By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Aug 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain must improve its handling of thousands of suspected modern slaves whose lives are "on hold" as they wait to learn if they will be recognised as victims and granted extra support, the country's new independent anti-slavery commissioner said.
A record 7,000 possible slavery victims were identified last year - up a third on 2017 - yet worsening delays in the system that judges their cases are concerning, said Sara Thornton, who took up the post in May after the inaugural tsar quit last year.
People who say they have been enslaved enter the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and access care, from housing and healthcare to legal aid, while the government considers their claim. The process can take from six weeks to several years.
As of March this year, more than 2,200 people had been waiting at least a year for a decision, the latest official data shows. If positive, this leads to additional support and can increase the likelihood of being allowed to remain in Britain.
"We want to give people confidence in the system - to say to them, 'we'll treat you as a victim and give you support'," Thornton, formerly head of the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
"(But) decisions are taking longer, there are more people in the system ... it is not good for survivors. Lives are on hold, there is a sense of uncertainty. It is hugely unsettling if you are trying to do therapeutic work and counselling with someone."
The Home Office (interior ministry) in 2017 announced a raft of reforms to the NRM, from extra shelter and support to an overhaul of decision-making and review processes.
Yet a 45-day limit of "move-on support" for recognised victims was challenged in court last month, leading the Home Office to promise unlimited help based on individual needs.
"The test will be how effectively the changes are implemented," Thornton said. "For survivors, what matters is that there is sound decision-making, and that is timely."
"BLUE PLANET" MOMENT
Britain is seen as a world leader in the anti-slavery drive, but is considering the findings of a government-ordered review of its landmark 2015 Modern Slavery Act amid criticism it has not been used fully to tackle the crime and support survivors.
A requirement for big companies to outline their anti-slavery efforts has been questioned due to a lack of penalties, and Thornton called for firms who flout the law to face action such as fines, court summons and director disqualifications.
"Civil sanctions is something we need to move towards," Thornton said. "If you are sitting on the board of a big company and don't get GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) right, or health and safety right, then there are big sanctions."
Thornton said holding businesses to account, strengthening law enforcement and victim support would form the backbone of her strategy, which is set to be published in the coming months.
Her predecessor - Kevin Hyland - resigned in May 2018 after more than three years, expressing frustration about government interference in a role intended to be separate from the state.
Yet Thornton said she was not worried about her independence three months into the job as she had outlined her relationship with the Home Office and vowed to be "vigilant" on this front.
Britain is home to an estimated 136,000 slaves - from people trapped in sex work and domestic servitude to those forced to work at farms, factories and car washes - according to the Global Slavery Index by human rights group Walk Free Foundation.
But the British public must be better engaged and inspired to consider the human as well as the environmental cost of products and services they buy, the anti-slavery chief said.
"The public have a massive role to play, yet we need a 'Blue Planet' moment with modern slavery," she said, referring to the documentary series featuring naturalist David Attenborough that spurred consumer disquiet over plastic pollution in the oceans.
"Where are the celebrities ... the Instagram influencers? ... the issue still hasn't broken into the mainstream. It's a big challenge to make the hidden unhidden."
(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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