A victim of suspected human trafficking has been rescued during an operation to prevent crime and disorder in a Middlesbrough community.
The discovery was made during a multi-agency day of action to address issues in the Parliament Road area.
The operation on October 24 was in response to concerns raised by residents in the Newport Ward.
Officers seized a haul of cigarettes and other tobacco products - suspected to be counterfeit and failing to comply with safety regulations – when they inspected the Cut Price Electrics store.
The store was subsequently forced to close following the serving of a Closure Notice under the provisions of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.
And this week (November 14) Teesside Magistrates confirmed the closure following application by Middlesbrough Council’s Public Protection Department.
The premises was the second shop in the area forced to close to prevent crime and disorder.
In 2016 and on two previous occasions in 2017, Middlesbrough Council Trading Standards Officers had seized counterfeit cigarettes from the premises and, following an investigation, the owner of the business at the time of the seizure in 2016 is due to appear in Teesside Magistrates’ Court to answer charges under tobacco control and product safety laws.
During the latest operation officers also identified a victim of suspected human trafficking who is now being offered support while a full investigation is undertaken.
Sergeant Kester Haith, of Cleveland Police’s Neighbourhood Policing Team, said: “Due to multi-agency and partnership work police were able to identify a vulnerable victim of trafficking, and as a result the victim agreed to go into the National Referral Mechanism - a process which assists with people who have been trafficked.
“A criminal investigation is still on-going.
“This demonstrates our commitment to identifying vulnerability in our communities, and our continued multi-agency work to make our communities stronger.”
Judith Hedgley, Middlesbrough Council’s Head of Public Protection, said: “This is the second time the Council has sought a Closure Order under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act against a business in Middlesbrough.
“The conduct of the owner and others at this business premises amounts to disorder and a flagrant disregard for the law.
“Their continued offending indicates that further disorder is likely to occur at the premises and therefore the Council’s application for a Closure Order was necessary.
“As this incident shows, buying counterfeit or illicit tobacco is not just about getting cheap cigarettes – it supports organised crime, leads to disorder and nuisance as well as increasing the burden on society of smoking-related ill-health.”
After hearing of the previous seizures and evidence of continued sale, Teesside Magistrates Court accepted that a person(s) had engaged or was likely to engage in disorderly, offensive or criminal behaviour on the premises; that the use of the premises has resulted in or is likely to result in serious nuisance to members of the public; and that there had been, or there is likely to be disorder associated with the use of the premises.
Nobody from the premises attended the court hearing. The Magistrates issued a Closure Order that prohibits anyone from entering the premises for a period of up to three months.
Anyone caught breaching the Order could, if convicted, be subject to prison sentence, a fine, or both.
Councillor Julia Rostron, Middlesbrough Council’s Executive Member for Adult Social Care and Public Health, said: “It’s sometimes claimed that the trade in counterfeit and illegal tobacco is somehow ‘victimless’, but this case shows that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Although investigations are on-going, the presence of a victim of suspected human trafficking is evidence of a very dark side to this sort of illicit activity.
“Anyone found to be involved in the sale of illegal tobacco products, or who conducts themselves in a manner that is unlawful, will face tough sanctions.
“The Council will not hesitate to take whatever course of action is necessary to deal with the trade in illegal tobacco, which includes the seizure of goods, closure of business premises and the prosecution of offenders.
“Offenders may also be faced with action under laws that seek to confiscate or recover proceeds of crime.”