Report reveals flaws in government’s modern slavery strategy

A report from an independent evaluator of public spending has revealed that the government’s efforts to reduce modern slavery are falling short. Released last week, the National Audit Office’s report suggests that the modern slavery strategy is not sufficiently well defined, monitored or resourced. Although this is understandable for a campaign in its early stages, the extent of the problems is considerable.

Of the 2,527 adult referrals to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in 2016, 46% had not received a conclusive decision as to whether they were considered victims of modern slavery or human trafficking as of March 2017. The NRM is the framework through which victims of modern slavery are identified by the government, and its target is to deliver a conclusive grounds decision within 45 days.

The report revealed that the National Crime Agency and UK Visas and Immigration department are taking longer than expected to make decisions. In 2016-17, it took over 90 days for a conclusive grounds decision to be processed in two-thirds of cases. For people who are only entitled to a guaranteed support period of 45 days, the report says that this is likely to cause distress and anxiety. As Carita Thomas wrote in October, the implications for those with immigration problems are troubling.

A major concern for the National Audit Office was the Home Office’s failure to monitor progress and collect reliable data. The report highlights the lack of a definition for ‘what improved performance would look like’, as well as criticising the ‘variable’ quality of data collection: ‘Our analysis of the NRM’s data revealed multiple errors and duplicate entries making it difficult to use the data to understand the crime.’ The Home Office, the report suggests, is now digitising their system in an attempt to improve accuracy.

The failure to collect data extends to victims once they have left support, which the Home Office has sub-contracted to the Salvation Army. The report comments: ‘A confirmation that someone has been a victim of modern slavery has no legal status in the UK and does not entitle the victim to support. Confirmed victims have two weeks [after the NRM decision] to leave the Salvation Army support, and no specific support from that point.’ Without continued monitoring, the risk of identified victims falling back into the hands of traffickers remains.

Even within the period of support, budgetary constraints are evident. For the purposes of their budget, the Home Office assumes that the average period of support will be just 79 days. Yet the report claims that, in reality, the Salvation Army supported victims for an average of 251 days in the year to June 2017. The Home Office does not have minimum care standards for safe houses, nor does it oversee their operations. The National Audit Office suggests that, more generally, the Home Office ‘does not know how much is spent on tackling modern slavery across government or how effective that expenditure is.’

Statistics also revealed a 159% rise in modern slavery crimes recorded in England and Wales between 2015-16 and 2016-17. This has been accompanied by a 51% increase in referrals to the NRM from 2014-16. Despite recording 1,707 modern slavery crimes in 2016, prosecutions were completed in only 349 cases. The average custodial sentence for those convicted of modern slavery between 2014 and 2016 was roughly four years.

According to the report, policing is as patchy as data collection. The report applauds the uptick in police activity around modern slavery, but observes its geographical inconsistency. ‘The three police forces with the highest number of adult referrals have made more than 900 referrals since the NRM began in 2009, while six police forces have referred fewer than 10 adult potential victims each in the same period.’

A key component of the Modern Slavery Act’s enforcement strategy in fact relies on the participation of businesses. In an effort to incentivise compliance, the Act requires businesses whose turnover exceeds £36 million to publish an annual statement about the steps they have taken to remove slavery from their supply chain. However, the statements published so far have varied in quality and the Home Office has not monitored compliance.

‘While NGOs have compiled registries of statements and undertaken reviews,’ the report reveals, ‘the Home Office does not produce a list of businesses that are expected to comply with the legislation and cannot say how many companies that should have produced a statement have done so.’

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, concluded: ‘The campaign to drive out modern slavery is in the early stages. So far it is helping to establish the scale and international nature of this issue. To combat modern slavery successfully, however, government will need to build much stronger information and understanding of perpetrators and victims than it has now.’

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