WEST Yorkshire's illicit tobacco trade is being used as a front for modern-day slavery, while also linked to "drugs, firearms and burglaries", a new report has claimed.

'It Still Happens Here: Fighting UK Slavery in the 2020s', published by the Centre for Social Justice, was released this month and addresses human trafficking.

As part of its research, the Centre for Social Justice says it met with West Yorkshire Trading Standards, which says it has found evidence of how the illicit tobacco trade is being used as a front for exploitation.

"The business model often involves trafficking vulnerable people from Eastern Europe or the Middle East and subjecting them to debt-bondage, often housing them in converted garages", the report claims.

"Male victims are often put to work in the shops, selling illicit tobacco, while female victims are sexually exploited in brothels and subjected to violence and intimidation.

"These victims are often moved around shop premises to avoid detection, paid small amounts and controlled by the criminal gangs. Children are also used to move supplies around.

"There is enough evidence to suggest links to other types of organised criminality including drugs, firearms and burglaries."

The report also contains an excerpt from a letter sent to Rachel Reeves, MP for Leeds West, from West Yorkshire Trading Standards.

In the excerpt, it is alleged that, in one "ongoing case", a West Yorkshire off-licence had over 70 people registered as living there in the space of two years, with evidence also suggesting that sexual exploitation was taking place at the premises.

"The team is finding evidence of organised criminality, where the 'front door' is illicit tobacco sales but behind that is a more sinister business of people trafficking and modern slavery", the excerpt begins.

"We have an ongoing case which began with a significant seizure of cigarettes from an off licence.

"Further investigations revealed the premises had over 70 people registered as living there in two years, and we have uncovered serious organised people trafficking evidence to suggest individuals are being housed illegally, transported around the county to work in premises owned by those involved, with sexual exploitation clearly taking place."

A manager at West Yorkshire Trading Standards is also quoted in the report, arguing "there could be as many as 500 similar shops in Leeds alone", while it is also suggested in the report that victims of trafficking and exploitation may be reluctant to come forward and speak to police, with a "lack of trust" cited as a possible reason.

"The main issue for all modern slavery investigations is that police officers are often reliant on the victim’s account which is difficult to get, especially at an early stage of the investigation. Many cases are being dropped due to the lack of victim's account", according to the Training Engagement Lead at the Modern Slavery Police Transformation Programme.

Mark Burns-Williamson, the West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), contributed to the report, and, following its release, said he remains committed in the fight against exploitation.

"Modern-day slavery remains a very real and ongoing threat to our communities, which this latest report makes abundantly clear", he said.

“It is a subject I am personally committed to tackling and for many years I have campaigned both locally and nationally to raise awareness of the signs.

"Only a small percentage of the public recognise the indicators and we have to share this knowledge further and shine a spotlight upon this crime.

“This is why I have lent my full support to the commissioning of this report, contributing evidence and examples of good practice, such as the longer term support pathway available for victims in West Yorkshire.

“We have seen instances locally where the tobacco trade has been used to take advantage of vulnerable people and we know that benefit fraud is also widespread as an avenue of exploitation.

“I will continue to lobby Government for additional survivor rights and more stringent laws to remove these opportunities from the perpetrators of this terrible crime, which I know can have truly damaging effects.”