeswoman for the Lord Chief Justice’s Office responded that in the NI jurisdiction, the suspended or ‘released on licence’ part of a sentence also constitutes a custodial sentence.

“Sentencing in each case will depend on all the individual circumstances of the offence and the offender,” she said. “The legislation gives the court discretion not to impose a custodial sentence where it considers there to be exceptional circumstances.”

And in the NI jurisdiction, a custodial sentence means a “determinate custodial sentence” which consists of both a period in custody and a period on licence on release.

Lord Morrow, whose private member’s bill in the Assembly resulted in the 2015 legislation in NI, said many people would be surprised by the sentences.

“Human trafficking is a very serious crime,” he said. “It is for this reason that the Assembly set a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a minimum sentence of two years in the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act. I think many people in Northern Ireland would be surprised to learn that most of the traffickers convicted since we passed the act have been in prison for less than two years. Sadly, unless we see increased conviction rates and sentencing levels, trafficking will continue to look like a low/high reward enterprise to many traffickers.”

Former PSNI ACC Alan McQuillan said politicians should double the minimum sentences in the legislation.

The Assembly has decided that these are extremely serious offences that merit a sentence of this order – at least two years – but then the system then kicks in,” he said.

He also queried why the DOJ could not give exact figures for the numbers of convictions for the past five years.

The DOJ cited privacy requirements and would only venture that there had been seven to 10 convictions in the five-year period.

But Mr McQuillan said the DoJ’s response “is frankly amazing and means ‘we don’t actually know’”. He added: “What that suggests to me is that nobody is really looking at this so they don’t have confidence in their data.”

He noted the “excellent level of activity” by the police in 2016/17 when it screened 308 people and recovered 34 potential victims. “But against these numbers the numbers of prosecutions are pitiably small.”

Public affairs charity CARE, which played a leading role in framing the 2015 legislation, said it was vital that criminal gangs trading in human misery face a much greater risk of jail time.

“In the light of these low prosecution rates, it’s highly concerning that the PPS has still not produced updated guidance six years on from the passing of the NI Human Trafficking and Exploitation Act.

“We’ve repeatedly raised this because we think it will contribute towards an improvement in prosecution rates.”

However the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) defended its record on convictions, and has appealed to experts from across the field to contribute to a current consultation to improve its performance.

Ciaran McQuillan, head of the PPS’s Serious Crime Unit, said it launched a consultation to review its policy last month.

“The policy explains the approach the PPS takes when making prosecutorial decisions on offences arising from modern slavery and human trafficking and associated crimes such as assault, rape, child sexual abuse and benefit fraud,” he said.

“PPS specialist prosecutors from the Serious Crime Unit already work closely with our criminal justice partners including the PSNI to build strong cases where there is evidence to do so. This revised policy will provide increased clarity to the legal profession, statutory and voluntary agencies and the public as to how we prosecute these cases.”

He appealed for the wide variety of organisations and individuals with expertise in the area to respond to the consultation.

A spokeswoman for the DOJ responded that prosecutions are “extremely complex, and securing a conviction is challenging”.

She added: “A number of investigations each year relate to potential victims who are declaring historic modern slavery which occurred in other countries. While these investigations are taken forward as far as possible, they may be less likely to lead to prosecutions and convictions due to the length of time which has elapsed, the challenges of investigations relating to conflict zones, or through the lack of evidence. In cases where it is not possible to secure prosecutions for trafficking, other offences are considered.”

DI Mark Bell from the PSNI Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Unit, said the lack of victim testimony makes it extremely difficult to gather evidence against traffickers.

“The nature of this hideous crime can mean that victims, who are particularly vulnerable, are extremely frightened of those who are exploiting them,” he said.

Victims may not trust the PSNI and fear for their life and those of their families if they cooperate with police, he said, as well as fearing deportation.

The PSNI’s top priority is to get victims to safety and then seek justice. However, he noted that they have secured some convictions without victim testimony under legislation passed in NI in 2015.

The nationalities of 59 potential victims rescued in NI in 2019 were; 14 Chinese; 8 Somalian; 6 British; 4 Albanian; 4 Romanian; 3 Portuguese; 3 Ghanaian; 3 Lithuanian; 2 Sudanese; 2 Afghan; 2 Bulgarian; 2 Eritrian; 1 Zimbabwean; 1 South African; 1 Iraqi; 1 Kuwaiti; 1 Ethiopian; 1 Vietnamese.

Suspicions about modern slavery in NI can be reported to PSNI on tel 101 or via the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700.


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