Senior officers from Scotland Yard spoke yesterday of the “invisible handcuffs” by which the women had been restrained and were unable to break out of the alleged servitude.
Police would not reveal why the two suspects, a man and woman, both 67, were arrested in the 1970s or whether they were convicted at the time – adding that the current investigation “will take considerable time”. The pair have been arrested on suspicion of immigration offences as well as in connection with the investigation into slavery and domestic servitude.
The victims – a British woman, 30, a 57-year-old Irish woman and a Malaysian woman, 69 – are in the care of a specialist non-governmental organisation after they were rescued from a house in Lambeth, south London, last month. It is thought the 30-year-old woman had been in servitude all her life.
Police said that over many decades the suspects and the victims would “probably have come into contact with public services”, including the Metropolitan Police, who arrested the suspects in the 1970s. The case came to light after the “very distressed” Irish woman rang the Freedom Charity to say she had been held against her will in a house in London for more than 30 years.
Police would not reveal the nationality of the two suspects but confirmed they have been in the country for “many years”. Officers admitted the case “so far is unique to us” and it was a “complicated and disturbing picture of emotional control over many years”.
At a media briefing at Scotland Yard, Commander Steve Rodhouse said police are “unpicking a story that spans at least 30 years of these women’s lives”, and that to the outside world they may have appeared to have been a “normal family”.
He said: “This does mean that over the course of many decades the people at the heart of this investigation, and the victims, would probably have come into contact with public services, including our own. That’s something we need to examine fully.
“What I can say with some certainty is that the two suspects in this case were arrested by the Metropolitan Police in the 1970s, some considerable time ago.”
Mr Rodhouse confirmed police do not believe the case falls into the category of sexual exploitation or what is traditionally understood as human trafficking.
“It is not as brutally obvious as women being physically restrained inside an address and not being allowed to leave,” he said.
He said police are trying to understand “what were the invisible handcuffs being used to exert such a degree of control over these women”, and stressed that to label the allegations as domestic servitude or forced labour is “far too simplistic”.
Journalists heard the victims were allowed out of the house “in carefully controlled circumstances”, but people have “no right to be sceptical” about this case, police added. All 37 officers in the Metropolitan Police’s human trafficking unit are working on the inquiry.
Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland, from the unit, said: “Whilst we do not believe that [the women] have been subjected to sexual abuse, we know that there has been physical abuse, described as beatings. However, there is nothing to suggest that the suspects were violent to others outside of the address.”
The two suspects have also been arrested on suspicion of immigration offences, but police do not believe the victims were trafficked into the UK.
A bail condition for the two suspects is that they are not to return to the property where they were arrested. They have been bailed until January.