Two years ago in Tooting a brothel was raided by the police. They found a 15-year-old Estonian girl who had been trafficked and kept as a slave. Ironically, this occurred on the 200th anniversary of the supposed abolition of the slave trade, the campaign for which was started in Clapham, barely half a mile away.
Following this I set up with some local churches and Carol Freeman, a former charity worker for a Human Trafficking charity, an organisation called the “Wandsworth Anti Slavery Campaign”. We wanted to see if this was a one-off or if there was a systemic problem with trafficking in our area. Initially, people told us that these issues were not really significant in suburban Tooting – this was a Soho problem. How wrong they were.
Research by local church volunteers uncovered a dozen brothels within half a mile of Tooting Broadway. The majority had indicators of trafficking – very low pricing, an indifferent attitude to safe sex and not one English woman. They were embedded in our community. One was on the same road as the local police station; one was opposite the Labour MP's office, one was in the same building as a refugees’ charity. We identified over thirty women whom we believed had a reasonable likelihood of being trafficked. With research suggesting that each woman is required to have sex with around ten men a day, that equated to potentially 300 rapes a day in Tooting.
The local churches organised prayer walks around Tooting to pray for those involved and with the church leaders we approached Wandsworth Council and the local police Borough Commander and gave them full details of the intelligence we had gathered and asked them to take action.
Wandsworth police were superb. They raided every single brothel, made several arrests, identified common management across some brothels, and found women who have been raped and assaulted. They have also asked the shop owners to remove advertisements from their windows. And they have much more activity planned in the coming weeks about which I can obviously not go into further detail.
However, it was clear when we first spoke to the local police that they were not experts in this issue. Understandably it was not something in their everyday remit. The first policeman that we spoke to thought that this was some sort of nuisance brothel situation. Carol Freeman, the expert on our team, was at one stage doing some basic introduction for the police into Human Trafficking. I say this with no criticism of the local police because they were passionate and determined to learn – but this is a specialist area and requires a specialist team.
Fortunately, we had just such a specialist team available. Wandsworth police contacted the Metropolitan police’s Human Trafficking Unit. This dedicated police unit support local forces in their efforts and lead some big investigations themselves. The Human Trafficking Unit briefed Wandsworth police on the basics of Human Trafficking, gave them a template for how to approach the problem, and came on the raids to offer practical advice and help. One Wandsworth police officer told me:
“Their help was invaluable. I was amazed at how much they went out of their way to support us, we couldn’t have done nearly such a good job without them”.
This operation has so far been a great success story and there is more to come. But it is a great shame that operations like this will be jeopardised by the Government’s decision to cut the funding for the Human Trafficking Unit. Originally, the Unit received £800,000 from the Home Office but that was halved in the following year and the unit has lost all its funding next year. This Unit has only been going now for two years and it is starting to have results. Our Wandsworth police relied on it. More importantly, too many trafficked women in Wandsworth rely on it. I have met the people within the Unit and, while they cannot speak out publically, they are desperately disappointed that just as they are starting to have an impact they risk being disbanded.
The Government maintain that dealing with human trafficking is now core policing. Our campaign has seen close up that the specialist skills required to deal with this issue cannot be expected from the ordinary bobby on the beat. These cases are complicated in law, in policing practice and also need a great deal of sensitivity in dealing with victims. We needed the Human Trafficking Unit to support the enthusiasm and local knowledge of our local police force.
But this is a question not merely of what works but also a question of trust. Gordon Brown said in Prime Ministers Questions on May 20th 2009:
“I can say to the Chairman of the select committee that the unit will have an increased budget; it is not being cut. We are doing whatever we can to support it. We recognise the need for it in difficult times.”
It is hard to reconcile this statement with the Home Office’s withdrawal of funding. This is a great shame, particularly for the many honourable Labour MPs, like Fiona MacTaggart, Vera Baird and not least Harriet Harman who, with Anthony Steen from the Conservative benches, have done a great deal to highlight this issue over many years. Sadly, they – like the rest of us – are being let down by the Prime Minister.
If anyone would like further details about our campaign because you are interested in replicating it do please contact me via email.