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A maximum life sentence for the worst cases of human trafficking and exploitation is to be introduced.

It comes after Home Secretary Theresa May said tougher sanctions would be brought in to tackle modern-day slavery earlier this year.

The number of cases discovered in the UK has risen by 25% in the last year, according to new government figures.

Trafficking from Albania, Poland and Lithuania has seen a big rise.

Ministers are planning new legislation to simplify the law on slavery, and make it easier to bring prosecutions.

Victims are often targeted for sexual exploitation, construction work or begging gangs.

A new report by the inter-departmental ministerial group on human trafficking has revealed that 1,186 victims were referred to the authorities in 2012, compared with 946 victims in 2011.

The report revealed the largest number of victims were from Nigeria, Vietnam, Albania, Romania and China.

There has been a 300% increase in Albanian trafficking, a 171% increase in victims from Lithuania, and 148% more from Poland since 2011, the report indicated.

But trafficking from Romania and China had fallen, according to the figures.

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Analysis

Public policy often involves a modest amount of ‘branding’ and Theresa May no doubt had this in mind during her party conference speech when she highlighted the push against ‘modern-day slavery’.

It’s a description covering a multitude of sins, but there is a common thread. The victims are usually promised, in advance, a happy, comfortable and free life in Britain, but arrive to discover misery, squalor and varying degrees of imprisonment.

Because there are so many different models of slavery, it is a problem that can only be tackled through a wide range of agencies working together. The Home Office has to create laws that can be used; prosecutors have to use them. The police have to understand the often subtle coercion implicit in trafficking. They must co-ordinate linked investigations across Britain.

The new National Crime Agency must get to grips with the organised gangs, charities such as the Salvation Army need to focus on helping – and crucially identifying – the victims.

But perhaps the biggest problem of all is that no-one really knows how big this problem is. How many ‘modern day slaves’ there are hidden in flats in our inner cities, unable physically or mentally to escape.

Victims brought to the UK are forced to do anything from work as house slaves to labour in cannabis farms.

Eastern European women are most likely to be used as prostitutes, according to the report. Men are most likely to be used for construction work.

There is also a trend towards forced begging, and benefit fraud – gangmasters take all the proceeds, returning very little to victims.

Those targeted are often lured to the UK with the promise of free travel, a job and accommodation, sometimes by members of their own family. An alternative is so-called ‘debt bonds’ where money owed must be repaid by working in the UK.

Klara Skrivankova, from the Anti-Slavery International group, wants greater protection for victims – including the right to stay in the UK.

“Tougher penalties and longer sentences alone do not suffice,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“Unless the protection of victims is put on a statutory footing, we’re unlikely to see more prosecutions.”

Kristy Adams, a Conservative councillor who runs the Bedfordshire Against Modern Slavery group, told Today: “We’ve got organised groups but also individuals being lured to the UK. They think they’re being led to a lovely new life with new opportunities, but they’re actually being led to a life of horror and despair.”

Chief constable Shaun Sawyer of the Association of Chief Police Officers said “the national approach is very much about the protection of the victim”, but he added: “I agree that the signposting and signalling could be clearer”.

“A lot of people are prosecuted for GBH, rape, violence against the individual – it’s far easier to bring the perpetrator to justice this way. This Bill will make it easier to prosecute for trafficking.”

In her Tory party conference speech, Mrs May said an order banning someone convicted of trafficking from being a gangmaster after their release from prison would form a key part of the new bill.

See on www.bbc.co.uk

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