Travellers across Britain may be exploiting thousands of victims of modern slavery “on a shocking scale”, a judge has said.
Timothy Spencer QC said he feared the “chilling” abuse of vulnerable men by a Lincolnshire family was being replicated at other Travellers’ sites.
Sentencing 11 members of the Rooney family at Nottingham crown court on Tuesday, he said: “You claimed that what went on at Drinsey was no different from what was going on at any Travellers’ camp around this country, that all Travellers had workers operating under similar conditions.
“Sadly, I very much fear that you may be correct about that. But that does not make any of it right.”
Last month, detectives said modern slavery and human trafficking was far more prevalent than previously thought, with the number of victims estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
There are more than 300 live policing operations in the UK targeting modern slavery, according to the National Crime Agency (NCA), which said there were 111 arrests in May and June related to 130 potential victims.
Travellers’ groups reacted angrily to the judge’s remarks. “The judge’s fears that this is a general issue are not founded in fact,” said Bill Forrester of the National Association of Gypsy and Traveller Officers.
Forrester said he knew of “three or four” cases involving Travellers’ sites that have resulted in modern slavery charges in the past five years.
“Our over 100 members are responsible for the management of socially rented sites, containing nearly 7,000 caravans, across much of England, and we can confirm that this is not something suspected to be occurring on any but a tiny handful of such sites, and those are likely to be subject to investigations,” he said.
“According to local authority-collected government data, there were, in January of this year, 12,276 caravans on privately owned sites, and the vast majority of these are occupied by families who are just as outraged by modern-day slavery as the vast majority of the non-Traveller communities. There is widespread awareness that this can be an issue, and many staff have been trained to identify and deal with it.”
Victims are predominantly from eastern Europe, Vietnam and Nigeria, with a roughly equal number of men and women, according to the NCA. Some have been found working at car washes and in construction, agriculture and food processing.
The investigation into the Rooney family by Lincolnshire police was one the biggest operations of its kind. Eleven people were jailed on Tuesday for up to 15 years for exploiting at least 18 victims of modern slavery, including one for 26 years, in offences the judge described as “chilling in their mercilessness”.
The victims, some of whom were homeless and or had learning disabilities, were taken from the streets to work for the family’s tarmacking business. They were kept in caravans without running water or toilet facilities, while their captors wore Rolex watches, drove expensive cars and lived in homes that were “palatial in comparison” with their workers’ conditions, Spencer said.
The threat of violence was “insidious and ever present” at the Rooneys’ site of Drinsey Nook, near Lincoln, he said, and their vulnerable victims were too afraid to speak out. One, whose ordeal lasted more than 25 years, was made to dig his own grave.
A series of trials heard how the Rooneys targeted men who were homeless, alcoholics or had mental health problems, often finding them outside hostels or night shelters. Their victims, aged between 18 and 63, were lured with promises of work, money, shelter and food, the court heard.
Once taken to Drinsey Nook, they were put up in “broken-down, ill-equipped and dirty” caravans without heating. They were then put to work laying tarmacked drives, “dawn to dusk, seven days a week in all weather” and usually without a break, and only rarely were they given food or drink, the judge said.
“It may be that society and government have been slow to wake up to this pernicious wrongdoing, but society and government have woken up. The relevant law, now known as the modern slavery legislation, came into force in 2010 and the jury’s verdict made it crystal clear that society regards what was going on [at] Drinsey as completely unacceptable,” Spencer said.
The Traveller Movement group estimates that there are more than 300,000 Travellers in Britain, although the true figure is thought to be higher because many do not take part in the official census.
The Friends, Families and Travellers group said the Rooney case was “not the norm in Traveller culture” and the judge “probably doesn’t have much knowledge of Traveller culture”.