FEWER potential modern slavery victims were referred to police in Gwent last year, according to new figures which show the region bucked the national trend.

The number of suspected modern slavery victims in the UK hit a record high last year, with more than 10,000 potential sufferers of trafficking, slavery and forced labour identified.

However, Home Office data shows that 39 potential cases were referred to Gwent Police in 2019 - down from the previous year, when 70 were recorded.

The Human Trafficking Foundation said a national increase in the number of identified potential cases demonstrated better awareness of the problem.

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Gwent Police has a team of officers dedicated to identifying and tackling modern day slavery offences.

A spokesman said: "The team was established in 2018 and, following its inception, there was a spike in the number of referrals made.

"This can be attributed to the work to increase awareness of the issue, further training delivered to frontline police officers, encouraging more vigilance in our communities and creating/developing relationships with partner agencies.

"As time has gone on and this work has become embedded and part of our policing culture, we have naturally seen those figures settle to a more anticipated level.

"Our officers remain committed to not only targeting this area of crime and bringing those involved in human trafficking to justice, but also preventing these crimes taking place in the first place."

Modern slavery was introduced as an offence under the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, and can involve domestic servitude, forced sex work or labour exploitation.

Suspected victims can be flagged to the Home Office via the National Referral Mechanism by government agencies, police forces, councils and other organisations.

However, just seven per cent of referrals made in 2019 received a "conclusive grounds" decision – meaning they were positively identified as modern slavery victims and could access specialist services and support.

In a report accompanying the data, the Home Office said: "This is a result of the current length of time taken to make conclusive grounds decisions".

But Tamara Barnett, of the Human Trafficking Foundation, said there is "no adequate excuse" for the delays.

She said: "With 80 per cent of all survivors still waiting for a final decision on their case, it’s clear that many wait over a year.

"This has to change. Not only does it cost the state a huge amount, but survivors are left in limbo during this time."

A £76 million package to support people who are unsafe in their homes during the lockdown period was announced by the UK Government at the start of May.

Jeff Cuthbert, Police and Crime Commissioner for Gwent said: “Human trafficking and modern slavery remains a key part of our work. All Police and Crime Commissioners are committed to bringing perpetrators to justice and providing services for those liberated from enslavement.”