OPINION: What does new victim data reveal about modern slavery in the UK?

by Patrick Burland | IOM UK
Wednesday, 31 March 2021 09:26 GMT

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Plan to raise threshold for victim identification may shift focus away from streamlining support for survivors

Patrick Burland is a senior project officer at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) UK 

Following years of steady increases in the number of potential victims of modern slavery being identified through the UK’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM), 2020 has seen a slight drop in these numbers for the first time since the system was established in 2009. 10,613 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the NRM, the UK’s official system through which victims are identified and provided support, three fewer than in 2019. Previously, these annual statistics received widespread attention owing to significant increases in the numbers being identified.

The focus of the debate is now shifting, and the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the number of NRM referrals has been acknowledged. The Home Office’s report has noted, ‘The plateau in referral numbers is primarily thought to result from the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions.’ A new policy briefing by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre has examined the impact of COVID-19 on the identification of potential victims in the UK. The briefing recommended improvements to the collection and publication of NRM data about these referrals.

However, beyond the impact of COVID-19, several key issues stand-out in the annual data with important implications for legislation, policy and practice.

The 2020 statistics provide the first full year of data for referrals of ‘criminal exploitation.’ First counted in the last quarter of 2019, criminal exploitation means people trafficked to commit crimes which make money for those exploiting them, such as county lines drug gangs and cannabis producers. The 2020 statistics show an increased proportion of referrals involving criminal exploitation. About half of all referrals included criminal exploitation either as the sole form of exploitation or in combination with other type(s), compared with 38% in the last three months of 2019. More than one third of referrals in 2020 were exclusively for criminal exploitation. Also, 84% of UK children referred to the NRM were recorded as a potential victim of criminal exploitation, with this being the exclusive form of exploitation in more than two thirds of those referrals. The extent of these cases means it is more important than ever that the statutory defence provided in the Modern Slavery Act to protect people from being punished for crimes committed as a direct consequence of being a victim of trafficking  is properly used. Now would be a good moment to respond to the 2019 Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act recommendation that the police and criminal justice system record data on the use of the defence.

In 2020 there was an enormous rise in the number of referrals recorded as ‘age group not known.’ Prior to September 2019, only ten referrals were recorded this way. In 2020 there were 580 such referrals. This seems to be the result of changing the referral process to provide an option other than adult or child.  Knowing whether a person is an adult or a child is significant when deciding whether they have been trafficked because the ‘means’ of trafficking is not required in the case of the trafficking of children. The Modern Slavery Act Statutory guidance unambiguously states, ‘Whether an individual is a child or an adult must be established before the SCA [the Single Competent Authority which is the body within the Home Office responsible for making NRM decisions] reaches its Conclusive Grounds decision.’ However, the data shows 83 such decisions were made in 2020 for those whose age was ‘not specified or unknown’, including eight negative decisions. 

The Home Office has announced it will be launching a consultation on ‘whether to strengthen the threshold for deciding whether someone is a potential victim of modern slavery during the initial assessment’ following its claim that an ‘alarming rise in people abusing our modern slavery system by posing as victims’ is ‘clogging up’ the system. This is despite the NRM not allowing self-referrals and enabling only a small number of organisations, trained on identifying modern slavery, to make referrals. The initial assessment is the ‘reasonable grounds’ decision which recognises a person as a potential victim crucially enabling them to access specialist support. The number of negative reasonable grounds decisions last year was the lowest since 2017. Furthermore 89% of the conclusive grounds decisions made in 2020 were positive. This means that in the overwhelming majority of cases, a fuller investigation confirmed the initial assessment was correct.

More important in the ‘clogging up’ of the NRM is the length of time taken to make conclusive grounds decisions and the practical capacity of decision makers. The recruitment of 350 new staff to make decisions, more than doubling the existing workforce, is well received and should help reduce waiting times which reached an average of 468 days in 2020. This meant that despite the plateauing in the number of referrals, progress has not yet been made in reducing the backlog of outstanding decisions. The 2020 statistics show more than 18,000 waiting for a conclusive grounds decision, an increase from the 11,000 at the publication of the 2019 statistics.

Worryingly, decision making may actually get slower if talk of abuse of the system results in greater scrutiny and expectations for the evidence which potential victims can provide. Focusing on abuse of the NRM distracts from responding to the abuse and exploitation which the victims of modern slavery continue to suffer and those still in the system in limbo waiting month after month, year after year, for their decision.

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