As part of the UK government’s pledge to develop a ‘world-leading’ response to modern slavery, the Home Office Select Committee has requested written submissions to assess the government’s response to slavery so far. This is welcome, as there is a widespread acknowledgement that the current system simply is not working.
The inquiry has requested submissions on several areas and the focus here will be on the support offered to victims and how the government can give survivors the best opportunity for recovery. This is the area given least attention in the 2015 Modern Slavery Act but is arguably the area in greatest need of reform.
What evidence does the government already have?
Many reports have been published in recent years and victims urgently need a government response that acknowledges recommendations of people working with survivors on a daily basis. Examples include the 2014 Oppenheim Review of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM); the 2017 Work and Pensions Select Committee Inquiry; the 2017 Committee of Public Accounts Report; and the National Audit Office’s 2017 report, ‘Reducing Modern Slavery’.
Every one of these reports recognises that, under the current process, conclusive recognition as a victim gives no access to support or stability and leaves survivors vulnerable to destitution and re-exploitation. They each recognise that this is inadequate and urgently needs addressing.
The 2017 Committee of Public Accounts Report stated: “A positive conclusive grounds decision has no status. It does not lead to automatic leave to remain or support beyond the two-week period to exit the NRM” and expressed concern that there is neither monitoring of outcomes for victims nor record of what happens post-NRM.
The 2014 Oppenheim Review recommended that 12 months’ support is given to all victims following their conclusive grounds decision. The review also recommended the provision of a grant of immigration leave to all non-EEA national victims of slavery. Changes to welfare entitlements for EEA nationals since the review mean they too now require a grant of leave. In 2018, a conclusive grounds decision as a victim of trafficking still has no status or support. On the contrary, it is merely a notice that support will end in two weeks’ time.
Lord McColl’s Victim Support Bill is currently going through parliament and if passed will place minimum standards of care into domestic law. The Bill shares concerns regarding lack of support following conclusive recognition. The Bill recommends all victims of modern slavery receive assistance and support for 12 months following conclusive identification and leave to remain in the UK for this period to enable assistance. This is going through parliament and it is hoped will be taken forward.
The Work and Pensions Select Committee Inquiry took submissions from over 30 agencies working with victims, and from victims themselves. It expressed concern that support received by victims depends on their immigration status, nationality, ability to work and whether they are assisting police inquiries into their trafficking.
It made the following recommendations to improve protection of victims:
1. All conclusively identified victims of modern slavery should be given at least one year’s leave to remain with recourse to benefits and services
2. Survivors should work with support providers on a detailed plan for recovery for at least the 12-month period of leave to remain
3. The DWP should introduce benefit easements and concessions for victims of modern slavery as it does for victims of domestic violence
The Government response
The most detailed response available to recommendations is the government’s response to the work and pensions committee report. The government rejected all of the above recommendations for protecting victims, citing various reasons including:
1. Immigration status and status as a victim of trafficking must remain separate decisions and to blur the line risks incentivising individuals to make false trafficking claims
2. The challenges faced by victims of modern slavery must be balanced against the government’s need to protect the benefit system from abuse.
3. The current system is satisfactory
All of the above reasons for rejecting recommendations carry very little weight and do not reflect a victim-centred approach. The current system of identification requires the Competent Authority to “make every effort to secure all available information that could prove useful in establishing if there are conclusive grounds” including consulting police intelligence reports and any existing medical reports. If the Competent Authority believes a person is making a false claim they can (and do) simply issue a negative decision. In this case, they would not be entitled to support recommended.
From a victim-perspective, regularised immigration status is foundational to any road to recovery in the UK and at present the legal support available to obtain this is simply not available. The above responses seem to reflect a fear from the government to address the issue of immigration despite evidence pointing to its significance to victim recovery.
As all aforementioned reports reveal, the government has no way of monitoring progress or if the current strategy of tackling slavery is working. The National Audit Office also reports that the government “does not know how much is spent on tackling modern slavery” or what happens to people following the reflection and recovery period.
Without this data, it is impossible to know what the financial implications of giving all victims access to financial support would be. Available figures for 2017 show that if every person positively identified on conclusive grounds as a victim of modern slavery were to claim benefits, they would account for 0.016% of all working age benefit claimants. If the number of people repatriated following identification is considered, the percentage is smaller still.
The 2018 announcement that the government would be increasing support in the NRM from 45 days to 90 days has yet to take effect. Moreover, this falls far short of recommendations made by professionals in all of the above reports and does not even cover expected timescales for applications for leave to remain, which in Hope for Justice’s experience are taking at least three months to process. Without leave to remain, victims cannot access support and end up destitute, re-traumatised, and vulnerable to re-trafficking.
The 2018 Home Office Select Committee Inquiry must take into account the current recommendations and be willing to listen to expert reports. This is increasingly urgent; victims are becoming disenchanted with the current system after receiving inadequate support and being subsequently re-trafficked. In the short term, inadequate support means fewer witnesses willing to be part of prosecutions against traffickers. In the long term, victims are losing trust in the system of support, tightening the grip of perpetrators.
The Public Accounts Committee Report says that reform of the NRM has already taken too long and suggested a deadline of January 2019. Any reform must consider not only administrative systems of monitoring but willingness to change policy to significantly improve victim care.
The government boasts in its policy to make the UK a hostile environment to illegal immigration. This policy should not be used to justify neglect of victims of “the greatest human rights issue of our time”. The Home Office’s own guidance acknowledges obligations to take a victim-centred approach in tackling trafficking. It is important that victims’ needs are not outweighed by a political agenda hostile to immigration and welfare benefits. In light of the current inquiry, the government should take heed of expert recommendations and be willing to put victims’ needs first in its response.