Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Is the UK a world leader in the fight against modern slavery?

The UK’s Modern Slavery Act was meant to put Britain at the forefront of the fight against modern slavery, but its focus on prosecution does little to help the vulnerable.

Vicky Brotherton
26 October 2016
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British Prime Minister Theresa May heads a round table discussion on modern slavery with world leaders, including President of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhariat (left) and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (right) on 19 September 2016. Christopher Furlong/Press Assocation. All rights reserved.

The UK marked its sixth Anti-Slavery Day last week on 18 October, a day created to raise awareness of what Theresa May, the British prime minister, has recently called the “great human rights issue of our time”. This year over 200 lawyers, activists and public authority staff from across the UK came together at a conference in London to take stock of the recent developments in the anti-slavery field.

The UK Modern Slavery Act falls short of similar legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland in a number of key areas, particularly victim protection and support.

The biggest recent development has undoubtedly been the introduction of three pieces of targeted anti-slavery legislation across the UK: the UK Modern Slavery Act, and the Human Trafficking and Exploitation Acts in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

All three acts came into force in 2015 following an intense period of scrutiny. The Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group (ATMG), a coalition of eleven anti-slavery organisations, campaigned intensely during this scrutiny period to shape the drafting of the Modern Slavery Act.

This Modern Slavery Act has been heralded by the government as “world-leading” and the “first legislation of its kind in Europe”. But can the government really make this claim? How does the Modern Slavery Act stand up when we compare it even to the acts in Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Better protected in Scotland and Northern Ireland

The ATMG’s newly published research report ‘Class Acts?’ has compared the key provisions across the three acts and asked whether the legislation really has better equipped the UK to stamp out modern slavery.

The research shows that the Modern Slavery Act falls short of the legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland in a number of key areas, particularly those on victim protection and support. Ongoing gaps in data collection, however, make it difficult to measure the legislations’ success.

It is still the case that someone who is recognised as a victim of modern slavery is given just two weeks to exit a safe house.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, modern slavery victims now have greater statutory support entitlements than those in England and Wales. The Scotland and Northern Ireland acts both include the minimum international standards of support and assistance, such as accommodation, counselling and legal advice, and place a duty on the authorities to provide this support. The Modern Slavery Act does neither. It leaves a victim’s support entitlements to be set out in statutory guidance, which can be amended at any point.

Harsh treatment for ‘victims’

The debates in parliament on the modern slavery bill led to a review of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK-wide system through which victims are formally identified and provided access to specialist support. A review was welcomed; the NRM was widely acknowledged to be in need of an overhaul. However, the new NRM model currently being trialled in an on-going pilot is testing only a new model of decision-making on victim identification; no consideration has being given to the protection and support that victims should receive once they are identified.

It is still the case that someone who is recognised as a victim of modern slavery is given just two weeks to exit a safe house. New research published by the Human Trafficking Foundation highlights the devastating impact that such an abrupt end to support can have on an individual’s long-term recovery. If the NRM continues to be just an another administrative loophole that victims have to jump through, rather than a framework through which the human rights of trafficked persons are protected and promoted, as originally intended, then victims will continue to be failed in the UK.

Implementation: too fast, or too slow, or too sloppy

All three acts introduce a system of child guardianship, however they differ significantly when it comes to who is entitled to have a guardian, how the guardian is appointed, and when and for how long a guardian will be able to represent the child. None of the schemes have yet been rolled out; the full implementation of the scheme in England and Wales is scheduled for as late as mid-2019. Whilst the delays continue vulnerable children will continue to go missing across the UK, often falling back into the hands of their traffickers.

The research highlighted that some of the acts’ provisions, whilst seemingly well meaning, have been rolled out without adequate consideration. For instance, all three acts introduce a duty on specified public authorities to officially notify a particular body – e.g. the National Crime Agency in the case of Northern Ireland – when they encounter a potential victim. To date this duty has only become operational in England and Wales. The research has raised a number of questions about the use of this duty and the data collected through it.

It is difficult to call the Modern Slavery Act ‘world-leading’ when it fails so badly to protect overseas domestic workers.

The government gave assurances that the ‘duty to notify’ forms would not be used to identify victims, yet they contain a section in which sensitive, identifying information can be provided. It is unclear exactly who will handle and store this sensitive information and how it will be used.

The government’s stated intention of the duty to notify is to capture data on victims who are not referred to the NRM. It is the government’s policy that all children suspected to be victims of trafficking should be referred into the NRM. It therefore follows that the duty to notify should not apply to children. However, the duty to form includes a box to tick if the victim is under 18 years old and it provides space for details of their identification.

There is a risk that these mixed messages will result in inexperienced professionals mistakenly believing that, by completing the duty to notify form, they are referring the child to police and professional services for further support, when in fact it is only for data collection purposes.

World leading legislation?

It is difficult to call the Modern Slavery Act ‘world-leading’ when it fails so badly to protect overseas domestic workers, acknowledged to be some of the most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. After commissioning an independent review of the overseas domestic workers visa the government chose to ignore the review’s main recommendation: to allow all domestic workers to change employer and renew their visa. The concession made, to allow domestic workers to change employer but only within their original six-month visa term, will make little difference in practice to the rates of abuse. Domestic workers will be find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find alternative employment in such a limited timeframe, forcing them to stay with their abusive employer or forcing them to be referred into the NRM, a mechanism which the government admits is not fit for purpose.

Despite renewed governmental commitments to tackling this issue, not much has changed on the ground.

The research contained in the ‘Class Acts?’ report has thrown a spotlight on the ongoing gaps in data collection, which will prevent the UK from measuring the impact and success of this anti-slavery legislation. Whilst extensive data is collected on victims through the National Referral Mechanism, data collection on perpetrators is still limited. Furthermore, data on victims and criminals is collected in silos by different authorities and no comprehensive assessment is undertaken to assess if and how one data set informs the other.

The lack of a UK-wide data strategy and the absence of a central body responsible for data collection and analysis is a major shortfall in the UK’s response to modern slavery that urgently needs to be addressed. In the development and oversight of a UK-wide data strategy, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner could play a crucial, pivotal role.

A long way to go

The overwhelming sense from the Anti-Slavery Day conference this week was that, despite attendees’ best efforts and the renewed governmental commitments to tackling this issue, not much has changed on the ground. Concerns were raised repeatedly that the majority of the government’s focus was on law enforcement, with too little attention paid to the victims of modern slavery crimes.

As if on cue, an announcement came mid-way through the conference that the government had committed a further £8.5 million to strengthen the police response to modern slavery. The weary reaction to the news was telling, with one attendee being overheard to dejectedly say, “just think what we could do with £8.5 million”.

High-level political commitment to addressing modern slavery is welcomed, but until the same attention and resourcing is given to supporting victims of modern slavery as to prosecuting the perpetrators the UK cannot claim to be an anti-slavery world leader.

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