Hundreds of possible slavery victims - including children - identified in Bedfordshire

But police chiefs said data is unlikely to show true scale of slavery and trafficking

Hundreds of potential slavery victims were referred to police in Bedfordshire last year – and more than a quarter of referrals involved children, figures show.

Modern slavery cases soared nationally last year, with the identification of thousands of potential victims meaning referrals for support in 2021 were the highest on record.

But police chiefs said the data is unlikely to show the true scale of modern slavery and trafficking in the UK and that there is "more to be done" to tackle the issue.

402 potential cases of modern slavery were flagged to Bedfordshire Police last year

Home Office data shows 402 potential cases of modern slavery were flagged to Bedfordshire Police last year– and at least 109 (27 per cent) of all referrals last year involved child victims.

Where a form of exploitation was recorded, the figures show 16 referrals were linked to labour-related exploitation, five sexual and 11 criminal, such as "county lines" activity.

Overall, the number of referrals increased by 77 per cent, from 227 in 2020.

Across the UK, more than 12,000 potential victims were referred to police last year – up 20 per cent from 10,600 in 2020 and the highest number recorded since the Government's National Referral Mechanism was introduced in 2009.

Nationally, labour exploitation was most common among adult victims while criminal exploitation, including an increase in "county lines" cases, led to most child-related referrals.

The National Police Chiefs' Council lead for modern slavery, Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer, linked increased referrals nationally to greater awareness, understanding and reporting of the issue.

He said thousands of officers were trained to investigate the issue, adding that forces worked with national and local authorities and specialist organisations to support victims and bring offenders to justice.

But anti-slavery charity Unseen say the figures vastly underestimate the problem and called for more to be done to disrupt growing demand for the exploitative practice.

The charity's CEO Andrew Wallis said the impact of modern slavery – whether financial, sexual or criminal – can leave victims with life-long trauma, horrific physical injuries and a long journey to recovery.

Calling for more to be done to protect vulnerable people from exploitative predators, he urged people to recognise signs of modern slavery and report any suspicions.

Mr Wallis said war and economic disparity meant there were more vulnerable people trying to make a living and more exploiters preying upon them, adding: "Modern slavery does not care who or what nationality you are, if exploiters can make money out of you, they will."

He also warned that the Government's proposed Nationality and Borders Bill – which would see victims viewed as less credible if they miss the deadline for giving information about their experiences – could prevent some victims coming forward.

A report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights said the approach outlined in the new legislation was unfair and risked failing traumatised people who may find it difficult to report what happened to them.

A Home Office spokesman said the UK has led the world in protecting victims of modern slavery and would continue to identify and support victims.

He said the National Referral Mechanism helped people rebuild their lives while the Modern Slavery Act gave law enforcement agencies the tools to target perpetrators.