18 October 2023

This Anti-Slavery Day, make ‘cuckooing’ a crime


When James’* mother died, he was devastated and isolated. He was befriended by someone who seemingly wanted to help – but was actually the front to a drug gang who made him their slave. They took over his life, his bank account, and used his home as a centre for drug dealing and prostitution. James wasn’t allowed to leave his bedroom and was given a bucket to use for a toilet. ‘I wasn’t allowed out, I was frightened to death to even move,’ he said. ‘I was scared of what would happen to me’.

James was a victim of ‘cuckooing’ – but what happened to him isn’t a specific criminal offence under the Modern Slavery Act. On Anti-Slavery Day, we are urgently calling for this to change.

When Anti-Slavery Day was established in 2010, slavery and human trafficking were seen as a niche crime, mostly affecting women and girls brought into the UK and forced into sexual exploitation. Today, we know that there could be at least 100,000 men, women and children trapped in modern slavery across the UK – and one in four victims found last year were British. Research by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) suggests that this number is the tip of the iceberg, with Brits across the UK targeted by criminals who force them to commit crimes, like transporting drugs, robbery, and prostitution. 

Cuckooing is a growing part of the problem. Vulnerable adults, often with mental health and addiction issues or a learning disability, are targeted for their property. They squeeze out the vulnerable resident, just like a cuckoo takes over a nest. The victim is left powerless and terrified to go to police amid threats and fear of repercussions.  The property is then taken over for criminal purposes, like storing drugs and arms. Neighbours and communities’ can be blighted by associated anti-social behaviour and other crimes committed by gangs operating from cuckooed homes. 

Fans of Happy Valley watched Danielle have her flat used by a gang to hide dirty money. Line of Duty’s Terry Boyle was befriended by the ‘OCG’ or organised crime group. They may be TV dramas but they portray a grim reality that could be happening next door to you.

Last autumn polling undertaken by the CSJ and anti-slavery charity, Justice and Care, found that 13% of people had seen signs of cuckooing in their community. In just one week of police action in March last year, 799 cuckooed properties were visited. But the truth is, we don’t really know how many victims of cuckooing there are as there is no systematic approach to recording it. Police say they need more tools to keep cuckooing criminals off our streets, but the Crown Prosecution Service says it falls outside the scope of the Modern Slavery Act offences. Which means that it is not a specific crime and there is no easy way to prosecute its perpetrators. 

That’s why, on Anti-Slavery Day, we need the government to commit to updating the Modern Slavery Act. Indeed, its own consultation on a new Anti-Social Behaviour plan included a new cuckooing offence. James, like the thousands of other victims of cuckooing, urgently needs our protection and his perpetrators punished.

*name changed to protect identity

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Tatiana Gren-Jardan is Head of The Modern Slavery Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.