The scale of human trafficking and modern day slavery in Hertfordshire was put under the spotlight at a special meeting of county councillors.

Estimates suggest there could be as many as 136,000 people in the UK who are victims of modern day slavery.

And many are thought to be working in nail bars, car washes, on farmland, in construction or as domestic slaves.

In Hertfordshire alone 119 victims of modern day slavery have been found since 2009.

But the “hidden” nature of the crime – with victims sometimes not even seeing themselves as victims – means there could be many more.

On Thursday, police, council officers and members of the Hertfordshire Modern Slavery Partnership highlighted the issue to county councillors at a specially convened topic group.

And they focussed on the way the many different sectors – including nurses, social workers, trading standards officers, environmental health officers and taxi drivers – are acting together to combat it.

“It is still surprising to people out there, how much modern day slavery there is,” said Police and Crime Commissioner David Lloyd.

“But what worries me is that there’s more out there that we still haven’t seen and recognised.

“It’s not just something that happens in brothels, which I think is the view that people had before. These people are often working in day-to-day places, such as nail bars and car washes.”

In some cases victims have been lured to the UK from across the world by the promise of work and a free airline ticket.

In other cases the homeless or the vulnerable can be ‘trafficked’ just a few miles from their home.

All are coerced into working for days that can be long and hard, for little or no recompense and are controlled through fear, force or violence.

Hertfordshire Constabulary is one of a small number of forces to have a team of officers dedicated to modern day slavery and human trafficking.

But in most cases the police will  work in conjunction with other agencies – including environmental health, trading standards, health workers and the fire and rescue service – who have 900 ‘powers of entry’ between them.

Commissioner Mr Lloyd also said it would be rare for the police to be the first agency to become aware of a particular case.

And he said it was also up to communities and community leaders to be vigilant for the signs that can indicate modern day slavery or human trafficking too.

“If it only costs £5 to have a car washed, think about why it will only cost £5,” he said.

“You have to get a lot of cars washed to have minimum wage paid. You have to think in terms of what might be happening there.”

He said the first sign could be picking up on something that just doesn’t feel quite right – which might be groups of people waiting around at 6am or ‘so many’ people going in and out of a particular house.

During the day, the topic group noted that there have been just three convictions in the county connected to modern day slavery.

In practice they were told that, in the past, perpetrators were often prosecuted for alternative crimes instead.

And when asked about the number of convictions, Mr Lloyd said the criminal justice system should always put the victims first.

“I think we also have to ask what the criminal justice system should be about, ” said Mr Lloyd.

“For me the starting point is to put the victim at the centre. And the point should be, how many people are no longer in slavery.

“We need to make sure the victim of modern slavery is no longer a victim and feels supported... If that means they don’t want to get into prosecution that’s fine – that’s their decision.”

In recent years hundreds of police officers and staff from other agencies have been trained to look out for tell-tale signs through the Hertfordshire Modern Slavery Partnership.

The partnership is rooted in the work of Meenal Sachdev – now a Hertsmere councillor – who started to ask questions, after being shocked by the sexual exploitation of children in India.

Since it was launched it has run 88 training sessions for more than 1,000 people.

And Cllr Sachdev now works to ensure modern slavery is considered in the work of the local district council, in areas such as licensing and procurement.

Duncan Montague, from Operation Tropic, stressed the importance of partnership working.

“This isn’t just a police role,” he said. “It really does require a joined up effort.”

He told the group that criminals can be attracted to human trafficking and modern day slavery because it’s seen as “high reward-low risk”.

And he pointed to the potentially different outcomes of a criminal being caught with £20,000 cocaine in a car or with 15 people in the a vehicle, who may not identify as being victims.

After a day of evidence, members of the topic group recommended that there should be further work to raise awareness of modern slavery, to include schools and small businesses, and that the issue should be reported at senior levels within the council.

It was also recommended that templates are drawn up for action that the county council and the 10 district and borough councils could take.

It was also recommended that more should be done to address the uncertainties facing victims in the first few days after they seek help.

The topic group also heard about the work of the independent National Modern Slavery Helpline, which offers a round-the-clock service for anyone wanting to report information. They can be contacted on 08000 121 700.