Investigation Police

Towards more effective decision-making

Detective Chief Inspector Mark Dimelow, MSc Criminal Investigation

Senior Investigating Officers (SIOs) are those detectives expected to deal with the most challenging investigations within policing in England and Wales, but in order to provide this service to victims of crime and wider society they must be able to make effective and insightful critical decisions day or night. This short article discusses key findings from a small qualitative project that interviewed SIOs from a police force in the North of England. Effective decision-making, the study finds, requires a culture of robust well-embedded organisational welfare and wellbeing processes to support SIOs, along with adequate training to normalise such critical decision-making under pressure.

The College of Policing (2021b) recognises that the SIO is responsible for managing all aspects of the investigative response, inclusive of the resources to effectively manage threat, risk and harm, in addition to staff welfare and effectiveness. This wider recognition of the responsibilities routinely absorbed by SIOs is described by Carson (2009) as a creative skill, with Tong and Bowling (2006) labelling it a science and rendered into more emotive language in the Senior Investigating Officers’ Handbook with the observation that:

being an SIO is a craft and art form that is not the easiest to learn and master. It most certainly carries with it a sizeable amount of reputational risk and personal accountability. It is however, by far the most enjoyable, satisfying, and personally gratifying role in law enforcement” (Cook, 2019, p.3).

SIOs, as the lead detective, operate within a sustained culture of pressure defined by high demand and continual scrutiny (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Service, 2019) even before additional impact factors such as On-Call, decision-fatigue and sleep-deprivation are considered. It is likely therefore that because of the time and professional focus required to become an SIO, such individuals will have been exposed to the normal trauma of policing (Elliott-Davies, 2022), and then have gone on to willingly seek and accept a role such as On-Call that will routinely demand from them full emotional investment for prolonged periods of time, within a challenging working environment, in the knowledge that others will then critique their perceived effectiveness (Turnbull and Wass, 2012).

The stereotypical, dominant and dated image of police leaders inclusive of SIOs being macho figures, able to control required outcomes as articulated by Mastrofski (2002), simply adds to the pressure faced by a contemporary SIO when performing an On-Call function. SIOs can be faced with unrealistic expectations to achieve desired results (Davis and Silvestri, 2020), with this stressor potentially being generated by the SIO themselves, or alternatively emanating from within policing, local communities or the media.

Sir Thomas Winsor, as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, commented that:

many police officers are at risk of suffering from mental ill health. Not only do they come under great stresses in the exercise of their duties, but they also face the most appalling and dreadful things” (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, 2020, p.14).

Research has concluded that general policework is in itself a fatiguing activity (Miller, 2022), and this theme was recognised as a key factor amongst the interviewed SIOs, that was compounded not only through the system of On-Call (Glasgow, 2019), but also the unavoidably lonely professional position occupied by SIOs as the lead investigator and primary decision-maker (Cook, 2019). Study participants reinforced earlier findings that simply being in a position of authority, and operating in such a challenging environment (Turnbull and Wass, 2012) was in itself part of the wellbeing issue negatively impacting on an SIOs operational effectiveness. Another potential dynamic impacting on SIO effectiveness was that of ego-depletion (Baumeister et al, 2007), alternatively labelled as decision-fatigue (Johnson, 2020; Berg, 2021). This psychological phenomenon provides that individuals have a finite capacity to make critical decisions, and whilst these studies were not focussed on policing, the findings translate across into the profession. It was clear that participants recognised aspects of this theory as an issue when performing On-Call, although there was an indication from their comments that operational focus and public service ethos diluted the potential negative impacts of this.

The study by Turnbull and Wass (2012), whilst not focussed on SIOs provided an insight into policing culture and the pressures faced by supervisory officers of Inspector rank when conducting their duties. This included limited qualitative awareness in respect of the resulting fatigue and adverse effect on decision-making when officers work excessive hours, including through systems of On-Call. Building on this understanding, this research on SIO perceptions aimed to reach a more contemporary comprehension of the issues presented, but also provide a unique and focussed perspective on the reality faced by operational SIOs striving to deliver On-Call within a pressured policing environment (The Police Foundation, 2018).

Research by Lazurus and Folkman (1984) would suggest that this process of induced fatigue actually commences not when having been called-out, but simply in the waiting. This would indicate that the mere fact that an SIO is On-Call in addition to performing their other core office-hours role starts to degrade their effectiveness, without any positive tangible impact to them or the organisation that requires this function. An aspect of this fatigue is likely to manifest amongst those effected through a negative impact in sleep patterns and sleep health; this has been subject to research outside of policing and has transferable relevance because it focusses on cognitive performance and effectiveness. Study findings by Goel et al (2013) have been reinforced by Domagalik and Beldzik (2015) in which clear links have been established between a lack of sufficient sound sleep recovery and a deficit in the ability to maintain alertness and a:

“degradation in waking neurobiological functions as reflected in sleepiness, attention, cognitive speed and memory” (Goel et al, 2013, p.1).

This is clearly a less than optimum position for an SIO who is already likely to be working excessive hours (Turnbull and Wass, 2012), even before the imposition of On-Call on their professional routine.

This research focused on a small and well-defined area of policing with the aim to increase topical academic knowledge, and to provide the practical benefit of stimulating both wider debate and further research that will ultimately increase the effectiveness of practicing SIOs. This study was undertaken by a practitioner-researcher (Robson and McCartan, 2016) with a well-developed understanding and experience of the challenges faced by SIOs when conducting their duties, and therefore provided flexibility for the researcher to react in a more informed manner to the topic, whilst maintaining overall focus.

My small-scale qualitative research focussed on the perceptions of SIOs operating within a police force in the North of England, and explores factors that impact their ability to make effective decisions due to performing an out-of-hours On-Call function. This study employed semi-structured interviews to collect primary research information from this under-researched, insular group to develop an understanding of the thoughts and feelings of how they perceive that being On-Call is detrimental to achieving the effective decision-making required of them. As such I started from a positional statement that SIOs who perform an out-of-hours On-Call policing function are rendered less effective decision-makers (Driver et al, 1990) by a system that requires them to be decisive leaders (CoP, 2021a), who are able to professionally and proficiently tackle emerging serious crime incidents.

In seeking to determine the veracity of this statement the research established a clear interdependency between the welfare of SIO practitioners and their ability to provide sustained effective decision-making as required when responding to emerging serious crime incidents. The provision of SIOs able to provide this skillset to the standard required by policing in England and Wales becomes the key factor. The findings of this study strongly suggest that the current method of providing this necessary investigative leadership through the function of an On-Call system negatively impacts on both the operational aim of effectively managing critical incidents out-of-hours, and also personally on the welfare and wellbeing of the SIOs responsible for delivering this service. A conclusion can therefore be reached that reducing the frequency of On-Calls required of individual SIOs, or replacing this with a rota of on-duty SIOs both day and night would have a positive impact on the welfare of SIOs and in turn serve to improve the ability of these practitioners to lead major crime investigations, make more effective critical decisions and reduce the risk of burn-out as identified by Fyhn and Johnsen (2016). The unavoidable reality is that police forces must continue to anticipate the need to respond adequately to emerging critical incidents (CoP, 2021a), and suitably accredited SIOs naturally assist in this requirement by formally being continually available at short notice, day or night, but the challenge remains in balancing this need with the wellbeing of those involved in this process to the ultimate benefit of all through the removal of factors negatively impacting on SIOs ability to make effective critical decisions under pressure.



Baumeister, R., Vohs, K. and Tice, D. (2007) ‘The Strength Model of Self-Control’, Current directions in psychological science, 16(6), pp.351-355.


Berg, S. (2021) ‘What doctors wish patents knew about decision fatigue’, American Medical Association.


Carson, D. (2009) ‘Detecting, developing and disseminating detectives’ ‘creative’ skills’, Policing and Society, 19(3), pp.216-225.


College of Policing (2021a) Authorised Professional Practice. Critical Incident Management [Online]. Available at: Critical incident management (


College of Policing (2021b) Authorised Professional Practice. Investigation. [Online]. Available at: Investigation (


Cook, T. (2019) Senior Investigating Officers’ Handbook. 5th edn. Blackstone’s: Oxford University Press.


Davis, C. and Silvestri, M. (2020) Critical Perspectives in Police Leadership. Bristol: Policy Press.


Domagalik, A. and Beldzik, E. (2015) Circadian rhythm and chronic sleep deprivation effects on human-performance – eye-tracking experiment. UK Data Service.


Driver, M., Brousseau, K. and Hunsaker, P. (1990) The Dynamic Decision Maker: five decision styles for executive and business success. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Elliott-Davies, M. (2022) Detectives’ Survey: Changes to the CPS Director’s Guidance on Charging. Police Federation of England and Wales. [Online]. Available at: Title (long) (


Fyhn, T. and Johnsen, B. (2016) ‘Resilience Factors Among Police Investigators: Hardiness-commitment a Unique Contributor’. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 31(4), pp.261-269.


Glasgow, S. (2019) Being on-call: an exploration of the experiences of doctors and significant others. PhD thesis. Lancaster University.


Goel, N., Basner, M., Roa, H. and Dinges, D. (2013) ‘Circadian rhythms, sleep deprivation, and human performance, Progress in molecular biology and translational science, 119, pp.155-190.


Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (2020) State of Policing: The Annual Assessment of Policing in England and Wales 2020. London: HMICFRS.


Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (2019) PEEL: Police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy 2018/19: An inspection of Cleveland Police. London: HMICFRS.


Johnson, J. (2020) ‘What is decision fatigue?’, Medical News Today.


Lazurus, R. and Folkman, S. (1984) Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer Publishing Company.


Mastrofski, S., (2002) The romance of police leadership. Crime & Social Organization, 153.


Miller, J. (2022) The Policing Mind: Developing trauma resilience for a new era. Bristol: Policy Press.


Robson, C. and McCartan, K. (2016) Real World research: A Resource for Users of Social Research Methods in Applied Settings. 4th edn. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.


The Police Foundation (2018) How do we move from a blame culture to a learning culture in policing?


Tong, S. and Bowling, B. (2006) ‘Art, craft and science of detective work’, The Police Journal. 79, pp.323-329.


Turnbull, P. and Wass, V. (2012) Time for Justice? Long Working Hours and the Well-Being of Police Inspectors. Wales: Cardiff Business School.

Employment Military

Your Army Needs You…Or Do Recruits Need It?

Emma Armstrong, PhD Candidate Teesside University

Alongside most European countries, the British Armed Forces abolished conscription not long after World War II as the need for masses of personnel declined. Since then, we have relied on an all-volunteer professional force, prompting the question, why do people join the Armed Forces? It is important that we consider this for two main reasons; firstly, it has been found that pre-military life can influence the experience of transitions back into civilian street (MacManus et al, 2013; Van Voorhees et al, 2012). Thus, to understand how the 15,000 annual service leavers can be better supported in their transition, we must first cast the spotlight on their reason for joining. Secondly, the societal function of an Armed Forces cannot be ignored. As we rely on an all-volunteer force, we need to know why people join to ensure sufficient manpower.


Methods designed to entice potential recruits have not been free of controversy. The British Army have been criticised for disproportionately sending recruiters to the poorest schools (Childs Rights International Network, 2019; Gee and Goodman, 2010). Additionally, tensions have arose around the ethics of recruiting minors given their compromised ability to provide informed consent and consequent vulnerability (Cooper and Gee, 2019; Gee and Taylor, 2016). Over the last few decades, restrictions around the gender and sexuality of personnel have tapered (Ministry of Defence, 2021), which has incited debate around balancing inclusivity and combat effectiveness (Goldstein, 2018; Woodward and Winter, 2004). Furthermore, the recent recruitment crisis has stimulated the development of more creative and inclusive advertisements, such as the provocative call for ‘snowflakes’ (O’Neill, 2019). Although casting a wider net has been somewhat contentious, it has been necessary in order to meet enlistment targets.


Academic research has provided various answers as to why people enlist, from the prospect of social mobility (Bellany, 2010), to the patriotic desire to serve the country (Krebs and Ralston, 2020). This post augments these findings from existing literature by drawing on accounts from 51 semi-structured interviews with Army veterans conducted as part of a PhD thesis. Participants were recruited via gatekeepers and snowball sampling and comprised 6 women and 45 men. No limitations were placed on length of service, age of enlistment, rank, role, or operational experience. The fieldwork was given ethical approval by Teesside University. Importantly in the context of this excerpt, year of enlistment ranged from 1965 to 2011, so motivations for enlisting in recent years cannot be substantiated.


A small number of participants aligned with Krebs and Ralston’s (2020) finding that grounded enlisting in a desire to serve the country. This was typically inspired by the witnessing of conflict; Scott, for example, recalled joining after watching the Falklands War and the Troubles unfold on the news, stating he ‘just wanted to do something’. Similarly, some participants enlisted to fulfil an unrelenting desire to serve, though did not attribute this longing to a particular conflict. As Dennis described, ‘it was like people that go into theology, it’s a calling…I was never going to go anywhere else’. This sentiment was echoed by other participants, who shared Dennis’ unexplainable yearning to join the Army. In some instances, this urge was fuelled by positive experiences in the cadets or a fascination with war films.


Family members also appeared to be important in the decision-making process in various ways. Several participants were encouraged to join by relatives who had served themselves and had spoken enthusiastically of the benefits of service life. Additionally, some participants sought to emulate their serving relatives. Jack remembered watching his uncles return home on leave when he was young and stated, ‘I wanted to be like them’. For others, enlisting and succeeding in the Army meant disproving their family members’ doubt. After Rebecca told her parents she was thinking of joining to get her nursing degree, she was met with laughter and incredulity. Subsequently, ‘to prove a point to them, I went and joined up and signed up and ended up spending 13 years in the Army’. Regardless of how family members prompted enlistment, their influence was mentioned by almost half of the participants from this study, indicating the significance of these relationships.


Although the motivations highlighted above did encompass a large number of participants, the majority cited their motivation for enlisting as being rooted in some sort of dissatisfaction. As found in Mankowski et al’s (2015) research, some joined to attain qualifications and experience in a specific trade which were not deemed accessible without enlisting. This was particularly pertinent for those joining the Royal Medical Corps where recruits could earn a decent wage whilst studying for an undergraduate degree. Others felt as though the opportunities available to them in their hometown would not facilitate the life of travel and excitement they desired. Jim thought his ‘life was over at 17’ if he were to remain living in a small Northern town. Participants spoke of needing to see more of the world than what their locale had to offer.


In some instances, joining the Army was the springboard out of a place entrenched in crime. Bruce thought his hometown had become ‘very dull’, and noticed ‘there was a lot of drugs coming into it, mid 80s…and I could see where the town was going…I didn’t want any part of it’. Similarly, Lisa enlisted after her friend was murdered and stated, ‘it was just Glasgow in the 1990s’. Lisa felt as though violent crime was continuing to proliferate and saw the Army as an opportunity to escape. For those who had begun a life of criminality, the Army was perceived as the alternative to escalation into a criminal career. Ben summarised, ‘it was either join the Army or you’ll end up in prison for a very long time’. The extant literature has posited military service as a catalyst for desistence on the logic that it can instil discipline, obedience, and respect (Bouffard and Laub, 2004; Morash and Rucker, 1990), though recent scholarism questions the validity of this assumption (Abeling-Judge, 2019; Craig and Connell, 2015). For the few participants in this research who had engaged with low level criminality before serving, enlisting had severed their trajectory into more serious crime. Toby recounted his transition from aspiring bank robber to soldier, stating, ‘despite having this sort of leaning towards criminal activity and excitement, I think I was able to pull out of that as well a sense of duty. A life in uniform started to appear’. To preface this, Toby drew attention to the lack of opportunities available to him in the North of England in the 1980s other than crime.


Similar to Moles et al’s (2013) findings, discontent with the offerings of local employment proved an important stimulus for joining. For example, Roger believed his job at a pig farm ‘wasn’t really conducive with a successful future’ and enlisted at the age of 16 where the chances of success seemed greater. This rationalisation was acutely pertinent for those living in towns where the traditional forms of stable employment were gradually being eroded by deindustrialisation. Malcolm came from a mining town and after the local pits had closed down in the 1980s, ‘I couldn’t get a job, I was on the dole for 6 months’. Participants recalled high rates of involuntary unemployment with the Army surfacing as the only potential route out of deprived and dismal areas. For those who had joined prior to the early 1980s recession, it seemed inevitable that stable industrial work would soon become insecure; the threat of what was to come necessitated seeking employment elsewhere. Ultimately, the legacy of deindustrialisation, Thatcher’s government, and the subsequent permeation of neoliberal ideology had ensured the absence of a viable alternative (Lloyd, 2013; Stepney, 2013).


As substantiated throughout these findings, the Army promised something deemed unattainable via other routes. It was evident that to most veterans, their decision to join had been rooted in what they believed the Army could offer them as opposed to what they offered the Army or any patriotic tendencies. Enlisting was often viewed as the only route out of deprived hometowns and towards a life of travel and excitement. The operational word here being only. Lloyd (2018) identified the absence of secure work as a catalyst for work-based harms. In this milieu, the absence of a viable alternative led to joining the Army. I do not wish to brandish the Army as an inherently harmful career choice here; after all, most participants went on to enjoy their time in the Army. However, there is an increased risk of service in comparison to most civilian jobs (Gee, 2008). Service life is demanding; it requires frequent relocations and potentially operational deployments. Thus, if we assume this career decision is somewhat of a Sophie’s Choice, where neither outcome is desired, and fewer are opting for the Army route (The Telegraph, 2021), how do we ensure that we have a fully manned Army? Perhaps more importantly, how do we do so without compromising the liberty of the public by making it the only viable option?



Abeling-Judge, D. (2019) ‘Does military service continue to facilitate desistance?: Revisiting theory and practice.’ Deviant Behaviour. 41(5). Pp. 574-90.

Bellany, I. (2010) ‘Accounting for Army recruitment: White and non-white soldiers and the British Army.’ Defence and Peace Economics. 14(2). Pp. 281-92.

Bouffard, L. A., and Laub, J. H. (2004) ‘Jail or the Army: Does military service facilitate desistance from crime?’ In Maruna, S., and Immarigeon, R. (Eds.) After Crime and Punishment: Pathways to Offender Reintegration. London: Willan.

Childs Rights International Network. (2019) ‘Conscription by poverty?: Deprivation and Army recruitment in the UK.’ [online]. Available at: (Accessed on: 02/12/2022).

Cooper, C., and Gee, D. (2019) ‘Youngest British Army recruits come disproportionately from England’s most deprived constituencies.’ Child Rights International Network.

Craig, J. M., and Connell, N. M. (2015) ‘The all-volunteer force and crime: The effects of military participation on offending behaviour.’ Armed Forces and Society. 41(2). Pp. 329-51.

Gee, D. (2008) ‘Informed choice?: Armed Forces recruitment practice in the United Kingdom.’ [online]. Available at: (Accessed on: 02/12/2022).

Gee, D., and Goodman, A. (2010) ‘Army recruiters visit London’s poorest schools most often.’ [online]. Available at: (Accessed on: 02/12/2022).

Gee, D., and Taylor, R. (2016) ‘Is it counterproductive to enlist minors into the Army?’ The RUSI Journal. 161(6). Pp. 36-48.

Goldstein, A. N. (2018) ‘”Why are you trying to destroy the last good thing men have?” Understanding resistance to women in combat jobs.’ International Feminist Journal of Politics. 20(3). Pp. 385-404.

Krebs, R. R., and Ralston, R. (2020) ‘Patriotism or paychecks: Who believes what about why soldiers serve.’ Armed Forces and Society. 48. Pp. 25-48.

Lloyd, A. (2013) Labour Markets and Identity on the Post-Industrial Assembly Line. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lloyd, A. (2018) The Harms of Work: An Ultra-Realist Account of the Service Economy. Bristol: Policy Press.

MacManus, D., Dean, K., Jones, M., Rona, R., Greenberg, N., Wessely, S., and Fear, N. (2013) ‘Violent offending by UK veterans – author’s reply.’ The Lancet. 9885. Pp. 2252.

Mankowski, M., Tower, L. E., Brandt, C. A., and Mattocks, K. (2015) ‘Why women join the military: Enlistment decisions and postdeployment experiences of service members and veterans.’ Social Work. 60(4). Pp. 315-23.

Ministry of Defence. (2021) UK Armed Forces Biannual Diversity Statistics. [online]. Available at: (Accessed on 10/12/2022).

Moles, K., Burgess, S., and Tannock, S. (2013) ‘Military recruitment, work and culture in the South Wales Valleys: A local geography of contemporary British militarism.’ [Online]. Available at: (Accessed on: 10/12/2022).

Morash, M., and Rucker, L. (1990) ‘A critical look at the idea of boot camp as a correctional reform.’ Crime and Delinquency. 36(2). Pp. 204-22.

O’Neill, B. (2019) ‘Why is the Army trying to recruit snowflakes?’ The Spectator. [online]. Available at: (Accessed on: 18/11/2022).

Stepney, P. (2013) ‘The legacy of Margaret Thatcher: A critical assessment.’ Open Journal of Social Sciences. 2. Pp. 134-43.

The Telegraph. (2021) ‘Army facing troop shortage, leaked MoD report shows.’ The Telegraph. [online]. Available at: (Accessed on: 10/12/2022).

Van Voorhees, E. E., Dedert, E. A., Calhoun, P. S., Brancu, M., Runnals, J., Workgroup, V. M. A. M., and Beckham, J. C. (2012) ‘Childhood trauma exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan war era veterans: Implications for posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms and adult functional social support.’ Child Abuse and Neglect. 36(5). Pp. 423-32.

Woodward, R., and Winter, P. (2004) ‘Discourses of gender in the contemporary British Army.’ Armed Forces and Society. 30(2). Pp. 279-301.

Cost of Living Crisis Labour Exploitation

Labour Exploitation, Modern-Day Slavery and Economic Crisis

The debate on human trafficking, modern day slavery and criminal exploitation is often focused on international migration, organised crime groups and border controls. According to Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick, 80% of international migrants arriving in the UK this year have come from Albania ( Over 12,000 Albanian migrants have arrived in the UK so far in 2022, of which around 10,000 were men. Media reports suggest that much of this movement is driven by Albanian criminal gangs supplying labour for UK drug markets. The stance on immigration oscillates between a determination to restrict international migration and a recognition that tighter migration controls impact on staffing key sectors such as health care. As research conducted at Teesside University showed (Devanney et al, 2021), defining migration is itself a challenging prospect with implications for understanding data and service provision at a local and national level; are we talking about asylum seekers, refugees, or economic migrants? Who counts and how do we count them?

In terms of exploitation, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is the tool by which suspected victims of modern-day slavery and criminal exploitation in the UK are entered into the system, their claims investigated, and appropriate support provided. As with all data, there are limitations – for example, it only records cases where suspected victims consent to the referral and does not count cases where someone refuses to provide consent – but it’s still a useful tool for exploring claims of modern-day slavery. The most recent NRM data, for Q3 (July-September) 2022, shows 4,586 referrals[1]. Broken down by nationality, Albanians[2] make up 1,310 with most of those referrals listed as ‘Labour’ or ‘Labour and Criminal’ exploitation. Around one-third of all NRM referrals come from Albania.


So, we know Albanians are arriving in large numbers and are also being referred into the NRM as suspected victims of slavery and exploitation. It’s a complex picture that the data can’t really illuminate. Are they economic migrants looking for better work opportunities than those available in Albania? Are they exploited by organised crime groups? Are they criminals who willingly participate in drug markets? The reality may well be a combination of all three and more research is needed on this. At a service level, first responders and multi-agency teams have to work extremely hard to determine the support and care needed for genuine victims while identifying those who seek to game the system, as well as interrupting those who seek to exploit others for profit. Cases are complex and can often take a long time to resolve.


However, while much of the noise focuses on the Albanian ‘invasion’ (to use the Home Secretary’s terminology), a closer look at the NRM data tells us that while Albanians are overwhelmingly the highest recorded group overall and the highest nationality for adults, UK adults represent the second highest total with over 200 referrals and UK children represent nearly half of the 1,984 NRM referrals for those potentially exploited as children. When we think of labour exploitation and human trafficking in the UK it conjures up images of Vietnamese cannabis farmers, Albanian drug dealers or Eritrean domestic workers. We imagine international crime gangs trafficking people to the UK for the purposes of labour, domestic servitude, drug markets or sexual exploitation, but this misses the fact that UK nationals represent a significant percentage of those referred as potential victims of exploitation. We know that refugees and asylum seekers represent a vulnerable population (Lloyd et al, 2022) and that economic migrants can find challenging circumstances awaiting them (Lloyd et al, 2021). However, the indigenous UK population also faces vulnerability to exploitation. In total, the most recent NRM data lists suspected victims from 204 different locations, with Albanian adults and UK children as the most likely to be exploited. The popular images may hold some truth but the reality of labour exploitation may be much closer to home and not at all who we think of when we consider the ‘likely’ victims.


Vulnerability in a time of crisis

What makes someone vulnerable to modern day slavery, criminal, labour or sexual exploitation? The victim profile changes depending on the form of exploitation as numbers of adults referred for labour exploitation is twice as high as the number of children referred in the same category. Women are more likely than men to be trafficked for sex or domestic servitude whereas men are more likely than women to be referred for labour exploitation. We should look at each form of exploitation in its own right and not conflate different crimes. However, we could make the case that vulnerability is linked to insecurity and that people are vulnerable to exploitation when their material circumstances create economically straitened conditions. While there may be other competing factors at play here, those forced into forms of labour exploitation are often victims of necessity.


At the time of writing, the UK inflation rate is over 10%. The Bank of England has raised interest rates to 3%. The cost of goods has gone up significantly and the cost of borrowing has also gone up. Prior to Covid-19, the UK labour market figures may have celebrated low unemployment rates but was characterised by the significant use of zero-hour, temporary and flexible contracts, gig economy labour, as well as low wages and an absence of protection (Lloyd, 2018). The gap between rich and poor was growing at a rate not seen since before the Wall Street Crash (Piketty, 2014; Dorling, 2019). Then the Covid-19 pandemic brought economic turmoil, required significant government intervention to prop up businesses and workers and, although the unemployment rate has returned to pre-Covid levels, the churn and uncertainty has taken its toll (Briggs et al, 2021). A report from the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre noted that the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown policies increased vulnerability to modern slavery. Already vulnerable groups such as children, migrant and informal workers, women and girls increased, as did vulnerability across low- and middle- income countries (Hesketh and Johnstone, 2021). Workers have been buffeted by the pandemic and then emerged into a supply chain crisis, a cost of living crisis, and an energy crisis. It’s little wonder that writers such as Adam Tooze describe a time of ‘polycrisis’ (


Housing costs, everything from rent to heating, have gone up. Food prices are higher than they were six months ago. Wages are not keeping up with inflation. The government indicates that we may be heading for Austerity 2.0. Institutions from the NHS to the school system to the Criminal Justice System are under growing pressure and increasingly demonstrate an inability to meet demand, representing what Wolfgang Streeck (2016) referred to as ‘under-institutionalisation’, the hollowing out of the institutions we once took for granted. In an economy already characterised by inequality and wealth disparities, these developments represent a clear and present danger to individuals, families and communities across the UK. French President Emmanuel Macron recently announced that our ‘age of abundance’ was over. In this climate, economic crises can and will become personal crises where rent increases, job losses or cuts in hours increase vulnerability and, subsequently, risk of criminal exploitation.


Of course, this will be geographically mediated. Trafficking and exploitation research already shows spatial differences in terms of type of work available locally, the concentration of diaspora communities and awareness of enforcement activity were all factors (Cockbain and Bowers, 2019). Seasonal patterns of different industries such as agriculture/food processing added a temporal element to where victims presented, although this isn’t necessarily where they were exploited. Some families, some parts of the UK, will be more resistant to these economic shocks and can weather the storm. Some communities, particularly those in areas of ‘permanent recession’ (Hall et al, 2008) for whom austerity and the economic shocks of Covid-19 represented ‘business as usual’ and the continuation of long-standing economic hardship, will see vulnerability increase. Into these spaces of insecurity and uncertainty, criminal markets will flood. The insecure, precarious and low-paid end of the formal labour market increasingly overlaps with the informal economy and the illegal economy. Is it possible to map those vulnerabilities and risks and identify communities or demographics in danger of exploitation?


In the popular imagination, labour exploitation and trafficking refers to a distant and often migrant ‘other’, people beyond our day-to-day experience, working in cannabis farms or out of sight in kitchen restaurants and warehouses. There is some truth to these images but the reality is also much closer to home. As the UK enters another recession, one predicted to last longer than any previous recession, those at risk of labour and criminal exploitation, both newly arrived and indigenous, may see those risks increase significantly.



Briggs, D., Telford, L., Lloyd, A., Ellis, A. and Kotzé, J. (2021) Lockdown: Social Harm in the Covid-19 Era. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Cockbain, E. and Bowers, K. (2019) Human trafficking for sex, labour and domestic servitude: How do key trafficking types compare and what are their predictors? Crime, Law and Social Change. 72. 9-34.

Devanney, C., Lloyd, A., Wattis, L., and Bell, V. (2021) ’We’re still quite patchy about what we know’: International migration and the challenges of definition, categorisation and measurement on local service provision. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. 47(15) 3583-3599.

Dorling, D. (2019) Inequality and the 1%. London: Verso.

Hall, S., Winlow, S. and Ancrum, C. (2008) Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture. Oxford: Willan.

Hesketh, O. and Johnstone, O. (2021) Policy Brief: Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on modern slavery. Modern Slavery PEC Policy Brief 2021-4. Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy & Evidence Centre.

Lloyd, A. (2018) The Harms of Work: An Ultra-Realist Account of the Service Economy. Bristol: Policy Press.

Lloyd, A., Devanney, C., Wattis, L. and Bell, V. (2021) ‘Just tensions left, right and centre’: Assessing the social impact of international migration on deindustrialised locale. Ethnic and Racial Studies. 44(15) 2794-2815.

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[2] Including ‘Albanian’, ‘Albanian German’, ‘Albanian Greek’, ‘Albanian Italian’, ‘Albanian Kosovan’, ‘Albanian Lithuanian’, ‘Albanian UK’ and ‘Albanian Unknown’

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