As Modern Slavery Starts to Emerge from the Shadows, are we Ready for it?

3 Apr, 2019 | Blogs, Latest, Slavery and Trafficking, Stop the hostile environment

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Will Bordell

March was a month of modern slavery data-points – and they’re not as dull as they might sound. Across the board, statistic after statistic shows a steep increase: in referrals, in reporting, in victims, in prosecutions. This isn’t a sign that more modern slavery is happening, but that more is being spotted – and stopped.

Figures from the National Crime Agency (NCA) showed that the number of cases involving British children more than doubled in the space of a year, from almost 700 in 2017 to over 1,400 in 2018. Close to 7,000 potential victims from 130 different countries went through the UK’s modern slavery system, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), in 2018.

More numbers and more transparency are to be welcomed. As I wrote early last year, the NRM has rightly been criticised for its poor data-collection. Errors and data deserts make victims more vulnerable to re-trafficking or falling off the radar than they should be.

It’s no more than modern slavery campaigners have been predicting for years. What’s even more troubling is that we might not be anywhere near the peak: the ramp is tilted sharply upwards, with the Global Slavery Index estimating that as many as 136,000 people may be slaves in the UK.

That only poses the question: are we ready? Recent news has drawn attention to three ways in which we could be doing much better.

  1. Prosecuting more effectively

In the two years following its introduction, thanks to the Modern Slavery Act 2015, 285 defendants were prosecuted and 38 were convicted. Even allowing for the inevitably slow grind of cases through a multi-stage process, it’s easy to see that much more modern slavery is being discovered than punished.

A super-complaint, spearheaded by the charity Hestia, is now in the offing. Its subject is the extremely low rate – just 7% – at which reports of modern slavery are referred to the Crown Prosecution Service by police forces. If the lines of communication are closed and the CPS isn’t brought into contact with complainants, then prosecutions can’t get off the ground, let alone succeed.

Victims have also complained about poorly trained police officers ignoring their modern slavery allegations and instead examining their immigration status. They fear that their reward for coming forward might be swift and hostile: a one-way ticket to a detention centre.

Faced with all this, it’s no wonder victims lose faith. If you don’t think that your captors are going to be caught and punished, why would you continue to cooperate? Why would you even come forward in the first place?

  • Correcting the resource deficit

A backlog is building. The most shameful finding from the NRM’s annual report is that almost 4,000 life-changing reasonable grounds or conclusive grounds decisions remained pending at the end of 2018. When a potential victim is referred to the NRM, these decisions are what offer them a way out – first in the form of temporary protection, and then in the form of a permanent acknowledgment that they have been a victim of slavery, with all that follows from that diagnosis.

Councils are making ten times more referrals than they made five years ago. The major representative body for local authorities, the Local Government Association, recently suggested that councils simply wouldn’t have enough funding to offer support services like housing for victims. Since austerity kicked in, local authorities’ budgets have been kicked down and down – to the point where there’s not much left.

This, at a time when the latest figures show that councils account for about one in every five referrals of victims to the NRM. To have a system that works and endures, those who are on the front line of tackling modern slavery need to have resources at their disposal to offer victims food to eat, a place to sleep and social care services.

Where resources are stretched and a queue starts to form, the integrity of the system breaks down. For people who might not have any money or even a single person to call up for help, the risk of re-trafficking increases day by day.

  • Protecting – and preventing – victims

Findings from the committee running an independent review of the MSA 2015, led by Frank Field MP, Maria Miller MP and Baroness Butler-Sloss, are revealing: no data are available on how much compensation is awarded to victims. Perhaps nothing does more to emphasise the great gap in victim support services that has afflicted the UK’s modern slavery strategy since its inception.

Last week, the High Court rightly ruled that cutting off support for recently identified victims of slavery after just 45 days is potentially unlawful. Dropping victims no sooner than they have been identified is irresponsible and dangerous: it only compounds the risks of mental health problems, re-trafficking, hunger and homelessness.  

But it’s not just about protecting victims after the event. A strategy also has to find a way of preventing people from becoming victims in the first place. Homeless people in hostels and shelters are now some of the prime targets for would-be slave-owners. The Big Issue devoted three articles in one of its March magazines to the exploitation of homeless people.

The promise of paid work and accommodation is often enough of a lure – but victims quickly find themselves trapped. Everything they own is taken away from them. The money soon dries up.

The system introduced by the MSA 2015 subtly disincentivises prevention as cure, its focus directed towards rescue and prosecution far more than early-stage interventions. But when we know that hostels and shelters are specifically targeted, we should be doing more. Isn’t this just the sort of thing that mayoralties in cities up and down the country were designed to address?


Nearly five years ago, the MSA 2015 began life as a Bill put forward for its first reading by then Home Secretary Theresa May. A lot has changed since then. March’s statistics demonstrate that superficial progress has been made, but that underneath that veneer, many fundamental problems still need to be addressed.

Will Bordell is currently studying to become a barrister. He hopes to specialise in the areas of public law and human rights. Will also writes regularly for The Justice Gap and is deputy editor of Proof Magazine. He has been a member of René Cassin’s modern slavery campaign group since early 2017, when he won the ‘Human Writes’ Essay Competition.

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