UK’s Modern Slavery Response Criticized for Transparency Deficit Features
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UK’s Modern Slavery Response Criticized for Transparency Deficit

To many, the idea of slavery evokes images of shameful policies from centuries past. But today, slavery continues to stain the moral fabric of our global society, emboldened by poor understanding and misinformation. Despite burgeoning political, media, and academic attention, an astonishing transparency deficit persists in the UK, particularly when it comes to the government’s performance in addressing the needs of survivors or understanding of the driving forces behind exploitation. This systemic opacity, in turn, represses efforts to develop policies with a realistic chance of improving victim support and access to justice or addressing the root causes of modern slavery.

A report published Tuesday by the modern slavery NGO After Exploitation, a UK non-profit that uses investigative methods to track the unpublished outcomes of modern slavery survivors, outlines the key concerns of those working to combat modern slavery, report or research outcomes, or represent affected clients. “A can of worms: Challenges and Opportunities in Gathering Modern Slavery Evidence” is compiled from insights shared by 50 experts across charities, law, media, and academia, highlighting the profound disparities in data collection and shortcomings in the UK’s handling of modern slavery data. Data disparities, the report says, severely undermine efforts to effectively intervene, document, and aid in the recovery process of modern slavery.

The report also evidences failure to properly track survivors’ engagements with authorities over time, or the training given to first responders. Experts with lived experience said that survivors’ information is often submitted to the UK National Referral Mechanism system without informed consent and that there was ambiguity around data protection in both the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and modern slavery victim care contract (MSVCC). In turn, practitioners believe that inaccuracies in public data are arising because incorrect or missing information logged at the referral stage would later need to be updated. After Exploitation noted that some of the most important recommendations arose as a result of input from experts with lived experience, who provided valuable insights.

The Home Office’s quarterly NRM data, as reported, is an indispensable resource for addressing modern slavery in the UK. Yet its effectiveness is hamstrung by considerable flaws that demand urgent correction. Insights indicate that 70 percent of practitioners heavily depend on the Home Office’s quarterly NRM statistics, yet critical gaps holding back effective action against modern slavery (Page 52):

  1. Data Usability and Accuracy: Current data formats are often not machine-readable. Meanwhile, interviewees felt the statistics “lack detail” and totals did not always “add up”.
  2. Narrative framing: Practitioners were concerned about the way political agendas influenced the framing of NRM data, including “ad hoc” releases. Whilst practitioners sorely needed more data on the outcomes facing survivors, the Home Office tended to invest resources in ad hoc data releases bolstering its own claims that survivors were “immigration offenders”. The report calls for standardised NRM summaries and partnering with the Office for National Statistics on future ad hoc releases in order to ensure impartiality and rebuild trust with the sector.
  3. Data issues “at the source”: The report calls for more consistent data recording at the point of NRM referral, “including making the industry of exploitation, reasons for not entering the NRM, and data on re-trafficking mandatory fields”
  4. Immigration and detention: More information on the immigration outcomes facing survivors was needed, due to the wide-scale immigration insecurity facing victims. In particular, NRM and immigration outcomes would be capable of revealing visa types most frequently increasing workers’ vulnerability to exploitation.

A clear and undeniable link exists between transparency and the rights of survivors; without one, the other cannot effectively function. It is crucial for the government to not only ensure data accuracy but also to commit to listening to what the data tells us and using it to introduce policies that reduce harm.

Legislative measures, such as the UK’s Illegal Migration Act and Nationality and Borders Acts, illustrate a narrowing identification window for victims via the National Referral Mechanism. This troubling trend restricts victim identification opportunities, reduces visibility, and also has a knock-on effect on the data “picture” of modern slavery in the UK.

Sadly, practitioners reported serious challenges when they tried to gather data themselves. Those using Parliamentary Questions (PQs) in their work reported some questions simply being “evaded”, whilst those requesting evidence via Freedom of Information (FOI) requests were routinely facing “late” responses.

A lack of transparency or available evidence had a significant effect on public understanding of legal aid access. The report states that two experts with lived experience raised that the NRM itself was not geared up to support some survivors in accessing legal aid, as childcare was not made available to them in order to meet with lawyers, despite this being a [Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking] entitlement. One expert with lived experience of modern slavery said “I have never ever, ever had childcare paid for to meet with my support worker or lawyer. There was a period where I could get it for therapy but when I went to [Recovery Needs Assessment] it completely stopped”.

Meanwhile, further experts with lived experience explained that they did not have sight of recovery needs assessments sent in their name to the Home Office, so remained unaware of whether they were even entitled to support.

Emerging from these discussions and findings, an undeniable mandate exists: the establishment of rigorous, accessible data channels is not merely beneficial but essential. Survivors must have visibility and control over their data, guaranteeing that their information is managed transparently and with due consent. The Home Office and other related agencies must recalibrate their approach to data disclosure and rectification.

Highlighting the significant impact of inadequate data gathering, The report highlights how the data that is in the public domain is often concerning. Survivors are routinely turned away from safe housing for “ineligibility” according to criteria which has not been made public. Meanwhile, FOI requests by consultant Emily Vaughn found that a very small number of potential victims were able to access counselling through the NRM.

Director of After Exploitation, Maya Esslemont, expressed deep concern over the current state of data collection and transparency, emphasising the government’s failure to fulfil its obligations in combating modern slavery, saying:

In the UK right now, there is virtually no way of reliably tracking whether the Government is meeting its legal and moral responsibility to disrupt exploitation and support survivors.

The revelations presented in “A can of worms” serve as a wake-up call, urging stakeholders and policymakers to address these critical data gaps and work towards a more transparent and supportive system for combatting modern slavery in the UK.

In an interview recently with JURIST, UN Special Rapporteur Ben Saul explained that domestic law in the UK should criminalise child trafficking effectively following global definitions and legal standards. Law enforcement should be equipped with the necessary powers to investigate and prosecute such crimes. It is crucial for law enforcement to be skilled and well-resourced to prevent, detect, and dismantle trafficking networks, as well as to support and rehabilitate child victims. Collaboration among all parties involved, such as law enforcement, border authorities, and child protection services, is vital. Additionally, international cooperation should be facilitated through extradition and mutual assistance agreements.

Further, In January this year the High Court ruled that the Secretary of State for the Home Office was found to have unlawfully operated a “secret policy” that saw more than 1,500 people who were the victims of modern slavery denied leave to remain, violating their ECHR Article 8 right. The decision follows the landmark ruling in R ( KTT) v the Secretary of State for the Home Department, where it was held that confirmed victims with ongoing asylum claims based on re-trafficking risk were eligible to modern slavery leave under the Home Office’s published policy.

Rather than using available evidence to improve identification of exploitation, recent legislation represents a worrying step backwards. The Modern Slavery Research and Evidence Centre (MSPEC) concluded in a report (2023) that the Illegal Migration Act presents:

serious implications for large numbers of people who are victims of modern slavery. It provides for the denial of support, and for the detention and deportation or removal of people who are recognised to be potential victims of modern slavery.

Overall, there is no indication that improvements are being seen from the government or Home Office based on the issues raised in the report. The Nationality and Borders Act was said to be reducing how much support survivors can get, including UK victims. Such ongoing issues and lack of progress being made within the current systems run by the Home Office and government to adequately support and protect survivors’ rights and welfare needs to change to reflect the needs of survivors of modern slavery in the UK.

For more information and to access the full report, visit the After Exploitation website.

JURIST has reached out to the Home Office for comments on the report’s findings.