THE police and crime commissioner has vowed to tackle gangs behind “heinous” acts of modern slavery a priority.

Katy Bourne made the pledge as the National Crime Agency (NCA) said slavery and human trafficking was affecting every town and ‘in every town and city’ in the country and “far more prevalent than previously thought.

There are more than 300 live police operations - 24 of which are in the south east - with cases affecting “every large town and city in the country”. The organisation said a growing body of evidence pointed to the numbers of victims being much higher than estimated and the threat continuing to expand.

The commissioner said work was already underway by Sussex Police to tackle the crime, adding: “I have already acknowledged modern slavery and human trafficking as a priority. They are clear components of serious organised criminality which provide huge profit streams for criminal gangs who prey on vulnerable victims and exploit them to the extreme. This directly affects our communities and many aspects of the economy and it’s happening under our noses. Right now, I am working with Sussex Police to develop an effective response that will support victims and hit the gangs behind this heinous crime.”

She met with her counterparts in Hampshire, Surrey and Thames Valley in June to see what work could be done.

Authorities can refer suspected victims to a national database in order to protect them.

Limited information is available on how bodies recorded these referrals over the last six years but Sussex Police made 11 in the last year, although no-one was arrested. In 2015 to 2016 the force made four referrals and three arrests on suspicion of modern slavery. A force spokesman said the data is reliant on someone going into custody or attending a voluntary police interview.

The Argus also asked councils for their records using freedom of information laws.

Brighton and Hove City Council’s children’s services team made “at least” five referrals between 2013 and 2017 but did not provide any more information.

Arun, Chichester, Mid Sussex and Horsham district councils, as well as Crawley, Eastbourne, and Hastings borough councils said no referrals had been made in the last six years.

Although Horsham officers said some referrals had been made to West Sussex County Council. But when asked county council officers said its system was not set up to record such information. East Sussex County Council said it would cost too much to respond to the request.

Worthing Borough Council did not respond when asked.