Modern slavery – do you know how to spot the signs?

I am Inspector Gareth Coombs, and I am the tactical lead for Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking for Bedfordshire Police.

Most people think that slavery was abolished hundreds of years ago, but unfortunately it is still very much happening today, and it has become a real, and increasing, problem in our society.

Modern slavery exists in many different forms, such as forced labour, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and street crime. The victims themselves are often vulnerable people, who may have been living rough, or are looking for a better life after fleeing persecution or war in their own countries. Sadly, many do not realise they are victims and don’t come forward for help.

According to human rights organisation, Anti-slavery International, it is estimated that as many as 13,000 people are victims in the UK. There were 18 slavery crimes recorded in Bedfordshire last year, but this is not indicative of the actual number as modern slavery is often a hidden crime. This makes it a priority for us as a police force, so raising awareness is crucial.

Tackling modern slavery is everyone’s business. We all have a duty to be vigilant in spotting the signs.

Does someone you know, or see regularly, appear to be fearful, anxious, depressed or avoid eye contact? Do they lack general healthcare or appear to be malnourished? Do they have few or no possessions? Do they seem to have no control over their own finances or identification documents? 

Our officers are doing a great job in investigating and uncovering these types of crimes in our county. We work closely with the National Crime Agency on Project Aidant, which allows us to work closely with partner organisations in tackling this serious criminality. 

In March we focused on the Western Balkans, and have targeted a number of car washes throughout the county that are predominately owned by Albanian or Polish nationals. The owners were shown to be paying their workers below the minimum wage, had people living on site in appalling conditions, with facilities that fail to meet even the basic level of health and safety standards.

If you have any information about modern slavery, you can contact us in confidence by using the reporting centre on our website, by calling 101 or by calling Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

You can also contact the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 0121 700 or visit the Modern Slavery website.






“As a police officer, your immediate thought is to just carry on…”

If you’re reading this blog you’ve probably just watched 24 Hours in Police Custody, and seen that I was jabbed with a needle when I was searching Jade’s coat in custody. She had told us that she didn’t put her needles in her pockets, so immediately I was worried because if it wasn’t hers, whose was it?

When it first happened I was just shocked. I thought ‘did I feel what I thought I just felt?’ and when I realised I had, I thought ‘what do I do now?’
Continue reading

Why working with retailers is crucial to driving down knife crime

This week, during a very chilly half term, we hit the pavements of Bedford town centre as part of Operation Sceptre, a national week-long knife crime reduction initiative. We were out and about to carry out a test purchase operation – in short, to see if local retailers would sell knives to under 18s.

It is illegal to sell a knife or similar bladed article to a person under the age of 18. Retailers have a vital role in ensuring that young people can’t buy these items, restricting availability to those who may wish to go on and cause harm.

As a force we’re working hard to tackle knife crime, part of which is working with retailers to ensure they know the potential implications of selling knives to under 18s.

With me on Wednesday in the north of the county were PC Rob Sparkes, from our Licensing team, and two of our Cadets; Cordelia, 16, and Rosie, 15, who volunteered to make the test purchases.  We also had a team working simultaneously in the south of the county, made up of PC Darren Welch, Licensing Officer Karen Few, and Cadets Omar and Shabbar, both 16.

QD was the first store the girls tried in Bedford, and they quickly came back to tell us they’d been challenged for ID by the shop assistant and refused the sale when they couldn’t prove they were over 18 years of age. So far so good.

This pattern was repeated in Poundland, Poundworld, Beales, Wilko’s and TK Maxx. Poundworld had even moved its display of ‘Stanley’ type knives behind the checkout to ensure that purchases are overseen, and deter any temptation to shoplift instead. This was following advice from our north community team earlier in the week.

Debenhams’ homeware department refused the girls the knife at the checkout. We also noticed a ‘Challenge 30’ sign in the homeware department here which means that staff members will request ID for a knife purchase if a buyer looks under 30. This is encouraging and shows that the chain is taking under-age sales very seriously.

Whilst the legal age to purchase knives is 18, age verification schemes such as ‘Challenge 25’ ensure that mistakes are not made in trying to determine if someone is old enough.

After each attempt, I went into the store to speak with a manager. It was refreshing to hear how staff have been trained, and how seriously everyone spoken to takes the issue. One staff member commented on how a friend of her 15-year-old son had recently been the victim of a knifepoint robbery, and appreciated seeing the police taking action to restrict knife availability.

In total across the county, 29 premises were visited by the licensing team.

If a retailer does sell a knife to someone under 18, which disappointingly happened on the same day at stores in Luton, Dunstable and Leighton Buzzard we review the circumstances around each case in determining the appropriate follow-up action. This can range from anything between a written warning or criminal caution, right up to prosecution in court.

All those who failed will be re-tested in the near future, making prosecution far more likely should they fail again.

The message from us is clear: retailers have a legal and moral responsibility not to sell a knife to someone under the age of 18. It is an offence that both the individual seller and business involved can be liable for, and can attract a penalty of up to six months in prison and/or an unlimited fine on conviction.

The day was not just about reminding shops and their staff of their responsibilities, but also about ensuring that retail sale is not an option for a young person who may wish to arm themselves with a knife.

This operation is just a small part of our Operation Sceptre activity, which, amongst other things, includes youth engagement and awareness elements.

I’d also like to pay tribute to our cadets, Cordelia, Rosie, Omar, and Shabbar, who gave up their free time and carried out their duties so professionally. Their impeccable attitude and work not only helps our long-term goals of reducing knife crime across the county, but may also have stopped a knife getting into the wrong hands. Without the on-going support of cadets like them, we would not be able to conduct these vital operations.

Sergeant Liam Mitchell works in the force’s Licensing team, and this test purchase operation was part of Operation Sceptre, a week of activity to clamp down on knife crime.