Four members of a traveller family have been found guilty of forcing destitute men into servitude.
Tommy Connors Snr, 52, his son Patrick Connors, 20, and daughter Josie, 31, kept the men in squalid conditions at Greenacres caravan park in Bedfordshire, the trial heard.
Josie’s husband James John Connors, 34, has also been found guilty.
Luton Crown Court heard victims were made to work for nothing and slept in sheds and horseboxes.
The jury heard that victims were verbally abused, beaten and exploited for financial gain at the Greenacres caravan site near Leighton Buzzard.
The court was told the complainants, who cannot be named for legal reasons, were forced to work in the Connors’ block paving business.
On Wednesday, four members of a family were found guilty of keeping workers in a state of servitude and forcing them to perform unpaid work. Tommy Connors Snr, 52; his son Patrick, 20; his daughter Josie, 30; and her husband James John, 34, were convicted at Luton crown court of controlling, exploiting, verbally abusing and beating the men for financial gain. They face up to 14 years in prison.
The case is the first successful conviction under new “modern day slavery” laws since new legislation was introduced in 2010. But it has not been without problems. The jury could not reach a decision on 35 of 58 charges, and verdicts were not reached on Tommy Snr’s sons Johnny, 28, James, 24, and Tommy Jnr, 27. Some defendants were found not guilty on other counts.
During a 13-week trial, the court heard that vulnerable men – many of them homeless and addicted to alcohol or drugs – were recruited in soup kitchens and outside jobcentres and promised cash payments, food and lodging in return for work. But once at the Irish traveller site, they were forced to work for nothing in the family block paving business for up to 19 hours a day and were routinely abused, underfed and housed in filthy sheds and horseboxes.
Twenty-three men were taken from the Greenacres caravan site at Little Billington, Leighton Buzzard last September, after a high-profile raid involving armed police, sniffer dogs and helicopter support after a worker contacted officers having fled the site. But only three of those removed from the site gave evidence at the trial, along with a further seven men who came forward after the arrests.
Of the 23 men removed from the site, 13 co-operated with police, but only three provided evidence for the trial. Seven further men came forward to give evidence in the trial after the initial raid.
The trial has been seen as a vital test case of new anti-slavery legislation, which made slavery, servitude and forced labour a criminal offence in April 2010, which was previously covered by a range of laws including imprisonment and assault.
Throughout the trial, much of the Connors’s defence rested on claims that they were being persecuted by police because a 2010 prosecution against some of them on trading standards charges had failed.
Summing up last Monday week, Judge Kay noted that one of their QCs had noted “that prejudice against Irish Travellers was the last acceptable form of racism” in the UK.
Lewis Power QC, defending Tommy Connors snr, told the jury: “We are not dealing with the norm here, we are dealing with Travellers and their specific culture.” The Travellers and the homeless men they recruited had both been “discarded by society” and subject to intolerance from those who “live within the parameters of the norm”.
The homeless men had often been alcoholics or drug-addicts when they had been recruited: “Did the Connors maybe save their lives? Did they exploit them? Was there a symbiotic relationship?
“At the end of the day, the Travelling community have been doing this for hundreds of years. These offences came into being two years ago,” Mr Power said.
However, Judge Kay reminded the jury: “This is not a trial as to the law or culture or practices of Irish Travellers . . . [The law] applies to all residents.”